Ever since I started using streaming music services, I’ve wondered about how much of my listening choices have been shaped by the service. Am I really listening to what I want to, or have I been going with the algorithm’s flow, listening to minor variations on what it knows of my past preferences?
Then again, I was never really picking songs out of nowhere.
There was my father’s record collection in the basement, where his taste shaped mine. There were recommendations from friends. There were the songs on the radio, selected by tastemakers and marketers. There was what was available to me in local stores, or who I might see perform on the tv shows I watched (which were determined by the people who booked talent for those shows, and the network executives that decided what shows to produce).
Other people already shaped my taste, but I could exert control by saying yes or no to their suggestions.
The same goes for films that I watch and re-watch. Sure, Netflix may try to suggest what it thinks I would like to see next, but I have final say. Like with music, when it comes to film, I never made choices in a complete void. I was influenced by everything from professors in school, my friends, the “Best Of” list books I pored over, the programmers at Turner Classic Movies… And so on.
What I was exposed to created a rubric for me to interpret my reactions and opinions, but in the end I would get to say yes or no.
And I’m thinking about this more when I question why it took me so long to make the leap and try antidepressants.
While growing up, people would talk to me about the way my brain seemed to operate differently than other people’s. That it was unique in a positive way.
During one long night in high school, working on a homecoming float, a friend took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t ever take drugs, because “They’ll just make you like everyone else.” It was a pretty odd PSA moment, but it stuck with me.
For a long time, I consciously connected the idea of drugs that alter your mood or perceptions as changing something essential about you. Maybe it had to do with the way I identified as a creative person, and there were so many creative people who were heralded for making beautiful art out of their pain. Creative people who talked openly about their disdain for the idea of doing anything to alter their relationship between their mind and their work.
And there were direct testimonials from people whose work I respected, like when reading David Lynch’s comments on drugs (in general) from Catching the Big Fish:
We all want expanded consciousness and bliss. It’s a natural, human desire. And a lot of people look for it in drugs. But the problem is that the body, the physiology, takes a hard hit on drugs. Drugs injure the nervous system, so that they just make it harder to get those experiences on your own.
The messages about how drugs (of all types) work sunk in. That altering your chemistry altered something essential about you. I had a fear of becoming somebody else. Dulled. Losing my edge.
And I lied to myself that it was worth all the suffering so long as I could hold on to those occasional moments and fight through it to think up something beautiful or original.
But at some point I had to ask the question out of I Heart Huckabees: How am I not myself?
If other people, other stories, other choices, other influences touch my life every day, but I’m still somehow essentially me, why should medication be any different?
It was a risk I was finally willing to take, because of two things:
- Acknowledging that the version of myself that I became without some kind of intervention had become someone incapable of properly doing the things I care about, or being helpful to the people I care about.
- Acknowledging that nothing is permanent, and that if one intervention doesn’t work or has negative side effects, there are other methods to try.
And I feel different. I feel more resilient. More able to grasp moments of happiness.
But am I myself?
When am I not?
To say that medication makes me no longer myself is to suggest that a person has little to no free will, that we’re just chemical processes dancing with our reactions to our environment. If changing the internal chemistry of my body makes me a fundamentally different individual, then so would taking a vitamin C supplement or an aspirin.
A person has to be more than their chemistry, their DNA, their “programming.” Otherwise, there would be little difference at all between a human and an algorithm.
There’s no difference between what’s inside a bedroom with the lights on or off. It’s just that when you turn the lights on, the shadows stop looking like monsters.