Sara Kirschenbaum
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Anti-anxiety Pill

Posted Sunday, Jun 03rd, 2012 at 5:18pm

My two kids and I are visiting my parents back east in New York City, where I grew up. Taking my five-year-old son, Sage, and nearly-two-year-old daughter, Annie, on the plane is no easy task. Their father had to stay home and work. Five and a half hours is a long time for them to sit in their seats. When we finally arrive and I put them to bed in my old room, I realize that single parenting is heroic. And it seems to me, untenable in the long run. My patience is wearing thin and my aging parents are less helpful than I imagined they’d be.

Bringing my kids into my childhood home feels sweet but also psychologically treacherous. I find myself wary and judgmental around my parents. They both still drink a lot and my father fights his depression by yelling and railing at my mother. My obsessive-compulsive disorder is flaring up and I am overcome with intrusive images of horrible accidents. I’m afraid that if I don’t do penance in form of embarrassing and pointless rituals the disasters will come true; I seek comfort and protection in lining up cutlery and other objects in neat lines. At least I am not having one of those stumble-out-of-bed-and-gag panic attacks. Instead, it is a long slow one that goes on for days. It is a panic attack that, with effort, I can hide from others. I am freaking out, politely, from the inside out. The sweat breaks out on my skin and radiates through my shirt and wool sweater, till I smell like a dirty frightened sheep in heat.

I hate these days-long bouts of mental illness. But there is a solution—an easy, reliable solution. It's orange. It's round. It has the words "KLONOPIN ROCHE" stamped into it. It is my "anti-anxiety" pill. But whenever I approach the bottle that I’m carrying around with me on this vacation, I am visited by my conscience. No, make that two consciences. And oh what a racket.

Cartoons show a little red devil in a red suit whispering in one ear and an angel in a white dress whispering in the other. My consciences’ personas aren’t clearly good or evil—that would make choosing easier—but they do have their own ways of looking at the world. Flying above one ear, on one side of my head, is the tiny figure of my stalwart psychiatrist from Boston, Dr. Sichel. She is a strong woman in a navy wool skirt and white shirt and flowery green scarf. She stamps her miniature navy blue pumps in the air. She is opinionated, compassionate and brilliant, and shouts in my ear. She hovers with translucent wings. Over the other hemisphere, just above my other ear, is a composite of every new age therapist or peer counselor to whom I’ve ever spilled my guts in Portland, my adopted home. This conscience wears a black and white batiked dress, and smells vaguely of patchouli essential oil. She is in her purple house slippers. Her voice is lilting and dreamy. She has an unshakable conviction that I can heal myself. Her wings are violet. Together my consciences flap their wings and lower themselves to speak directly into each ear.

Sara, Sara, Sara. Don’t run away from your feelings. Do I have to remind you again of the Rilke quote, "Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy? ... Since you know that you are in the midst of transitions and wished for nothing so much as change." Sara, honey, there is no way around but through.

Don't think so. It doesn’t make you a better person to suffer. It just makes you tired. Your liberation, Sara, is in your acceptance of relief.

What a wonderful opportunity you have to work through another layer of your childhood hurt! If you numb yourself up with drugs, you will lose this chance. Don’t you think it’s interesting that you have not told your parents how you are feeling on this trip and they have not seemed to notice? Do you think this is normal? How do you think that felt as a child?

Pop a Klonopin! It is metabolized quickly—it will be out of your system in a day. It’s a chemical solution to a chemical problem.

You’re strong, Sara. You can do it. There are only five more days until you go home and then I’m sure it will be easier. Won’t you be proud to go home with all ten Klonopins still in your fanny-pack?

If a diabetic needs insulin, they should have it. So you have impaired neurotransmitter receptors and you need a Klonopin. Just because you are good at hiding the pain doesn’t mean it isn’t real pain. Just because the defective part is in your brain, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve fixing. I can help you.

Sara, answer me one thing. I’m going to ask you a question and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Who did this to you? Who hurt you in this way? There is a reason you feel like this. What did they do to you?

