I downed that first Klonopin with a bad attitude, sure I’d feel just as hysterical afterwards. Alcohol had never charmed me: sometimes it did nothing but taste very bitter, and, all too often, it led to that sucked-down, draggy fatigue. All the other inebriated souls would seem lively, dizzy with light-headed freedom, and I’d feel nailed to my chair, like my legs were made of lead and my head stuffed with a cannon ball. When my death fears first became acute, my doctor prescribed Prozac, which had no effect on my mood except horror at my slowed metabolism. I feared my caloric requirements had permanently dwindled close to the zero mark: I was eating nothing but a small lunch and a tiny dinner (think: small banana) and still gaining weight, slowly, then not so slowly. It took a year off Prozac to get my old, far from fabulous metabolism back.
I vowed never to take psychoactive drugs again. I could handle reality.
Except I couldn’t. Reality had finally smashed into my life in a way I couldn’t hold back. I was 29. Both of my grandmothers had recently died. Death was no longer that unspeakably awful possibility lurking in the background. It was real, real, real. I’d attended my grandmothers’ funerals, seen how they just vanished from my world, from my family’s world.
It was even more horrible than I’d imagined, partly because it was absorbed so seamlessly into the life that still existed. Harvard Square, where I lived, was unchanged. Clowns still performed on tricycles, passing around cans for tips, even though my grandmothers had died. Students scurried around with their knapsacks, people drank beer and ate nachos at Grendel’s… but my grandmothers had died. It was outrageous, and yet, of course, it wasn’t at all. Could I expect clowns to stop performing in Harvard Square because Helen Wellen and Miriam Levine had died? Of course not.
Death was all I thought about. It would happen! When? How? Would my galaxy of consciousness disappear with my brain? Was that whole complex universe of pain, thought, struggle, and hope just an artifact of neurons that would stop firing? Had the life forces and spirits of my grandmothers — two of very few people who cared about me in a deep, basic, non-selfish way — simply evaporated? It was quite possible. Many of the brightest people I knew thought just that, couldn’t imagine how any other scenario was conceivable.
Life took on a kind of draining unreality. I’d walk outside and feel like everyone was gray, sapped of color and the truest form of life. They would die one day, and that basic fact ruined everything. Look at that adorable little boy, but one day… Where would it happen? Would his mother, now laughing as she gives him a cracker, witness it? Or, more likely, would he witness the end for her?
People told me I thought too much, that I should just “put it back there,” and go about my life. But where was “back there”? I had no idea how to imagine it, let alone find it, or put something so haunting and miserable there.
I had the weirdest, most grinding thought: that, if I died and my consciousness ended, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about death anymore. The thing I feared most would end the fear once and for all! If I had a Buddhist kernel in my bones, I might have found some comfort in that notion. The ultimate emptying of mind would be good, very good. But that wasn’t me at all: it was the opposite of my deepest sense of the world. I wanted me: my mind, my personality, my self. I wanted the people who had loved me, even if their bodies had given out.
I craved a mystical world, but I was no mystic. I walked around and saw the deep gray of stark, ironclad hereness, nothing beyond: steel and concrete and human bodies that, when I looked too closely, made me want to run: raw skin, scars, injuries, wrinkles, scabs. Grass that turned brown, trees that toppled and killed people during storms: contrary to popular belief, nature was not glorious, not a sign of God.
My heart pounded when I thought about it, which was pretty much always. I didn’t want to cry, exactly; I wanted to jump into a warm, comfortable bed. I wanted to be calm. Though I couldn’t imagine how it would feel, I craved peace.
When I described all this to my therapist, she had one clear thought: Klonopin. She sent me to a psychiatrist to prescribe it, and I came away with that useless prescription for Prozac. When that ran its sad course, she said again: “Klonopin. I think that’s what you need.” She caught my eye and grinned; she seemed quite sure of herself here, and, in her own way, she’d gotten to know me quite well. I returned to the psychiatrist, who granted me the Klonopin and assured me that weight gain was not a side effect. (Why he didn’t warn me about the Prozac is a different, infuriating question.)
