“I Knew That Shit Was Poison”: 13 People Describe What Paxil Did To Them As Teens And Young Adults

21 Sep

Late last week the New York Times published an article titled Antidepressant Paxil Is Unsafe for Teenagers, New Analysis SaysAfter reading it through twice, I sent the link to my friend. He messaged me back almost immediately: “I knew that shit was poison.”

We’d both known.

I was put on Paxil when I was 16. The best word to describe that time in my life is probably soggy. I cried. A lot. I cried in class, I cried between classes, and I cried after school. At night, instead of doing homework I would lie in bed and read Lucy Maud Montgomery books and cry. I got an F in math that semester, which somehow felt validating, as if it proved that I was the failure I’d always imagined myself to be.

I went to see my family doctor and after listening to me stumble through what for me was an excruciating disclosure, he looked into my eyes and said, “yeah, you do look a little blue.” He wrote me a prescription for Paxil, gave me a referral to a psychotherapist and told me to come back in six weeks.

By the time six weeks had passed I’d already quit therapy and was just as miserable as ever.

“Let’s just increase your dose,” my doctor said cheerfully.

It would turn out that this was his standard response any time I complained about antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. No change in mood? Increase the dose. Side effects? Increase the dose. Particularly bad side effects? Add another drug to the mix and also increase the dose.

The Paxil didn’t make me less depressed, but it did give me awful insomnia. And even when I did manage to sleep, my head still felt like it was stuffed with cotton batting. Instead of going away, my thoughts about suicide got worse. I started cutting myself. When my doctor found out, he was pretty nonchalant about it. “Some kids do that,” he said. “But as long as you’re not actually trying to kill yourself…”

He let the sentence dangle there, half-finished. I wasn’t sure where telling the truth would get me at this point, so I lied. No, I told him. Of course I didn’t want to kill myself.

He seemed satisfied. Then he increased my dose again, just to be on the safe side.

Finally, after a year and half on Paxil, my doctor switched my prescription to Prozac. I was lucky enough not to experience much in the way of withdrawal, but many other people describe Paxil as being incredibly difficult to wean off of. There’s a laundry list of symptoms, including so-called “brain zaps” or “brain shivers” that are exactly what they sound like. It turns out that as miserable as being on Paxil was, coming off of it was sometimes even worse. Given all of this, why was it being given out to so many adolescents in the late 90s and early 2000s?

Part of the reason was a big push by the makers of Paxil to open up a new market for the drug. A study published by drugmaker  GlaxoSmithKline in 2001 concluded that the drug was both safe and effective for teenagers, so doctors were unhesitant about doling it out to the under-18 crowd. Sure, Study 329 had followed less than 300 kids – a third of whom were taking Paxil, another third taking an older antidepressant and the rest given a placebo – but the medication was known to be fine for adults, so what was the problem?

There were lots of problems. One of the biggest was that the study didn’t show what GlaxoSmithKline said it showed.

Last week, major medical journal BMJ published a new analysis of the data from Study 329. Their conclusion?

“Contrary to the original report by Keller and colleagues, our reanalysis of Study 329 showed no advantage of paroxetine or imipramine over placebo in adolescents with symptoms of depression on any of the prespecified variables. The extent of the clinically significant increases in adverse events in the paroxetine and imipramine arms, including serious, severe, and suicide related adverse events, became apparent only when the data were made available for reanalysis. Researchers and clinicians should recognise the potential biases in published research, including the potential barriers to accurate reporting of harms that we have identified. Regulatory authorities should mandate accessibility of data and protocols.

As with most scientific papers, Keller and colleagues convey an impression that “the data have spoken.” This authoritative stance is possible only in the absence of access to the data. When the data become accessible to others, it becomes clear that scientific authorship is provisional rather than authoritative.”

This is incredibly important.

What is also important is how quickly and easily doctors dismiss complaints from adolescent patients. In my experience, my complaints about medication were either ignored or resulted in an increase in dosage – and having spoken to several other people who were struggled with mental health as teens, I’ve realized that this was true for many people. The result was both that none of us were receiving the right medication, all of us were experiencing side effects that made every day functioning difficult, and many of us now have difficulty trusting medical professionals.

Here are some of our stories:

LT: I was diagnosed with depression in my teens and was prescribed Paxil. My moods became even more extreme, I felt confused and erratic and started to experience delusions and hallucinations. I attempted suicide and was taken off Paxil when I was hospitalized. My diagnosis stayed the same and I was put on Effexor. I went home and after a few months stopped taking that because I became manic (though I didn’t know what that was at the time), thinking I could walk through walls, hallucinating, talking a mile a minute. I didn’t go on any other medication until my 20s when I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Not sure Paxil can be blamed for a misdiagnosis but it certainly was no fun to be on and I think, contributed to my attempting suicide.

LS: When I was 14, I complained about chronic worry to my doctor – I didn’t have the words or tools to understand that what I was experiencing was anxiety. She didn’t educate me on it, or suggest I seek therapy, or suggest I exercise, but she did prescribe me Paxil. The next year of my life was miserable.

