Content warning: no nuance
In the 1939 film version of “Wuthering Heights,” starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, there is a scene in which the heroine Catherine Earnshaw returns to her wild dwelling on the moors after having sojourned at the more civilized household of the upper-class Linton family. Feeling a tremendous urge, she stands in front of a mirror and rips off the fine clothes she has been gifted at the Lintons’, returning to a feral state sans corset and able to breathe again. Not content solely to have removed the clothing, she starts rending it piece by piece, sobbing and shrieking as the mirror reflects her.
This is exactly how I felt the day I stopped taking SSRIs, flushing them down the toilet or perhaps throwing them against the wall. I don’t remember which. It was so long ago now.
I was prescribed the pills by a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with “atypical anxiety disorder,” manifesting as panic and OCD. I was living in the city at the time, working a retail job. I often had attacks of extreme fear on the subway and repeatedly woke up in the middle of the night, sometimes three or four times a week, unable to breathe with a pounding heart and the lingering feeling I was about to vomit. This had gone on for months. It was getting in the way of my ability to work, be social, sleep. Or so I thought.
When I first started taking the pills, the dose was too high. I remember walking through the park, tripping balls in some kind of vague hallucinatory state, before nearly passing out in the train above the East River and a stranger having to help me onto the platform. I remember it being mentioned that these drugs might affect my sexuality. They could blunt my arousal and weaken my ability to have an orgasm. This only happened to some people, I was told — and it was a small price to pay, really, for the benefit of “mental health.” There might be some numbness in those parts of the body that give the most pleasure to a human being — but this was nothing, really, compared to the importance of “balancing” oneself, of stability.
When I described the nighttime terrors, which happened like clockwork around 2AM, I was told there was no value in riding them out. I didn’t need to suffer, I was told. There was “nothing to be learned there.”
But there was something to be learned there, and the things I have learned in that vast space — the darkness where the Holy Spirit confronts a human soul — are not something I will ever allow to be taken from me again.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are some of the most widely prescribed drugs today. They’re also lucrative — the worldwide antidepressant market is valued at $15 billion. Use by American teenagers increased by 38% between 2015 and 2019. Side effects from SSRIs are not limited to sexual dysfunction — they also include dizziness, weight gain, and suicidal ideation. Many people who take SSRIs experience a kind of emotional blunting. The drugs are also notoriously hard to quit. 15.5 million Americans have been on antidepressants for over five years. Withdrawal can be treacherous.
And yet, if you criticize this industry or even the choice to prescribe or be on SSRIs, or if, more dangerously, you insist that in your experience of sickness and suffering there was meaning to be found — even profound religious meaning — you are accused of causing “harm” and “romanticizing mental illness.” Or it is claimed that you are stigmatizing people whose lives have supposedly been saved by these drugs. That is not my intention. There is no shame in survival. What I do intend is to tell the truth of my own lived experience, as they say, which is that being on SSRIs was a living death.
The drugs made me more tolerant of a ten-hour day on the sales floor, but less driven to find the long-term work I’d be suited for. They made me more patient with a discouraging boyfriend, but less prone to the fit of rage that would have given me the motivation to leave him. They took away my initiative. They made me less inclined to check if the stove was off or the door was locked, but also dulled my meticulousness, that valuable trait of perfectionistic people. They replaced the soul-bracing waves of terror I felt in the middle of the night with a kind of sickly tension in my chest, which I visualized at times as an orange goo spreading from my heart into my lungs. They stopped me from worrying about premarital sex and the chance of conception, which I now realize were legitimate concerns, and replaced them with an almost total numbness below the waist — the feeling of a car that can’t get running, a motor that never starts up. What had previously been alive in my body, full of yearning and hope and possibility, was replaced with blunt insensitivity. I cared about nothing. I was more functional, but I was not alive.
There came a day when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried — which was quite unusual, having been moved to tears often by music, from Chopin to some dumb emo band. A connection to God in this state? Laughable. That was like trying to call a friend and realizing that the line is fuzzy, that you’ll never hear clearly what they’re saying, almost like their voice is underwater. You can’t reach them.
My life changed when I quit my job and traveled to a rural area, trying to decide what to do next. I fell in love with an older man who had a farm, and lived there on and off for about three years. That was when I decided to come off the drugs. I remember scoffing at him when he would suggest that, at the height of panic, I might take a walk in his fields instead of downing a Klonopin. But I tried it anyway. Slowly but surely, it began to work.
