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Yes, I Am Critical and Controlling. So What!

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Yes, I am Critical and Controlling. So What!

By Kipp Friedman
[Kipp Friedman is the author of the new childhood memoir, "Barracuda in the Attic" (Fantagraphics)]

My psychiatrist said I was "critical and controlling" so I called him a quack and promptly fired him. Okay, I didn't call him a quack. But I did stop seeing him after two short visits -- first taking the time to even thank him profusely for having "cured me." Let's just say he wasn't sad to see me go. But before you judge me too harshly, first let me explain.

Sometimes life throws you a curveball. Midway through 2009 I began struggling with a bout of insomnia, which bloomed into what can best be described as situational depression. Lingering feelings of sadness and anxiety -- emotions I had rarely experienced and never in such magnitude -- suddenly crept into my life like an invasive insect wreaking slow, inexorable havoc in my backyard. My issues were fairly obvious, but still did nothing to mitigate the feelings I was struggling to contain: work had slowed to a crawl (hello, economic downturn!); our only son had left for college in another state (pleased to meet ya', empty-nest syndrome!); I was approaching the big 5-0 (put 'er there, mid-life crisis!); and to top it all off, a book deal that I had thought promising had gone up in smoke (goodbye, fame and fortune!).

Desperate for a decent night of sleep, I turned to my general practitioner, a pretty Russian woman with a penchant for expensive Italian shoes, who promptly prescribed sleeping pills as well as mild antidepressants. This went on for nearly three months with little or no relief, other than some side effects from the antidepressants (my libido took a nosedive like a mallard shot out of the sky). If anything, the continuing lack of sleep only intensified my emotions.

I began exploring a smorgasbord of natural sleep and anti-anxiety remedies dispensed by well-meaning health food store attendants with nose and eye rings and lizard-like tattoos. These remedies turned out to be a crap shoot at best, sometimes offering minor relief (a common component to many of the products was something called "milk thistle"). At worst, I woke one night with a jolt, as if possessed, following an adverse reaction to liquid melatonin drops, and slowly paced bedside like a somnambulant Buckingham Palace guard, emitting an otherworldly low moan.

By this point I began reading up as much as I could on what I would classify as "sick lit" -- books and articles on topics ranging from anxiety, insomnia and depression to mid-life crises and empty-nest syndrome. They say misery loves company, and these readings did provide some comfort in that they reminded me that what I was experiencing was not uncommon. Most illuminating, perhaps, were William Stryon's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness and Andrew Solomon's The Noontime Demon: An Anatomy of Depression. But reading books and visiting websites (and receiving sketchy advice from hipster health food clerks) only offered tantalizing clues and suggestions, I knew I would have to take action.

I then went to see a psychologist who offered a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), commonly referred to as "talk therapy." Each visit I was given the homework assignment of keeping a journal, documenting my feelings throughout the week. This quickly became somewhat like filling out a timesheet at work (and we all know how that goes as we rush to fill in the gaps of the week). My psychologist was earnest and a nice enough young fellow whose questions -- delivered in measured, placid tones -- reminded me of "Agent Smith" (minus the dark sunglasses) from The Matrix. I couldn't get it out of my head whenever I finished a session hearing him say, "Goodbye, Mr. Anderson." I stopped seeing Agent Smith after about two months of mostly whining on my part, which led nowhere.

While it was nice to talk with someone other than my poor wife who, although extremely supportive, was at wit's end, the talk therapy wasn't helpful, so I went back to my doctor with the Italian leather pumps. To borrow another Matrix reference, it was time to take the Red Pill. Actually, it was a white pill. She put me on the more powerful antidepressant Lexapro, which is known as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).

"You'll love this drug," leather pumps assured me and my wife, while a young intern stood by with clipboard in hand. Even in my severe insomniac condition, her line of persuasion seemed odd, for I had never "loved" any drugs before, even back in college. I suspected that this was my doctor's teachable moment to her intern on how best to convince a skeptical patient to go on heavy meds.

