I Published A Goddamn Book

24 Nov

Sometimes I forget that I wrote and published a book, which is both a real truth about my life and also something I never imagined saying or thinking.

When I used to imagine what Life As A Writer would be like, I thought a lot about how writing would Change Me. I invested a laughable amount of time picturing how I would dress as a writer (casual but kind of wispy and with lots of floaty scarves), what my desk would look like (slightly messy but in a deeply creative way), and what my writing process would be like (sitting at my desk writing long-hand in a leather-bound journal while the early morning sun slanted in through the window). I also had some ideas about what it would be like to finally publish a book that were not very firmly rooted in reality – glowing reviews in big publications, an award or five, and maybe even a movie deal.

Of course, my actual writing process involves weeping frantically over a half-finished first draft an hour before my deadline, my “desk” is whatever surface has enough clear space for my laptop, and while typing this up I’m dressed in a soup-stained black tank top and a pair of pyjama shorts printed with tiny horses. And my book? The one that I thought was going to be made into a raw, heartfelt Sundance-screened film starring Ellen Page? It just sort of happened, and then it was over. It felt like such a non-event that when I put together a new writing bio last year I didn’t think to include it.

I guess I never really thought of it as a book-book – it was only ever available in a digital format, which is cool and all but also not very different from the time I got my roommate to record me singing a Tori Amos cover which I then proceeded to refer to as my “single.” It was real, but it didn’t feel real – I don’t even think most of my family knew that it had happened. I mostly didn’t feel like a person who ever wrote a book, which I’d thought was a feeling I’d know and recognize immediately. Instead, I felt like a person who had spent several months pouring her feelings into the black hole of a Word document and then walked away.

Anyway. I frankly thought the rest of the world had forgotten about my book even harder than I had, and then out of the blue a new dude working for my publisher emailed last summer and told me that he’d been revisiting some of their old publications and thought mine was pretty great (!!!!!). He said he thought it deserved another push wanted to do a re-launch of my book. He also said that they had an actual budget for cover art now, and they wanted to publish it not just as an e-book but also as a paperback.

All of this is to say that just over a month ago I got to hold my actual book in my hands for the first time and it was really fucking beautiful. I mean, the book was beautiful, and the moment was beautiful, and I couldn’t really breathe or see straight for a while.

I wrote a book and then I held it in my hands and holy shit sometimes really great things do happen.

I wrote a book and that is a real thing I did and you can read an excerpt here and you can read reviews here and you can buy it and own it and hold it in your hands.

I don’t know if I feel like a person who’s written a book yet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that’s maybe not a thing that just happens  to you. There are some pretty clear dividing lines, of course – one day you’ve never published a book, and then the next day you have. But feelings are full of grey areas and what-ifs and yes-buts, which means that you can be staring at your own book on a screen and still talk yourself out of believing that you’re finally, truly a real writer. Impostor syndrome is a hell of a drug.

I often think about an essay that Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, wrote while she was attending college classes at the University of Michigan. It’s called “I Want to Write!” and sadly I can’t find it anywhere online, so I can’t link you to the full text. To give you an idea of what her situation was like, I should mention that she wasn’t actually enrolled at the university, but rather was auditing classes while her husband was a student in another department. In spite of the fact that Smith hadn’t finished high school and had two small children, she managed to convince several of the professors to let her sit in on their creative writing classes.

But as much as Betty Smith wanted to write, she struggled with it in a way that is probably deeply recognizable to anyone else who writes:

“[…] I have my doubtful periods. I am ashamed of the things that I have written in the past. I am ashamed of the things I wrote last month. But when I wrote them, I thought that I was inspired. The hardest thing to bear is the sneaking knowledge that in a year or two from now, I shall be heartily ashamed of the things I am writing now. Still —?

The cruelest thing about this desire to write, is the hopeless hope that it engenders. Deep down in my heart, I know that I shall never get anywhere in this writing business. But who can tell? Sometime, tomorrow even, someone may find something marvellous in the things that I write.


Some years ago, I decided to be sensible and to put all this writing foolishness aside. Other events crowded close; anther life opened for me. I married, had two babies, other interest, other ties. I wrote nothing for eight years.

Eight years? But I am lying. I have forgotten my friend. As a relaxation from the cares of the children and the house, I formed the habit of writing to a mythical friend. I wrote about everything, and wrote and wrote and wrote! Then I mailed the letters in the waste basket.

