I am an artist. Believe it or not, it is a pretty anxiety-provoking career. After 20 years of juggling my art-making with my money-making I’ve finally started to make money from my art. Still, it is a dicey way to make a living.
Recently I got a call from my French art dealer. He asked me to go to France to do some work. As soon as I got off the phone with my dealer I sent a text to my wife: “I am going to Paris.”
My wife is great. She is a cracker-jack lawyer in a public defender’s office in Brooklyn. We have been together for 19 years and she has always been right there with me through lots of ups and downs. I found it very interesting that I didn’t get a response to the text for almost four hours, though I admit it wasn’t a surprise.
I’ve lived in Manhattan for almost all of my life. When you go to Paris, you realize right away that you are not in Kansas anymore. The French have a lot of rules. I don’t know half of them. I confided in my French dealer and explained that I was desperately trying to learn the language and the norms, but he told me, “Don’t bother. You will just ruin everything.” These trips to France are always a tricky business. Over the past three years my career seems to be really happening over there — a lot of shows and visits. Still I am never comfortable there. I can’t speak French.
When I have a show in Europe my anxiety level goes through the roof. I spend weeks preparing work in my studio in Brooklyn, then get involved in all of the logistics of getting them overseas, crating up elaborate projects into boxes and hoping everything makes over there in one piece. I am usually invited to go along and will often spend a week or two in a city where I don’t speak the language, working non-stop, all the while drinking and smoking at fever pitch to keep the energy level going.
When I return home I usually find myself looking to clean up a bit. It is during these times that I get to the gym and stop smoking and seem to keep my anxiety at a steady, low-level purr.
I have always used substances to cope with my anxiety. At different moments in my life, I have become completely lost in food, drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes it seemed that survival would have been impossible without them. But after five years in therapy I can now admit that I probably would have been fine without the substances. What really makes my anxiety go away is time and distance. But here’s the thing: part of me doesn’t want it to go away. I actually thrive on and revel in the heart pounding and discomfort, and I enjoy it even more when I am dumping booze or cigarettes on the fire that is burning in my heart and brain.
Of all the vices I have overindulged in, smoking is the only one I will admit has an addictive spell over me. Only cigarettes — or the lack of them — have changed my personality and taken my body and mind out of my own control. When I was younger and tried to quit, I had horrible physical responses to the nicotine deprivation. Tunnel vision, anxiety attacks, general numbness would take over my body. My wife would often tell me to go out and start smoking again, as she couldn’t bear to watch me fall to pieces.
Since then, quitting has been a constant project with me. I quit all the time. But often, when I am overwhelmed with work, I find it almost impossible to not light up. I know, I know… It’s an excuse. But when I am filled with anxiety I simply find it so much easier to feed the beast. Trying not to smoke takes way too much effort.
I made it to France and back. But socializing — with dealers, gallery owners, collectors and other artists — is a big part of the job. I am often surrounded by drinks and drugs and cigarettes, and often indulge to move things along. Not the healthiest of lifestyles, I admit, but as far as my mental health goes, it is during these business trips that I am at my best.
When I returned I went to see my doctor for an annual visit. He was surprised and upset to find that I’d gone back to smoking. I told him that my problem is that I love to smoke and I know it is terrible for me, but whenever I find myself in the throes of a project quitting or staying quit seems to go right out the window.
As things have gone better and better for me in my career, the anxiety levels ratchet up faster and more often. It comes in waves: I become very introverted and detached. I have trouble dealing with people around me. I become controlling and passive at the same moment, stressing about minor details while often losing sight of the situation at hand. My heart races and everything seems to move super fast. I also become funny. I jab out of my shell using humor and jokes and non-sequiturs. Like a pressure valve letting off steam. When I am drinking or smoking, the edge seems to come off. I can be more present. The jokes roll out easier and help establish a tone. I can be much less worried about controlling things and enjoy the moment with some fluidity.
But of course my doctor was concerned about my smoking and wanted to help. He told me about an antidepressant (Bupropion) that had an interesting side effect: it seemed to make cigarettes totally unpalatable. I had never taken antidepressants before. Even with all of the anxiety and stress I have in my life, depression has never been an issue. Whenever I do get into a downward cycle, I tend to work myself out of it very quickly. I like to joke that the reason I don’t get mired in depression is because I have such a short attention span.
I was really excited about this fix-all. I was finally going to kick my smoking habit once and for all. The doctor told me that the pills would make me not want to smoke, but there were side effects. On the one hand I might find myself feeling a certain spark in my life, an increase in energy and vitality. The antidepressant would be basically doing its stuff, same as it would for a depressed person. But there were possible side effects, like the remote chance that the drug would make me a bit suicidal. Well, since I tend to be an overwhelmingly undepressed person, I decided to take the drugs. Hopefully I’d quit smoking, and get that lift.
So I started to take the anti-depressant. My doctor told me it would take some time to ramp up in my body and that I should begin to take the pills, slowly getting up to three or so a day, while establishing a quit date for about seven days away.
I was feeling pretty great and for the first few days. I was in heaven, really. Taking what seemed to me were essentially uppers and smoking away all the while thinking I was doing something really good for my body and overall physical health. My quit day was still a couple of days away.
About the fourth or fifth day it all began to change. I lit up a cigarette and it had to be the most revolting feeling and taste that I had ever felt in my life. My whole body cringed. I felt like I had sewer water running through my veins. I tried again later with another cigarette and it was the same all over again. I was suddenly turned off to cigarettes, completely.
I was happy about this, disgusted by cigarettes and moving on, although I have to admit that I did feel a little ripped off having given up the smokes a day and a half prior to my “quit date.” I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.
Not long after, though, something else changed. Biking home from work across the Williamsburg Bridge or riding the subway I’d start to have these horrible thoughts about what would happen if I threw myself in front of a train or down into the river. In the studio I was using power tools and thinking about cutting my hand off. It was really freaking me out. My mind was spinning out these very full, detailed and dark narratives, which I was simultaneously watching happen from another, walled off perch in my brain.
One day I was coming home from work and my wife was out on Long Island and I sent her a text message saying that I wanted to kill myself. This time she responded right away. I had experienced plenty of stress and anxiety in my life, but I had never been down in such a deep and dark place. She called the next minute and directed me to see my doctor, who I found in his office that afternoon. He told me to stop taking the drugs immediately. It would take a week or so to get the residue out of my system. The experiment was over.
For the next five days or so I continued to feel much the same. A dark cloud hung over my head. The drug had not only made me feel horribly suicidal, but also had completely taken away my sense of humor. I was walking around in a deep funk and feeling very little relief. On the morning of the sixth day, though, I woke up feeling fantastic. I was back. My joy and spark had returned. Everything seemed to be getting back to normal. I went to my studio and started to work my way out of the terrible stuff that I had been making over the past couple of weeks of the experiment. I found an old pack of cigarettes lying around and I decided to have one to see if it would be as disgusting as the last. It was not.
The cigarette tasted just as good as all the others I’d had before taking the drugs. I laughed out loud to myself and thought, “No wonder I wanted to kill myself. I wasn’t smoking!”
I had my sense of humor back. All was right again with the world. I could live with my anxiety, as long as I had my vices to help me through.