The pills, quacks and crises of a medicated life.

WWW.NYPRESS.COM  |  MAY 18, 2004



Art: Camille Wainer

I LOVE CIRCUSES. I also have an abiding fondness for whores.

Thus it was that I could not resist the opportunity to attend the American Psychiatric Association's 157th Annual Meeting at the Jacob Javits Center earlier this month. It was all I imagined it would be, and more. I could only have been more satisfied if I'd had a couple of grams of liquid LSD to slip into the beverages. That gesture would have gone a long way toward relieving the pathological self-importance of the vast majority of the physicians and pharmaceutical sales personnel in attendance.

I got some terrific swag:

• A nifty little pen radio, surprisingly not adorned with any corporate or product name or logo;

• Four little green brains made of sponge-like material emblazoned with the word "Effexor";

• Five small, spherical clocks (courtesy of Lilly Pharmaceuticals) that resemble a Magic 8-Ball with bulbous legs;

• Five groovy day-runners courtesy of the makers of Zyprexa;

• Four decks of playing cards (also labeled "Effexor");

• Three lollipops made to look like brains (exceptional symbolic value, there);

• Three terrific sturdy plastic coffee mugs promoting Wellbutrin;

• And a whole lot of essentially useless items like lanyards and business-card holders, all labeled with the names of various antidepressants and anti-anxiety agents.

I also won't have to buy another ballpoint pen until 2012.

All in all, I walked away with three large shopping bags of pharmaceutical promotional goods. It took me all of an hour. I had to fight my way through the horde of doctors clawing their own ways through the swag buckets like Wal-Mart shoppers at Christmas. It's amazing what people who are compensated well into the six figures will do to get their hands on a cheap souvenir.

I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of items related to the heavier anti-psychotic medications, like Haldol and Thorazine. I think a Haldol frisbee would be a very cool thing, seeing as how a patient on Haldol can neither throw nor catch such a thing with any kind of dexterity. A Thorazine Slinky seems appropriate, or maybe a lobster bib to catch the drool. Baseball caps promoting electro-convulsive therapy devices would be très chic. The only product associated with lobotomy is a tool resembling an ice pick, but since nobody buys ice in blocks anymore, there isn't really any potential. I'm surprised that some shrink hasn't come up with a way of marketing trepanning as a therapeutic modality. A lot of people claim it works.

I've had a lot of experience with psychiatry over the years, and I have quite a number of friends and acquaintances who have sought help from psychiatrists. Yet, I don't know a single person—not one—whose quality of life has been in any way improved by psychiatry. In fact, I know quite a few who have been severely damaged by it, including one of my best friends and the most brilliant multi-talented artist I have ever met. The whole racket is pharmaceutical-driven. The shrinks like to prattle on about "chemical imbalances" being the cause of the maladaptive behavior and thought processes that they label "mental illness," then they proceed to trigger chemical imbalances by administering useless and often very dangerous drugs to people who generally need nothing more than some career counseling or cognitive adjustment.

OWING TO MY HABIT of gazing out the window instead of paying attention in class, I was shipped off to a pack of shrinks by the public school system when I was six years old. I'd also demonstrated some fairly anti-social methods of drawing attention to myself, like placing tacks on other students' chairs and sneaking off to piss on the radiators during the "duck and cover" air raid drills that were so popular at the time. Basic Bart Simpson-type stuff, not in the least bit inappropriate given the extreme violence of my adoptive father. If anybody needed a shrink in that household, it sure as hell wasn't me.

They told my parents that I had a "criminal mind" and diagnosed me as "hyperactive." They gave me a prescription for Ritalin and instructed my parents to either enroll me in a military school or get me interested in one of the arts. My real ambition was to become a CIA agent, and my mother was so completely addicted to television that we had one in every room—always on—so I became a child actor. I was moderately successful at it, which completely warped my career values. It's always a bad idea to get a kid involved in the entertainment industry. The shrinks thought it was great.

