About a dozen years ago, when I was writing my Master's thesis for my highly marketable degree in writing poetry, I penned this poem. I've been thinking about it lately, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.
A Lone Survivor, Fleeing the Space Station after Tragedy, Recalls the Order CheloniaThe poem draws on an an article I read about a prototype escape pod for occupants of the space station, my flowering obsession with natural history and taxonomy, and a genuine desire to put down roots in one place instead of being, as I had been for many years as an undergraduate (three colleges, three states) and then as a graduate student, caught between places, not knowing where I was going to land.
The crispness of hatch-closing, and then in silence breaking away
she drops, half-scudding through the atmosphere,
the wingless airfoil plunging, she hopes, to open fields.
But there’s so much asphalt, so many hard cities unseen below.
She thinks perhaps the ocean will swallow her.
Perhaps is such a large word now:
she wears it, a one-piece zippered suit.
Warming, through the window she sees the hull glow ember-gold.
She slips faster, down. In her mind, she diagrams
the earth, the atmosphere, gravity’s certainties.
She flies as turtles swim, lift and drag balanced into descent.
She is in the belly of a turtle. What she has left behind—
she tries not to think of it—burns. She thinks, rather, of water,
the ocean, kelp, tides, California.
Outside, America grows toward her, suddenly large, mountainous, alarming.
No place for a chelonian. Why does she know that word?
Wonders why she knows that and not something useful, something like God.
She checks her watch and listens.
Amidst the roaring, a door, almost unheard, opens.
She imagines the people who took two weeks
to pack the hundreds of cables, the seven thousand square feet of silk.
Did they work at night? Were they tired, thoughtless, depressed?
Were their minds on their task those long warehouse days?
Two long minutes the cables untangle, the cloth unfurls;
whomping and foomping and hissing, it stutters a long perhaps.
Announces itself like love: I’ve been here all along.
The carapace bears up like an elevator.
Her earpiece crackles to life.
She says It’s me, I’m here, I’m home.
Swimming toward the sand, she presses her face against the pane
and, drawing back, is surprised by the silver reflection there: an imprint
of a ghost-bird caught in mid-flight, stunned
by the invisible shell of cold,
by all the things, having fallen, it suddenly knows.
A dozen years, two more degrees, a few more interstate adventures, seven years of marriage, and one child later, I find myself only a few blocks from where I originally wrote that poem about falling into place without being able to decide exactly where one will land.
But I promised to say why I've been thinking about the poem, about falling, about being a little bit out of control.
In January 2001, after (not) dealing with depression on and off for, oh, 17 years, I finally sought out--with much encouragement from Fang--the assistance of a therapist, who referred me to my doctor for a prescription for antidepressants.
My recovery felt miraculous. Whereas previously every day at work had the possibility of being a very bad one, suddenly I awoke feeling each day had promise. I recall that before antidepressants, a phone call I didn't feel like returning to a patron of the symphony orchestra where I worked would send me spiraling downward into blackness. I'd extrapolate my reluctance to return a phone call to a lifetime of phone calls to return for a series of low-paying nonprofit jobs where I would be warehoused in cubicles, which meant, of course, I would never, ever be able to pay off the student loans from my expensive undergraduate degree or my professionally useless poetry M.A. Those of you who have experienced depression know what I'm talking about, and those of you who haven't likely have witnessed someone falling into this vortex of negativity and despair.
Within months of starting the antidepressants, I was accepted to a shiny new Ph.D. program in a town I knew I liked, and I became engaged to Fang. There were other smaller milestones, too, ones I've forgotten now but which I remember made my therapist very happy. It was no coincidence she scheduled my weekly sessions for Friday afternoons--why shouldn't she finish her week on a high note?
Of course, antidepressants come with side effects, and after some time on Celexa, I decided it was time to shake off these byproducts and check in with my old self. I tried several times to wean myself from the drug, but every time found the withdrawal experience worse than the side effects of taking the pills. Plus, I tended to hit bottom again pretty quickly--usually within a week. I tried another type of antidepressant, hoping for more attractive side effects, but instead I experienced some of my darkest days ever.
Still, I wanted to get off the pills. After all, even when unmedicated, I had been an exceptionally high-functioning depressive. I may not have wanted to make those phone calls, but I did. There were certainly times in college where I wanted to burrow under the covers and not go to class, but I did--and I frequently finished papers for my courses a week before they were due. I may have been depressed, but dammit, I was driven.
Three weeks ago, when it was time to refill my prescription, I decided to leave a few emergency pills in the bottle and go cold turkey. I was slow to tell Fang, forgetting that I had promised him I would always alert him to these experiments, and hoping instead I could greet him one morning with the triumphant tale of how I'd been off the citalopram for a month. Aside from this major misstep, the going has been much, much better this time. Nausea, yes. Dizziness, yes. But bottoming out? Literally seeing dark shadows around people, as I had the last time I was withdrawing? Nope.
I'm still calibrating my emotions. The past week in particular I've had a hard time keeping the tears from welling up--but today I also laughed harder than I had in a long, long time.
This smile is brought to you by natural serotonin levels.*
In the face of furloughs, pay cuts, a husband recently diagnosed with scoliosis that will eventually require surgery to fuse some of his vertebrae together, my still-too-recent-and-raw failure to secure either the tenure-track humanities job for which I had trained for years or the couple of administrative jobs I dearly wanted, and so much other nastiness in the world, it may seem more than a little crazy to choose this moment to give up the drugs.
I'm feeling raw, I'm feeling a bit sad, but I'm also feeling like me. It's taken me 8.5 years, but I feel I'm ready to face the world without medicine that at first was a necessary life-changer and that was a life-saver post-partum, but which I fear in more recent years had become a crutch, a way of anesthetizing myself.**
I am, like the woman in the poem I wrote 12 years ago, experiencing re-entry, and right now I'm plunging through the atmosphere, feeling the heat burning up the old shell but also glorying in the light that only results from an almost unbearable friction with the world.
* And eight years of orthodontia.
** Please note: I'm absolutely not writing this post to dismiss the effectiveness of antidepressants or encourage anyone else to ditch their meds. My quitting has been a long time coming, and I'm ready for it; I alerted my doctor and have been monitoring my moods closely. Do not attempt withdrawal from psychotropic medicines on your own, as it's likely your experience will vary significantly from mine.