Flash Fiction: “On Becoming Anti-Depressed” & “Sense/Reference”

On Becoming Anti-Depressed

The first time I tried to quit I couldn’t sleep for three days, cried whenever I heard a familiar song on the radio, and set my favorite sweater on fire. We were watching TV and there was a cantaloupe-scented candle on the endtable, and my arm must’ve gotten too close to it, because the next thing I knew Robert had jumped up shouting. It’d been a few days since I halved my dose, so I figured that was the worst of it. But by the second week I could barely stand. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be this bad,” Robert said, sweeping up shards of a plate I’d dropped, and I guess I agreed.

The second time I planned to cut the pills into halves, the halves into quarters, the quarters into eighths, and the eighths into sixteenths. I figured if I tapered a sixteenth of a pill at a time then maybe the withdrawal wouldn’t be so noticeable. The problem was that past a quarter the pills would crumble into a white powder that tasted like Clorox and burned on my tongue. So I decided I’d scale down by a quarter-pill instead. That seemed fine until the afternoon at work when I left a fork in the curry I was microwaving. The breakroom filled with smoke, an alarm went off, and everybody had to stand in the parking lot until the fire department could come and give the OK. “This is impossible,” I told Robert that night. “Am I supposed to take these things for the rest of my life?” To which Robert, God bless him, only shrugged. 

The next time I had my shrink give me a prescription for the smallest dose available, a one-milligram tablet. The plan was I’d start with ten pills in the morning and ten at night, and then work my way down from there. But when I went to pick them up, the pharmacist said they’d be $450. I called the insurance company for an explanation, and it took me forty minutes navigating a robotic menu before I got a real person on the line, a woman who referred me to a man who referred me to another man who referred me to a woman who wanted to refer me to someone else. By then I’d been on the phone for nearly two hours, though, so I hung up.

After that I was feeling kind of pissed off, which probably is partly why I decided to quit cold turkey, even though Robert and my shrink were against it. The day before I wrote a few quotes on the bathroom mirror in red dry-erase marker: Fortune favors the bold and To begin, begin—that kind of thing. Then I took two weeks’ vacation and settled onto our couch to watch every season of Dancing with the Stars. At first I felt fine. Better than when I’d tried to taper, actually. But on the afternoon of the fourth day I went into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of milk, and the next thing I knew I was on the floor, watching two percent drip from the countertop. That evening I passed out in the shower and came to with a split eyebrow, blood draining through the grout. “That’s it,” I said to Robert as he turned into the urgent care’s parking lot. “If I have to take these fucking things for the rest of my life, so be it.”

And maybe that should’ve been it. Maybe I should’ve been grateful the way I’d been years before, back when I first got on the meds, when I was satisfied not to have those urges every time I crossed a bridge or shaved my legs or noticed a bottle of Ambien in my parents’ bathroom. Now I was hung up on the sense that I was missing something. Life seemed like trying to write a symphony with only two staff lines. There were so many other notes out there, and I knew they were there, but I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t feel them.

So after a couple weeks I tried again. I tried micro-dosing mortared pills in squares of toilet paper, and when that didn’t work I bought an expensive machine to re-encapsulate the ground-up chemicals. I tried supplementing expensive juice cleanses, exhaustive vitamin regimens, gallons of Gatorade, Transcendental Meditation, yoga at dawn. I tried hypnosis, Gregorian chanting, crystal healing, CBD, acupuncture. Every time I thought maybe I’d get away with it there’d be some new symptom: hot flashes, mania, exhaustion; fits of paranoia, dreams of being waterboarded, tears or laughter, dry mouth that made my tongue click when I spoke. It seemed like it didn’t matter whether I tapered or not. Quitting was miserable no matter what. 

After a few months I left my job, tired of sweating buckets and drooling on myself in front of coworkers. Anyway it seemed like getting off the medicine was a full-time thing. Not long ago Robert said maybe the meds are something I’ve got to take, that it’s like how a diabetic needs insulin. That made sense, but it got me thinking about something I’ve wondered for a while: what if the symptoms come from the normal human feelings I’ve wanted all this time? What if depression is an overreaction to being normal? In that case the problem isn’t that I’m sick. It’s that I’m healthy and I can’t handle it. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’ve been off the pills for a week now, and my thinking is still pretty foggy.