My next encounter with the profession came during my junior year in high school. I'd run away from home and was living with an indulgent old pervert of the clerical persuasion; it was some sort of compromise between my desire to hook up with a Charles Manson type and my mother's desire to groom me into a man resembling Norman Bates. I was hospitalized after developing a case of pneumonia as a result of taking way too many drugs while living in this old perv's basement and running the streets. I lay in the hospital for a week or so, ingesting balls of hash smuggled in by loyal friends. The blood tests turned up all manner of self-inflicted pharmaceutical weirdness, particularly the copious amounts of crystal meth I'd been shooting.

I was sent to a smug bastard by the name of Blum, who, immediately upon hearing me pronounce LSD as the cure for all of mankind's existential woes, prescribed a daily dose of Thorazine. I took it once. I felt like I'd whacked myself in the head with a golf club. From then on, I hid the pills in my cheek and spat them out when no one was looking. Over time, I convinced Dr. Blum that I'd renounced pot, LSD and crank for the blessings of alcohol, which, though still illegal for a boy of 16, nevertheless obtained his sanction as a socially acceptable form of intoxication.

In the mid-70s, I was living in San Francisco with a thwarted ballet dancer of Belgian/Welsh descent who suffered from a severe fear of drunks, owing to her upbringing. We had terrific sex but argued constantly over my appetite for sense-deranging substances, particularly booze. I was having incredible anxiety attacks and sought out the services of one Dr. Peter LaValle of Marin, who gave me a Valium prescription and fell asleep in our fifth session during one of my frequent discourses on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, allowing me to pilfer a few prescription pads from under his snoring nose. I traded the pads for a fair amount of pot.

My last and most memorable psychiatric encounter began in 1992, here in New York. I should have known better, having by that point acquired a healthy distrust of doctors in general—and shrinks in particular. A number of factors had converged in my life, all leading up to what amounted to a classic mid-life crisis, although I didn't recognize it as such at the time. The icing on the cupcake was a hepatitis C diagnosis in 1991. My gastro-enterologist insisted that if I didn't stop drinking, I would die. Little was known about hep-Cafe at the time, and I was gullible enough to believe her.

Not being the 12-step type, I chose counseling from a psychiatrist who specialized in substance abuse. She had all the exterior trappings of an unorthodox approach: flamboyant wardrobe (mismatched Chuck Taylor All-Stars and tie-dyes were typical), a seemingly non-judgmental attitude, a credible pose of respect for my own experience and knowledge of psychopharmacology and a deceptively alluring informality. She seemed intelligent. I had my first appointment with her on Thurs., March 12, 1992. On Friday the 13th, under her supervision, I quit drinking.

At first it seemed pretty easy, a simple matter of reaching for a V-8 instead of a beer. She gave me a Trazodone prescription to help with the insomnia. I had to quit smoking pot, since for me it went hand in hand with the drink. My wife at the time smoked like a Rasta, and as delighted as she was with the prospect of me being sober, she had no intention of matching my adjustment. As the weeks turned into months, I began growing increasingly irritated at her insistence that her non-stop weed consumption had no effect on her judgment, when in fact, it clearly did.

"If it has no effect," I remember asking, "why are you spending $400 a month on it?"

I slowly replaced my wife with my shrink as the primary object of affection in my life. I should have noticed the signs. I was amused when she told me that she nearly got busted trying to photograph Richard Nixon as he lay dying elsewhere in the hospital. I thought she was being intimate when she told me that Sen. Ted Kennedy also had hep-C, or when she bragged about treating a "Mick Jagger-level rock star," or when she told me about the producer with the "50-million-dollar film production company and a $500-a-day heroin habit."

After about eight months of sobriety, I realized that I was either going to resume drinking or dump my wife. I opted for the former and made feeble efforts to assert control over my booze habit (which really wasn't that bad—a 12-pack was a big night out). The rational thing to do would have been to quit drinking hard liquor in any form, as it was the occasional shot that led to mayhem. And mayhem was the problem—not my liver, which was, and remains, just fine.

My shrink also gave me sample bottles of Zoloft, the primary effect of which was to loosen my impulse control.