I constantly thought about how better off everyone would be (including myself) if I wasn’t around. My self esteem completely disintegrated. My restricted eating ramped up into an eating disorder. I stopped being interested in almost anything, except self loathing… Finally I decided to go off it, because it obviously wasn’t helping. It took me a very long time to slowly wean off, crumbs a day basically, and I experienced those awful electric jabs in my brain the entire time.

Once I was weaned off it, I became myself again. The anxiety was back but I cared about my life again. The experience traumatized me so badly, it took 15 years of suffering through an anxiety disorder before I was finally willing to try medication again – because my new family doctor encouraged me to try lots of different things in conjunction with it – meditation, yoga, exercise, healthy diet, therapy, and tons of reading. I wish I’d had this knowledge when I was younger.

CN: Also on Paxil as a young adult. I’ve always had suicide ideation and while my sadness symptoms diminished while I was on Paxil, the suicidal thoughts remained and were devoid of emotion. They seemed more logical because they weren’t attached to an emotional breakdown.

AG: I was on Paxil in my early twenties. It led me to cutting, lack of energy, lack of hope (I lived in my apt with no power for a month…this happened several times), I self medicated with alcohol to desperately FEEL something. One time I cut myself so badly I thought I was going to die. I ran outside and flagged down a cop car who drove me to emergency. That medication nearly destroyed me. Whenever I complained, I kept being given higher doses.

MT: I was on it between ages 15-18. After being put on Paxil, I felt worse. I made 3 suicide attempts in that time that took me to the ER and some time in a psych floor for children/teens (many as young as 6 and taking liquid versions of Prozac and Praxil – I overheard the nurses handing out meds).

CD: It just made me flat. And they kept ratcheting up the dose all the time.

JT: I was on it when I was in my 20s and it was terrible for me. It made me manic, and I had never been manic and haven’t been manic since. Dangerously manic. I made poor choices and exhibited very unhealthy behaviors. Then the Paxil flu (Paxil withdrawal syndrome) nearly killed me, I swear. It’s been like 11 years and I still occasionally have brain zaps.

NS: I was given two sample packs of Paxil by someone in a walk-in clinic when I went in with mood swings when I was 22. I was on it long enough to take two doses, which left me twitching and clenching my teeth and shivering in the corner of my room like some sort of raver with too much e in their system.

CB: I too, was on in in my early 20s, and I too, felt awful on it. Manic is probably the best word to describe the feelings that came about … I was either insanely emotional and panic-attack stricken, or a complete zombie.Really didnt help control my anxiety at all…

NR: I was suicidal when I was 15 in 1995 and was first put on Paxil. I remember it made me feel extremely numb and unreal, like my brain was stuffed with cotton and the world was far away. My doc upped the dose when I complained of not feeling better and the symptoms just got worse. I remember going to my dance class and napping on the couch instead because I was just so tired. Or one time I was out with some friends and I went and lied on top of my friend’s car and stared into the sky because I was literally high from the meds.

JK: I was put on Paxil when I was 18 or 19. I was put on it by a walk in clinic doctor after I super awkwardly told him I tried to kill myself with pills. I came back a few months later, saw the same doctor, and told him I didn’t think they were helping and they seemed to be making my body feel worse (stomach aches, weird shakes) and asked shouldn’t I be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist? He looked at me and literally said ‘ these are the only pills that will help you, and you will need them for the rest of your life’.

SG: At 17 I was prescribed with Paxil. I don’t think it was the first choice of my MD (who seemed to imply it was largely a placebo in comparison to other SSRIs) but they went with it because it had been successful (apparently) with my mother.

After two days, I got such severe dry mouth (and/or my tongue was swollen) that I couldn’t swallow, and my tongue was kind of just sticking out of my mouth at rest position.

EN: I was never on Paxil, but a guy I dated was. We broke up when we were 23. He killed himself six weeks later.

Antidepressants have likely saved my life and they have certainly made a miserably chronic condition easier to live with. But the way they have been prescribed to me has often left me feeling confused, unheard and intensely gaslit. Because how else are you going to feel when you tell someone that a medication makes you feel awful and the only response you ever get is that you should take more of it?

For some teens, Paxil was a miracle drug. For many of us, it did little to improve how we felt and brought with it dangerous – and sometimes even life-threatening – side effects. Factors like unscrupulous drug companies, doctors eager to reach for their prescription pad and a general lack of attention to the thoughts, feelings and autonomy of teenagers all contributed to this. I have no doubt that this same story is currently playing out with different medications; I feel certain that other studies will be debunked just as thoroughly as study 329.

People need these medications; people’s lives are put in danger by these medications. There’s going to be a lot that needs to change before the latter statement stops being true.


Guest Post by Frances Rae – Parenting With Trauma

19 Aug

by Frances Rae

In the five and a half years that she’s been alive, I’ve been saying that the older my daughter gets, the easier it is to parent her. She’s constantly developing more cognitive abilities to rationalize and socialize and become more independent. Aside from things like the fact that now she can fix herself a snack or a simple meal, dress herself, and play alone for short periods of time, we can also have much more calm and respectful conversations when we disagree on things like bedtime, how much candy to eat, how long we can stay at the park, etc.

