Perhaps there is a part of me that likes my madness, in measured drips, the dreams of rocks and black hats and girls of swirling sugar. Perhaps I like my drugs too. Perhaps I like the act of taking them, which I did each evening, always dropping the fat lithium pill into a tall glass of cool water, watching as it bubbled white and frothy, like some magical concoction.
—Lauren Slater, from Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Minds
If you are as much of a Slater fan as I have been, you’ve probably picked up a copy of her latest, Blue Dreams, and read it cover to cover, glued to the pages as you likely had been while reading her other nonfiction such as Welcome to My Country. Lauren Slater wears many hats. She has been a patient, therapist, writer, writing coach, and researcher.
Lauren Slater writes mostly creative nonfiction, but I would call Blue Dreams a hybrid form. It is partly a memoir of the demise of her health during the decades she spent on psychiatric drugs. But the book is also a history book, a history of the development of psychiatric drugs, beginning with Thorazine, and speculation into the future of what Slater hopes may be to come. Many survivors and patients alike are familiar with this history, familiar with the overblown promises of these drugs, and the disappointment we’ve felt upon learning that what we had been told was a fallacy. Slater writes these two interwoven stories — her own, and the story of the development of the drugs — parallel to each other, conjuring up meaning in the magic recipe itself.
A common misunderstanding about memoir is the assumption that reader and writer are firm, steady and unchanging. As a writer of memoir as well, I think of memoir as an active process that involves the use of memory and the evolution of written work as it grows and develops. Engagement with the reader through the written word is crucial. The reader, as collaborator, is not a mere passive vessel, because in reading, she processes the work and moves along with it, changing as well. However, a writer of memoir is a character within her own story. She develops, morphs, grows, matures, and goes through a process. She might even change her mind! The memoir writer won’t be at the same place at the end as where she was when she started, nor will you, the reader. Bringing us all from Point A to Point B is the mark of a successful and moving work of art. In that, Slater never disappoints.
In her introduction, Slater piques the reader’s curiosity by telling us where she is right now and how her health has become a mess, nearly destroyed by diabetes and kidney disease. I was horrified to read this. I have a long history as a Lauren Slater fan. I was first introduced to her brilliant writing in 2007. While I was in graduate school I grew to idolize her. To learn that she had deteriorated so much was nothing less than heartbreaking.
Slater remains on psychiatric drugs. She insists that the drugs are necessary. I can only imagine what some of you are thinking, reading that word “necessary.” She is only 54 years old. I am 60, was on a far heavier cocktail than she was on, was incarcerated far more times than she was, including at her McLean Hospital, was so disabled by psychiatry that I was taken out of the workforce for three decades and had become impoverished, and yet, today, I am quite healthy and working full-time again. What gives? Is it possible that my getting off the drugs and refusing to believe the disease model made a difference, or am I just “lucky”?
(The usual argument that patients tell me is “everyone is different.” While this is true, I don’t buy that anymore. After all, wasn’t all-holy psychiatry supposed to account for our human differences when they put us on those pills in the first place? Isn’t that the very accurate, very scientific thing called “diagnosis”? Oh….)
Slater provides an excellent argument against the chemical imbalance theories of depression, anxiety, and psychosis, including mania, right in her book. She validates that these theories were debunked long ago during the development of the drugs. She explains this in very clear and easy-to-understand terms. Her section on Prozac is especially detailed and revealing — not surprising since Slater herself was mostly involved with the SSRI-type of drugs in her own life. She provides a detailed description of her initial challenges with Prozac in her book Prozac Diary, including a chapter on sexual dysfunction. However, even writing those beautiful words did not convince her to end her drug dependency, nor does it stop her from calling herself a disease.
Slater states that depression has been a horrible thing for her to endure in her life and that Prozac seemed like the only relief. Also in the same chapter, Slater validates that Prozac and similar drugs can cause sexual dysfunction, a “blasé attitude,” and extreme violence such as we see today. She states that as a writer, she may have “lost some wattage to the pill.” When she stated this, I felt like reaching out and beckoning her out of the muck, as I have often felt similar compassion toward many of my former beloved friends who have similarly clung to the long and ever-darkening road of psychiatry and its book of hate speech, the DSM.
I’d like to remind readers of what I stated earlier: Memoir is a process, a work still in the making. We must remember this as we read, that we readers do not know what our lives will bring us, nor does the writer of memoir know what is in store for her. Our lives, like the memoir, are also a process. For many, we can only hope and dream for lives that move onward toward better places.
