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Why'd I take speed for twenty years?
A question and also kind of a break-up letter
A little bit about this week’s episode
This week, a story about a question I’ve been grappling with for a while, and that honestly, I expect I’ll grapple with for a while after this. Why did I take speed for twenty years? A story of amphetamine's birth, life, death, and rebirth in America. (Methylphenidates, too.)
When I started trying to answer this question, I didn’t intend to talk about it in public. It really was just an actual question, in my own life, that took on some urgency a while ago.
Back then, I’d abruptly stopped taking a medication I’d spent more of my life on than off, and was surprised to discover that not taking the drug felt like its own kind of drug experience.
I found myself inhabiting a slightly different brain, with a slightly different way of perceiving the world. I don’t think there’s a word for someone who goes off of a prescription medication. You don’t become sober, but I did feel acutely like I’d gone from one state to another, without being able to really explain or name either state.
I’d love for people to share their personal stories in the comments. Or send me an email.
I expect listeners to feel strongly because the decision to take these medications, for anyone, and particularly for anyone with kids, is just such a big one. And because the people who benefit from these medications find them to be so helpful, sometimes even life-changing.
I also know that these people sometimes face stigma, and I don’t want to add to that stigma.
To just state my point of view on all this: if prescription medications help people, they should take them.
If I have a complaint with our system, it’s that in my experience, a prescription is often the end of a conversation instead of the beginning. I’ve found it’s rare to meet a doctor who ever suggests re-evaluating medication, even though our brains and the contexts we find our brains in, often change.
I don’t have answers for anyone but myself. I’ve been a zealot for and against these drugs and now I find myself closer to the middle. I’d ask that anyone wanting to discuss all this try to be civil and polite. By all means share your questions and experiences, but please try to be curious and respectful of other people’s too. Let’s not try to change each other’s minds in a comments section.
I usually read all the comments and emails people send, but I’ll probably take a minute before I do that this time.
Next week we’ll share the second part of this story, which approaches the same topic from a very different perspective, and arrives at different answers about ADHD and prescription stimulants.
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A little bit about a story I wrote 8 years ago
Eight years ago, I published this audio piece that I still sometimes get nice emails about. It was called What It Looks Like.
Back then, I was working through some questions I had about depression. I’d had a friend I really loved who had died by suicide early in our lives. Her absence had left a real mark on me. And for the next decade, I found myself badly wanting to understand her experience of depression, this place I felt I’d lost her to. But the irony was, I was also experiencing it. I just didn’t really know it. This is from the piece:
For most of my twenties, I thought about killing myself. Often. Had I told anybody, they would have told me that that was a symptom of depression. But I never made that connection. I was hunting this thing that had taken my friend away, depression, and I was wondering what it looked like, how I could understand it, completely unaware that it was in me. For all that time, I just thought that everyone’s brain was like that. The same way I genuinely can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t always kind of want to be eating potato chips, I also just thought that anybody’s brain, faced with a sufficiently difficult problem, would suggest that one easy solution would be just dying. I just figured people learned to ignore that voice, no matter how insistent it got, no matter how loud. And then a friend of mine gently suggested that this was actually unusual, and I got a therapist, and I got medication, and now that does seem unusual. It seems hard to imagine. Which is really nice.
The piece landed on that moment of irony. The idea was that I had been like Ahab hunting for Moby Dick, not realizing the boat he’s on is actually a large whale in a boat costume.
The nice emails I get about that piece are from people who got help because they heard my description of my own depression and realized it applied to them, too. Those are really rewarding messages to read.
But these days I feel much more conflicted about writing about mental health. And that piece is part of the reason why. The demands most stories make — a clear ending, a resolution — I think those are exactly the pitfalls I’ve learned to be wary of when it comes to managing my own mind.
I wrote the end of that story when I was 29. To my ear, it goes — “I was depressed, but I got medication, and now everything’s fine.” If that was true then, it didn’t stay that way. Medication helped me with depression for some time, and then, it didn’t.
At 29, I did not know that I had more challenging mental health troubles ahead. And when those troubles showed up, I felt stupid for having written about my own mental health like it was a troubleshooting issue I’d solved with a software patch. The ending felt glib, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
So, consider this a very late correction. Life continued to provide challenges and moments of beauty. I expect that to continue, but if it changes, maybe I’ll feel inspired to write an update for you.
Thanks for indulging me, and we’ll see you next week with a new one.