Naturally, with her being five, we still encounter our share of unresolvable disagreements and strong emotions. Hell, I think those are fair things to expect from people of any age. But since she is five, she doesn’t have all the skills yet to deal with those things constructively, and my job as her parent is to help her learn those skills, both by modelling them and responding to her in healthy ways. As any parent does, I often struggle to remain calm during those moments and try my best to be compassionate and understanding.

The most difficult thing for me in those situations is how much my daughter’s response to anger and frustration and disappointment mirrors the behaviour of adults* with whom I have been in abusive relationships in the past. We were having a pleasant conversation and then suddenly they’re angry. Suddenly they’re screaming at me. Suddenly they’re throwing things at me and hitting me. Suddenly everything is my fault and I’m a bad person for allowing this to happen… to THEM.

(*adults she has never met, to be clear)

What I’m concerned with is how it can be not just difficult but actually retraumatizing for a parent who has experienced trauma and abuse to be in a position of having to care for and be responsible for a person who is not respecting your boundaries.

We have a rule in our house (which I personally think should be universal for people of all ages and relationships because it’s literally just basic consent) that you’re not allowed to touch someone without asking first, they’re always allowed to say no, and you have to stop when they say stop. When a child is having a tantrum, obviously any sense of rules and acceptable behaviour can fly out the window pretty quickly, and this is absolutely par for the course and entirely not their fault. Unfortunately, this often triggers flashbacks for me of times when the person acting that way was not a child who has yet to learn how to reign in their anger, but another adult whom I loved and wanted to please, who controlled my access to affection and stability, and also of whom I was afraid and from whom I wanted to escape. When an adult is abusive toward a romantic partner, often they are expressing the uncontrolled anger similar to a child having a tantrum, but are in the position of power similar to a parent.

It is so frightening to be the parent, where all of those vulnerabilities in another person are my responsibility, and feeling the memories of trauma telling me that I’m the one who is vulnerable in this moment. My mind is telling me I need to hide or leave, but I also need to ensure that my daughter is safe. This is another thing that eerily mirrors abusive partnerships: feeling like I am responsible for another person’s feelings and having to be the one to take care of them, cater to them and tiptoe around them until I’m sure they’re calm again.

I’m definitely not saying my daughter is abusive. She’s five, and acts like every five year old I’ve ever encountered, including the five year old I remember being. Tantrums are never easy, but as she’s gotten older they’ve gotten more difficult for me because I feel like I should have found a way by now to have taught her better or reason them out of her, much like I always felt I should have learned better how to not trigger my partners’ anger in ways that made them lash out at me.

I don’t have any answers yet, and I don’t know if I ever will. I just try to keep reminding myself that it’s not my fault. I’m not a bad parent, just like I wasn’t a bad partner. My daughter will grow up and learn at her own pace how to deal with big emotions. I also try to remind myself that she feels comfortable expressing her anger at me because she knows I am a safe and stable part of her life. I’m glad she’s not afraid of me and she knows I will love her no matter how she treats me at any given moment.

I also just wanted to acknowledge out loud that this is a real thing, a difficult thing, and a thing it seems to be pretty hard to find anyone talking about. I tried to find resources for parents dealing with trauma, but everything I came across was for parenting a child who has experienced trauma. I want to remind myself that I am important, too. Saying something like “parenting is kind of like being in an abusive relationship” is probably not a super popular sentiment, but it’s undeniable that parenting is a relationship, and relationships are about more than one person. I’m here, too.

Anatomical - heart - 1700's

Anatomical – heart – 1700’s

Guest Post by Jasbina Misir – How To Be A Good Ally To Sexual Assault Survivors

10 Aug

by Jasbina Misir

TW: sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, victim-blaming

I wanted to share something truly disgusting and awful that happened to me this past Monday.

At 1 AM I was sexually assaulted during a concert. On the dance floor when the crowd rushed the stage. These are all the details I want to and am going to share. I have filed a report with the police and an investigation to catch the assailant is ongoing.

Why am I sharing this? I am sharing this because for me and for many survivors, talking about what happened is a key part of surviving, healing, responding to erasure and silencing. Talking about an assault can be a way for people to get some kind of accountability for what happened, even if that accountability only ever comes in the form of speaking their truth.

I’ve heard people say that talking about sexual violence experience is a frivolous and narcissistic act, but this could not be further from the truth. I am saying this both as someone who is a survivor and who has worked to support survivors for over 7 years now. I have worked doing peer crisis support and have developed my own artwork in response to being an incest survivor. I have a huge depth of knowledge about rape culture, the realities of sexual violence in Canada, and my experiences have led me to have a well-informed and highly nuanced perspective, skill set, and knowledge base. I basically have my PhD in Sexual Violence – the kind of PhD that was earned in the field, which is the saddest statement I have ever had to say.

Based on all of this, I feel deeply that the silencing of survivors experiences of sexual violence does not make anything better. Rather, it feeds into the numbing and deadening narrative that tells us that we should feel shame.

