There’s an aspect of my life I don’t write about much here. In fact, I think I only discussed it once, and then briefly. Six years ago I had a major crisis in my path that led to an ugly snowballing of events, both outer and inner, culminating in about two years of severe depression. I didn’t seek treatment during that time for a number of reasons. The main one was pride. I felt ashamed, and most especially I didn’t want anyone puzzling over why a Buddhist monk would be experiencing mental illness. I didn’t want to admit to mental illness. I also had no health insurance and little income and thought I couldn’t afford treatment. And I had simply sunk into the inertia that depressed people sink into. I had reduced my activity to the absolute bare minimum necessary for survival. I rarely left my room, forget the house; I didn’t answer the phone or emails; I considered it a great accomplishment for the day if I showered, or cooked a meal. All experience was processed by my mind through a negative filter. Anything I could think to try was doomed to failure, I thought, so why even bother? People’s conversation, their jokes especially, felt physically painful to me. I spoke in a low monotone, never looked anyone in the eye. Nothing was funny and I had a hair-trigger temper. My thoughts fragmented and I frequently could not call up words I was searching for. And I slept. Oh Lord did I sleep. Fifteen hours at a clip was normal. Waking at three in the afternoon feeling as though I’d never gone to bed, and returning to bed an hour later. Spending so much time in bed, my body felt atrophied, my back constantly aching. I did nothing for my temple. I did nothing for anyone.
Two episodes changed this. The first concerned my dear friend Anne. She has her own history and was the only one I trusted to be empathetic, and the only one whose calls I would take. She finally exploded at me, asking who in the fuck did I think I was to put others who loved me through hell because I couldn’t wrap my mind around taking medication that might help. Did I think I was somehow superior to her, who had been on every medication under the sun since she was in college? She nailed it as just another facet of my arrogance. I had nothing to say. She was dead right.
The other episode was an unavoidable family reunion in Maine to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday. After a couple of days, my sister Sarah sat down in front of me, peered into my face, and asked, “Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?” Some time later, my whole family intervened. They wanted me to cancel my return flight to Arizona, and get help right then and there. I somehow persuaded them to let me go back, but promised I would seek out the right healthcare professionals.
Remarkably, I honored my promise. I engaged a psychiatric nurse practitioner (with prescription privileges) and a therapist. I started taking a medication called Zyprexa. This helped almost right out of the gate, but as time wore on, stopped alleviating symptoms and created some havoc. I shifted to Paxil, an elephant dose. Then I really started to feel better, with virtually no side effects. It was like someone had gift-wrapped my nearly forgotten life and handed it back to me.
Something about my initial engagement in the Mongolia project seemed to alter my chemical makeup. I cut the Paxil dose in half. That was just right.
I’m telling you all this because last Sunday I finished a bottle and went to find what I thought was my last one. I don’t know how I lost track, but there was no last bottle. I looked everywhere. I was out. How could I let this happen, you ask? The answer is simple. I’m an idiot. And right now, I am literally off my meds. Thanks to my other sister, the ExpressMail cavalry’s coming, though, so don’t worry.
All seemed fine for the last few days, really. I was quite glad. The nastiness of Paxil withdrawal is the stuff of legends and lawsuits. But after an intense outing with F.I.R.E. to a countryside prison today (which I’ll get to in a minute), I went wobbly this afternoon and crashed. Better now, but still a bit dissociative and dizzy and writing all this to fight my urge to withdraw.
When you take meds for mental illness, you’re regularly confronted with the question, “Why don’t you try to get off them?” First of all, if they’ve asked that question, you can be sure that that person has never gone through such illness. Get off it? No one asks the diabetic why they don’t just kick the insulin. I'm a little in love with my Paxil. I’m not kidding. Just about everything I’m enjoying about my life today would be impossible without it. And I’m terrified of relapse. Writing the above brought back such intense, awful memories that I had to stop typing a couple of times to control my tears. I hope you don’t mind my indulgence too much. I really needed to confront some of that tonight.
A good counterbalance today, though, in the You Think You’ve Got It Bad Dep’t, was visiting this prison. I’ve also written a little about how participating in KPC’s Prison Program was one of the most meaningful things I’d ever done and I’ve been itchy to see something of Mongolia’s prison system. Today I had my chance.
Meredith from F.I.R.E. again teamed up with the FPMT folks, who themselves coordinated with Mongolia’s social service agency, for this visit to distribute warm clothing, soap, and some Dharma items. We got started early, and it was plenty cold. No more than 15º with a stiff breeze when we left to load boxes at the warehouse.
The facility (named, in a poetic flight of fancy, Prison Number 429) lies about 40km outside of Ulaanbaatar. No one wants to go there because it also functions as a hospital and primarily a TB ward. The social worker told us the last visit was some Christian group in 2002. Here’s the view as we approached. I was disappointed to learn that we would not be permitted to visit the maximum security wing on the hill, but it was an eye-opener nonetheless:
This prison could not have contrasted more with American facilities. The Mongolian State provides little. The barracks have no heat and whatever the prisoners have in the way of clothing and food almost all comes from their visiting families. Security was totally laughable, but Mongols rarely try to escape, I’ve heard. Some of the more exemplary prisoners are given the task of tending the prison livestock in the fields outside the gates and they always come back!
We loaded into their rec room, which consisted of one pool table and a display with dusty pamphlets from World Vision on how to prevent spreading TB. The guys were brought into the hall outside and made to squat. This is their means of crowd control. That and the occasional lash with a stick, a bit more intimidating than the granny in my courtyard.
We were introduced, and then they let five guys in at a time. We had jackets, sweaters, pants, socks (including the effing clown-colored toe socks which Meredith would not leave at the warehouse like I begged her to – I’m really sensitive to the indignities prisoners have to suffer but she insisted they wouldn’t add to them; I disagreed but was overruled), hats, gloves and some shoes. Here Meredith loads a guy up:
The state of some of their clothing, with the Mongolian winter approaching, was occasionally shocking. This guy had no socks, and just these plastic sandals:
Ten of the inmates had been selected to receive warm boots; I think they have outside jobs:
This handsome fella put his Dulaan-knit hat right on. We handed out about 85 of your wonderful hats – you Dulaan knitters made a big difference to these guys, whose heads are all shaved, and who had no such hats:
Ani Chantal gave each man a protection cord blessed by the Dalai Lama on his most recent visit. She also left Dharma books in Mongolian for them to read:
As we left, these guys were in the control squat, but in a surprisingly chipper mood, waving goodbye to us. You can see more of the Dulaan hats here including, unbelievably, one in the front row that I tried to cull, adorned with a knitted daisy! Maybe they'll dig the toe socks, after all...
As we left, I asked Meredith to take this photo of me. The reason is I’m wearing the hat that my boys at Roxbury Correctional Institute in Maryland gave to me as a gift before I left. I’m going to find some way to get this to them, wearing their hat at a Mongol prison:
And finally, as we drove home, I was struck by the intense chilliness of this Mongolian steppe-in-winter vista, even at the end of October:
Thank you all for letting me share all of this. It really helped tonight.