AT ONE POINT, my doctor insisted that I try lithium. This I was reluctant to do, as lithium requires careful monitoring and seems to have a rather extravagant pharmacological footprint, whereas Zoloft (like Prozac and MDMA) is just another cousin of my old familiar friend, methamphetamine. I didn't find lithium acceptable at all. It gave me a jittery sensation, like the first few minutes of an acid trip. Then, my doctor handed me huge sample packets of Serzone, which seemed to loosen my already faltering impulse control even more than the Zoloft. I was seeing "trails," much as you do on acid.

In 1995, the shrink took three months off to have a baby. Some time later, she confided that she'd slipped on the stairs of her loft and dropped him down the stairs, breaking his leg. My wife found that story suspicious.

In 1996, she asked me about revenge tactics, citing a bad business deal involving her and her significant other—some rehab enterprise they were attempting to set up. I gave her a couple of tips on nonviolent pranks of noteworthy effectiveness. I was out on tour with a small, fast-moving circus at the time, and didn't really give it much thought.

When I was on tour, I was fine. The beauty of setting up circus tents is that if you are not perfectly focused—completely in the now, as they say—you are very likely to suffer and/or inflict injury and/or death. There's no time to dwell on your fucked-up relationship with your parents, or your failed acting career, or the ever-increasing emotional distance between you and your wife. There is only the certainty of the show going up, with all of the attendant dangers, including (but not limited to) lightning, tornados, big scary animals, falling off the tent, falling through the seating system, getting whacked in the skull with a piece of steel or dropping something really heavy on your foot.

In 1997, I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong with this shrink. She concluded a session in early March with the words, "You've got plenty of substance—let's get to work on your style."

Two weeks later she concluded with, "You've got substance and style."

Nothing had changed in my demeanor in those two weeks, but she'd appeared distinctly stoned to me in that last session. I called her on this perception, and she flipped out on me. She insisted that I dry out for 16 weeks before she'd see me again. Fine, I said: no sweat. By this time, I was no longer taking her pills.

The night before a major court appearance in an action against my landlord, she phoned my wife and tried to convince her to have me committed. According to my wife, she was quite hysterical as she insisted, "Don't let him into that courtroom—you don't know what you're living with!"

My wife countered with, "What are you talking about? I live with this guy. You only spend an hour at a time with him."

In five years of therapy, I'd spent no more than 200 50-minute hours talking to that shrink. There are 168 hours in a week. I went into court in Brooklyn the next day and became the first resident of Dumbo to squeeze a settlement out of one of the worst landlords in New York. I got $20,000 out of that gonif in my first (and hopefully last) litigation action.

IN JULY, MY WIFE walked out on me. Her father had bought her a house in Florida, and she went for it. I fired the shrink after I heard that she and her old man were busted for providing seven half-kegs of beer to his daughter's high school graduating class at a party they sponsored. The amount in question worked out to eight 12-ounce beers for each of the kids attending—pretty hefty for inexperienced drinkers. I figured it was some kind of twisted, overdetermined job security effort, given that substance abuse experts maintain that out of any given sample of 100 people exposed to an addictive substance, one-third will become addicts. They pleaded nolo contendere and paid a minor fine.

Ultimately, my ex-wife and I became good friends. I got my drinking under control, learned how to drive a car and my "depression" lifted completely shortly on the heels of a Russian dominatrix of some repute. She imparted some authentic wisdom to me one night over a bottle of wine.

"You Americans," she said. "You are five percent of the world's population consuming nearly 70 percent of its resources, and you are all on Prozac or in therapy for your 'depression.' It isn't depression, Al. It is self-pity."

That revision of the nomenclature caused my vanity to kick in. Vanity trumps self-pity, every time. Vanity trumps most things, in a man my age.

I'm in a good solid space these days, if it's anybody's business. The only drugs I take are the fun ones, quality controlled by street justice, which is a hell of a sight more reliable than the medical-pharmaceutical complex. Anybody over 45 who uses white-powder stimulants has a death wish. I don't. I never drink hard liquor straight, and I only go to doctors for hernias or broken bones—stuff like that. Stuff they know about.

My mind is not an epiphenomenon of this bag of meat. All the psych meds in the world won't fix faulty reasoning, and there is no substitute for love and rewarding work.

I'd still like a Haldol frisbee, though.

© 2004 New York Press