Extroverted like me: How a month and a half on Paxil taught me to love being shy.

Extroverted Like Me

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Jan. 2 2001 9:30 PM

Extroverted Like Me

How a month and a half on Paxil taught me to love being shy.

(Continued from Page 1)

Day 35: Drinking a lot, several nights a week. Liquor + Paxil = Wow!

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Pre-Paxil, I was a social drinker. Now I'm walking a mile in someone else's brain chemistry. I can see why some of you like to drink so much, maybe even need to drink so much. It's fun for me now, in a way it just wasn't before. On liquor and Paxil, strangers mean novelty, not fear. Group conversations are a chance to play raconteur, not a chance to smile weakly and shut up.

And it's so much better than sobriety. Sober for me these days means extreme detachment. Movies, once a favorite hobby, do nothing for me now. Likewise books—I just don't connect with the plots or characters. I can't recall laughing (while sober) in the past couple of weeks. I'm never sad, but never happy. Why wouldn't I drink?

Day 38: I spent the first semester of my freshman year of college in a haze. During the Southern California evenings, I often played tennis, pulling bong hits between games. I distilled homemade rum in my dorm room, using Sterno cans and plastic tubing. My roommate grew six ounces of weed in our closet. It was more fun than I'd ever had in my life. The day after I got home for Christmas break, I decided to transfer.

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It occurs to me that the past month has been a bit like that semester. I'm living the unexamined life. It's fantastic. I'm about ready to transfer.

Day 45: I stop my treatment. I had planned elaborate tests for myself—crashing formal parties, giving a dinner toast to a full restaurant, singing jazz standards in subway stations—but I decide these will prove nothing. Also, my lack of engagement with life is freaking out my girlfriend. And my seismic personality shift when drunk is freaking out me.

My day-to-day, sober interactions with people are unchanged by Paxil. A crisis along the lines of a public speaking engagement would still send sweat coursing down my spine (unless I downed a few scotch-and-sodas first). As best I can tell, Paxil works by creating massive detachment from your own emotions. If your social anxiety verges on looniness, detachment from those emotions is a good thing. For me, a milder case, hard-core detachment is just spooky. So, no more pills.

III. The Withdrawal

Day 46: At dinner, I feel the onset of mutation. While staring at a plate of artichoke hearts, my focus suddenly shifts, like the track-out/zoom-in camera trick in Vertigo. My brain is shifting out of Paxil gear and back to normal. It's like coming down off a hallucinogen. Later in the evening, it happens a few more times.

Day 47: Cannot get out of bed. Pounding headache. Extreme intestinal unhappiness. Dizzy all day.

Day 48: More of the same. I'm exhibiting classic withdrawal, which I've read about on some anti-Paxil Web sites. The dizziness and lightheadedness are overwhelming and far scarier than mere stomach distress. I leave the house but have to sit down every 10 minutes for fear of keeling over.

Day 49: Not much better. I can't describe how awful it is to be lightheaded for 72 straight hours. I try to lift my blood sugar by eating, but it makes no difference. Nothing helps. More alarmingly, the dreaded "zaps" have arrived. I'd read about these on the Paxil Database, a site for self-proclaimed Paxil victims, but I thought they were made up—there are so many hypochondriacs on the Web.

Turns out the zaps are for real. They're hard to describe. Imagine low level electrical shocks all over your head, as though someone removed the top of your skull and dragged a staticky blanket across your brain. Zaps come in waves that last about 15 minutes then go away for a few hours. They do not hurt but are unnerving, to say the least.

Day 50: Zap waves all day. Have now been dizzy and burping for four days.

Day 51: Intestines happier. Dizziness comes and goes. Zaps still there.

Day 52: It's mercifully over. But a new phenomenon has taken hold. When I get teary-eyed watching a horrid chick-flick on a cross-country flight, I recognize it: feelings. On Paxil, I barely noticed they were gone. Now that they're back, even overcompensating, I never want to lose them again. Bitterness, anger, jealousy, sadness: They all make me happy.

IV. Epilogue

In retrospect, it was a bad idea to screw with my brain chemistry and possibly inflict lifelong damage just for the sake of experiment. I would not do something like this again. At the height of my withdrawal I was seriously terrified, thought it might never end, and repeatedly cursed my own stupidity. The fact that I considered a wholesale career change under the drug's effects, and couldn't complete any work, is alarming. Also, the zaps are for real. Fear them.

At the same time, I admit it was fascinating to try out a different personality. He only came out when I drank, but I caught a glimpse of an alternate me, and he wasn't such a bad guy—if a little gabby. I think I gained some empathy for other types of folk, and maybe got an idea of how alcohol can mean different things to different people. I also sort of discovered what emotions are for and decided being shy isn't so bad after all. Thanks, Paxil!

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