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Thunder Pie | Tranquilaria: Mental Health Mini-Essays

Was that real or imagined? I don’t know, man. I really don’t. And what does it matter?

The High Cost of Wiping Out All the Dugout Smokers

Back in the 1970s and the 1980s, which is where I come from, no one gave a shit about your mental health. They just didn’t. If you were alive back then, you never heard anything about depression or anxiety. Depression was a a weird word, like an uppity word for a spring pothole maybe. And anxiety simply meant you weren’t smoking enough cigarettes. Which, back then, was something that people might very well judge you on. Light smokers were seen as a bit twee, a bit fancy-pants. Non-smokers were considered out-of-their-minds uppity. They were frowned upon and feared. They went to outdoor Air Supply concerts and drank chilled white wine from aluminum tumblers.

Those were the days, too. I remember standing in the dugout one Saturday morning, the sun shining brighter like it did back in those days, and breathing my head coach’s freshly exhaled Newport smoke straight into my lungs. It was glorious, that lightly toasted monument to a moment, out of his existence and down into mine. I remember thinking how grown-up I felt right then/ how safe and fine I would be forever.

Of course, that didn’t happen. And nowadays if a Little League coach were to light up a cigarette in the dugout it would literally be astonishing. The TikTok video. The public reaction raining down on both sides. The exclusive interviews with the parents of the players and the coach himself (or even better: HERSELF!… or even better THEMSELF!)… especially if you could get them on together. The entire world would go fucking apeshit. Legions of the opinionated masses would be triggered by the primal scent of blood to weigh-in, unsolicited of course, on the health horror vs snowflake debate of the century. Except it would all come and go in a heavy swift flash flood of madness that would disappear even quicker than it showed up on our screens. Here today, gone later today. But the long-term damage would have been done by then anyway.

Everyone would be worse for wear too. Instead of feeling right or justified or validated or smug, everyone would be left, just like we are always left anymore, feeling like we just ate a melting fist of summer dog shit off the sidewalk outside our front door. We would feel disgusted and violated and confused. No matter which army we had instantly joined upon the battle breaking out, we would have dreadful waves of absolute insecurity pounding us/ ripping us/ bringing us to our gasping knees in the raw sewage surf of the fallout of yet another modern day.

And in the end, I can’t help but wonder what’s worse.

Those local coaches smoking in the dugout?

Or who we have become since then?

Sertraline 100mg.

A few weeks ago I tried to step down a bit off my meds. I figured I’d see if cutting the dose in half over a little time might suit me. A little backstory for the freshmen first, okay? If you are a mental health familiar/ please stand by.

Sertraline is generic Zoloft. I don’t really understand why there has to be a cheaper knock-off imitation of the real mood-stabilizer/anti-anxiety/ anti-depression drugs that are out there, but that’s the deal with almost all of them as far as I can tell. I suppose it’s for the zillions of people who might benefit from the drug (i.e. NEED to be on that shit) who also aren’t swimming in rivers of money. Insurance likely plays some kind of role, but to be honest I don’t really give a shit. I don’t have time to sit around trying to figure out how to pay for the actual thing when there’s a $5 version singing my name. That is, I also suppose, exactly how the healthcare system wants me to see things too. For all I know: the pill I swallow every morning to help me get through my day without feeling like I’m dying from the dark sad that lives down in me, that pill could be 100% sugar and nothing else. Maybe it’s all in my head and someone somewhere is making a mint off of wannabe mental health suckers like me.

Still, I doubt it. Because even though I haven’t ever been wealthy enough to belong to the REAL ZOLOFT TAKERS OF AMERICA CLUB, I have been taking this imitation version on and off for quite a long time across my adult years. And I do believe it really helps me too. And that’s good enough for this blue peasant.

A few weeks ago then, I thought maybe cutting my dosage down, a little at a time until I’d half’d it, might lead me to feel a little less tired in the afternoons. And like all intellectual Americans with an unflappable faith in miracles, I also was thinking that maybe the deduction of the amount of meds in my system would lead to me dropping a good 30lbs of weight. Just because, you know?

Obviously, nothing ever turns out right though. I lost no weight. But I lost my protection. After a while, I began to feel naked, my nerve ends out flapping in the wind. The whole town was looking at me every time I walked into the post office to grab the mail. I could feel people talking about me, I could sense people dissing me behind my back for no reason at all. One day, I got out of bed the same as I always do, drove the kids to school, headed for work, but by the time I got there I was so overcome with an intense feeling of smallness and pointlessness that I just sat down on the steps of the house I’m working on and stared at my hands.

They were chapped, dried from the dry March air. I saw all the tiniest screw cuts and wood splinters that peppered and dotted my aging skin. In the creases of my knuckles I read the writing on the wall. All of your hopes and dreams are shattered, dude, it said. And you are never coming back from this again.

I stood up, balled my fists, and chewed down on my lip. I hadn’t felt this lost and alone in a long, long time. I drove home, ignored the dogs, went upstairs, took out my contact lenses, and laid down in bed for the entire day. No one else was home. No one else had any idea what I had been doing with the medicine… or what was occurring with me now.

Nothing had happened in my world to cause me obvious stress. All that had really occurred or changed other than the daily dose of bullshit and struggle that we all deal with was the fact that I had chopped half of the Sertraline out of my life. I had taken a chance. Looking to count on my hard-earned, invaluable therapy toolbox and my experience of the last few years to lift me and carry me across this broken glass parking lot of living that the meds had helped carry me across, I was hopeful. Resolute. Watchful but excited.

And now this.

The next day was more of the same and it was then that any pride I had been getting high on in my newfound lower dose state evaporated. And you are never coming back from this again. I knew intrinsically that the ‘this’ my mind was talking about was my blues. My powerful, heavy, unstoppable blues had returned. Luckily for me though, I had some experience by now/ I am a veteran of my own struggles. This kind of survival means scars, deep hard scars… yet it also means knowledge. Maybe even wisdom, if you will. I understood that my little experiment had failed. I wasn’t at a junction, but I couldn’t hop off the train I was on. I probably needed to be very careful.

The next day I took the whole pill again instead of the half. I expected more of the same because with meds: you have to wait until they are working. But this time I got lucky. I felt so much better almost immediately. Was that real or imagined? I don’t know, man. I really don’t. And what does it matter anyway? I am writing this now, feeling alright. I feel pretty good, all things considered. I am still here. And that is all I can really ask from any knock-off pill.

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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin.