When I was 21, during the summer break after my first year at university, I fell while doing martial arts and broke a bone in my foot. My foot swelled up to twice its normal size, Bromley A&E looked at it and told me there was nothing wrong and I should take aspirin if it hurt (I know of at least one other person who had a serious toe injury that Bromley overlooked – maybe they hated feet) and the following Monday my GP gave me a choice between Valium and 500 mg of Ponstan Forte, a horse pill anti-inflammatory that raised eyebrows at the pharmacy, “because nobody ever takes more than 250 mg per day”.
When I was 38 and in a job I hated, my uncle died and the day I got the news, I was sat in an office next to somebody boasting about how they’d run a labourer over in their car and got away with it. I left and wept on a bench near the office until I couldn’t cry any more, then went home. Later, I visited my doctor and he prescribed a week of an antidepressant, “to get me through the bad patch”. I never took any of the little blue triangular pills, and one day threw them out.
I class both of these occasions as narrow escapes, where I could have been medicated with something with side effects far more serious than want they were intended to treat. Reading Death Grip, Matt Samet’s account of his 20 year long addiction to benzodiazepames, I see that my escapes were luckier than I’d thought. It’s also not that Valium is just something that is an occupational risk for bored housewives, as the stereotype went. Rather, you could find yourself injured, medicated with antidepressants, and then stuck on the damn things for life.
It always seemed suspicious when I was growing up, to hear that a side effect of antidepressants might be to cause suicidal ideation. Samet’s argument is that the benzodiazepames have such harsh impact on the workings of the brain that it’s hardly surprising they lead to people getting worse, not better.
But Samet kept taking the pills, because the doctors told him to. Nearing the end of the book as he tries to kick the drugs, his psychiatrist tries to get him to take more, because he’s anxious. Yes, anxious about being addicted for the rest of his life if he doesn’t give up on the drugs.
The whole story is one of horror, as Samet loses friends and health and the will to carry on, and all the time the blame is put on him; he’s weak, he’s an addict, he has the wrong brain chemistry. I like drugs, I think there’s lots of cases where they do a lot of good for humanity, because I don’t want to die of polio or mumps or cholera, but the sense one gets from Samet’s story is that antidepressants are massively over prescribed in the US, and the root causes of psychological problems aren’t addressed. And, that there’s huge hostility in the medical profession when people reject these drugs.
But. Is this just my own vaxxer moment, where I reject the drugs I don’t like, as if modern medicine was a buffet where you pick what you want? Believe in statins for cholesterol management? Fine. Take aspirin on long flights because you’re worried about DVT? Jolly good. Happy to have your children vaccinated? Carry on. But you don’t fancy drugs for psychological problems, because you read something somewhere or had a friend of a friend who didn’t like the symptoms of Prozac? It feels disingenuous to act in this manner. But then am I going to read all the available research in order to make a decision?
So in short, it’s a difficult book. It introduced me to other maladies (sports-driven eating disorders, for one) and argues that staying healthy can be a matter of luck, and what pill a doctor gives you, and what you decide to do with it. It’s about as cheerful as a book about twenty years of addiction can be (ie not at all) but Samet did make it out the other side. Whether it should be an example for others to follow, a cautionary tale or just an anecdote, I really don’t know.