A post from guest contributor, Liz Oloft
Just recently, I had two conversations with colleagues about my research on psychiatric meds. During the first, I described my project to a colleague with whom I have not been in touch for a while. He responded by admitting that he had “joined the Prozac Nation” while he was in graduate school. The manner in which he said this—including the reference with the quotation marks around it—suggested that he would not normally have done so, but the exceptionally brutal stress at his Ivy League grad school factory forced him to join up. The reference to “Prozac Nation” also shows how he and more generally we feel it’s safer and not as scary when we are ironic and sincere at the same time about this stuff.
In the second conversation, I was struggling with conceptualizing an article I have to write before the end of summer. One of my favorite ways to think about my writing is by talking my ideas through with peers, and this particular colleague always has great ideas and questions that help to push and clarify my thinking. As we were talking, I found myself suspended in a moment of anxiety and hesitation, which always precedes a “confession” about my own experiences with psychiatry and meds. I had a personal anecdote that seemed useful to thinking through my work that I decided to just go ahead and share. This small disclosure (she is a friend after all, not my BFF, but nevertheless a very kind and trustworthy person I consider a friend, and hell, 11% of American women take antidepressants, so what’s the big deal) yet monumental disclosure (she is a colleague at an elite academic institution and god knows we don’t talk about these things with colleagues) led to a slight bowing of the head, a blush and then the quiet admission from this colleague that she too, has taken antidepressants.
These two incidents stirred up an old stifling anger I have felt for several years now as a social scientist among social scientists who study things like biomedicine, psychiatry, mental illness and the pharmaceutical industry. (Is “anger” too strong of a word? Will all my words and thoughts now be suspect since I admitted I TAKE ANTIDEPRESSANTS?) For people who write about taboo, why is it so taboo for us to disclose our personal participation in this world we study? Why do we not use our inside/outside position to tell our ethnographic stories, the way in which scholars have spoken from their own positionality for other topics or problems? Is it that these disclosures are too personal by cultural standards? (That’s part of it, surely, but aren’t we all about de-stigmatization?) If we do use our positionality to more fully engage with our research and to reflexively produce knowledge, then do we risk becoming identified with our disclosure and not with the body of our work? David Karp and Emily Martin are two scholars that come to mind who have integrated their own medication and illness experiences in their work in interesting and important ways. I have not read all of Karp’s work (however I do admire him tremendously) so it’s possible he has addressed this topic, but I have imagined what it was like for him to “come out” to the academic community. Was he afraid? Did colleagues encourage or caution him? Did some people then treat him in stigmatizing ways? I believe his public disclosures have invited many others to share with him their own experiences, but this is almost always done privately. And finally I wondered, do you have to have tenure first or must you be so clever and prolific that you are above the doubt and judgment of your peers and students?
After presenting at a conference on the topic of neuroenhancing medications, colleagues gathered around and we laughed as they asked me where they can get some of those drugs (Ritalin, modafinil, beta blockers, etc). Many of our fellow academics already take these drugs for performance enhancement or at least that appears to be the case according to a 2008 survey in Nature. I am sure that many of our fellow academics, including the readers of this blog, have taken a psychiatric medication at some point (most likely an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication). It’s kind of fun and thrilling to talk about modafinil, maybe less fun to talk about Wellbutrin, but neither category of drugs would many of us willingly talk about publicly with regard to our own experiences. This is true despite greater cultural acceptance of psychiatric meds and psychological problems. Of course stigma persists, and each disorder and type of intervention has its own place in the stigma hierarchy and particular judgments and values attached to it. For example, depending on who you ask (this is an ethnographic question), to engage in Lacanian psychoanalysis for neurotic problems of living might be cool, to take an antidepressant for depression without psychotherapy is less cool, and to take a cocktail for bipolar might be even less so (although bipolar disorder may be more legitimate than depression because it seems to be more widely accepted as a “real biological disease”).
Speaking as a researcher and as a subject, many of us who take antidepressants take them with a dose of ambivalence. What’s really interesting though is that our ambivalence as academic users is also shaped by the knowledge we have of these medications and our critiques of them. Knowing what I know about how clinical trials and the pharmaceutical industry work creates yet another turning wheel of ambivalence in my mind. I would venture to say that our very experiences of antidepressants are shaped by our critical reflections on them. Our experiences are further affected by this: given our political agenda of fostering social justice, we users are caught in a strange bind in which we try to dismantle power structures in small ways as part of our work, but we cannot speak about how we bind and oppress one another.
I cannot close without addressing the irony of choosing a pseudonym for this piece. Some of you will easily figure out who I am, others will try to guess, and others might wonder why I would not just use my real name especially since it seems I am partly writing this in protest. I don’t really think about my meds too much. They have become part of the fabric of my life. And taking meds is not as stigmatizing or painful as the suffering that lies at the heart of their use. Maybe I resist being too closely identified with my meds because that is neither what I want, nor is it true to how I experience myself. I am wondering too if the stigma I imagine or perceive is stronger than any actual social stigma I might face. Am I making a bigger deal of this than I should? Perhaps, but for now, I will stick to my pseudonym.
Liz Oloft, Ph.D., is trained as an anthropologist. Currently she takes Celexa, 40 mg. per day.