So, I am in New York City, where I grew up. I have nine and a half little orange Klonopins with me. I am crossing the street with my father, and my kids. We are on our way to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to learn how my grandparents lived. The half-Klonopin streams through my arteries, putting out a thousand fires. Every part of my body feels calmer, though much of me thinks I cheated. The half-pill blossoms its chemicals into my veins, comforting me with a slurry of cashmere and chamomile. I begin to land in the present moment, on the sidewalk, without the forward and back time machines of fear and second guessing. I begin to notice where I am right now—Chinatown—without the self-consciousness of my panic. Looking out, I see the bluish and red crabs in wooden baskets at the fish stores. Bushels of lychee nuts are still wrapped in their leathery pink-brown shells. My daughter’s tiny hand tugs at mine. She wants, more than anything in the whole wide world, a fuzzy mechanical parrot that chirps a song if you clap your hands. Five of these parrots are hanging from the street seller’s shopping cart, constantly chirping, bobbing, and twitching their tails. In a chaotic musical round they sing London Bridge Is Falling Down, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. We buy the pink one and carry it with us, chirping, to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.

About a dozen people are gathered to go on the Tenement Museum tour. Many of them, like us, are relatives of people who grew up in this neighborhood. The interpretive guide at the Tenement Museum takes us to the dim stairwell of the museum. This tenement was boarded up in 1935 and so most things are unchanged since then, as if in a time capsule. In a few of the apartments, they’ve recreated the furnishings of specific families who lived in those very rooms.

The walls in the stairwell are filthy with coal and wood dust. The guide points out that under the dust are quite lovely pastoral paintings painted when gas lamps were first added to the hallway. “Imagine,” says the guide, “what it was like before they put in these small gas lamps. There was total darkness. Imagine that every time you needed to go the bathroom you had to walk through these dark halls to the outhouse in the backyard.”

Annie is holding the parrot in one hand and my father’s hand in the other. We head up to an apartment that they have fixed up to look like it did in 1918—six years before my father was born. Sage, my earnest son with the long blond hair, walks a few steps ahead of us. When we step into the apartment, we see three neat modest rooms. There is worn linoleum on the floor, and a few pieces of wood furniture. My father says, “This is just what your grandfather father had when he was growing up. This is it exactly. Can you imagine, nine or more people living in these three rooms? In my dad’s family there were both parents, six kids and usually a couple of boarders.”

Sage looks up to his grandfather reverently. Annie plays with the pink feathery tail of her mechanical parrot that she has reluctantly turned off.

The apartment is fixed up to look as it did when the Rogarshevskys were sitting shiva, in mourning for their father who died of Tuberculosis in this very apartment. In keeping with Jewish custom for grieving, the mirror is covered by a cloth; the table has several plates of round foods like bagels, oranges and eggs. I can’t imagine how I would have managed my OCD 90 years ago in this tiny stuffy dark three room apartment with eight or ten people living (and dying) here.

There is a vague story in our family about one of my father’s aunts going crazy after being traumatized in a botched robbery. The aunt evidently spent the rest of her days in an insane asylum. I’ve also recently learned that my father’s father “kind of lost it” when my dad was fighting in the Second World War. My grandfather had to “go away” to some kind of resort to recuperate. I don’t know how people with mental illness survived back then – heck, I can’t even imagine how I’d get along today without the flowering calm of my half Klonopin.

After our tour in the Tenement Museum, we go have blintzes at Ratner’s – a famous dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side that my relatives undoubtedly visited. Annie gets blueberry blintzes and Sage, my dad and I get strawberry. I take out a tape recorder to record my father telling stories about his father growing up on the Lower East Side. But half a sentence in, the tape recorder jams. We head home full of the cheesy blintzes and fruit. We catch a bus on Third Avenue and head home with the pink parrot chirping and the kids churning restlessly, and joyfully, in the molded plastic seats.

Hippie conscience pouts; psychiatrist gloats.

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