So I found myself in my little apartment, holding a bottle of Klonopin. I poured a pill into one hand, filled a glass with water, and swallowed, expecting nothing. Not pain, not disaster — at least not anything more serious than what I already had, which was pretty soul-grinding. Just… nothing. I took the pill with a bit of a scowl, sure I’d wasted precious moments of my finite life on handling the logistics of obtaining it.
In just a few minutes, bliss arrived. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Something shifted — something beyond major needed to change for me to feel a tinge of happiness, let alone bliss. I remember the feeling as a wave of peace. It came over me, enveloped me, nuzzled itself into the parts of my brain and my gut where moods start to form. I wasn’t on edge anymore. I felt… could it have been calm? I think maybe it was.
It’s not like I was ecstatic; I wasn’t jumping around like I’d had a revelation. The depth of my contentment suggests the relative nature of emotions and perception. I wasn’t hysterical. I didn’t feel one step away from screaming. I didn’t have any particular hope, but at least I wasn’t dwelling on hopelessness. I felt OK, and OK was the new euphoria.
For about a year, I took a Klonopin every morning. The death obsession subsided. I still knew I would die, still missed my deceased relatives and dreaded the times when new loved ones would vanish from my universe. My rational sense of the situation was unchanged. Somehow, though, the raw terror receded.
I was back to my previous state, which began the day I learned about death at three years old. Death’s existence horrified me, but I was able to live. I went about my day, enjoyed myself sometimes, worried about this-worldly issues: grad school problems and daily logistics.
When I arrived at my first therapy appointment after trying the Klonopin, I told my therapist about my profound shift: from hysterical to… well, when I thought about it, I was still hysterical about death. But all-encompassing, raging hysteria differs in deep ways from background hysteria that sometimes recedes and never completely overwhelms other concerns, or the possibility of pleasure.
I said: “It makes total sense. I’m not depressed; I’m anxious. Klonopin’s main psychological effect seems to be lessening anxiety: immediately and strongly. I think Prozac is more targeted to depression, though I know it helps anxiety sometimes, too.” She nodded in vigorous agreement; she’d long had a strong hunch that Klonopin would help me.
After about a year of taking the Klonopin every day, I stopped. I went cold turkey, no weaning off. I wasn’t seeing the therapist regularly anymore; I just did it on my own. Professionals tend to suggest weaning slowly off of Klonopin and similar drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms and other problems, but I don’t tend towards addiction, and I guessed it would be fine. Amazingly, the death obsession stayed at about the level I’d maintained during my Klonopin year. I had a strong hunch that, somehow, the Klonopin reset something permanently in my system, keeping some kind of reaction at bay even after I gave the drug up.
Though I didn’t like the idea of taking such strong medicine every day, I remembered that bliss after I stopped. It was the bliss of OK when I had been very far from OK, but it was more than that, too. I no longer felt the acute death obsession, but, without Klonopin, I didn’t get that… what was it? Not a rush; it was kind of the opposite of a rush. On Klonopin, I felt a deep calm, and a dampening of reactions to unease and stress.
I could meet people who normally unnerved me with grace and even slickness while on Klonopin. I’m certain some who know me in person are thinking: “Oh, please. Slickness? You?” It’s true, I swear. On Klonopin, I could laugh with anyone and not feel weird about it, and the laughter came often. Someone could mention something that made me uncomfortable or insecure, and I could brush it aside with barely a thought, maintaining my composure and (I promise I’m not making this up) social smoothness.
So… a few years after stopping my every day Klonopin regimen, I decided to take it occasionally, whenever I was nervous about my self-presentation. Potentially awkward encounters with students, professional meetings, nerve-racking parties: all were occasions to pop my little friend. An easy, cheap safety net had arrived, and events I’d normally dread came and went with little commotion — and sometimes they even brought happiness.
