Sylvia Plath: Maybe it was just the drugs — (Mctaggart)

SSRI Ed note: A week before her suicide, the talented poet/author is prescribed phenelzine, or Nardil, a med that is seldom prescribed today.

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Last Updated Jun 16, 2001

Posted by Lynne Mctaggart

Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me.  In fact, about 30 years ago, before What Doctors Don’t Tell You and The Field, I nearly did a biography on her and Ted Hughes, not because I considered her a feminist martyr, as she is often portrayed, but because something about the Plath-Hughes myth didn’t quite stack up.

I was also intrigued about a man who has not one but two lovers kill themselves by sticking their heads in a gas oven. Assia Weevil, the mistress with whom he betrayed Plath, carried out a copy-cat suicide some years later, but this time took hers and Hughes’ child with her.

Think about this for a second.  Here Plath pores [sic] all that prodigious talent and energy into hitting the target she’s been aiming for all her young years  –  getting her work published in magazines while she’s still in school,  amassing literary and academic prize after prize, securing the guest editorship for Mademoiselle in New York (the top literary prize for a young  collegiate woman in the Fifties),  and then,  when she’s finally able to take a breather after what was, by all accounts an extraordinarily heady spring. . . she decides she has no talent and tries to kill herself.

 I can understand the second attempt a bit more. At that point, she’s got a two year old and a six month old when she discovers that Hughes, her husband and the love of her life, has just begun an affair with a close mutual friend of theirs, leaving her as a single mother of two babies, in virtually the same boat as her mother, whom Sylvia often disparaged as martyr mom supreme. 

 But even then, in the midst of despair, and one of the coldest winters on record, there are ample clues (her suicide note: ‘Please call Dr. Holden’) that she didn’t actually mean to leave her babies and finish herself off.

 A recently published book called Pain, Parties, Work, which painstakingly details Plath’s month in New York during the Mademoiselle editorship, offered one plausible answer. At one point, author Elizabeth Winder happens to mention, almost as an aside, that Sylvia’s aunt, a doctor, had given her sleeping pills that spring during her junior year at Smith College. She was on them all that year and into the summer, when her aunt saw fit to up the dosage. 

 Since the benzodiazepams like Valium were not invented until the 1970s, Plath was likely to have been given a barbiturate, and as she tried to kill herself with Nembutal (phenobarbital), it’s likely that that was the one.  [It was not. The medication that caused her suicide was phenelzine, brand named Nardil, the same drug that probably killed David Foster Wallace – see second article].

 Nembutal’s side effects include agitation, confusion, nightmares, nervousness, psychiatric disturbance, hallucinations, anxiety, thinking abnormalities, confusion, poor judgment and rebound insomnia. They are highly addictive, and they can cause depression and suicidal ideation (a desire to commit suicide).

Compare what happened to Sylvia.  After the New York guest editorship and the social whirl of New York, she went home for her first summer at home with mother, only to discover she didn’t get into a creative writing class and was now stuck at home for the summer for the first time with nothing to do.

 She decided to read Ulysses (next term’s reading list) and to learn shorthand, but couldn’t concentrate on either (a known side effect of barbituates), which caused extreme agitation. She couldn’t sleep (another side effect) and when her boyfriend left for officer training, she had ridiculous fantasies about him (yet another side effect) and decided that all her talent had suddenly left her (another side effect). 

 After he left, her mother discovered her one morning with deep red gashes on her legs under her nightgown (suicidal thoughts?), and promptly took her to the family doctor, who prescribed yet more sleeping pills (which would have exacerbated all these side effects) and. . . electroshock therapy.

 In the 1950s, ECT was administered without anaesthesia or sedatives. During the treatments, Plath would have been kept fully awake, experienced full convulsions and be left, shaking, on her own to recover.

 One well known side effect of ECT is insomnia.  According to Sylvia’s personal calendars, says Winder, Plath stayed awake, despite her exhaustion, for 21 nights straight.  Soon after that, she tried to commit suicide.

 Now, I have only ever taken a single sleeping pill in my life – this time, one of the so-called ‘safer’ benzodiazepines (the class that includes Valium). A friend suggested that I get a prescription from my doctor when I was 33 after my first marriage suddenly broke up and I couldn’t sleep. 

 I slept a strange, disturbing sleep the night I’d begun my prescription, and remember calling my brother that next day and asking him if he would please convince me not to jump out the window. This had nothing to do with distress over the end of the marriage, and I have not once in my life ever entertained a single suicidal thought. 