Now I have come back to my first love. I frankly admit that I am writing again. I hate it and I love it. It is labour. It is travail. But it is the most fascinating thing in the world.”

When I think of Betty Smith, I think of a writer who was gifted beyond anything I could ever imagine. I mean, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – have you ever read that shit? It is one of the most fucking heartbreaking and true books I’ve ever read.

And yet while she was writing it, Smith never felt like a writer. She felt like someone who was waisting her time; someone whose first drafts stunk; someone whose time would have been better employed playing with her children or cleaning her house. But, bull-headed marvel that she was, she ploughed through it hoping that someday she would write something that she could be proud of. And in the end she didn’t just write a book – she wrote the kind of book you sleep with under your pillow because you want it to be the last thing you read when you fall asleep and the first thing you read when you wake up.

So, in the fine tradition of Betty Smith and her fictional doppelgänger Francie Nolan, I will doggedly push through all these insubstantial feelings until I come out the other side feeling like a a real writing writer who writes. And then I’ll know that I’ve always been this thing, like how on some level a sculpture already exists somehow inside the solid block of granite.

Writing is just work. Talent is great, but painful truth is that talent can only get you so far. The rest is work – and usually not even particularly interesting work. Mostly it’s the kind of work where you’re stuck dragging a fine-toothed comb over and over through the same sentence, trying to unsnarl those harebrained nouns and verbs and adjectives into something that makes some kind of sense.

And I did that work. And I wrote a book. And it’s very real and you should buy it if you want to and tell your friends if you think they might like it and leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads if you’re so inclined.

You guys?

I wrote a book.

autumn garage

What I Wish Everyone Knew About Sylvia Plath

28 Oct

Today is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She would have been 83 years old today. Maybe in an alternate reality she’s living in a cottage somewhere at the edge of the cold, grey Atlantic where she paints and writes and keeps a hive or two full of bees. Or maybe that’s what the afterlife looks like for her, not that she believed in an afterlife. Is it wrong to wish something on someone if they don’t believe in it? Probably.

You don’t have to be much of a detective to figure out that I love Sylvia Plath. My blog is named after her only novel. I have an embroidered portrait of her on my dining room wall. I even have a necklace with a tiny gold inscription of that old brag of her heart: I am. I am. I am. I’m obviously a pretty big fan.

But I’m a fan for different reasons than you might think.

I write a lot about mental health, and I think sometimes people assume that I love Sylvia because we’re both part of the Depressed Ladiez club. And we are! And I do love her in part because I see my own struggles reflected in in writing and in her life. But that this is not the sum total of my relationship with La Plath.

I love her because she was fierce and unabashed and so fucking ambitious and hard-working. I often hear an argument among writers about whether good writing comes down to talent or hard work; Sylvia drew on both. She had an unarguable natural gift for language – she published her first poem when she was eight, after all – but my god that woman worked so hard to hone her talent. If you’ve ever read her journals, you know that she spent most of the pages alternately giving herself pep talks about writing and berating herself for not doing enough. She was determined to create great works, and she was willing to put in the time and energy necessary to do so.

For Sylvia, writing a poem was like solving a puzzle – it meant turning it this way and that way, trying to fit the words together just right. She was dogged about it. Once a project was started, she wouldn’t or couldn’t give up on it. One thing that Ted Hughes wrote about her has always stuck with me:

“To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.”

I think about this quote a lot. Whenever I am in the middle of working on something and I am angry and frustrated because it’s not going the way I want, I stop and ask myself, “If this is not going to be a table, can it be a chair instead?” Usually it can.

Sylvia was funny – darkly, brilliantly funny. Even when things were terrible she still often managed to be funny. One of my favourite lines from her journal comes from a moment when she was pretty sure Ted was cheating on her with one of his Smith students. She wrote, “Who knows who Ted’s next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis.” From one dick joke lover to another – I salute you, Sylvia.

And she was angry. So fucking beautifully angry. She was angry because her father was dead. She was angry because she felt her mother was a “walking vampire,” feeding off her emotions. She was angry because she felt that she wasn’t allowed to hate her only living parent; in her journals she wrote that “in a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness, it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother.” She was angry because Ted left her for another woman, just like she’d known he would all along. She was angry because she was a woman, a woman who was not supposed to sleep around or hold her own or walk home alone at night.

She had the frantic anger of an animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage, determined to free itself at any cost.

