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Pill Happy 

When shrinks run wild

I listen to Del Shannon's Greatest Hits from time to time. He was a rock singer out of Michigan with a falsetto voice whose 1961 hit "Runaway" is an early rock classic. He also was the first artist in America to make the charts with a Beatles song, "From Me to You," released before the Beatles were even known here.

And Shannon was one of the first people alleged to have committed suicide as a result of taking an antidepressant. He was staging a comeback in 1990 when he started taking Prozac and soon shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.

Antidepressants are supposed to prevent suicide, for God's sake, not cause it.

These pills have become a major part of the insanity that ensued when the insurance and pharmaceutical companies took control of the medical industry.

Insurance companies want shrinks to "cure" people fast, and drug companies facilitated that by giving psychiatrists all kinds of cool payola to dispense their brand of antidepressant. In the end, dishing out pills came to replace real therapy.

In fact, that's just what our fast-food nation wants: a quick cure for a long-term problem. As a result, psychiatrists today are clock-watchers; they see you for 20 minutes, write a prescription for your drugs and peek at their watches to see that the assembly line keeps running.

For most of my life, I've struggled with mental illness -- clinical depression and addiction, among several other diagnoses. I've taken every class of antidepressant on the market since 1976, and, after more than a quarter-century as a consumer of psychiatric services, I wouldn't take another antidepressant at gunpoint.

I don't regret taking the pills. I'm glad I did. I believe they helped save my life. But no more for me, thanks. I don't like to live numb.

The problem is, no matter how many pills mentally ill people choke down, we still need to work on ourselves in long-term psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Only now, meaningful long-term therapy is not an option if you rely on insurance to pay the bill. And worse, many therapists on the market today are just glorified camp counselors. They don't deal with the unconscious mind (which medieval people called "the Devil").

A few years ago, I asked a shrink about the state of psychoanalysis. He laughed and said, "It's caviar for the generals." By that, he meant psychiatrists and psychiatric students have access to the luxury of such treatment, but not the hoi polloi.

I went to see a psychiatrist for the first time in 1976 while living in Florida. I was terrified, confused, paranoid and in a downward spiral. The doctor tested me and said, "I do not think you're psychotic at this point, Mr. Monroe. But you're very close."

She also said I was an alcoholic and that she couldn't help me if I didn't quit drinking. So I did. She put me on Thorazine, an anti-psychotic medication, and a series of antidepressants. But, most importantly, she talked with me. She listened carefully and spoke gently. She treated me with absolute dignity.

When I moved back to Atlanta, I found another good psychiatrist and worked with her for a long time. She put me on Elavil for several years. She's retired now.

Psychiatry has changed since then, with its growing reliance on drugs. In the 1990s, I got on Prozac, which was amazing. My depression lifted but I began to gain weight and became impotent. I felt like a cartoon pig, all pink and cheerful and ready for my next snack. Prozac is the perfect drug for a nation of people who work in cubicles and eat doughnuts.

I quit taking Prozac because I wasn't actually alive while taking it. In the late 1990s, I went to a psychopharmacologist who put me on Effexor, combined with some other drug. Within days, the combo made me loonier than I was in 1976. I couldn't find my daughter one afternoon and went driving crazily around town, crying, zooming around, searching for her in an absolute panic. She had just gone to a movie, but I had gone mad. It was a terrifying experience caused by the interaction of the drugs. As soon as the doc took me off the second drug, the horror subsided. But I clearly understand why people kill themselves on that type of medication.

The doctor kept me on Effexor and I gained vast amounts of weight. I got up to 260 and my face was so fat it was about to pop. I mentioned the weight gain to the shrink.

"Effexor doesn't cause weight gain," he said.

He was lying. The Internet is alive with Effexor weight-gain stories. I got so depressed being obese that I quit taking the damn stuff four years ago, went on a diet and began exercising. I lost weight. The most important step I took was finding a maverick psychoanalyst in another state. I talk with him by phone once a week. I pay out of pocket. I don't have to get anybody's permission to talk to him. I just pay the guy. I enjoy it, and most days I'm pretty happy. Except, you know, after elections. And when I do screw up or get depressed, I use that as a clue to figure out what's brewing in my unconscious.

For fun, I dig into the history of psychoanalysis. My all-time favorite shrink is Georg Groddeck, "the Wild Analyst," who was using analysis, diet and deep-tissue massage in the 1920s to cure everything from mental illness to cancer. Freud denounced him as a mystic, after stealing some of his ideas.

And I've finally figured out what bothers me most about antidepressants -- beyond the fact that they make some people kill themselves.

When you're on an antidepressant, it may eliminate your depression. But it doesn't eliminate the underlying psychological problems -- I'm sorry, it just doesn't -- and those will manifest themselves in other ways, whether it's weight gain, car wrecks, or self-defeat in relationships or jobs. Even if your depression is numbed, other self-damaging symptoms will crop up until you deal with the problem.

If you want to take antidepressants, fine. Bon appetit. If you want to give them to your child, that's your business. But I'll pass.

Ultimately, you have to make your own decisions.

As Groddeck put it: "One must not forget that recovery is brought about not by the physician, but by the sick man himself. He heals himself, by his own power, exactly as he walks by means of his own power, or eats, or thinks, breathes or sleeps."

Doug Monroe is Senior Editor at Creative Loafing in Atlanta, where these stories on antidepressants were originally published.

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