 I was a victim of one of these drug’s well-known ‘paradoxical’ side effects, which have been linked to a desire to commit suicide. My brother had a long conversation with me, I chucked the the bottle of pills away and I soon found other and safer ways to get some sleep.

 The treatment at the time for attempted suicide was nothing less than barbaric. After Sylvia was discovered alive in a crawl space, three days after she’d taken 40 Nembutal, she was placed into a mental hospital.  Doctors could find no trace of mental illness, but nevertheless, in an attempt to shake her out of it, they gave her insulin shock therapy.

 The side effects of this ‘treatment’ alternate between coma and full-blown seizures, not to mention huge weight gain – hardly a treatment that’s likely to cheer you up.

 Miraculously, she survived this treatment and did indeed fully recover.  She married, had two much-loved children and in 1962, while she was still nursing her baby son, discovered that her husband was betraying her with Weevil.  Plath ultimately left Hughes and tried to make a go of it in London, on her own, during the worst winter on modern record. 

 She was writing the poems that made her name, and during that autumn, wrote The Bell Jar, a novelized version of the spring and summer of her breakdown and suicide attempt. This time, her London doctor prescribed antidepressants. 

 Since SSRIs like Prozac weren’t yet invented, it was likely she was given a tricyclic antidepressant, which can cause confusion, hallucinations, extreme elation or feelings of happiness alternates with depressed moods, anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts or behavior (all very much in evidence in her poems and her journals).

 In February 1963, she reached a mental cul-de-sac, put her head in the oven and this time, carried it through.

I’m not saying that Sylvia didn’t have many personal demons, but maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t just a feminist victim – just a victim of modern medicine. 


Silence of the Poets: Writers and Antidepressants — (Huffington Post)

03/28/2013 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2013

Andrew Shaffer New York Times Bestselling Author

“Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced,” New York Times bestseller Nicholas Nassim Taleb writes in his latest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

Forget, for the moment, that Prozac was available last century. Forget also that, toward the end of her life, Plath was prescribed phenelzine, the best-selling antidepressant of the 1960s. What I found truly ironic about Taleb’s hypothesis is that all of the writers he uses as examples were silenced — not by antidepressants, but by their depression and substance abuse.

Baudelaire, addled by addiction to drugs and alcohol, published only a short novella and one book of poetry before dying at the age of 46. Poe’s output was more voluminous, but the quality of his work was uneven; he died at the age of 40, likely due to complications of his own alcoholism. And Plath managed to publish only one novel and one poetry collection before she committed suicide at the age of 30.

Their stories are far from unique. I researched the lives of Baudelaire, Poe, and 35 other literary bad boys and girls for my new Harper Perennial book, Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. Writers were the original rock stars, living fast and, far too frequently, dying young.

The hard-drinking contrarian was a caricature I had long admired — and even aspired to, as a writer. There’s something hopelessly romantic about the idea of the troubled genius, fighting their demons with nothing but a quill pen or a typewriter, a blank page and a bottle of whiskey or an opium pipe.

The longer I spent in the company of legends like Hemingway, Poe and the Fitzgeralds, however, the more I saw how mental illness and substance abuse hampered their careers. I’m not suggesting that antidepressants are the answer for troubled authors, but it’s difficult to believe antidepressants could have somehow “silenced” some of these wayward authors any more than alcohol and other drugs silenced their voices.

Elsewhere in Antifragile, Taleb says that he fears antidepressants would turn him into a “vegetable” or a “happy imbecile.” This is a common misconception about antidepressants: many people believe they’re simply “happy pills” that will wipe a person’s emotional slate clean. Used correctly, antidepressants can lift the fog of mental illness. Instead of silencing artists, is it possible that antidepressants can actually help them vocalize their creative ambitions?

As a writer who has struggled with depression, the question is one that has long troubled me. Should I resist treatment, on the off-chance my creative output will somehow be affected? I saw other writers I respected, such as David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk, talk publicly about their own use of antidepressants, and I didn’t see any fingerprints left by antidepressants in their work.

Still, it’s an exercise in futility to try to hypothesize what effect, if any, antidepressants would have had on long-gone writers like Poe and Baudelaire. “There’s only a control group of one for any of us,” Elizabeth Wurtzel told me. “The question of whether the ‘real you’ is the person on lithium or the person on illegal drugs doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you function or not.”

For me, that’s a more pertinent question than whether or not antidepressants or substance abuse “silences the soul.”