Her rage is what shines most clearly in her last poems – her huge, perfect, unfeminine rage. As her marriage shuddered and jolted towards its end, she had to reevaluate who she was – not the adoring wife, the sweet daughter, the earth mother. She shed her good-girl self, the self craved everyone’s approval, and was reborn a fury. Like Shakespeare’s Ariel, for whom she named her final book, she had finally burst out of her prison and was soaring, winged and lethal, towards the sun.

And the poems she wrote then. My god, those bright, hard poems that cut with the precision of a scalpel. She knew it, too. In a letter to her mother dated just a few months before her death, she wrote, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.” And they did, though not in the way that she’d imagined. Ariel was published posthumously, and the poems were reordered by Hughes to match the idea of a tortured writer driven to suicide. I don’t blame him for that; I’m sure it was a necessary sort of therapy at that time, a way of making sense of what had happened. But Hughes’ arrangement Ariel wasn’t what Plath wanted. Hughes’ order ended with three poems about death and obsession, whereas Plath’s preferred sequence had the book ending with the line: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Her version saw a hopeful future; his saw the obliteration of all hope.

But just as her darker poems obscured everything else in the published version of Ariel, so are Sylvia Plath’s life and work overshadowed by her suicide. When people think of her, they picture her in her last awful hour, her head in the oven, her face dark with the stove’s grime. Her death is romanticized; men like Ryan Adams write songs about how they want to fuck her and love her and maybe save her. She’s seen as a martyr to something, although none of us are really clear on what that something is.

But she wasn’t a martyr. She was someone who was exhausted and worn down and in a moment of despair took her own life. It wasn’t meant to be a gesture or a call to action or anything like that. She was tired, and felt that all of the people around her had failed her by one measure or another, and on one particular bad night she could no longer see her way out. That’s it.

Here’s the thing I want people to know about Sylvia Plath: she was a survivor. She survived years of debilitating mental illnesses, she survived a suicide attempt, and right up to the end she was trying her damnedest to survive.

Sylvia Plath died on February 11th, 1963, in the middle of the coldest winter London had seen in 100 years. She had moved to the city hoping to find a better support system there and more writing opportunities, but things weren’t working out as she had hoped. The pipes in the flat she had rented kept freezing and bursting, her two small children were often sick, and she didn’t even have a telephone. She was isolated because of the people who had been her friends were, in truth, Ted’s friends. The Bell Jar, which had come out the previous month, was met with critical indifference. Meanwhile, Ted was becoming increasingly well-known in the literary world and, while Sylvia cared for their children in her icy flat, was planning on taking his mistress for a holiday in Spain.

Sylvia fought hard to live. She was seeing her doctor on a daily basis and had just started taking antidepressants. Recognizing that she might be a danger to herself, she took the children and went to stay with a family friend. Meanwhile, her doctor was frantically trying to find her a hospital bed, but none were available. She was trying. You could even argue that Sylvia didn’t die from suicide; she died from the deeply broken infrastructure of mental health care. She died from a system that failed her when her when she needed it the most.

Sylvia Plath was a fighter, and she went down fighting. She did not lose the battle or give in to depression or whatever weird euphemism you want to use. She did not die because she was weak or had a moral failing. She died because she was very sick and did not have proper care. There is nothing more to than that, not that there should be. Dying because there is no room for you in the hospital is tragedy enough without embroidering it.

It’s a full moon tonight. Sylvia would have loved it. She was obsessed with the moon; it featured heavily in her poems, and she mentioned it literally hundreds of times in her journal, dissecting its colour, shape and size. It had a sort of elemental pull on her, just as her writing tugs indescribably at something in me. I keep returning to her, reading her, writing about her. No matter how much I dig up and sort through, I’m never done. I don’t want to ever be done.

I hope there’s a moon wherever she is.


My Kid Is A Tiny Pedant And I’m Not Really Sorry

26 Oct

My son is going through a pedantic phase. It’s a long phase; it’s been going on for over two years now and shows no signs of flagging. I distinctly remember when it started – he about two and a half and we were visiting my in-laws in Alberta and during an after-dinner walk corrected me when I referred to a large metal play structure as a park. “Actually,” he said, “that’s a playground. The park is what the playground is in.” I remember turning to my husband and saying, “Did you hear that? He just CORRECTED me.”

My kid has been well-actually-ing me on a regular basis ever since, which is like medium-funny because I feel like I spend half my life having dudes on the internet WELL ACTUALLY about anything and everything and the other half of my life hearing the same thing from my four year old. I know this probably just sounds like I have an extra sassy four year old and should probably spend more time disciplining him and less time explaining how casual misogyny works to strangers online.