Sense/Reference

1.

“Doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he said, clicking through something on his computer, stomach lit by the laptop’s pale light.

Sitting on the other side of the sofa she watched him, thinking so many ways to construe any little action, thinking the movement of one’s pinky finger, one’s responsibility or guilt, although by one of course she meant my

“No,” she said, looking from him to where the TV news silently screened a car chase. “I guess not.”

2.

He tapped at the laptop’s trackpad and she held the TV remote loosely, trying to decide whether to turn the sound on again, to press Mute. Most of the remote’s buttons were of semitransparent silicone rubber, but Mute was round and blue, with a small indentation at its center.

As a child she’d developed a love for silicone, its texture and smell—the spongy cones of her MP3 player’s earbuds, the joystick on her brother’s Playstation controller, the kitchen’s twin grey spatulas. Most of all she’d loved the remote, its three dozen buttons of varied shape and size, a clean, space-aged odor about them. She’d watch TV with the remote in hand, running her fingers across its pebbled surface for hours, pressing here and there, savoring each button’s gentle give.

Now she sat on the sofa, the TV’s sound off yet, tracing her fingers across the remote. Its plastic backing was smooth from years of handling.

3.

There came a flat whap as he snapped the laptop shut.

“The thing is that I can only control” (he said) “so much” (she licked her lips, tasting salt); “You have to remember that when you speak” (he said) “there’s this gap between your words and what the other person” (he) “hears. That you’re responsible for what the other person understands.”

“I have another lover,” she repeated.

“Christ,” he said, and set his computer onto the endtable. He did this with surprising gentleness, like the furniture were a cloud, insubstantial – as if to set the device down too roughly might cause it to fall through. Or it were as though the computer were a child, an infant, a term that for the first time struck her as like a portmanteau, a compression of the phrase infinitely precious thing

“If you want me to be honest,” he said. And he said something else, although she found herself dropping in and out on his speech, catching only scattered words: “thought” and “skin” and “crawl.” There were other words, too, but these were largely connective tissue, ligature, unimportant in themselves.

It was possible that the words had come in another order, and that arranged differently he’d have said something else altogether. Afterward she could only remember the way in which they should have gone – meaning only what she’d have said herself. Which, she knew, wasn’t the same thing at all.

4.

There was a pause. After a time he said the word “lover.” He said it flatly, like a child about to give its spelling.

She said the word herself, then, with an accent, biting like Sean Connery into the “r,” adding an –ly to the end for good measure.

He stared at the TV. He said, “What kind of a fucking word is that?”

Which seemed so funny all of the sudden, so funny that she couldn’t keep from laughing. When she’d stopped he placed a hand on her thigh and said the word himself, loverly, and she laughed again.

It was funny how sometimes they each seemed to know what the other was thinking, that in such moments it wasn’t necessary to speak at all. From the shape his mouth made she could tell he was having the same thought.

“Jesus,” he said.

5.

A squall arose from the baby monitor, which was balanced on the table beside his laptop.

It wasn’t that she’d been trying to blame him. Only he needed to know. She felt like he should know. She’d told him, she’d said the words, clear as anything, meaning that now he ought to know. If he didn’t know now then she wasn’t to blame. That was fair.

Through the sofa’s cushion she could feel his muscles tense, a motion audible to her as speech. He stood and went down the hallway. In a moment she heard him open the nursery’s door, and shut it again.

The TV’s car chase had given way to a newsman at the center of a red frame, clutching a microphone in his fist, speaking with a measure of certainty she’d never felt about anything in her life. She turned to another channel, then pressed the mute button, slowly, relishing the feel of it, startled when the room burst into sound.

About the author

Jake Bartman's stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Crab Creek Review, The Minnesota Review, decomP, and elsewhere. He lives in New Mexico.

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