There was a certain walk I would take through a sloping meadow that led to a stream. I was often accompanied by one of his dogs, free and collarless, who leapt with joy when he realized I was setting off on my morning sojourn. There, surrounded by gnats and bumblebees and olive trees, we experienced the ecstasy of life together, he with his tail swiping back and forth furiously, me with my skirt covered in mud.
The anxiety went away. It was a gradual process. But each time I lay down by that riverside, and let my body sink into the earth, I felt myself restored to a kind of trust in God, a profound sense that everything is working exactly as it should. I weaned off the Lexapro, or Zoloft, or Celexa, or whichever cold inhuman name it had (I had tried so many). Now, my life is barely touched by pharmaceuticals. And I haven’t had one of those panic attacks in years.
Sex — the very thing I was expected to sacrifice in the name of the “SSRI cure” — was also what healed me. There is something about your trembling body being held by strong hands — hands that know how to start a fire, or drive a tractor — that reaches deep into your bones and makes you feel that you will always be safe. Even if you become disconnected, or the relationship ends, as so many do, there is something about that person that has reconnected you to the earth, that has let you know that your body, wracked with fear as it is, is also part of nature. That you could perhaps think of your panic attack as a thunderstorm passing through, something that will leave on its own, and that you don’t have to engineer God’s creation. It is no small thing to surrender one’s sexuality. It is no small thing to say, yes — I will give up this thing that God has given me that allows me to glimpse Heaven — and replace it with, well, at least I can still ride the subway.
I found others I could speak with who shared my experiences. I sought out the alternative pathways, the unspoken cures and hidden knowledge. One of the places I turned to for communion was the Hearing Voices Network — profiled this spring in The New York Times. HVN started in Europe in the 1980s as a form of group support for people who hear and see “voices and visions” and want to talk about them without threat of diagnosis. I discovered these groups through a recovery organization called the Wildflower Alliance, with whom I went on to work. The Times profile admirably looked deep into a phenomenon that has helped many people, while acknowledging that such a sensibility is “marginal to the medical establishment.” Perhaps because this type of approach is often associated with progressive politics, the piece was mocked by some of the contrarian or anti-woke publications and writers with whom I usually find more common ground. But the Wildflower Alliance did much more for my wellbeing than any prescription.
Why did it work for me? Because my own origins are about as far from the secular, science-worshipping dogma of our age as they could be. I am from the boondocks of upstate New York, where the roads are speckled with “Jesus Saves” and “This Is NRA Country” signs. And although I was plucked from these origins and subjected to years of schooling in an icy blue area — due to a job change for one of my parents, thereby exposing me to the mindset that now dominates our culture with its lifeless, condescending fist — this is who I am, and who I shall ever remain. Hearing Voices groups gave me the possibility to speak of my spiritual experiences — the encounters of mystic significance that have always been central to my life — without being looked at as someone beyond the pale, who did not deserve to be in society.
The Holy Spirit is in my blood. My father’s family was part of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, a denomination of the charismatic Holiness movement of the nineteenth century. The gifts of the charismatic tradition include the idea of an “Indwelling Spirit” that provides “an emotional experience that is unmistakable.” Charismatic Christianity is also associated with faith healing and glossolalia — words that tumble out of the mouth from some divine source, which may or may not be intelligible to others.
Hearing Voices groups were fascinating. I was often surrounded there by deeply reverent Jewish converts, Wiccans, people drawn to Native American spiritualities, or those who believed in past lives. It was through this opening to spiritual possibility that I came to think of my panic attacks as a kind of Indwelling Spirit, and began to remember the faith of my childhood. Instead of immediately trying to clamp down the panic as it rose, I opened to it, thinking of it as a downloaded message from an angel, or a letter from one of God’s apostles. And this was often accurate: the nausea subsided, to be replaced by a consciousness of something I needed to do and had been ignoring (for instance: “call your father” or, “write something about this”). It was a revelation to find I could allow this experience even in front of others, that I would not be judged, that I did not have to hide.