Turns out I didn't love Lexapro. Within hours, I was in a fog mumbling to myself in my favorite chair like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein while my wife and son exchanged concerned, knowing glances. I felt like I was a stranger who had wondered into my own house. About this time the Haitian earthquake disaster struck and I remember staring blankly with indifference at the TV screen, devoid of any feeling as scenes of apocalyptic destruction passed before my unblinking eyes.

I tossed out the remaining Lexapro and my feelings of anxiety and sadness soon returned like a bad house guest. It was better, I reasoned, to have these strong emotions than feeling "flat" and having no emotions at all. Deep down I knew that what I was experiencing was alien to me and did not define who I was, and I was confident that I would someday return to the sunny, light-hearted (albeit, slightly neurotic) person I had been for my first 49 years. I just didn't know when that day would come. My wife, who has been in the medical profession most of her adult life, was not so certain, but remained positive and supportive.

Disappointed that I had quit Lexapro, my doctor refused to prescribe any more sleeping pills. Instead, she told me to go see a psychiatrist. The only psychiatrist who was available one winter morning was a Jungian psychoanalyst who extolled the virtues of Hindu Goddess archetypes as a means to awaken the spiritual self within. His bookshelf was lined with rows of little action figurines culled from pop culture: Snow White, Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader, Alice in Wonderland, Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse, R2-D2, The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Superman, Princess Leia, Popeye, and a vast array of other cartoon, comic book and action figures. I wondered which archetype figurine he had me pegged for -- hoping it was Popeye and not Mighty Mouse.

After running me through an interview, which took into account an inventory of my family and medical history and issues that were concerning me, we quickly arrived at the heart of the matter. He basically gave me three options: (1) heavy-duty antidepressants over a prescribed period of time; (2) Hindu Goddess archetype psychoanalysis, lasting upwards of six months; or (3) the combo platter of stronger antidepressants and the Goddesses.

I raised a fourth option: Klonopin (Clonazepam), a short-term, anti-anxiety and mild-seizure drug often described as a "beer in a pill" that I heard could possibly break the insidious cycle of insomnia.

Our discussion felt more like a labor dispute with me as the union rep arguing for more worker benefits while my psychiatrist was management which held most of the cards. As if to impress me, he reminded me of his stellar credentials: that he was a board-certified medical doctor recognized in both the United Kingdom and the United States as a leading authority on Jungian psychoanalysis. Not only that but he was also published in many scholarly journals and had written a number of books, which he readily pointed out to me on his shelf. (I half-expected that he would list his book sale rankings on Amazon.) Who was I with my limited knowledge on such matters, he said, to question his authority? He added for good measure that no psychiatrist in his right mind could possibly cure a patient in one visit and that I should quickly pick one of his three options.

It was when I repeated my desire to try Klonopin that he called me "critical and controlling." We ended our first session in a stalemate but he finally relented, prescribing a limited supply of Klonopin. I agreed to come back in two weeks and if there wasn't any improvement, it was drug city, and possibly the Goddesses, too.

That night I had my best sleep in weeks, if not months. Restorative sleep returned like a long-lost friend who had been away on an extended holiday. Two weeks flew by and I met my psychiatrist feeling almost like my old self. I still felt the waning effects of sadness and anxiety, but I sensed that I was on the road to recovery. I reminded him of what he told me at our first session: that no psychiatrist could possibly cure someone in one session, but that he was indeed the rare exception! I then shook his hand, thanking him for having "cured me," and left before our 30-minute session was up.

It truly felt like I had climbed out of a hole -- sort of like at the end of the science fiction film THX 1138 when Robert Duvall escapes from a subterranean world into the welcoming orange sunlight. Incidentally, THX 1138 featured android police who prescribed mandatory mind-altering drugs as a means to control the masses by suppressing all emotions, including love and happiness. But it would be unfair of me to draw comparisons between my experience and that dystopian fantasy -- after all, I hardly knew my psychiatrist.