To be fair, my kid is definitely the argumentative type. If I tell him to put on his shoes, he’ll spend about ten minutes coming up a list of solid reasons why he doesn’t need to (“I just need to play with my train first!” “My sock has a wrinkle in it!” “The sky is a funny colour!”). A friend of mine recently joked that he’ll probably have a police record by the time he’s fifteen and a lawyer by the time he’s 25, and I don’t entirely disagree with that. I sometimes worry that people think he’s rude and undisciplined, but I swear that I shut him down any time he’s actually being sassy (for example, the other day I asked him to sing me a particular song he’d learned at school to which he grumpily replied “you sing it if you like it so much” – that kind of shit earns him what we refer to as a consequence, let me tell you). But the thing is that as much as “well, actually” might grate on my nerves, especially when served up by men trying to pull some kind of power trip on me, I’m going to let my kid keep saying it for now. Because I think it’s a normal developmental stage and also a perfectly healthy reaction to how weird and messy reality is.

You probably have a pretty set idea about how the world works. Things behave according to a certain set of rules, some of which are specific to you and your environment, some of which apply to everyone you know. You spend your life working within these rules, and they mostly stay pretty constant. But every once in a while you get learn something new, and the rules change. Sometimes it’s something small, and you can adapt pretty quickly. Other times it’s something huge, something that shakes the foundation of how you understand the world. When that happens, you find yourself making big changes, maybe even feeling like you’re starting again from scratch. Luckily, the latter kind of change doesn’t happen very often. If it did, most of us would have a very, very difficult time functioning because we would always be second-guessing reality.

But for kids, especially young kids, huge sweeping changes in how they perceive the world happen all the time. And while probably on some level they are kind of used to having to rebuild their world view from scratch all the damn time, but on another level it must be terrifying and destabilizing. I’m sure their little brains can handle it because it’s all part and parcel of children develop – they create an understanding of reality based on their lived experience and build onto that as they go. But it still must be scary as fuck to have the rug swept out from under your feet on a near-daily basis.

I think that part of how kids cope with this is by being very specific about language and ideas. It’s both a safety blanket for them and a way of checking in with adults. They’re saying “this is how I understand the world” and at the same time asking “is this what you mean?” They’re not trying to be rude, just accurate.

I know that WELL ACTUALLY sounds like sassing and maybe in older kids it actually is. I’m sure my kid and I will have plenty of conversations about gender, language and how not to be a weird jerk who talks over women. Right now, though, I firmly believe that a lot of the time it’s born out of anxiety. Children know when they’ve said or believed the wrong thing. And just like grownups feel acute anxiety whenever they realize that they’ve been saying/thinking/doing a silly thing for years and years, children feel the same way too. Except they feel it all the time, and then have to hear their mistakes and misunderstandings repeated by the grownups they trust as examples of GOSH DON’T KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS?

I’m trying to keep this in mind while my son tries to navigate this whole trying-to-figure-out-the-world thing. So when I say something like “vampires eat blood” and he answers back “actually vampires eat AND drink blood,” I’m making a real effort not to be like “yeah sure but you know what I meant.” The truth is he didn’t know what I meant, not for certain. He wanted some clarification, and for now I’m happy to provide it. “Yes,” I told him, “you’re right. Vampires drink AND eat blood. It covers all of their nutritional and hydration needs.” Then we talked about how cool it is that vampires sleep in coffins. Hopefully at some point I remembered to tell him that vampires are imaginary. Probably I did.

If I didn’t, I’m sure I’ll get a WELL ACTUALLY about it soon enough.


Guest Post: I’m A Man And I Had An Abortion

14 Oct

Guest post by Anonymous in Pennsylvania

Trigger warning: sexual assault

The recent debates about defunding Planned Parenthood have gotten me really riled up. At first I just assumed it is because I know the array of services they provide and how often they are the only point of access for people to obtain reproductive healthcare. I understand that Planned Parenthood often needs to step in to fill in the gaps where people have had woefully inaccurate (or no) sexuality education and find themselves in need of care to become healthier and stay that way. Unlike some people engaging in the discussion, I actually recognize how much would be at stake if Planned Parenthood were to lose its federal funding.

It took me a while to realize that while all of this stuff was contributing to how I felt, a big part of why I was upset was because of the whole abortion issue.

Yeah, you know, that little thing.