As readers and writers both, we are not omniscient gods. We do not have the wisdom nor hindsight we will possess in a decade’s time. We don’t know the new people who will enter our lives. Conversely, we don’t know whom among those present in our current lives will be gone in a decade or two. For many of us, our naivete, that is, the limitations of our single point of view, is the entire reason we once set foot into the offices, nuthouses, funny farms, and rehabs that ignited the journey into psychiatry that we now regret. Perhaps, long ago, all we were seeking when we entered the mental health system was in essence a second opinion on our lives, an opinion outside of our own. And what did we get?
The voice of the memoir writer is limited because she, too, is only one person, though she may choose to portray other characters, such as a spouse, and speculate on how these peripheral characters viewed her, the protagonist. One thing is certain, though. No matter how wise a writer is, she cannot see the future (some of you who believe in psychic powers may disagree with me on this). In seeking therapy, many of us hoped for the impossible. We wanted assistance from a real human 8-Ball.
When I was working on my master’s thesis at Goddard College I read three of Lauren Slater’s nonfiction books. I suspected that the hospital she described in “Three Spheres,” the final chapter of Welcome to My Country, was none other than McLean Hospital, where I had spent many a day, but she doesn’t name the place. (I highly recommend the book, by the way!) I was so impressed with Slater’s book Prozac Diary that I used it as my single-most inspiration for the introductory section of my own memoir, my master’s thesis This Hunger Is Secret (now available for free at my personal blog).
Perhaps one of those spheres was that 8-Ball.
I have stated that memoir, like human life, is a journey. You could think of memoir as plastic, like the brain. During the writing, the writer changes, the reader changes, and both may change even after the memoir is proofread, typeset, and published.
I finished the graduation draft of T.H.I.S. in 2009, prior to my antipsych awakening. You can see almost immediately if you read a few pages that at the time of publication I hadn’t quite yet realized that “mental illness” is a fallacy. Clearly, though, as you read along, I validated, and still validate, that I truly suffered for many years. If you read the writings of Lauren Slater you can see that she suffers from what she still calls the “disease” of depression.
Blue Dreams is an extensively researched book. One look at Slater’s reference list and you will see that she did not rely on medical journals and history books, but she also interviewed key people in the world of drug development. She found individual patients and interviewed them, also. I personally noted among this list the familiar name, Alexander Vukovic, MD, of McLean Hospital. I personally knew Dr. Vukovic, as he worked the North Belknap ward and also in the outpatient clinic. Apparently he still works there after all these years. Slater quotes Vukovic as praising the drugs, stating that he had seen “miraculous recoveries” on them. “Pick your poison,” he says. Apparently, Slater interviewed Vukovic twice, in person, perhaps in Vukovic’s outpatient office.
One glaring omission I noticed, or rather, an inaccuracy, was some spottiness when it came to antipsychiatry coverage. Antipsychiatry is mentioned a few times (as the enemy, I daresay) but the term, “psychiatric survivor” or “psychiatric survivor movement” is never mentioned, nor defined. Many key figures of our movement are omitted, as are the non-drug options we know of, such as the Hearing Voices Network, peer-run respites, or Soteria, though it appears that Slater did read (and quoted) Robert Whitaker’s book, Anatomy of an Epidemic. Furthermore, Slater stated that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had started the antipsychiatry movement. Oops! She portrays the antipsychiatry movement as a bunch of evil and disruptive rebels, a bygone movement that barely exists anymore. (Perhaps a trip to the University of Toronto might clear this one up a bit.)
At the time of writing her memoir, Slater is not yet at the point of realizing that the mental health system is not a productive place to go for answers to depression. We survivors must be patient with this memoir and appreciate that we, too, may once have been in that same place or on a similar journey. When you arrive at her chapter on psychedelics, and read about her exploration into what she thinks might be alternatives, you realize that while she is aware that psychiatric pills disappointed her and made her sick, she cannot sign up for experimental psychedelic “treatment” due to her insistence on staying on these “necessary” psychiatric drugs.
Here, I felt frustrated, not so much by Slater’s insistence that that she “needed” and still “needs” a chemical cure, but her narrow view of “treating” depression. She sees psychedelics as “alternative,” but doesn’t understand that her best option might mean not seeing a doctor at all! She insists that only a doctor can and should treat her, that her depression is so severe that a doctor is the only one competent and knowledgeable enough to do this. Again, here, I feel like reaching out to Slater, who is close to my age and lives very close to where I myself lived for many years, and helping her over that one last hurdle that daunts so many people.
