Discover more from off-grid baby
dispatches from depression
what is medicine anyway?
Lads, I've been depressed. Or as a friend described it in a *handwritten* letter to me earlier this year, have a case of “little interest or pleasure in doing things”. I don’t know how many of you have had to fill out those forms in a waiting room. The ones in which you rank yourself in a series of highly impersonal wellness markers to essentially indicate to whoever you’re about to see, how imminently you are likely to kill yourself. The irony of course is that filling this form out hardly increases your chances of wanting to live…
Throughout my early years as a mental health patient, I was what would be considered “very compliant”. I hung onto the words of my doctors, did what they told me to, took what they told me to, smiled when I could muster it, and was in general an enthusiastic participant in whatever scheme was being concocted to make me “well again”.
I had this thing with receiving help - I probably still do - that should I find myself in the position of being helped, should someone commit to the act of diverting attention from their own life and towards the improvement of mine, I am So Grateful that there’s no room for critique. It doesn’t matter if the help is actually helpful or not, nevermind if my gut is trying to tell me something or if I don’t even know what tf is going on. There is such scarcity attached to that feeling, the intention or motions of help, the attention, regardless of whether i’m actually being seen or not, that of course, I try to make myself compliant. As compliant as possible, with medical professionals and beyond, so as not to rock the boat or dislodge this dismembered bosom from its resting place, with me. Anyone relate?
Anyway, I remember one time in a waiting room, being handed one of these fucking forms for like the hundredth time in my sweet, innocent life and deciding then that i’d never fill one out again. I marked the whole page with a giant X and while the doctor on the other side definitely did not notice / care, it meant something to me, you know?
I didn’t start this newsletter with the intention of sharing my personal experiences with depression, and will totally get back to writing about boats soon, but if there’s one thing i’ve learnt over the years, it’s that depression must be honoured when it makes itself known.
I stopped trying to figure out the “why” of depression a long time ago, as mine isn’t particularly situational other than the situation of being alive. Given the time of year, it’s of course tempting to blame the seasons, but I know in my heart of hearts that my depression is a true equal opportunities ambassador as far as all that goes, and I love rain and all the seasons, and SAD isn’t real anyway.
Shout out Ayesha Khan and their explanation of this in their newsletterwhich I’ve been enjoying a lot.
Winter is here for much of the Northern Hemisphere & you may be feeling sadder, heavier, “under the weather”, sicker, more fatigued, have a tougher time rolling out of bed, or see an exacerbation of pre-existing health issues including worsening pain, inflammation, infections etc. A trending, popular diagnosis on the rise is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which pathologizes seasonal depression/ anxiety. SAD is just an insidious attempt by colonial mental health systems to blame individuals AND nature for health issues stemming from these systems as they continue to capitalize on our pain. Our seasonal health issues are the end result of systems severing & separating humans from nature. So beyond being sad, I want us to be MAD & imaginative.
I would also argue that having experienced many a summertime depression, Winter is a much favourable time to be taken out, if I have the choice, given the marginally slower pace of things all-round. Summer depression has me feeling like a squelchy bug under a sharp microscopic light, it can just feel like a huge spotlight on misery. So yeah, I’ve been grateful for this time to just disappear a bit, into the fog.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve begun the process of re-acclimating to SSRIs. The bitch is back! I stopped taking my meds this summer after four largely successful years on them in hope of a different, better(?) me. A me that might not need to be medicated to stay afloat. A me that if necessary, managed their mental health struggles by casually consuming St John’s Wort, or micro-dosing mushrooms and experimenting with other gorgeous plant medicines (nbd). A me with a voracious libido. A me in spiritual harmony with my quite frankly supernatural ability to feel stuff, who doesn’t need to dampen it using little white pills in order to survive here.
Remembering to take my meds on time or at all had somehow become a big, frustrating daily struggle which I would be punished for with regular dizziness and brain zaps. It’s probably not a coincidence that at this time I was also consuming the tantalising discourse around how very fucked up indeed the anti-depressant business is, with the unmatched fervour of a millennial still looking for answers. It has been thrilling, as it always is, to watch Big Pharma as it relates to mental health and medication, be dragged. It’s nothing radical mental health heads and people with lived experience haven’t known for decades but it’s fun once in a while when someone beautifully repackages for the mainstream, the truth and trauma of what has come to be accepted as “care”.
That psychiatric medication industries thrive on keeping us unwell. That the proof that “anti-depressants” “work” is patchy and heavily funded by those with financial interests in them being sold… a lot. That millions of people’s lives are near-ruined by over-medication and side-effects. That coming off of psychiatric medication can be the hardest most gruelling thing someone can go through. That the continued intense individualisation of mental health is an egregiously successful distraction from social inequality and oppression. That for many, the side-effects and withdrawal symptoms of meds become indistinguishable from whatever pain led them to seek help in the first place, keeping them in a hazy, crazy trap.
Knowing what I know, having lived what I’ve lived and seen what I’ve seen through years of work with chronically unwell people in NYC & LDN, I was actually shocked at how sharply my life came into focus once I found the “right” meds for me, after a hospital stay in 2018. I could barely trust the words coming out my mouth, suddenly an accidental poster child. “I actually feel more like myself on these meds”. I think after so many years having experiences ranging from indistinct to life-threatening with prescribed meds (hypothyroidism and hair loss on Lithium, psychosis on Citalopram, headaches and nausea on Lamotrigine ) I wouldn't have believed that psychiatric medication could actually, simply support someone in feeling “better” had I not experienced it. I was like, maybe we are just sentient ball-sacks full of unwieldy chemicals after all! Or maybe it’s placebo? Maybe it’s privilege!? Maybe it’s Mabelline.
