I was lying on the couch, with the evening news broadcasters blabbering away, the daily newspaper in my hand. I was skimming through the paper, half reading and half listening to the TV … when it jumped out at me.
And then, within seconds, it was as if I had literally jumped out of that room, and was long gone.
Suddenly I was standing in front of that window. I felt woozy, the effects of all that alcohol weighing on me, as I started to climb onto the window sill. I was barely even aware of the presence of my friend and college classmate Ted just a foot away from me.
It was one of my cats who brought me back to Orlando. She jumped on my chest, then proceeded to find a comfortable place to curl up and get warm — quite oblivious as to whether or not I wanted her on my lap. As I reached over and stroked her head and listened to her purr, it hit me : I was back on the couch, looking at that newspaper article.
The headline in an Orlando Sentinel article was what had gripped my attention: FDA: Epilepsy drugs, suicide may be linked. It was an Associated Press article, about how epilepsy drugs used by millions of people had the potential to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior. That was the warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which analyzed nearly 200 studies of 11 anti-seizure drugs. The conclusion: that drug-treated patients faced twice the risk of suicidal tendencies or feelings.
The article seemed to mesmerize me because, as someone who was diagnosed as an epileptic at age 11, I spent years being treated with anti-seizure medication called Phenobarbital, a barbiturate — or depressant — and still the most widely used anticonvulsant worldwide. That included the ages of 17 to 20, when I can remember experiencing very strong suicidal thoughts.
That’s how I felt on the night when, at age 19, I found myself as a first year student at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. It was a night when I was feeling extremely depressed – over what, I no longer have a clue. But I drank too much that night, more than I should have. Then, sitting in my underwear, inside my fourth floor dorm room, I can still vividly remember what happened next. I opened the window, letting in the cold night air, then began climbing out. I sat on the window sill, looking down at the cement below me.
In retrospect, I don’t know if I would have died from the fall, or simply busted both legs and whatever else slammed hard onto that cement. But I never got a chance to find out. One of my friends and classmates, Ted, stood by watching me with an increasingly nervous, even panicked, look. Then he grabbed a broom and shoved it between me and the window, and then used that long wooden handle to pull me back in the room. I tumbled onto the floor — for a second I thought I had fallen out the window, rather than back into my dorm room.
So why didn’t I get up and climb back onto that windowsill at that point? Frankly, I have no clue. I don’t remember much about what happened next; I just remember those precious seconds sitting on that window sill, the frigid winter air slapping me in the face, looking down and measuring how far off that cement ground was.
I can remember feeling like it was teasing me, inviting me to come down to see what it felt like. I almost did. The scariest thing of all is how liberating it felt to sit there on that windowsill, ready to jump into the night sky, ready to fly. I wasn’t the least bit afraid. Looking back now, I don’t recognize that person at all. That teen-ager in his underwear on the window sill is a complete stranger to me.
Until I read that news article, I had never equated those suicidal thoughts to the medication I was taking to control the many seizures that had haunted me as a little boy. But I do know this: after more than a decade taking that medication, it was at college when I decided I didn’t want to be tied down to those pills for the rest of my life. So I spoke to the campus physician, who suggested it was possible I had outgrown the seizures and could test that theory by slowly limiting my daily intake of the medication. Rather than the usual two pills a day, she said, take one a day for a week. Than half of one. Than a quarter of one, etc.
So I did. Eventually I went to nothing, and the seizures never returned. I haven’t taken any anti-seizure medications in 25 years. And frankly, I haven’t had suicidal thoughts in 25 years, either.
I always thought my suicidal feelings in my last year of high school and through those early college years were the result of other causes: the sudden death of my mother when I was 14, a difficult relationship with my father, and a shy, awkward demeanor that made it difficult for me to reach out and meet others.
But as I look back on that era in the early 1980s, I can probably trace my growing self-confidence — and the complete disappearance of any desire to harm myself — to two things. One was becoming a journalist. Let me tell you, journalists can’t be shy. Or introverted. It doesn’t work that way. On a day to day basis, you’re forced into situations where you constantly have to meet with, and talk to, new people. You have to call them up and boldly ask them for an interview. You have to coax them when they’re nervous about talking to you. You have to sooth them when they get angry over a question you raise. You learn lots of “people skills” as a reporter. After doing it for years, it can make an extrovert out of even the most introverted soul.
And the second cause is …. the medications? Those little white pills I took for years, then weaned myself off of and tossed into the toilet in 1987? I’d never thought about that before.
Reading that article, I had to wonder.
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