What I really need you to understand right now is that I know what is best for me.  Every survivor knows their own experience very deeply, and every survivor is the expert on how they need to heal. You don’t get to tell a survivor that they are handling their assault in the wrong way; that is absolutely not up to you.

I also need to you understand that I am not ashamed of being a survivor. I am not ashamed because I have not done anything wrong. No one should have to fear violation, assault, and dehumanization when going to a concert. I REPEAT no one should have to fear and/or experience sexual violence ever. 

I need you to understand that it is not a matter of needing to be more careful. What happened had nothing to do with what I was wearing, the company I was with, or whether or not I have any self-defence skills. If you must know, I was with my close friends at a venue that is usually really safe, I was not drunk or high, and I was wearing a dress that was past my knees which covered my chest. 

But none of that matters.

Even if I had been drunk or high (both of which have been the case during past assaults) or wearing booty shorts and with my tits out (which I often do and will continue to do) or been out alone at night, I STILL AM NOT ASKING TO BE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED NOR AM BEING IRRESPONSIBLE.

I am a person with a body that sometimes cannot and most often does not want to be swathed in artificial layers of safety.

Was I slutty and asking for it at 4-6 years of age when my close family member repeatedly sexually assaulted me?

Was I irresponsible when my former boyfriend consistently would ignore my pleas for him to stop forcing me to have sex or to stop when it hurt to much?

The answer to the two questions above is, of course, no. And the same goes for what happened to me at the concert.

Here’s the thing: unless you are a survivor yourself, I really likely do not want your perspective unless its one that is supportive and deeply listening.

I am writing this because I have had people ask me the most inappropriate invasive questions when I have disclosed information about this assault. Let me be very clear here: this information is not yours to ask for. Not only that, but it is incredibly uncomfortable for me to tell this story over and over. I have had to explain painful intimate details to the the club manager, my friends that were there, my mother, the police, EMS, the doctor. I do not want to have explain it yet again to you just because you feel you deserve it or, worse, want to challenge me on some aspect of what I experienced. That is not how you support someone who has been sexually assaulted.

If you want to be a good friend and ally to survivors, here is what we need:

  1. Believe us – In some ways, the most radical act you can do when someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted is to believe them. My whole life I have been shamed and silenced around my experiences of sexual violence in explicit ways and micro-aggressions. As an incest survivor the very family member that regularly abused me as a child told me I that I am a liar and a whore so I would be too ashamed and not say anything. It’s tactics like this that help perpetuate rape culture, and whenever you question whether a survivor is telling the truth, you are complicit in that perpetuation. 
  2.  Listen to what we say and respect our boundaries.
  3. Don’t ask invasive questions – I promise you that survivors will bring up any details they think are pertinent. Please don’t ask for more than they are willing to tell you.
  4.  Be Patient – This is really difficult to go through and when you ask invasive questions or admit to skepticism, you force me to hold your hand through being a good ally to survivors. That is not what I need right now. What I need right now is for someone to hold my hand. I would rather you say you are out of your depth, cannot, or do not want to support me or talk to me about this. I am asking for you to be a good friend and human being, not my therapist. Just listen if you are able, if you want to provide resources that might be helpful after gently asking me if they would be helpful sure. Other than that I simply want understanding and space to heal.
  5. Don’t give me advice, explanations, safety tips – Its so fucking condescending, patronizing, and horrible when people tell me what I need, how I should have behaved, or what I should do. If that is your idea of supporting survivors, well that isn’t support for me and I need you to do better. Please.
  6.  Please don’t make this about you – Whatever my response, irritation, shutting down, not talking to you, sadness, I will do my best to be very clear about where I am at but that might mean I need to just step out from the situation. I may not be able to hang out, and when I do it might need to be more low key. I may not want to be touched or touch you. Just accept these things, and my needs, and honour them. If you cannot do that right now, or need support, well for a while I can’t do that. I need to take care of myself. So often when I disclose I find myself having to do so much in the way of educating and supporting people. That should not be my job right now.
  7. Don’t minimize or derail the conversation – I am too tired to deal with “devil’s advocates” or assholes saying I have a “biased perspective” because I am survivor. I have stats, but honestly this is not a message to debate this is me stating what I need and what happened to me to a community of people that I really believe care about me.
  8. Please stop asking me if I have reported this assault. – I have, but often I have not and that is for a lot of really legitimate reasons. I really don’t fucking care what you think about this matter because you are me right now. Support my decisions around them and respect them. This is not about your justice, its about my survival.
  9. Don’t pathologize or make assumptions– I am a lot stronger and more complicated than most people have any idea about. In fact I am probably one of the strongest people you know and this is the kind of strength borne out of sheer fucking determination to persist through so so much adversity. My story isn’t the worst but its mine, and I am dealing with it. So trust that I know myself.

I really value everyone in my life, and generally I assume people mean the best. Right now I am super vulnerable and good intentions cannot justify poor behaviour however well meant. I really love you all and I thank you for all the support, love and friendship I get.

Thank you so much and I really love you all.


