Better Living Through Chemistry: Notes from Chemically Induced Depression Part 1 of 4 (1978 vs. 2005)

Owing to an odd confluence of events and circumstances, I recently spent roughly 4 days with chemically induced depression.

This was an unexpected side-effect of a prescription change to which I’d been looking forward. Now though, I can only bring back a report of a journey back to a place I’d been once before, about twelve years earlier, and for similar reasons.

The resolution of these both unfortunate journeys, though, has its roots in 1978.

I was 15, looking forward to driver’s ed, and on this particular Spring afternoon, had just finished a chemistry exam I doubted I did well on. After placing it on the teacher’s desk, I returned to my own fixed-desk chair.

Oddly, I felt myself grabbing the oversized q-shaped wooden desk of my chair. I felt myself turning, uncontrollably, to my left.

I couldn’t stop my body from twisting.

Nor could I understand what the students next to me were saying. I could see lips move. I knew that I should be able to understand the sounds that came from their mouths, but it was merely noise.

Sometime later, I woke up in the nurse’s office, laying on a narrow, burgundy-colored, Naugahyde bed.

She told me I’d had a seizure, and that my mother was on the way.

            Such was my introduction to adolescent-onset epilepsy.

And to phenytoin, then only sold under the brand name Dilantin™, the depression dissolving drug.

Compacting the next 15 years into a few lines: I had a few seizures and woke up more than once in the back of an ambulance or in an emergency room.

I’d always known what had happened before the well-meaning healthcare worker would lean down and tell me I’d had a seizure. The aura before and the feeling of having run a couple of marathons while studying for intense exams afterward were dead giveaways.

In my mid-twenties, my doctor changed my Rx to carbamazepine (Tegretol™).

Then after several years with neither seizure nor aura, I was set free from being labeled an epileptic. This was 1993, give or take a year or so.

Disease and drug-free, I went on with my life.

Fast forward a couple of decades to 2005. I’m in NYC; I’ve met a woman. We’ve married. Moved to Manhattan. She’s just given birth to our son. My mother is in town helping out.

Off an on since around 2001, I’ve had waves of extremely intense déjà vu, usually manifesting physically like a burst of warm water gushing down my torso, some so strong it felt as though I had just reappeared at this particular instance in my life from some alternate reality. Or that I was about to vanish into that other reality.

No other way I can express the sensation—I’ve contemporaneous notes describing it in precisely this way.

One night that spring, I had a seizure. In bed.

New wife freaked out.

New mother-in-law calms her down—after all, she’s been there, done that.

This time, the epilepsy was being caused by a meningioma, a non-cancerous tumor about midway back behind my right eye, roughly the size of a small lime.

The doctors gave me three simple if crappy choices:

  1. Do nothing, and let the meningioma grow, slowly building pressure on my optic nerve, worsening my double vision, and eventually occluding a vein, guaranteeing I’d stroke out
  2. Get radiation therapy. This would kill the non-cancerous tumor, but given the doses needed, and my age (42), it would probably give me actual brain cancer.
  3. Have the tumor resected via a craniotomy, which would give me a 2% chance of dying on the table—simply never waking back up.

Well, isn’t that just wonderful?

Next, Part 2 of 4: The Choices We Make

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