I feel lucky that I find solace in words. The written word. The spoken word. The sung word. They form a massive part of my life; in good times and bad; when I am happy; when I am sad; when I am anxious; when I am low; when I face uncertainty and fear. It is no surprise therefore that I have tuned to them over the last few tumultuous days as Ireland and the UK join the rest of the world in facing into the looming apocalypse of COVID-19.
If anyone is reading this whose view is that we are all over-reacting, that we need to take a proportionate approach to coronavirus or if they are still talking about this being no worse than our annual flu season, I respectfully suggest you wise up. A lot.
Looking across the Channel and beyond, we can glimpse something of our future and what the next few days and weeks are likely to bring for us. We can see something of the darkness – of the night – that the wonderful Robert Frost wrote about in 1927. He painted a picture of the city all around him – of being somehow separate from it – of being isolated from all he could see.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night. *
These stunning words, written in haunting iambic pentameter, are the 14 lines that have been a comfort to me over the last few days. Not just as I – like millions of others – have tried to come to terms with the isolation being forced on us – kept apart from family, friends and the places we love to visit – as this deadly virus creeps up upon us with its deadly potential to change our world forever – but as I have entered my own self-imposed isolation from my anti-depressant medication. Fifteen months after reaching out for their help.
I have written candidly before – and spoken many times publicly – about my decision to take anti-depressants and the positive experience I’ve had with them. I nam ow writing to share my experience, so far, of stopping taking them. I have wondered every day since I started this parting of the ways – from ten days of reduced dosage – to today, day five of no dosage at all – whether they could have been a worse time to try to do this; facing as I am a period of huge anxiety, uncertainty and fear.
So far, I would say – strangely – that COVID-19 has proved to be something of a distraction from my own health worries as it has kept me busy – there’s an understatement – with work at the university as we have sought to support our students and staff. It has given me something to focus on and little time for self reflection and personal angst. That said, the physical symptoms of withdrawal are harder to ignore.
I am experiencing much of the side effects from when I started taking the tablets now I am stopping taking them. My body is clearly adjusting again to my new chemical make-up. Headaches. Dizziness. Sometimes really full-on dizziness. Tiredness. Increased toilet usage – sorry! Nausea. Almost constant nausea. Light-headedness. And the return of something that was mostly lost in the last fifteen months; the return of raw emotion.
Before I started taking my medication I was someone who regularly would get a lump in my throat or a tear in my eye when confronted with something that moved me. Beautiful music. A great speech or use of language. A piece of LFC commentary that evoked a precious memory. A YouTube clip of Dawn Run winning the Gold Cup (“she’s beginning it get up!”). A Red Sox, home run walk off win. One of the many special moments from The West Wing.
Shivers would be sent down my spine. Hairs on the back of my neck. Real, affecting emotion. For the last fifteen months they were seemingly locked away – hidden from view – hidden from me. I wondered whether they were gone forever – and a search for them was one of the reasons I took the decision to come off the tablets. I missed that part of my life – I missed the highs and some of the emotional lows. I missed that feeling of something mattering so much to me that it made my cry. Sometimes tears of joy or pride. I missed that part of me.
Five days in, they are back. The rawness is there. The cupboard door that has stored them has been unlocked and those feelings released. The physical symptoms I could live without – I know they will pass – but I am glad to have the emotional part of me back. My task now is to harness that, with all that I have learnt about my mental health over the last fifteen months, and try to thrive without my tablets.
I know that whether I take medication or not, I will always live now with my depression. I knew the tablet wasn’t a cure, but it was a help. It did help. It has helped me through the last year or so. And now I am going to see what happens without it.
I will always be acquainted with the night, but I now know again that I will also be acquainted with that wonderful sense of something being that important – that special – that it brings a tear to my eye. With everything that is ahead of us in the coming weeks and months, I dare say these won’t be the last tears I will shed.
*Robert Frost, “Acquainted with the Night” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1964, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Copyright 1936, 1942 © 1956 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1923, 1928, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt & Company, LLC.