Jasbina Misir

Jasbina Misir

Jasbina is a non-binary trans femme mixed person. Jasbina self-identifies as a womboi. Jasbina is currently balancing negotiating the industrial academic complex with the affirming healing creating Jasbina does as a Transcriptionist and Artist-Resident through the Trans-Disciplinary Artist Program (TAP) at the Watah Theatre Institute. Jasbina is a poet, a performance artist, sex worker (on hiatus), a yoga practitioner and theoretician, as well as being deeply committed to understanding and continuing to heal mutually constituted oppressions and trauma. Jasbina embraces Jasbina’s madness and continues to work on the process of decolonizing. Jasbina is a survivor of multiple traumas including incest, rape, sexual assault and institutionalization. These experiences deeply informed Jasbina artistic practice , and Jasbina is learning to embracing Jasbina’s madness, exquisite sensitivity and empathic nature. Jasbina works in solidarity and love with the global village.

Summer Bummer

28 Jul

I was ready to have a good summer. Or at least, I was as ready as I ever am to feel anything good which is to say: not very, but still cautiously optimistic.

It had been a rough winter, preceded by a rough fall and a rough summer and, if I’m being completely honest, another rough winter. Most of our 2014 had been eaten up by bedbugs who, it turns out, consume not just blood but also time, energy, money and sanity. As our home life turned into a lumpy stack of pesticide-laced garbage bags containing what now seemed like an utterly foolish amount of possessions, the rest of our lives crumbled too. Work suffered – I missed deadlines and bailed on projects. Relationships became strained; some of them buckled under the pressure and collapsed. Our bank account slowly emptied. We got used to the sweet, burning smell of the poison they blasted through our home on a bi-weekly basis. A faint white residue coated everything.

Then, after ten months of living with them, the bugs were gone. But by that point it was nearly Christmas and we faced the Herculean task of emptying the bags and boxes and putting our apartment back together. I wanted to spin it as a chance for a fresh start; now we could finally paint the living room, pare down our wardrobes, and organize our books! It didn’t feel like a beginning, though – it felt like my life was grinding to a juddering halt. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I’d lost in the last year.

But spring hopes eternal, or whatever clever spin you want to put on an old saying, and I kept telling myself that if I could just make it through the winter I would be ok. If I could just limp my way to the season’s finish line, I would be able to slow down, breathe deeply and recover. So I held on with a white-knuckled grip and waited. As the days lengthened I started to watch my mood like an amateur meteorologist watches the skies, waiting for the wind to shift. But nothing happened; everything stayed stubbornly the same.

Here we are, then. It’s the middle of the summer and every day I stare into the black hole of my own internal despair. I mean, I still get up and go to work and come home and eat food and laugh at jokes and hug my kid, but none of that makes me feel like the future is any less bleak. All of the things I do feel like nothing, which is somehow worse than if they felt bad. At least bad would be something; at least ‘bad’ is on a spectrum of sensation which might eventually be scaled until I get back to ‘good.’ But nothing is nothing is nothing.

Sometimes I do things. Other times I lie in bed for hours, with all the attendant anxieties of beautiful days spent doing nothing. I listen to the cicadas and watch the sun moving through the slats in the blinds. It’s monotonous. Everything about depression is monotonous – just the same boring sadness stretching out endlessly in every direction.

Sometimes I feel so intensely awful that I don’t know how I’ll make it to even just the next minute without doing something about it. It feels unbearable, but I guess I must be able to bear it because I always make it to the next minute.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and all I can think about is a handful of words someone said, or a gesture, or a look they shot in my direction. My mind imbues these these things with so much meaning that they swell up until they’re huge and menacing. An offhand remark becomes a cutting insult. A casual glance becomes a grimace of disgust. During daylight hours I would be able to think myself out of these holes, but at 4 am feelings become objective realities.

I had to fill out a form the other day, and in one of the fields you were supposed to list any chronic illnesses you might have. I should have listed depression – they even gave depression as one of the examples, so I couldn’t weasel out of it by pretending they didn’t mean mental illnesses. But the thought of some office worker drooping under a sickly fluorescent light in some windowless basement somewhere reading that word and passing judgement on me was too awful, so I left it blank.

The long, hot days of July and August are usually my favourite time of year. These are the dog days of summer, the dies caniculares, when the dog star Sirius begins its conjunction with the sun. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sirius – Orion was the first constellation I learned to recognize, and my birthday is right smack in the middle of Canis Major’s yearly reign.

The Ancient Greeks felt differently, though – they believed Sirius caused plants to wilt, men to weaken and women to become aroused. in the Iliad, Homer calls the star an evil portent, bringing heat / And fevers to suffering humanity. The Romans thought it brought disease and death. In Sanskrit, the star is called Mrgavyadha, which means “deer hunter” and makes me think of the Frida Kahlo’s painting of herself as a deer shot through with arrows. Except that Kahlo had real things to be sad about, whereas I just have a miswired brain.