There is a class element to all this, as well. In 2019 The New York Times noted the “higher usage of medications for mental health problems among wealthier people.” There are similar correlations for birth control. Almost every female friend I had while living in Brooklyn was on SSRIs, or the pill, or both. This was considered normal. I too had imbibed the lies — “being on birth control is good for you!” — “a conceived child is just a clump of cells!” — that formed a prerequisite for entry into the upper class, in which career was expected to take precedence above all else, above giving life, above personal dignity. In 2015 a hashtag formed, #MedicatedAndMighty, which was purportedly about “erasing stigma” but may as well have emerged from the wet dream of any pharma CEO. It was a kind of progenitor to the social media manias that reached their apex in 2020, when catchphrases designed to evoke the rhetoric of justice did little more than stoke corporate power.
Back to Wuthering Heights. You will remember that our heroine Cathy had arrived at her ancestral dwelling, that house upon the moors, and seen the companion of her childhood, Heathcliff — the savage orphan taken in by her family, he of the dark brow and wild temper. He looks at her, bewildered by her fine clothing and what she has become. “Why did you stay so long in that house?” he asks, referring to the genteel manor of the neighboring Linton family. “Why did you stay so long?” When Linton arrives, the bland gentleman to whom Cathy later becomes betrothed, he demands to know why she still feels lingering affection for that “beast of a gypsy,” that “roadside beggar giving himself airs of equality.” Cathy declares her love immediately. Heathcliff is her soulmate, the one true love she will ever know. “Are you out of your senses?” Linton replies. “Do you realize the things you’re saying? … Some of that gypsy’s evil soul has got into you, I think … Some of that beggar’s dirt is on you.” It is at this moment that Catherine runs upstairs and starts stripping herself of the finery she has acquired at the Lintons’.
The way Linton speaks of Heathcliff reminds me of the language I often see used in legacy media to describe the people I come from. The top “NYT Pick” comment on a piece about the difficulty of weaning off antidepressants casts anyone with doubts or skepticism as one of the many “anti-science Neanderthals.” Even prominent conservatives can’t help themselves. A conversation between Bret Stephens and David Brooks about what supposedly went wrong in the Republican Party ends with Stephens calling the reformers “illiberal barbarians” and laying fault with the “gatekeepers” who were supposed to stop the tide of change. I thought there weren’t supposed to be gatekeepers in a democracy? God forbid the Republican Party — or any party, for that matter — shift to reflect the needs and values of the working class, and protect the interests of the United States first and foremost. That would be an outrage!
If I have survived at all, it is because I am half-barbarian, because there is something untameable in me that my years of education and blue-state residency have been powerless to exorcise. If I have healed at all, it is because the Indwelling Spirit gives me immunity to all that would seek to force me to use the less offensive word, or to start to believe that the only acceptable religion is a tepid one. Sometimes moderation isn’t the answer. That’s what authority hates: passion. But not the kind of passion that would lead you to set a building on fire. It hates your joy. It hates your pure, unregulated bliss. It hates your laughter. It hates passion because passion cannot be controlled.
In a 2021 Atlantic essay section called “How the Class War Ends,” David Brooks outlines how power is distributed in our society. The creative class has “abundant cultural, political, and economic power; the red one-percenters have economic power, but scant cultural power; the young, educated elites have tons of cultural power and growing political power, but still not much economic power; and the caring class and rural working class, unheard and unseen, have almost no power of any kind at all.” I disagree. The caring class and rural working class have spiritual power. Those who tend to others, who are more likely to believe and to have some faith to hold onto, are heard and seen by the Almighty.
People balk that they don’t want conservative Christianity imposed on them. Well, I don’t want left-liberal atheism imposed on me either. And it has been. Oh, has it been. Science is beneficial and helpful, but I don’t believe in making an idol of it. Woman does not live by science alone. I would rather the company of fifty Jesus freaks and a thousand hippies than one science-mongering blowhard. And every time you tell me that there’s no meaning in my mystic communion with God — that there’s “nothing to be learned there” — that nature itself isn’t capable of healing my body — or that abortion isn’t killing a child — and that these are the supposed values of neutrality that I must live by and absorb in order to participate in society, you are spitting on my spiritual inheritance and the liberty of my conscience. Deep down, I want nothing to do with this worldview. I have sworn eternal enmity unto any outside authority that would seek to sever me from the divine will. My assent to the Holy Spirit is complete. In my heart of hearts, I am and always will be a charismatic Evangelical. And as it says in the good book, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” — not even SSRIs — “will be able to separate [me] from the love of God.”