I am watching Girl, Interrupted, the film based on the book by Susanna Kaysen – an autobiographical story, and at the same time I am reading More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel because even though I’ve read and seen both before and read the book by Kaysen as well, I have never seen them together and for some reason, on this day, this seems important, if not critical to any meaningful analysis of the two.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a drug addict or, as Wurtzel writes, then read her book and you’ll know in a heartbeat the instant love and attachment that one can so easily form to the right drug at the right time (or the wrong drug at the wrong time, depending on your viewpoint). That wanting a drug so badly, as clearly she has, is for certain, a form of Love if not the only form of love that truly matters.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, from the backflap of her book More, Now, Again.
In Wurtzel’s case, the drug is Ritalin – Ritalin ground into a fine, white powder, chopped into thin lines and laid out on glossy, black book covers (that seem tailor-made for such snorting) and then, whoosh, up the nose. Methylphenidate, the thing everyone is after and that gives you that supreme focus and ability to churn out endless stories and do research for hours, but as Wurtzel found out, also is non-discriminating and will have you focusing on the most mundane of things, wasting hours, if not days of your life. You may well find yourself, as she did, in your bathroom under a bright, fluorescent light, plucking away at your leg hairs singularly with a tweezer because it seems like the thing to do. You may also find yourself digging and digging with that tweezer until you wind up in the E.R. with a serious and oozing wound that has gone untended and turned several shades of green because you just can’t leave it alone and I understand this. I really do. I once spent hours bleaching every white surface in the house when I first got on Ritalin and that was for legitimate use, taken as prescribed. I just couldn’t get over how un-white the whites were, so I made it my business to make friends with the Clorox. In fact, I bleached so much of the house that I passed out in the bathroom from the fumes and saw bright, sparkly blue stars but none of this mattered at the time. All that mattered was that the house be clean and white and sparkly. Yes – very sparkly.
Having been on Ritalin for a good part now of my life, I know all too well the effect is has on the mind and the psyche. I know that when I take my Ritalin as I am supposed to and am a good little girl, I am able to focus and stay awake and do my work like a normal person, but read here like a normal person because for me, Ritalin, alas, does not get me high, but just makes me normal because without it, I would sleep all day long from narcolepsy, which somehow they believe is related to my epilepsy. Who has ever heard of a narcoleptic-epileptic who when she isn’t seizing, is sleeping? It’s absurd. It sounds like a bad joke, almost a dirty joke. There was the bleaching incident on the first day, but after that, Ritalin has left me remarkably calm and normal. I simply stay awake like I am supposed to and am able to focus like anyone else – no better, no worse.
But I understand Wurtzel and I understand Susanna Kaysen’s heroine (for Kaysen, herself, for her book is autobiographical), for both women are as needy and whiny and wanting and vulnerable and tough and fucked up as I myself have been, as perhaps every young woman has been in her life, and if you haven’t then good for you, but have you lived?
I remember hearing in Good Will Hunting that the fucked up pieces of us were the “good stuff.” They are the things that make us interesting and that make us who we are, and while I wouldn’t say that the abuse our Good Will suffered at the hands of his foster parents defined him, I will agree that it went a long way to helping form the man he became in ways both good and bad, and that’s just the point.
We rage and we fight against our fucked-upness when in fact, we could use it the way Good Will Hunting uses it. The way he takes his revenge almost, by finishing the equations of those MIT students who think they are so much better than he is because he is just a poor kid from Southie, which in Boston, means everything. Take any town on a two mile radius outside of Boston – Charlestown, Southie, East Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, Dorchester, etc. – those parts of Boston that Bostonians consider lower-class. These are the ghettos of the poor, but don’t you think for a minute that out of such places there does not sometimes rise a genius of such astounding talent that even the so-called upper-class has to turn around and take notice. Will may have a chip on both shoulders, and well he should, but he’s made it work for him and while yes, there are issues he needs to overcome (and he does), the point is he too, like Kaysen and Wurtzel, has hidden for so long that it takes a great deal to coax out the real Will who will do what is right for himself.
When Kaysen is sent to Maclean after an aspirin overdose, she is promptly diagnosed as “borderline” and when she finds out, reasonably wants to know what it means: “Borderline between what and what…?” Nobody gives her an answer for a long time, until she realizes that Borderline has something to do with great ambivalence, but here again, who the fuck isn’t ambivalent. Kaysen and some other girls break into the main shrink’s office where Susanna looks up the features of her “diagnonsense”, features that include; promiscuity, difficulty forming emotional attachments, difficulty with same sex relationships, casual attitude toward sex, difficulty with long-term relationships, patterns of self-destructive behavior and more, to which she says, “Oh, this is me…”
Let’s face it, we’re all Borderline to some extent or most of us anyway and have been in our lives. Who hasn’t had more than say, two or three relationships that are sexual, at least. I’ve always been a good girl and so can count on one hand, which I think is most people, yet there are doctors out there that would call this promiscuous because I did not leave a space of years in-between these men.