It turns out that Sirius isn’t even really a star – it’s actually a binary star system made up of a white main-sequence star called Sirius A and a white dwarf companion called Sirius B. Astronomers say that they’re moving closer to our solar system and will increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone will still be here by then to see it. Maybe the cockroaches will feel it reflecting off their burnished carapaces; maybe they’ll signal towards the sky with their antennae. Or maybe nothing will be left to notice.

Everyone is being very kind and patient with me. Friends check in regularly, and make an effort to include me in everything that’s happening. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do is a phrase that I hear at least once a week, but I can never think of what that anything might be. I feel like I must be boring them, because I’m certainly boring myself. After a while even misery becomes stale. Maybe that’s the worst part.

The only thing you can do is live through it. That thought is both hopeful and awful. All you can do is keep going and, like a hand groping in the darkness, assume that eventually you’ll find the light switch. And once you do, you’ll know that it was always there, and the light will carry you through until you pass through the doorway into the next dark room.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but right now it’s all I’ve got.


On Dreams

13 Jul

Every morning I wake up tense, my fists clenched and my arms pressed into my chest. It’s as if I’m braced for impact, like I’m about to crash-land into the day. I tell myself that it’s the dregs of the REM paralysis that’s supposed to keep you from acting out your dreams, but that’s probably not right. I mean, I’m sure there’s some kind of science to explain it, I just don’t know what it is.

Sometimes I picture myself trying to explain dreams to an alien race that has never experienced them. Ok, I imagine saying, so for eight hours every night humans lie unconscious and vulnerable while their minds weave complex stories out of their deepest fears, memories and desires. Most humans have no control over what happens in these stories, and often they learn more about themselves than they want to. These stories feel very real while they’re happening, but then when the humans wake up the waking world feels somehow more real, so that’s how they know they’ve been dreaming. 

Babies dream in the womb – or, at least, we think they do, since they spend long periods of time in REM sleep. It’s hard not to wonder what they dream about, given that they’ve never seen shapes or colours or even light, beyond whatever few particles can make it through the densely knit tissue of the uterine wall. Probably they dream about sounds – watery voices, the pulsing echo of a heartbeat, some kind of far away music. Maybe they dream about how things feel  – the way their limbs drift and sway in their inland sea, the rebound of their foot after a particularly strong kick, the accidental brush of a hand against a face. Maybe they dream about waiting.

The first dream I ever remember having is from when I was two or three. I dreamed that Cookie Monster developed this delusion that I was a cookie and was determined to eat me. After he broke into our house, my parents and I went on the run in some sort of Sesame Street witness protection program. Just before I woke up, Cookie had discovered where we were hiding, and my parents were standing in front of my bed trying to shield me with their bodies; it was all very Harry Potter, but with less dark lords and more muppets. It all sounds pretty funny in retrospect, but at the time it was terrifying – and why shouldn’t it be? There are few things scarier than a person that you love and trust suddenly becoming hell-bent on your destruction. Apparently even as a toddler I could sense that.

Most of my dreams are bad – they range from the middling anxiety type up to the full out apocalyptic nightmares. In fact, I’ve probably only had one good dream in the past five years. That fact alone was so remarkable that I spent the whole next session with my therapist dissecting it.

The dream started out poorly – I was on a horse, riding into some walled medieval city that had been all but wiped out by the plague. I knew with that irrefutable dream-logic that I had to find a door in the wall, so I started trying to make my way there. Somewhere along the way I lost my horse and had to continue on foot. Scary things happened, although I don’t remember the particulars. Eventually I found the door and ducked inside, although I knew that whatever the danger was, it was following me.

Inside the wall was an underground river. Once the door was closed, the air was very dark and still. The only way forward was to go through the water, so I stepped in and found it was surprisingly warm. I followed the current and eventually wound up at this border checkpoint that also functioned as a holding pen for people hoping to immigrate to … well, whatever was beyond the border. When I got inside, I had to wait in a queue before handing over my visa and passport; they told me it would be a few days before my papers were processed, and assigned me to a room.

Everything was very bright and modern and comfortable. The long hallways were clean and well-lit, the people were friendly, the rooms were adequately furnished. But as nice as the facility was, none of us wanted to be there, because as long as we were there it meant that we couldn’t yet go to the place we wanted to get to – wherever that was. So we waited.

I remember that another woman there complained long and hard about the on-site laundry, even though it was free. She had three kids and was angry because she didn’t think there were enough machines. I was outwardly sympathetic, but I also remember thinking to myself, “she’ll never get out of here if she doesn’t stop making a fuss.” I mostly stayed in my room and read the tatty old paperback thriller someone had left there. I didn’t have anything else; they’d even given me new clothes and thrown out the ones I’d worn to wade through the river. I kept trying to look out the window, but it was too foggy to see anything.

Eventually they let me through. The angry laundry woman and her kids were still waiting to have their papers processed, even though they’d been there longer than me. She was angrier than ever. I figured they’d never stamp her passport, only I wasn’t sure what would happen if that was the case – it was some sort of unspoken knowledge that none of us could go back to where we’d come from. We could only wait to be let through.

