Of pills and post-impressionists

by Chris Lowrance

I spend a lot of time in terrible pain.

For anyone who’s never had a migraine, I’ll try to describe it: Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever felt, radiating from behind your eye and cranked up to about three million. Factor in that light, sound, movement and thought make that pain pulse through your brain like your skull’s too tight. Add a dash of temporary blindness, a pinch of terrifying numbness, some gut-wrenching nausea and a general sense that nothing will ever feel good in your life again.

Now that you have a good sense of what I’m talking about when I say ‘“I have migraines,’” you’ll know why they’re the first thing I wanted fixed after recovering my long-lost insurance. My only worry was that the doctor might consider medication a last resort.

Let’s be honest ‘— I wanted pills. Something to swallow and make the problem go away. I was fully aware that everything from stress to MSG to mango juice could cause migraines, and cutting back on all those things could reduce the frequency of my headaches. I also knew that wasn’t an option, so I crossed my fingers and hoped to hear ‘“Take this and call me when you need more.’”

Which is pretty much what happened. My doctor asked a bunch of questions, jotted out a few prescriptions and was on his way. No hassles, a fistful of pills, everything I wanted, correct?

Ah, but if only one of those pills wasn’t an anti-depressant.

To be fair, it is a very low dose, and the purpose is to raise my serotonin, not turn me into a Shiny Happy Person. Serotonin is a brain chemical primarily responsible for mood, sleep cycles and pain management. The good doctor’s decision was a no-brainer ‘— my family has a history of trouble with all three of those things.

It’s just that, while I’m not going to go on Oprah and flip out over Brooke Shields or anything, I do have a severe mistrust of mood-altering medications. The reason has nothing to do with L Ron Hubbard and everything to do with Vincent van Gogh.

The post-impressionist master was most likely bi-polar. He spent much of the last decade of his life in an asylum, suffering from fits of mania and violent rage. He cut his own ear off out of guilt after having threatened friend and fellow artist Gauguin with a straight-razor. Finally, in 1890, van Gogh shot himself with a pistol.

But in that sad decade he also created his entire body of work. Van Gogh used color, stroke and composition in shocking new ways to expose the turmoil, pain, joy and vibrance. A van Gogh painting lives on the canvas ‘— it stares back at you, spinning and churning in your mind.

So what if van Gogh had happy pills? It doesn’t have to be van Gogh ‘— pick anyone. What if Hunter Thompson checked into rehab? What if Hemingway spent the war behind a desk? What if every dark thought, tragic vice or lost hope in the Western canon had been snuffed out with a glass of water and a small, smooth capsule?

After all, that’s what medication is for: to make you normal. The assumption is, whatever your condition, there is some benchmark out there, some gleaming portrait of perfect health and wellness and a drug to move you closer to it.

I can’t help but think, as I look at this tiny blue pill, that ‘“normal’” is the antithesis of all that art should be. The one thing all great minds have in common is something ‘— a bad childhood, a severe illness, it could be anything ‘— made them see the world, to quote Hemingway, ‘“clear and as a whole.’” As artists (and by now you’ve realized I count paintslingers and wordsmiths the same), our role is to point out what no one else can see, or cares to see, or ever even thought to look for. We can do it because something made us step out of the crowd, turn around and look back.

Perhaps, for me, that thing is my skewed brain chemistry. Could my low serotonin be the source or my terrible headaches, my darkest moods… and my artistic vision?

But now I remember just how horrible migraines are, how even writing this column was difficult because the mere thought of them makes me queasy. I remember the worst one I ever had, last year, and how my girlfriend sat beside me for hours crying because to her it appeared my body was torturing me, and she couldn’t stop it, and I came the closest I have ever been to thinking death would be better than my current state. I remember how many people care and worry about me.

And I swallow the pill.

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