We live in a society where the idea of “treatment” means you see a doctor, a licensed professional, a person exclusively specialized to deal with this horrible disease you have. Until you toss out the “treatable disease” concept, you likely will not be able to shake off the idea that only someone outside of yourself, a professional person or specialist, can fix you.
Lauren Slater is a highly intelligent and competent person, as is evident in her writing. She has carved a niche for herself in the literary world. I’m sure she has a decent relationship with a major publishing house and has successfully marketed her books. She has taught writing, worked as a therapist, and for the most part, avoided hospitalization. She probably has plenty of money. She raised kids and stayed out of poverty. She was happily married for years. She is now divorced.
When she sees her psychiatrist, whom she describes playfully and with an amusing tone, she suggests to him which pills he should put her on. We readers can peek into these interactions as they played themselves out in several chapters of Blue Dreams. Readers, did you ever do this, as well? I did! Trying to be as polite as I could, I suggested various pills to my own psychiatrist periodically, realizing I could put myself on drugs just as easily or better than most psychiatrists could (wait a minute…).
Have you ever sat in a mental health professional’s office and known in your heart that you were likely more intelligent or more insightful than the person you were sitting with? Have you ever felt that the person treating you was totally clueless and that you were wasting your time, even years of your life, sitting in offices, groups, hospitals, therapy sessions, psychiatry, pill after pill, lockup, psychodrama, and group hugs? If you felt like I did, maybe then you readers know what I’m about to say.
Dear Lauren Slater, if I might address you directly, you may think you have tried everything and exhausted your options. You have been on many pills and I think you are aware of the dangers at this point. Any more pills added to that cocktail very well could do you in. You tried to get psychedelics (and you really think they’re safe?) from a doctor, but that little trick failed. You’re cleverly avoiding electroshock and avoided mentioning it in the book. In fact, you glossed over “ECT.” Will that be next? I shudder to think of it.
In Blue Dreams, electroshock was mentioned only in passing, as if the procedure is no longer done. I wonder what Slater’s reasons are for making the choice to avoid electroshock. As a thorough researcher, what ugly findings did she discover, and what are her reasons for the glaring omission in Blue Dreams?
Dear Lauren Slater, you assume your “options” for what you define as a “disease” are limited to what the medical professionals, albeit kooky professionals that dabble in dangerous mushrooms, might have to offer. You have listed everything you have tried, to date, in your book. You attempted, not too convincingly, to instill hope in your readers and in me that psychedelics will be your next miracle cure discovered by the all-holy doctors.
I was cringing as I read those words, much as my own blog readers have cringed for me, as they read along years ago while I narrated my life story as I tried to cure my own eating disorder, watching me fail over and over as I went running from professional to professional, doctor to doctor, facility to facility, office to office, hoping for a miracle cure. Dear Lauren Slater: I learned, and I hope you learn, too, before it is too late.
I learned to stop knocking on the doctors’ doors. I know now that the future is a gift simply because it is always a mystery prize. That 8-Ball, that black sphere I’d prayed for was only a toy.
Dear Lauren Slater, you need to find the answer within yourself. Plain and simple.
I hope MIA readers read Blue Dreams cover-to-cover because it’s truly well worth it — a satisfying read that, like Slater’s other books, I would certainly give five stars to if I were forced to give stars (don’t you hate that?). You are likely, also, to have a visceral reaction to it, perhaps empathy for the writer, as I did.
I had another reaction. Alexander Vukovic, whom Slater interviewed extensively in her research, adding a unique personal touch; he was not my own psychiatrist, but he had treated someone near and dear to me. He had treated my late boyfriend, Joe, both on North Beknap and in the outpatient clinic. It was Joe who had called Dr. Vukovic “Dr. V.” Vukovic had prescribed the supposed “life-saving” drug Clozaril to many patients. He also prescribed Prolisec (for “side effects”). Undoubtedly, Vukovic knew that both these drugs damage the heart. I’m sure he also knew that many patients turned to smoking to relieve akathesia from Clozaril.
The last time I saw Dr. Vukovic, almost 15 years ago to this day, was when he attended Joe’s funeral. Joe died at the young age of 45. I remember shaking Vukovic’s hand. I was drugged, dazed, and clueless. Looking back, now that so much has happened, miles and years away, that day seems like a stained-glass window etched in the center-plate of a book.
At the funeral the priest spoke of peaks and valleys in our lives, and of journeys. We sang Amazing Grace.
Dear Lauren Slater: Reading your memoir, I know that perhaps someday you will be a fantastic activist, or you could be one. I suggest that you keep up your writing always. Learn to step outside of the doctor’s office. Turn the page. Live.
How sweet the sound.