Maybe it was just the right pill at the right time in a giant web of fluxtuating medical, biological and social factors that don’t need to be understood - far less, recounted. To be honest, the best take I've heard on all of this was standing in my kitchen a couple weeks ago with my friend Jacqui, who posited that commentators on all ends of the should we or should we not be taking psych meds spectrum should probably just kind of “shut up”.
So a few months ago I made my decision and off I went, to fuck around in the unmedicated abyss. And find out, I did! Depression came, as it does, with its heavy grief, rumbling anguish and regret and rumination on things that by linear capitalist standards I really ought to be over! Hanging out in groups became a familiar, existential torture. Detachment from any sense of purpose, meaning or ambition that could be applied to capitalist society led to a very solid “fuck an email” mentality. The thought of writing this newsletter honestly embarrassed me… why…. who the fuck cares… etc.
A very kind and knowledgeable friend gave me some mushrooms, but I was already too depressed to figure out taking something new. I was scared too. As someone who has hallucinated and heard voices sober and who has a panique attack every time I smoke or ingest weed, I am completely terrified of medicines or drugs with any kind of hallucinogenic properties. I am sure I am one bad trip away from undoing myself forever.
I’m also scared of - and don’t cancel me - I’m scared of becoming a plant medicine person, if you know what I mean. There seems to be a kind of heavy earnestness that accompanies the journey of ‘Westerners’ approaching some plant medicines that I’m just not sure I’m cut out for. Maybe I’d rather be miserable but funny. Maybe I haven’t decolonised enough. Maybe my phobia of throwing up is enough to keep me trapped in this biomedically sanctioned chemical hell forever.
I am curious and I want more for myself though, I do! SSRIs truly do something amazing for me in creating this neat little platform that balances expeditiously atop of all my hurt and scorn and I gladly and gratefully make a home on that platform, tap dancing on its smooth, marble exterior for all the world to see. I can feel that platform building right now! But it’s a vacant support, a frayed, albeit skin-tone matched band aid, and my most recent foray reminds me of what lies there, underneath. I mean, whether this depression was the result of withdrawal after years on the meds, or was a peak behind the medicated mask, at what I have to offer sober, I don’t know. It was too intolerable for me to wait and find out.
I’ve been trying to guide myself through visualisations. I am like, too lazy to do them often, but they always help when I do. I’ve been using one I saw on Raveena Aurora’s TikTok called an abundance shower, where you imagine that held in the water droplets streaming from your shower head, are all the nourishing gifts you desire. This works for me right now because I’m in New York, in an apartment. I imagine it would be trickier on the boat where showers are hardly a place of abundance, but have a different sort of grounding magic.
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As I try to recenter, I’ve been asking myself, my ancestors, my soft parts - whatever, to show me what peace feels, looks, smells like for me right now. As the meds start to settle, and I regain focus and some kind of futurity, I just see trees.
I can’t escape plants because none of us can, though we do a pretty good job of trying. What a relief to remember plant and chemical medicines don’t need to be at odds - that it’s actually disingenuous to pit them against each other. Plants are made of chemicals. They are the origins of everything we have come to know as The Pharmacy. Plant medicine is not this thing outside of me or any of us. It’s in the shitty photos we took of autumn leaves, the deeeeeep breath, the desperate attempt to resuscitate the monstera that was too close to the radiator :( It’s in the salads I don’t eat, the bird song, the tincture. It’s in the inexplicable little pills we take to fend off demons that might not be there if the pharmacy was still a rainforest.
I’m telling myself it’s ok to feel pulled to the roots of medicine, and it’s also ok to be scared of it, especially if my only framework for accessing it is to pay a white woman in a forest to do shadow work with me. I’ll stick with herbal tea for now.
One of my hacks for transitioning in and out of chemically medicated states is watching a shit ton of reality TV, back to back, like your life depends on it. Maybe it does! It’s like taking a holiday from your own body. 10/10 highly recommend. In the past, UK Love Island has been really successful for me. I actually refrained from watching the last season when it came out so that I’d have one ready next time I needed to vacate the premises, so to speak. But my lover, Soha, has been buddying me closely during these trying times and is certainly not a fan, and so to avoid divorce we forged boldly ahead into new territory which brought us to my new favourite show, Alone.
Alone is an American survival reality TV show in which 10 people - mostly men but also a gorgeous, important and heroic sprinkling of people who are not men - are dropped off by speedboat or helicopter or whatever in separate parts of a remote forest or jungle somewhere. The last one to die wins. Only joking! But essentially, they live off the land, in houses they build with logs and moss, eating foraged plants and hunted meat, competing to outlast each other and win loads of money.
One by one, they ‘tap out’ when they can’t take it anymore, because a mouse has chewed through their only pair of socks, or in the case of most of the men, they have an epiphany that goes something like, “I realised I really like my wife”. The contestants are often prepper-adjacent, bushcrafters or full-time off-gridders with a lot of skill. Of course there’s something harrowingly bitter-sweet about watching predominantly white people using Indigenous knowledge to survive on land that should belong to Indigenous people, but on the flip side you also get to watch them starve! It’s thrilling and incredible and a real treat for an off-grid baby like me ;)