Roisin Kiberd | Rasputin of Potomac
It is the end of December 2012 and there’s American football on TV. I’m having a seizure on a sofa in Potomac, Washington, and the end is very much nigh.
The TV is the size of a school blackboard. The Dallas Cowboys are playing the Washington Redskins, whose name I feel uncomfortable saying aloud. Nathan, the nice Jewish 22-year-old who has invited me into his home as well as his continent, sits on the opposite sofa watching the game with his brother and alternating hits from a bong. He intermittently asks me how I’m doing, and offers me sips of Diet Snapple.
Between blackouts I tell him it’ll pass in an hour or two. This has all happened before. I should have remembered from last time.
Nathan’s kitchen has a crate of Snapple, in a store cupboard the size of a box room. There’s also a crate of pasta, one of matzo crackers, one of breakfast cereal, and another one full of wine. His home is a McMansion and everything here comes in crates, stocking up for an apocalypse long past.
I should say now that I love America. It lulls the soul into dreamy solipsism. America is the cure for my messy state, working in London, medicated and hating life, vulnerable enough to go along with the romance of a transatlantic visit to see someone I’ve met twice before.
The seizure is also due, indirectly, to depression. When it happened before, at a party on Bethnal Green Road, we were told by an emergency phone line that the bong hits I’d taken an hour before had interacted with my high dose of Prozac. That was one of the reasons I stopped taking Prozac completely two weeks before flying to Washington. It was the end of the year and I wanted a new start. Stepping off the plane I felt frost bite my nose and forehead, shocking me awake. Or maybe it was the brain zaps–it was hard to tell.
Nathan’s friends are the preppiest people I’ve ever met. I meet them at a brunch where I skip the food and only sip coffee: they wear white and navy, speak politely and all look unfeasibly clean. Hair unbleached. Skin clear of tattoos. In bed Nathan tells me he’s never been with a girl who has a tattoo before, and wouldn’t normally. I decide to take this as a compliment, and plan to get mine lasered off.
I am trying to put a nail in the coffin of a miserable year, so I ask Nathan for advice. He says to do what makes me happy. I have just walked out of my job as a creative at an ad agency on the Thames.
In London, Prozac made me dream in the daytime and sleep away my weekends. I fell out of time and into a dream-state, one where advertising’s leaps of logic made sense. Society could be broken down into appetites and categorised: age (lad, father, mother, slut), gender (blue men and pink women), wage bracket (London, Zone 1, Zones 2-3, Zones 3-6). I hated the campaigns for beer and skin cream and ‘solutioneering for mums’ but worked on them anyway. I had started to be one of the people I took Prozac as defence against.
I had believed that having an office job would make me normal. Instead it drove me further into strange: I started throwing up all my food, lost contact with friends, arranged a torrent of internet dates I failed to show up to. Sometimes I would stand at a distance from the meeting spot and watch them waiting, as panic attacks drained the blood from my head. I left a girl at a record store, a guy in an underground bar. I turned around on the way to Great Eastern street, switched my phone off and walked home with neon swimming in the corners of my vision.
I was very sensitive to Prozac, and realize this might not be the same for everyone. It skewed time into speedbumps and blackouts, periods where I spoke a mile a minute bookended by naps in empty conference rooms on the third floor. On Prozac I would sit down on the bus then not be able to get up again because of the medicine-ball weight of my own leg bones. Depression gave my body a new clock: I would roofy away weekends with Zopiclone, also prescribed, then wake up every week day at 5am.
And London demanded its own logical leaps: everyone around me seemed only to be tolerating it, working until they could afford somewhere else. The city segmented life into Tube journeys, gym visits, and Marks and Spencer’s ready meals. Everything was provided for in fascistic specificity: it disturbed me but made me feel guilty for my unhappiness.
This is where the idea of ‘cosmetic pharmacology’ comes in: people take medicine to be acceptable inside, to measure up to what they imagine to be normal.
I left Dublin in the fallout of a breakup, and by some miracle of slut luck met Nathan. He became a presence on my laptop, target of sentimental Zopiclone chats. Finally we arranged a visit.
And now I find myself seizuring on his sofa. The cycle of lucidity and blackout feels routine by the second hour: voices grow dim, vision blurs as if through somebody else’s glasses. It feels like I am falling into my own body. I had maybe two hits before all this started.
The football players on TV have transformed into dancing ants. The patterns inside my eyelids are more interesting: Liberty paisley crossed with bacteria under a microscope. I wonder how much of this stoner fantasy I have inherited from trip sequences in films. It’s like how I wanted weed to be when I was fifteen.
Patterns distend and reproduce: inside the patterns are more patterns. Inside those, figures appear from gospel and myth. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair, angry because I posed on his statue’s knee in pictures at his memorial. I zoom into the lens of his glasses: Margery Kempe, wailing the name of the child Jesu. I zoom into the bloody stigmata on her hand: it is Lestat the vampire. Then Eddie Izzard wearing women’s shoes, offering cake or death. Then later the child Krishna, blue-skinned and inane, puffing on a shrill little flute.
Finally Rasputin shows up, shouldering heavy cloaks on skinny bones. His beard is jet black. His eyes are stones. He is moving like a figure in a side-scrolling computer game, or the priest in Age of Empires. Rasputin is angling to convert me.
Rasputin was very good at finding friends in high places, the kind of Russians who would have McMansions of their own. He would have shunned Snapple for simple rice and Georgian dessert wines (his favourite drink, by reports), and probably would never have done bong hits.
Rasputin would have cured me or seduced me. He would have induced fits akin to the one I’m having now.
“Don’t worry, it’ll go away soon.” I am having a very pleasant and colourful blackout.
Looking back and Googling it I have found screeds about serotonin syndrome, which can happen when other substances interact with an SSRI. The Prozac was very much in my system–in fact it took another two months for the brain zaps to go away. The shivering and seizures match almost exactly with symptoms. Websites say it heightens the effect by eight hundred percent, that it’s serious and potentially fatal. But my sources are Bluelight and Erowid and the old tormentor, Web MD, which has warned me about death so many times already that I hesitate to believe it.
“I was going to offer you some of my Adderall, but maybe not after this.” Nathan’s brother. My heart sinks. It would have been more fun on Adderall.
In an hour’s time the visions have gone and the Redskins have won. A human action figure called RG3 has triumphed over Tony Romo, and Nathan and his brother are baked out of their skulls.
Later that night Nathan wants to have McMansion sex in the bed he grew up sleeping in. I find myself staring at his bar mitzvah portrait on the wall, and thinking about Rasputin. I sneak back to the kitchen later and open both doors of the fridge, enjoying its UFO glow in the dark. I’m aware it’s never going to work out with Nathan, but I want to understand where he comes from. I want to see the contents of his fridge.
Two days later I fly home and pick at my tinfoiled airplane casserole and try to work out what to do next. The dish is frighteningly oily, but the flight attendants offer it to me with a dizzying American warmth which soothes away my brain zaps.
I tell myself that when I land things things will be different. Clearer and calmer. I am going to stay in Dublin this time.
Something is gone, exorcised away by Rasputin. Something has been seizured out of me.