It doesn’t matter that federal funding is already not used for abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood, and it doesn’t matter that abortions are just a very small segment of the services provided by Planned Parenthood. Neither of those facts take away from how important access to abortion is. And the truth is that if Planned Parenthood loses its federal funding, it will likely no longer be able to provide any services – including terminating pregnancies.

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, the brainchild of Lindy West and Amelia Bonow. Their campaign stemmed from this notion that those fighting for defunding Planned Parenthood at least partially crafted their speech and arguments around the idea that abortion still needs to be whispered about. People who oppose often portray those who have terminated pregnancies as being always tormented and regretful about the choice that they made. And, of course, some people do feel some level of regret (even if they still believe that abortion was the right choice for them) – but then again, many people feel nothing but relief.

And yet, we never hear those stories, do we? We never hear about the people who are happy about the fact that they had an abortion; we never hear about the people who walk away from terminating a pregnancy without experiencing any remorse or regret. Somehow, those stories are still taboo. #ShoutYourAbortion offered a safe space for individuals to be open about their abortion experiences, allowing them to break that socially-enforced silence.

Not everyone has the same experience with abortion, but so many people still feel the need to remain quiet about it. Watching the #ShoutYourAbortion stories spread across social media and seeing how varied they were helped me to put my own experiences into context. I realized that it might be helpful to other people if I added my own voice to the mix, and shared my own particular story.

I’m a man. And I had an abortion when I was 27.

I’m trans, and I was sexually assaulted by a group of armed men who apparently could see past two years of testosterone treatment and wanted to “prove” that I was “really” a woman. It happened in broad daylight in a park. There were people within earshot, and no one did anything. Among the many other issues that arose out of the assault, I got pregnant.

I never thought I would have to worry about that. After all, I’d been on testosterone for two years and I felt sure that my whole reproductive system had been suppressed by the male hormones. But, hey, apparently that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t really make sense to me even now; by all scientific rights, I should not have been able to conceive. Nonetheless, there I was, a man finding out that he was pregnant.

Getting that abortion probably saved my life.

It’s understandable that transmen can be left out of the conversation around abortion, though I think it’s unfortunate. I know I’m not the only transman to experience an unwanted pregnancy. At the same time, though, I don’t feel like I can go to Twitter and shout my abortion. I don’t want to seem like I’m pulling a what-about-the-men. And yet it’s difficult to see trans people so frequently left out of discussions about reproduction.

I believe in choice. I believe in bodily autonomy. I believe that people should have the right and opportunity to make choices about their bodies that are best for them. I don’t think there’s a litmus test for what qualifies as an “acceptable” abortion. I don’t need someone telling me that my abortion was sort of ok because it was due to a sexual assault, but someone else’s is not. That’s not how choice works.

Those are my beliefs, and certainly we all have the rights to our own. If abortion is not the right or acceptable choice for you, by all means don’t have one. But, to me, it’s really difficult when others want to get all up on my uterus and tell me what I can and can’t do with it, or what kind of person I am based on the choices I make and action steps I choose to take.

I wish we didn’t need a hashtag, no matter how powerful, to help break the silence around abortion. I wish there were less secrecy about it, including among transmen. But here I stand with those beliefs and I still can’t bring myself to shout my abortion on Twitter. Stigma is so pervasive; it’s hard to work through it even when you understand intellectually how it works and how it stands to silence individuals and take away their power.

Trans liberation and reproductive justice movements must go hand in hand. Social justice movements in general need to be intersectional; struggles never just impact one kind of person. Trans individuals and those fighting for reproductive justice–and there are already plenty of people falling under both categories doing the work–probably agree that we’re all working toward the same goal: the ability for each of us to inhabit our own bodies and be supported in doing so. Lack of control over our bodies, sex and reproduction are huge issues for both trans and cisgender people. There’s commonality in the fight for liberation.

My abortion was and continues to be the least traumatic part about my experience with being assaulted. Abortion was 100% the right choice for me and I have never regretted it.

However you can do it, whether it’s shouting on Twitter or not, if you’re willing and safe to do so I hope you can be open about your experience with abortion, whatever that experience was. Silence can truly be deadly. Isolation doesn’t ever help.

My hope is that any individual–regardless of gender identity or expression–would be able to make choices about their own bodies without coercion and judgment, be supported in doing so, and have the freedom and ability to access the resources to get the vital, and sometimes life-saving, care that they need and deserve.


“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.