That I was furious one day at the man I loved and so took off and headed West into the sun and furiously fucked an artist I’d met on his aunt’s oriental because it seemed like the thing to do and it was full of spite and fury and, yes, glory and triumph as well. It was all of these things. I was involved, but I was hurt and angry and felt betrayed and wanted him to know what it felt like and god, did I want him to feel it. I may be sorry about it today, but I remember at the time the feeling I had, which was initially one of great sorrow, followed by a “so there…”, which proved to me only that I was capable of the same thing that he was. That if there were to be others, then shit, I would have my fill as well, and why not. The deal cuts both ways. That’s life.
So I had, as Kaysen has in the film and book, been with two men within the space of two days or twenty-four hours. Does this fact make me Borderline? I’ve never thought so or been told so but, hey, if we’re going to start labeling people, then why not label everyone, doctors included. How about we turn those big guns around and start labeling them?
Wurtzel has her sexual run-ins, of course, with married men, with men at the rehab where she eventually winds up and by all measures exhibits purely Borderline behavior if you are to go by the DSM criterion alone. Yet still, in my mind, when I look at both of these women, I see two young women trying to make their way in the world and not quite knowing how to put one foot in front of the other with the grace and poise that comes with age, we hope. I see to a large extent anyway, a normal part of developing and that means trying shit out, even trying, god help us, drugs, which yes are bad bad bad, but we did them, we tried them, and thank god, perhaps we didn’t get addicted and bully for us, but some people will and do and did and we cannot judge those people as less than us simply because of this. We can’t just toss them into institutions, as we do with these two young women, because they are a social problem.
The truth is, we put them somewhere safe because we say and see “they are a danger to themselves.” What is striking about both Wurtzel and Kaysen as characters in their own books is the way both of their lives, for different reasons perhaps, become a sort of blur of an existence.
For Wurtzel, within a short time, all that matters is her drugs, how to get them, how much money is in the ATM, where the next eight-ball is coming from and so on, she writes. For Kaysen, nothing really matters and so the rest of life is just a blur, but what both girls have in common is their absolute lack of direction. They are directionless souls in a world that seems full of people with purpose. People who get dressed up, brush their teeth and comb their hair and actually have the energy to get out and get into a car or get to the subway and commute to a job and spend nine hours a day working at something, focusing, achieving, and being part of the world as it spins.
For Wurtzel and Kaysen, and I know this feeling from my days of depression, it is as if the world spins without you. That you are standing on the outside looking in and watching all the people rush about and wondering where they are going, how they have the energy and vitality to be so purposeful and driven. They seem to make a difference. They exist. They have faces and names, and although you do, it seems that you lost that identity a long time ago and now, now at the bottom of the well with whatever you have, your depression, your drugs, your nothing, your broken everything, you realize that you are no more than a smudge, a blur. That the girl who used to write books and run presses and win awards and be the honor role-good-girl etc. etc. has somehow ceased to exist and you don’t quite know why.
To me, the answer seems clear now. After so many years of being at the bottom of that well, after standing on the edge between this and that, that borderline of whatever, I know that you only cease to exist if you existed for someone else or other people in the first place. One cannot exist for others, no matter how well-intentioned they may be or how well it seems to be working out, for eventually, you will come to resent them, mark my words, and you will realize that you have done nothing for yourself and so all of those awards and those books and those whatever that you’ve done and won, they mean nothing to you because they were never done for you.
It is then that, in the words of Dylan, “A hard rain’s gonna fall.”
Wurtzel heads to Florida to escape for a while from the frenzy and frantic life she has in New York. She stays at her mother’s shiny white Florida apartment with no cares, no problems and has her medication, including her prescribed by a doctor Ritalin, shipped to her on a monthly schedule. She needs a break from life, and in the chapter entitled “Bye Bye Life”, Wurtzel walks away from everything, including friends, work etc. She writes,
“This is my idea of heaven. I’ve got a TV and a VCR, I’ve got fifty-one channels of cable. I’ve got a view of the inter-coastal, I can laugh at the pathos of human existence all day long because it does not matter anymore. I am gone. I will never go on another date. I will be all mind, no body, because I have dropped out.”