On the other side of the checkpoint was a long beach. It was sunset, and the beach extended as far west and east as I could see. To the south there was a sort of tropical forest, and to the north there was the ocean. The beach itself was dotted with campfires, and around every fire was a group of people talking, laughing and singing softly. The air was very warm and in the background you could hear the gentle lap-lap-lap of the water against the shore. I started walking, and after a while realized that this was all there was to the new country I’d come to – endless campfires on a beach at sunset. I started recognizing people here and there in the different groups, and then that magic dream-logic told me that I was in Death. This beach was Death, and the people I recognized were people I’d known who had died. And I knew that if I walked the whole length of the beach eventually I’d find all the people I’d ever loved and lost.

And then I woke up.

Maybe the waiting I dreamed about is the same type of waiting babies dream about. A border is a border, I guess, whether crossing it leads into life or out of it. And just like babies get snatches of sound and touch that tell them what’s coming, maybe we get the same – and maybe it’s just as impossible for us to translate those hints in any meaningful way. Like a person hearing morse code for the first time and knowing that it’s something, but not being able to tell what those haunting beeps mean. Maybe that’s what some dreams are – your brain trying to process those strange signals.


Witchy Woman and Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks was crazy as a cockatoo in the 1980s - she's the poster child for saying no to drugs

A New Era of Canadian Sex Work: Interview With Lowell

22 Jun

Last year, Canada passed Bill C-36, a bill that governs sex work. This new law came about after Canada’s previous prostitution laws were struck down in 2013 as being unconstitutional, and the government had only one year to either leave the laws off the books or else create new ones. They chose to go with the latter option, and based their new bill on the so-called Swedish model of prostitution laws. These laws mainly criminalize the buying of sex but not the selling of it, meaning that johns would face the harshest consequences.

In theory, these laws are supposed to protect sex workers and decrease the threat of trafficking and “sexual exploitation”. In practice, they mean that sex workers are able to sell something that no one is legally allowed to buy. These laws also have the end goal of eradicating prostitution, which is not a great solution considering that there are many sex workers who love what they do and feel empowered by it. It’s hard not to feel that while Bill C-36 promises to help people, it will actually be hurting them.

Vice recently released A New Era of Canadian Sex Work, a short documentary hosted by Canadian musician Lowell. Lowell is a particularly good fit for this role, since she worked as a stripper before releasing her first album. She’s also smart, incisive, and thoughtful as she navigates what these new laws mean for sex workers. She approaches the issue from several different angles, first talking to Conservative MP Joy Smith, one of the politicians responsible for pushing through Bill C-36. She then talks to several different women involved in the sex industry, as well as Chester Brown, the author of Paying For It, subtitled a “comic strip memoir of being a john.” Finally, she travels to Nevada to see how the regulated, legal sex work compares to what we have in Canada. The documentary is short, clocking in at just under 35 minutes, but it packs a lot in and is one hundred percent worth watching.

I recently had the chance to talk Lowell, and here’s what she had to say about making the film:

Anne: So how did this happen? Did Vice approach you about making this doc, or did you approach them, or what?

Lowell: Vice approached me to host a documentary in general, and asked me to pick somethign I was interested in. I chose to do the bill because it felt like a really good opportunity to tell my story and our story.

Anne: There’s a really tense moment near the beginning where Joy Smith pretty much looks you in the face and calls you a victim. Like, when you called sex work one of the oldest professions, she immediately jumped in and said it was one of the oldest oppressions. What did it feel like to have her say that to you?

Lowell: First of all, I was like, how do you have this perfect turn of phrase ready? How long did it take her to come up with “one of the oldest oppressions”? That’s really great marketing, I wish I was that quick.

I guess I’m empathetic to the way she feels. I understand where she’s coming from. But if I were not so confident, I would feel like she was taking away everything that i’ve gained back and everything that i’ve been empowered by. Mostly, I wanted to make her understand why what she’s saying is so terrible.

Anne: What do you think motivates people like her?

Lowell:  I think there are ulterior motives that have nothing to do with speaking for women. I want to believe that she believes her personal feminism is good for women, but I also think there are a lot of rich, white Christian people with power trying to step into the lives of people who don’t have those privileges. And they do all this without identifying any of the social reasons why people might do sex work. Saving people who don’t want to be saved doesn’t work. You can’t indoctrinate your own brand of morals into people who don’t want them.

Anne: How do the new laws impact people buying sex?

Lowell: When they’re caught, they have to go to “john school,” where they’re taught that sex workers are exploited victims. Really, the whole program is based around women being victims. Which is nothing new.

Anne: Yeah, there was a part where you talked to a woman who had been arrested a couple of years ago under the old laws and sent to a similar program for sex workers.

Lowell: These programs teach you sex work is wrong, that you’re a dirty person for what you do, and you must hate yourself. And not only that, but there’s no acknowledgment of sexuality or gender – they’re very one size fits all, all women have uteruses, that kind of thing. Which makes them especially awful for anyone who falls outside their ideas of what women who do sex work are like.

Anne: I really loved that one of the women you spoke to was a trans woman. Was it important for you to be inclusive?