Then I read that research suggested a link between Alzheimer’s and Klonopin and other drugs in its class (benzodiazepines). The evidence was far from proving that these drugs were directly causing or boosting odds of Alzheimer’s — there were many potentially confounding factors, including the fact that the people in the study had taken benzodiazepine drugs when they were considerably older than me. Still, Alzheimer’s has always struck me as a cousin to death. I fear losing my mind, my consciousness, my ability to think, process, and perceive. With Alzheimer’s, that seems to happen slowly, with cognitive ability, memory of past experiences, and personality gradually changing and diminishing until the original person (whatever that might mean) is gone.
I freaked out: had the damage already been done? At least I could stop taking the drug once and for all, hoping to diminish my lifetime risk. My aunt — my father’s brother’s wife — has some form of dementia, very likely Alzheimer’s. I saw her recently: my only personal encounter with this disease to date. She remembered no one in my immediate family, and seemed locked in her own alternate universe. “Hurry up, hurry up, they’re waiting!” she warned me, when we were just sitting at a restaurant, eating our lunch. I looked at her, kind of frightened. “That’s the way it is,” she elaborated.
I had no idea what she meant, and, for all I knew, she was hinting at a truth that’s accessible to her in her new state, but not to me. I’m open to that. But I’m not open to boosting my own risk for dementia if I can help it. I’m praying right now that everyone I care about and I will escape it forever. I’m not sure who or what I’m praying to, but this is important enough that I have to try.
So I’ve given up my pal, my source of calm, my bliss-bringer. Many times, I’ll be stuck in an uncomfortable situation, my fear or stress level rising, and I’ll think: If only I had a little Klonopin in my soul, I could handle this with panache. Rather than turning my head away or rushing to the bathroom, I’d glide into the potential problem with friendliness, warmth, sarcasm… whatever might serve me well.
A few years ago, I was handling a difficult situation beautifully — keeping my composure, maintaining a genial tone, appearing lively and maybe even charming, considering the reactions I was inspiring. I felt a real thrill; I was actually proud of who I was and how I was coming across. And I thought to myself: “This is who I was born to be.” I’d taken a Klonopin that day, of course.
And now I’m wondering: was the Klonopin me the real me, or did it bring a loss of key personal qualities: discomfort, anxiety, a fundamental feeling that I belong nowhere, so I shouldn’t even try to fit in? My aunt with dementia seems to have lost the real her; was the Klonopin me a similar sort of thing, but lesser in scope? Does the possible relationship between Klonopin and Alzheimer’s speak to a lessening of fundamental markers of self and personality common to them both?
The question fascinates me, but I think the answer is no. I remember feeling a kind of heightened awareness while on Klonopin. I wasn’t hysterical, so I could focus on the social world in front of me, taking in the people and their ways of behaving with calm clarity. In my later years of taking it, it exhausted me by the end of the day — frustrating and unpleasant, but not self-sapping. I was me, with all my usual thoughts, just with a bit of Klonopin comfort and, sadly, fatigue.
Is it possible to get some of that Klonopin feeling back without actually taking the drug? A few years ago, a new therapist recommended an interesting trick. I could make a fist, imagine all my reasons for worry and stress concentrating within it, then open my hand, releasing every speck of anxiety onto the floor, then through the floor, then into the ground, and below, into the center of the earth.
It works, just a little bit. The Talmud describes sleep as 1/60th of death, since we lose waking consciousness and many of our active powers. I’d say the fist thing is maybe 1/1000th of Klonopin. For just a moment, it all feels real: I get a glimpse of a sense that my worries really are leaving my hand and burrowing into the earth. I’m somewhat more likely to get through a difficult moment without appearing hysterical or even nervous, though I’m still tightly wound and miserable.
I can only imagine one non-drug possibility that could replace the tranquility of Klonopin: an unmistakable mystical experience. If something happened — some wild, wonderful, unaccountable thing — convincing me that this world is not as gray and barren as it seems, because our souls are actually immortal and able to touch some kind of divine spark that infuses our universe in ways we could see if only we knew how to look… I think I could be calm, happy, and at peace. In fact, I’m almost positive I would achieve a lasting sense of ecstasy.
To wonder and stew for so long, and then receive a glorious answer… that would be greater than any fist opening in desperate hopefulness, or even any drug. Until that happens, I’ll remember my Klonopin days with fondness, and reach towards the calm that could be mine.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.