But she does “owe Doubleday a book” which she says, she intends to honor. She’ll wisely use her time here in Florida to write the book. But why turn to drugs? First, Wurtzel has long had her struggles with addiction, from heroin to cocaine and back again, so this is nothing new, only the drug is new and I must say, rather inventive. After all, who but a former junkie would think of grinding up their legally prescribed Ritalin (which seems to be helping her focus, she admits) into a powder and snorting it. She tells herself, this is just another delivery method. It’s the same amount of drug, just a different way of taking it – a “preferred” way of taking it.
After that, it’s a downhill slide for as she writes, “Here is how heroin – how all drugs – make me feel: Quite simply, it makes me feel okay to be me. Here’s how I feel not on drugs: I hate me.” With that in mind, it seems inevitable that Wurtzel would soon turn back to drugs, for how long can you go on feeing that it’s not okay to be yourself. With no other tools at hand to help her out, or none that she’s willing to use or try, then drugs are the easy way out in some ways, though in the end, she will find that drugs are as we all know, the hardest way out.
Think of your worst relationship break up heartache ever, and now multiply that grief by about a thousand. This, I imagine, is what it is like to give up your drug of choice. It is like losing a great lover, one you thought you’d be with forever and finding out that all along, he never loved you back. To go through withdrawal is to mourn a kind of death, to realize that things were not as you thought, as you wished, and to have to learn to accept the world as it is on its own rather plain terms because, compared to the way heroin can make you feel, the world must seem a rather plain place from what I’m told – just one of the many reasons why I personally never tried drugs like this for I knew or feared anyway that if I did, it would be like John Lennon said, it would be like “meeting Jesus” and I would never again want to stop. I would, as Wurtzel did, fall in love with my drug and I would for the first time in my life, know what real love is. Or so I would think.
What is it about the world that leaves so many girls of a certain age so darn disillusioned and unhappy or dissatisfied. Is it that the world is not beautiful enough – no scratch that. It’s naïve. The world is beautiful in many ways, but let’s face it, we do not live in beautiful times. For Kaysen, her troubled times, like our’s now, were times of war – the Vietnam war. For us, likewise, we live with the threat of war looming over us, we are told we are in a war or out of a war, yet all we know is that shit, it sure feels like war to me, because no matter how long it has been since 9/11, deep down I know that something will happen again. That for all of the safety measures in place, there will be that devious mind that will find a slender gap and will roar in like a freight train and take out thousands of people again. That we live in world where prisoners are beheaded like Nicholas Berg and that these images that I see every day on the television, on the Internet, in my newspapers and magazines, in books on the shelves. Everywhere I look I see war. Even television has become about war; there are terrorist shows, there are medical investigation teams investigation plagues and scarlet fever and the like, there are shows about terrorists who want to blow up nuclear power plants.
I used to turn to TV for relaxation and escape but, shit, now I can’t even do that for somehow, I’m told, we need these shows so that people can “work out their fears” someone said. How does this help me work out my fears? My fears are real and understandable. They are not some neurosis or made-up fantasy. We have seen awful things and know that they are possible. I grew up with terrorism and the threat of the I.R.A. every day of my life when I was a child. I had bombs going off in central London right in front of the post office building where my grandmother worked; it was a big target. My grandfather, likewise, was often working in central London, laying brick, doing construction. Car bombs went off it seemed every day, and on those days, the headmaster called me out of class and send me home and I rode the long bus and tube ride to our house and waited on the stoop and prayed my grandparents would show up, and thank god, they did. Thank god, they never once were a casualty of a bomb, but there were times when it was close, especially with my grandmother.
I was here on 9/11 and stood speechless, watching as a plane flew into the second Twin Tower and knew that, that morning, my mother – a flight attendant – was about to take off from Newark at 8:45 a.m. and for the hour or more that they did not know the plane’s identity, all I could think about was my mother who I love and who I’ve been such a pain in the ass too, flying into this building and dying this way. What I know is that no matter, it was someone’s mother, daughter, father, lover, brother, husband, son. It was someone’s somebody and that was enough to make me drop to my knees and cry. It was enough for the nation to drop to its knees and weep and we did. Should it come as any surprise then that the so-called “rules of engagement” have then changed? That instead of people turning toward each other as I would have expected – lovers becoming closer and the like, and we did see some of that, I agree, for the most part, the statistics bear out that the rates of infidelity actually rose sharply after 9/11, particularly among office affairs, people who work together, which is where most affairs start anyway, but the rates actually increased.