Lowell: It’s an inclusive topic. When it comes to transgender women, women of colour, those are the people affected the most by the law. These women are often not able to work in strip clubs, which in my experience function as a safe place where people can solicit sex. But strip clubs are more likely to hire white, blond [cis] girls, meaning that people who don’t fit into these categories end up being forced to work on the street. The result is that these laws – which are especially unsafe for people working on the street – end up targeting certain races, poverty levels, genders.

Anne: Tell me a bit about the place that you visited in Nevada, and how that was different from how we treat sex work in Canada. 

Lowell: They call the place I visited a “sex resort,” because you can stay there over night. Contrasting with Canada, it was so much better. It’s clearly a safer way to deal with sex work. I saw women there who had been victimized in the past but wanted to continue doing sex work – they were taught how to empower themselves and given the means to do it safely. That’s huge.

But the thing is, when you talk about legalization, it’s complex. You still have people who are running things and it’s still selective and can alienate certain groups. Decriminalization is for sure the safest way to approach sex work, but it doesn’t solve everything.

Anne: When you talked to Joy Smith, she said that only two percent of people doing sex work feel empowered about it. What do you think of that number?

Lowell: I think it must be nice to be a politician and just make up statistics to prove whatever you want. 

The truth is that we don’t have those numbers. We don’t have concrete numbers about how many sex workers are abused, and part of it is that there are lots of barriers to reporting abuse. 

Anne: What about numbers that reflect, like, job satisfaction among sex workers? Like, how many of them actually feel good about what they do?

Lowell: I don’t even think anyone’s ever asked. If we had that data, then we wouldn’t be able to use victim porn as a way to get people to vote for things.

Anne: How do you think we can make sure that all voices are heard in this conversation? I know that one of the biggest concerns about being pro-sex work is that it ignore the people who have been legitimately hurt by trafficking or abuse. How do we make sure those people aren’t being erased?

Lowell: I personally think to make it easier for the average person comprehend by putting an emphasis on the actual rape laws work – how police approach rape, how they approach assault, and trafficking. We need to train the police to work better with survivors.

Blending sex work and brutality together to make it seem like we’re ignoring people who are being abused, but people who are empowered aren’t taking anything from people who have been victimized. Laws like Bill C-36 make it seem like you have to choose who you want to support – the victims, or the people out in the streets who like their work. But you don’t get to choose who has human rights. Everyone has rights. It’s the government’s job to treat every person equally when it comes to safety and their rights.


Dad Feels – Guest Post by Frances Rae

22 Jun

By Frances Rae

I started going to therapy when I was fifteen. In one session, she asked me to talk about my father, and I just completely drew a blank. I have a hard time with really open-ended questions like that, so I was quiet for a few minutes while I tried to think of what exactly she was asking me. There were so many things I could have said about him that I didn’t know where to start. Before I could, she said, “you know, it’s very telling that you don’t have anything to say about him.” I was so angry at her for presuming to know something, anything about my relationship with him based on how my brain reacts to such a vague request that I went home and thought about how I would answer that question differently once I’d had time to prepare. “My dad is great; we have so much in common. We have the same taste in music and movies, our sense of humour is the same.” Things like that. Those are all still true. Those were things that were very important to me to have in common with anyone when I was fifteen.

As an adult, I have noticed that a lot of men get very excited to have those things in common with me. I’ve dated many men whose priorities in a partner are still to have the same movies and music and humour in common. I think that’s the luxury of being a straight, white, cisgender man; you don’t need to have many political opinions on subjects like race or gender or sexuality, and you certainly don’t need to have your opinions align with anyone else’s. It’s not your identity at stake. My dad taught me about cars and carpentry and plumbing. We watched Star Trek and the Three Stooges and John Cleese. We listened to Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. We went fishing. I loved fishing.

My priorities are different now than they were when I was fifteen. I couldn’t care less if someone I love likes a song that I like or has seen a movie that I like. The thing I’m most excited to have in common with a person is their politics and opinions. I can tell when men treat me differently or have different expectations of me because they read me as a woman. I think it’s why many of them get so excited when we have music and movies and humour in common because it’s maybe more typical of other men than of other people they’ve dated. I by no means think those things are superior to the more typically feminine things I’m also interested in, but I know that, on some level, they do.

I don’t want to talk about how I’m grateful that my dad raised me with an ego to rival a dude because I don’t think that’s something to be proud of, necessarily. I don’t want to talk about how he never boxed me in based on my gender or treated me differently because I was a girl because I know that’s not true. I don’t want to talk about how the only things we had in common were things that were socially acceptable for a grown man to be interested in. I have a lot of problems with the way my dad parented. With the ways he was (and still is) a partner to my mom. With the ways he treats me now as an adult. With his politics. With his opinions. I don’t want to wrap this up with an neat little bow of how we may never see eye to eye but we’ll always be able to relate on certain things.

I know my dad loves me and loves the things we have in common; the same things we had in common when I was fifteen. I love him, too. But I know I’ll never feel close to him the way I did then because now we still have his priorities in common, but not mine. Growing up I never really worried about disappointing him. But I never thought I’d grow up to be disappointed in him, either.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26,383 other followers