The Sweet Patina of Whateverness

“Consider whether great changes have not happened deep inside your being in times when you were sad. The only sadnesses that are unhealthy and dangerous are those we carry around in public in order to drown them out. Like illnesses that are treated superficially, they only recede for a while and then break out more severely. Untreated they gather strength inside us and then become the rejected, lost and un-lived life that we may die of. If only we could see a little farther than our knowledge reaches and a little beyond the borders of our intuition, we might bear our sorrows more trustingly than we do our joys. For they are the moments that something new enters us, something unknown. Our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, they take a step back, a stillness arises, and the new thing, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.”

Ranier Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

from the "Helios" series by Robert Spellman

I don’t cry as much as I used to. From around age 18 to around age 46 I was a first-rate crier. The national anthem during the Olympics, a great moment on stage, a quiet Sunday morning – these could set me off. Songs in my car while driving – occasionally, I’d have to pull over to compose myself. Rilke’s poems. Satie’s Gymnopoedies. And, of course, my own darkness, regret, grief and hurt – a hurt that gushed from the well of my childhood, from a hidden and frightening place buried in my past. This was a well of seemingly limitless sadness.

I spent a great deal of my adult life finding ways to keep the seeping tears at bay. Acting was once an effective method, until one day in my late twenties I sensed that acting was making the sadness worse, not better. Alcohol, cocaine and sometimes marijuana were temporary treatments, which transformed me into a creature under their direction and not the sadness’s. The problem was that they demanded a life-long allegiance, and the creature they turned me into was ultimately sadder than the one he replaced, and the life they wanted me to live was not very long at all. Crying under their influence felt futile and pathetic.

But crying sober felt liberating and cleansing. I felt something new enter me, as Rilke suggests. I felt transformed after, and somehow restored. A calm settled on me. It was not a happiness. It did not deny or mask the grief. But it was not a painful sensation either, like the sensation which just preceded the tears from the well of sadness. I dearly miss these tears, but not the pain which preceded them, a quandary I have written about before. The missing tears can be traced to these six letters:


Helios 3

The tears were not the only sensations and behavior which sprang from the well. I also became aware of periods of panic, leading to a sense of desperation and hopelessness. We call this clinical depression, and it runs in my family. My version of it was not the paralyzing, obvious version. I was a high-functioning depressive, and one of the other means I employed to deal with it was obsessive activity. We call this manic behavior. One of the weird things about depressive mania is that one can be extraordinarily productive and organized. During this time of my life, when I lived in New York City, I wrote plays, produced them, acted in them, drank and partied like a, well like a twenty-something in New York, and then fell into a depressive heap of grief and self-pity when the outcome from my manic activity didn’t measure up to my grandiose expectations. See Alice Miller’s astonishing book The Drama of the Gifted Child to read more about this syndrome.

The other behavioral aspect from the well I did not become aware of until my late thirties. I gave it a nick-name. I called it my “edge”. The reason I wasn’t aware of it was that it felt so much like me, to me. But I became aware of a common way certain kinds of people were reacting to me. I seemed to either frighten them, intimidate them or piss them off. Most of the time, I was bewildered. Occasionally, I would be involved in a confrontation or disagreement, and then it all made sense. But other times, people just didn’t like me and I couldn’t figure out why. I became aware of a look in certain people’s faces as I approached, not unlike the look one acquires at the onset of a speeding locomotive. This syndrome was particularly noticeable in situations involving institutions, authority and older women.

For a while, I took pride in my edge. Yeah, I piss some people off, but that’s their problem, not mine. I’m not an asshole, I thought to myself, I’m just . . . me. But then I began to sense that my edge was hurting my professional life. And I made the connection between my edge, my depression and the well of sadness. Around that time, about two years ago, I was going through some really hard stuff in my personal life, and I was waking up in the morning with the sense that I was being crushed. I was finding myself with “stone face” as I drove around: a slack-faced numbness that felt alien and frightening. I went to my doctor and described all of this. She proscribed fluoxetine, the generic Prozac.

I took it for nine months in 2007 – 8. The I went off it for nine months. Then the symptoms returned. Then I went back on it in August 2009 and have been taking 20 mgs a day ever since. It’s become so conventional to be “on your meds” that the effects of Prozac are well known: it’s a diminishing of extreme experiences, a leveling out. It’s certainly not a “high”, and its effects sneak up on you so that you don’t notice them. A month or two after you begin taking it, you realize that “stone face” is gone, you don’t feel panicky and the mornings aren’t so tough. Also gone, in my case: my edge, and crying.

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Since being on fluoxetine I have cried (I’m guessing) maybe six times. I’ve lost it twice: once in a kind of group therapy situation in which I became furious, and then when I delivered my friend’s eulogy, where I wasn’t sure I could continue I was crying so hard. But mostly, the tears have been reactions to something I saw or heard, and were the stiff-lipped, sniffly, slightly trembly tears of the aesthetically moved sensitive male. They were nothing like the gushing tears, sobs and cleansing storms of catharsis I would routinely feel before. Is this the “normal” I never knew? Or is this the question, the question contained in Rilke’s gorgeous musing above: which is more important, my escape from the symptoms of depression, or the whirl-wind organic response to it I used to experience?

I suspect that many of the artists we revere, Rilke included, would have been diagnosed today with depression, and would have been proscribed anti-depressents. I assume that Rilke’s art was, in some sense, a reaction to his depression, his sadness. Clearly he regarded his sadness as a precious part of his creative life. I extend this connection to other artists. So we would have had a happier Vincent Van Gogh, but no “Starry Night”. Sylvia Plath might have lived to a ripe old age, but we never would have read The Colossus. And maybe Kurt Cobain would still be alive, but would he be in a band? And would they be making music like Nevermind? Offered some fluoxetine to sooth his sadness, I’m sure Rene Rilke would have smiled sadly and walked away.

In medicating our sadness so effectively, are we diminishing our creative potential?

In my case, I have kept acting, I finished an ambitious novel (in which I explore the issue of over-medicaton for depression), I have begun a production company and am producing a summer residency program, I am teaching at two universities, I am still sober and I am still married. So when I think about my life before and after fluoxetine, it seems pretty clear to me that it’s better after. But I can’t escape the lingering suspicion that I am missing the “great changes” which happen inside me when I experience the foundation-shaking sadness of my past. I still feel that I have sacrificed something powerful and essential, a bargain I have struck in order to lose the edge which others found intolerable, and stave off the depression that threatened to cripple me.

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When I first began taking fluoxetine, I wrote a poem about it. It’s a bit more critical of the drug than I feel now. But it is also saying something true, I think:


More hologram than healer
she is my medicinal muse
she is the tamer of my circus mind
throwing heavy quilts on the lions
they slink and quiver beneath
but never pounce.

Fluoxetine drapes
the acrobats in baggy clown suits,
their full curves and rippled muscles
they stare longingly
at the top of the pole
the great height of daring
but she says, no
half-way up will do for now
and the trapezes swing empty
in the gloomy tent peak.

No one is sad.
We are all
content, content, content.

An audience half-full
of grandmas and kids is here
to see this show
absent anxiety, sex and risk
but fragrant with the pleasing smell
of ordinary safety.

We are all relaxed,
and a little bored.

Fluoxetine –
sounds like
liquid bovination –
contented drippy ox am I
following her diaphanous glide
pulling caged ferocity around the ring
chewing chemical cud
gazing at shapes blurred by
the dust of my hooves
the shittiness of my life smoothed by
a sweet patina of


For more on the Helios series, click here