I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it and I don’t think I want to. It sickens me. Was it, Oh Brad, tomorrow we could die in a fiery inferno, so let’s do it now? or some other line that cheapened and dirtied what had really happened to this country and to those people. Those after 9/11 infidelities that only tore away at the fabric of our country all the more and broke up so many families, showing the terrorists, if they cared to read, that after all, we Americans for all of our togetherness and talk, were actually quite weak in this way. That we took out our grief by fucking and by fucking over those we said we loved the most because now, now we loved Chloe the office-girl from _____ (insert exotic place here) because we were so fucking afraid of dying, because they said, we realized we could die at any moment so it somehow validated our infidelity and actions against the nuclear family and the promises we had made and were breaking. We were, at last, within our rights to run off with some chick named “Monsoon” (as happens in Riding In Cars With Boys) because it was war, damn it, and war somehow equated with this bullshit.
All of this knowledge haunts me and it is hard for me to see the beauty in humanity, let alone the world as a whole because I am too damn busy worrying, as so many Gen Xers feared all along, that it would all come down to some awful nuclear holocaust and here we are, vulnerable because of our power plants and nuclear weapons and, once again, we are seeing our families break up just like when we were kids, only this time, it’s our own lover as noted above. We were right and, Christ, I wish we had been wrong. I think none of us wanted to be right about these things. So if there was ever a time to become a drug addict or drop out like Kaysen or hang around an institution and have some order put back into your life, some regimen and some semblance of normalcy. Yes, now, dear, is the time to schedule your breakdown.
The appeal of Wurtzel’s Florida life is undeniable. Perhaps the drugs aren’t such a great idea but even here she makes them sound appealing almost to the point where I would say this is a dangerous book to read because, though the end is a wake up call, the rest of the book is one big love story between a girl and her Ritalin.
For a moment, I even wondered what it would be like for me, whom Ritalin has never gotten high, to grind it up and snort it. What would happen then? Would I “meet Jesus”? Would all this war and this social awfulness fade away? Yes, I would hide out with my grandmother in Florida but I figured, even on drugs, I could take care of her just fine, especially on Ritalin since she has so many errands that need running and so much taking care of since she’s been ill that I’d be like a machine and finally, finally, my life would have meaning – I’d be taking care of someone and that would mean everything, and while yes, in the process I’d be killing myself…. Oh, right.
You can’t live for other people. Too bad, though. It’s a lot easier than figuring out what you really want, as Susanna Kaysen finds out at the strict and often difficult Maclean. The biggest question any of us will ever face in life is that of What Do You Want Really? What do you want to do with your life…? What do you want your life to be? Who do you want to be? Who are you now?
Big questions, as Susanna’s therapist says. Big decisions. But we must face them, with all of our ambivalence and fear and our feet between the lines, we must still decide, because to not decide is to live a life of inaction. To say, as Wurtzel did, “Bye Bye Life.” To retreat into yourself as Wurtzel did, Kaysen, as I have, as surely so many other men and women have. To retreat so far that it’s hard for anyone to reach you, and while drugs were never involved in my case, it was purely chemical and depression and partially epilepsy as well, for we are thirty-five times more likely to commit suicide (a happy thought) and predisposed to real depression, I went far, far back inside my shell, so far that you couldn’t reach me with a long stick and I stayed there, afraid, my back against the wall, peering out and watching the world go by and feeling sad that I didn’t have the first clue about how to be a part of that or knowing where I fit in.
Of course, I recovered. Wurtzel too recovered, and I pray, is still recovered. Kaysen recovered and went on to be a great writer, as did Wurtzel. As for me, the case remains to be seen. Will I publish or perish? I published young and had a bright and great flame, though shortly after, I retreated. It seems to me these days that the flame is coming back; that I have been a part of the world every day and in every way. That I am a full participant. That I work fulltime, that I have held down excellent, top-notch jobs and done great work, that I no longer hibernate in my house and sit smoking by the window. That I even quit smoking (it’s been months) and that I actually see people, for god’s sake, and that I go out and walk around and drive my car and do all of those simple things that I remember one day, seemed so very hard.
Meanwhile, someone somewhere is going through the same blur that I’ve written of here, and all I wanted to say was that I hope you have enough energy to find this. That you are surfing in your PJs and come across this piece and that you then understand that you are less alone. That not only are there others who have been there, but that they got out and made a life and it is good. I promise. If you don’t believe me, email me and I’ll tell you more. But for now, try brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and just going to a shop or seeing a friend. Come out of your shell; stay a while, because for all of the reasons I see for you to be in that place, despite war, despite the shitty ways in which we sometimes treat each other, I’d still rather be alive and as Kaysen says “in it” – in the world – than watching it go by from some deep, dark hole.
Thanks for reading.