'A Diary Entry' by student Joshua Dabelstein was published in Towards Publication in 2021.
Unlike the small, white 100 mg sertraline pills, the 50 mg ones that I’ve weaned down to are not scored. Having administered these Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) every day for eleven years, I am fully aware of the ramifications of a mis-dose.
I stand over my desk guillotining pills with the switchblade that Albert, a family friend, gifted me for my ninth birthday. Albert died of leukaemia soon after, and I got the day off school to watch his casket move slowly along a conveyor belt and into a furnace. My father took the switchblade, blunted it, and gave it back to me. But blunt or not, I have always felt warm and safe with it handy. Now I need it to perform the opposite function: I’m using it to cut pills in half in order to encourage vulnerability, not fend it off. Dr Eli says that I need to learn how to engage with my emotions. I must gauge whether or not I truly have the chemical imbalance that I was diagnosed with as a teenager. The experiment piggybacks off another: I’m an alcoholic drug addict who has just reached thirty days sober, smashing the decade’s previous record of forty-eight hours. This is no ordinary oil change. I’ve got a whole new engine. I’m learning how to drive manual in heavy traffic. And I’m playing chicken with an empty fuel tank on an open road.
But it’s not all about chemicals and diagnoses and the buckets full of bodily fluids I clean out as I arrive back home from the hospital. The wean is an existential exercise too. I want to know if I can—left chemically unadulterated, and out on that open road—idle, rev and brake like a normal person. I am weak, I am compromised, I am not a man. I live in split cognition: on an intellectual level knowing these things I tell myself about myself to be untrue, but feeling their weight all the same.
* * *
I’m yelling for my mother from the toilet, age two or three. I eventually stand up and waddle across the bathroom with my pants down, opening the door to call out again. I’ve tried taking myself to the toilet but I can’t seem to manage the folding and wiping situation. I know I can safely expel what needs expelling, but have failed to consider the rest of the routine. I’m distressed and red-cheeked, overwhelmed, standing in the bathroom doorway, penis out and pants down, with my father sitting at the other side of the room watching.
My father teases: ‘Mummy’s boy can’t wipe his bum. Mummy’s boy can’t even take a shit without having his hand held.’
Mum walks into the room, puts her brick-sized Nokia down, and just when I think I’m being rescued the yelling starts. I shuffle back into the bathroom and close the door behind me. I’m sure he’s going to kill her and then he’s going to kill me for making him kill her, if not tonight, tomorrow night or next week maybe, because it is my fault they are fighting.
* * *
I chop another few tablets in half.
Eleven years ago, when I first started on sertraline, I had Mum promise not to tell Dad. Late that evening I hear the lurching of the stairs, and feel the familiar pang of dread as my bedroom door opens.
‘Your mother says you’re taking some sort of medication. Is that so?’
‘The doctor said I needed it.’
I hear the sneer in his voice as he walks out the door. Mummy’s boy still can’t even take a shit without having his hand held. Dad doesn’t believe in ‘the whole mental health thing’. Only when I imagine what it might have been like for him to have walked in on his own father’s suicide attempt, at age eleven, do my fists unclench and melt from anger to deep, unspeakable pity.
* * *
The switchblade has been folded closed for weeks and I have been taking the half-pills. Then one Monday morning, it comes time for me to wake up and take none. I go to university that day, and everything is fine and normal, in fact everything is better than normal because I am so, so proud of myself. Monday evening, I’m elated.
The next morning I head to work and I feel free.
On Wednesday, I wake up a bit restless. Throughout the day I experience brain-zaps—which feel like someone ripping a bit of velcro off your skull from the inside. They’re not painful, just disorienting. I find that the floorboards at work appear to be wobbling, despite the fact that I know that they are not. I decide that I should definitely not be riding a bike around Melbourne, just until I straighten out.
Thursday is rough. But sometimes things are a bit rough, and something that Alcoholics Anonymous has taught me is that as long as I go to bed sober, without having caused any damage or pain to others, everything is fine. Tomorrow is a new day.
And oh baby, it is. Friday, I am insane. I wake up manic, and begin commenting innocuously on people’s social media posts because I am incredibly lonely. By lunch I am crying because people don’t walk their dogs as often as I think they should.
Saturday is day six. I notice that the three assignments that I have due have all been half-written by someone who was up all night researching ‘drones’. ‘What about drones?’, you ask. Cost, range, battery life, how much they can carry, whether they can send and receive encrypted information or whether it is safer to have your drone store the information it collects to its own solid state memory. Do I want to buy a drone? No, but I want to know what that man in the park was doing and why.
On Sunday morning I stare into the mirror for a very long time. ‘The experiment has failed,’ I announce to nobody, swallowing a 50 mg pill, because by this stage I’m narrating my own life out loud more than I realise. I call my grandmother. She tells me that she loves me and that diabetics take insulin every day.
* * *
I watch the man-child with the drone fiddle with his toy in the park, undisturbed. I wonder if every man on their fortieth birthday is presented with the option: a stand-up paddle board OR a drone. You can only choose one! A wry smile creeps up on me as I remember studying him from behind a tree only a few months ago. Lacey thinks it’s a bird, and she does not like birds. Or rather, she feels very strongly about birds, and because she is a kelpie she is unable to express whether her incessant hounding of all birds is an expression of love or hate.
Perhaps it is both, perhaps it is neither. Perhaps the delineation between such strong feelings isn’t so clear when those feelings can’t be boiled down to their elements and poured across a page. Perhaps dogs just feel things differently, too.
We walk home and I consider my own feelings. The whitening of my knuckles when the bus is late; the swelling of my eyes every single time I read Tim Winton telling us that ‘not all of Fish Lamb had come back’; the warmth in my chest when my grandmother excites herself into a description of the weather outside her window, as I picture her sitting on her couch with Noushka the dachshund draped across her lap. The quiet moment of peace when I regard myself in the mirror before I walk out the door.
I am right-sized, idling brightly in the front door; gratefully glacial, thawing in the morning sun.
Joshua Dabelstein is a Melbourne-based writer, cartoonist and musician. Having spent his formative years as a young journalist in Canberra’s senate press gallery, Joshua’s writing has since appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and New Matilda. His current project can be accessed at uncooking.net or via Instagram @captain.cookd.
Image description: A man tossing his head from side to side, with two blurred images showing his movement superimposed in blue and red.
Image credit: @captain.cookd.