CHICAGO — On February 13, I found myself in the back seat of a bus in Chicago with the artist Marni Kotak. We felt comfortable in the back of the bus. We are those kinds of women. We had met a few times in Brooklyn, I was a fan of her work, but we were in Chicago because we were each invited to present our work on motherhood and art at the Feminist Art Project’s day of panels at the College Art Association conference. After a few glasses of wine at Woman Made Gallery, I broke out my microphone and recorded our conversation about depression, art and her upcoming show, Mad Meds, that opened last Friday at Microscope Gallery in Bushwick.
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Marni Kotak: It’s such a fucking taboo.
Christen Clifford: Yes, it is such a fucking taboo.
MK: I think it’s something that really scares people. I had a bad experience with postpartum depression —
CC: Me too …
MK: It kind of grew into having other issues that I’ve been dealing with and I don’t want to be on medication anymore. I’m on medication. And so I want to come off.
CC: What are you on? I’m on Lexapro.
MK: Oh, I was on Lexapro for a while. Now I am on Wellbutrin, I’m on Klonopin, and I’m on Abilify.
CC: Wow, that’s a lot.
MK: It’s a low dose of Klonopin and Abilify; it’s supposed to even me out if I get too manic from the antidepressant. But then it’s like, Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be taking any of this stuff. I don’t really know if it’s helping me.
So I’ve been researching this radical mental health organization called The Icarus Project based in New York City, and they advocate for mental health awareness and developing ways for people with mental illness or people who are just, basically, different, who have “mad gifts” as they say, to be more accepted in society.
Instead of like, “Okay we can just drug everybody,” they put out a pamphlet for helping people to safely come off of psychiatric drugs. I read this book Your Drug May Be Your Problem: How and Why to Stop Taking Psychiatric Medications by Peter R Breggin, M.D. and David Cohen, Ph.D and there are practitioners who will help people do this. I want to do this.
A few months after having Ajax, I had crazy, intense hormonal mood swings and I was hospitalized for a few days. It’s hard to talk about all this.
Part of this project is that I want to get other women who have had other experiences with mental health issues to share their stories. So I was going to give a series of questions and people could shoot themselves with their webcams on their computer so it was very raw and I would edit the footage together as a video installation, which would be part of my show. (Full disclosure: I participated in this part of the show in June 2014. —CC)
Because I just feel like the world needs to hear these stories. And people need to be able to tell them and it needs to be safe.
I had severe post postpartum depression; it was triggered for me because I had to go back to work. I did not want to. I just wanted to be with Ajax, but I was the breadwinner of my family, and I felt like, “Okay, I just have to do this. I have to suck it up.”
But the stress of having to go back to work triggered this mania in me. I was at work and I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t – (laughs) So I went home and then it started progressing and my husband called a psychotherapist and she said “You know, you should go to a hospital and we will get you some medication.” Basically the idea was that we were going to go there and get me medication and leave. I got there and I started getting all paranoid, and I didn’t trust the process and I thought, oh maybe this is not good, so then they ended up keeping me there. They made me basically… do you know anyone who has been to a psych ward or anything like that?
CC: I do.
MK: Yeah, so you know. It’s like you’re going to jail. You have to give them all of your stuff in a brown paper bag, take off all your clothes, put on the hospital outfit. So it’s really weird. And they put me in this room, I was at Beth Israel, and I –
CC: Were you still nursing at the time?
MK: Yes. And that fucked up that really bad —
CC: Of course!
MK: And that was really hard for me. They were supposed to help me pump, they didn’t at all. They totally neglected it. I would have to keep going up to them and reminding them I needed to pump. Because they wouldn’t let me have the pump in the room because, like I could strangle myself with it or something. The first room they put me in was a cold, dark room in a basement- it was a white room, it was dark… and (laughs)
MK: It was just awful! Right? This is the way our society treats people who have mental health issues. I mean can you imagine?
CC: That does not sound like the fantasy that I have, of like … Checking myself in — (laughs) like I have fantasies of checking myself in, it doesn’t sound like that.
MK: Yeah, you need a lot of money to go to like, one of those fancy rehab centers or something…
MK: And this is not even the worst place! This was actually a decent place but that environment made me feel so much worse. You are supposed to lie still alone in a dark room, not exercise, not be with family and friends. I was freaking out because I couldn’t be with my baby and when Jason came to visit me at the hospital I had milk stains like all over. Okay we are supposed to take people and we are supposed to remove the outside distractions so that somehow they can get better? I think that’s the philosophy? Right? You’re in a white room, there’s nothing else there. And I even said something about it to someone “This is just such a stifling environment” and they said “Well that’s the point of it.” … but this does not make me feel better (laughs) it makes me feel worse!
CC: I feel like what I would have wanted for you is like to put you in some big fancy apartment with your baby and your husband and like a live-in psychotherapist and a live-in nurse … an apartment that had a hot tub and your friends would come and talk to you and you could sleep all the time … Just that you would have a ton of loving support instead of that antiseptic experience.
When I was really depressed no one knew what to do; people stopped asking me how I was. Because I would just start crying and, I mean, no one wants to be around that. And I kind of understand that. The repulsion of it.
It started when my daughter weaned, I felt the hormonal shift- I definitely had postpartum depression. I knew I really needed help one evening I was driving on the LIE and I just thought, “Oh, I’m just going to drive right into the opposite lane of traffic, that would make everything better.” And the next day and the days after that I felt just soooo bad. And I remember thinking, “Okay, I think I might actually need medication now.”
I had been in therapy throughout that time, but the Lexapro helped take the edge off. It did. It’s not an end all, be all, by any means.
There’s still so much more to explore. But you’re doing it with your work or I’m doing it with my work. Martha Wilson talked about all performance art being therapy.
MK: Oh yeah, I agree. Yeah I think there is a use for medication as a temporary basis. But this idea that people should just go on it, like, “Oh if you have depression or you have bipolar or whatever, you have schizophrenia, you need to be on this medication forever” is like, crazy to me.
I thought about the economics of the situation and I thought about how if I had been wealthy and I didn’t have to go back to work, or if my husband had been wealthy or something then I don’t think that would have happened to me.
CC: It’s capitalism!
MK: It’s capitalism.
CC: I feel like that is kind of why I want to go off of them.
MK: We all need to have support to get off meds if we want to.
Mad Meds continues at Microscope Gallery (4 Charles Place, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through August 25.