MAY 2006 – NO. 6
A story of war, Zoloft, and peace.
August 3, 1993
The plane was a Luftwaffe C-130 packed with tons of food aid, en route to Sarajevo. The German Air Force had issued parachutes to give us a fighting chance in case we were shot down, but the other passengers thought it was a waste. "Just means our bodies will burn faster," bitched a distinctly American voice. I was cheered.
Actually, I didn't get it. Yeah, the parachutes were uncomfortable. Yeah, we looked like idiots. But I was a war correspondent, flying into my first war zone and, if I had to wear a giant silver diaper to get it done, so be it. I was going in.
About 40 minutes into the flight from the coast of Croatia, a German sergeant ordered us to buckle up, barking about ground fire at the airport. "Be ready to disembark immediately," he yelled over the engines as we flew through a cloud bank that obscured everything below. I stared out the window anyway; I couldn't help it. When Sarajevo revealed itself, I wanted to see everything. It was ugly; it was grim; it was war. But at the time, I admit it, it was exciting to me.
I knew more about the siege of Sarajevo than many, having read up in graduate school. Sarajevo was a city of almost half a million tucked away in a valley dominated on all sides by mountains and steep hillsides where approximately 10,000 Serb soldiers armed with the latest weaponry were dug in. Their aim was to kill as many as they could of the lightly armed, mostly Muslim inhabitants in the city below. So far, they had taken out 10,000 and the survivors lacked water, electricity, gas, and medicine. I knew the names of the key politicians and the broad strokes of the latest international peace plans. But I didn't go much deeper than that because I really didn't give a fuck about the history of the place, and I hadn't come all this way just to learn more. I was here because I was trying to start my life. Maybe a genocidal conflict seems a strange place for this purpose. But I had waited so long and I was determined.
Our plane descended below the clouds, and Sarajevo started sliding by: smashed roofs, houses gutted by fire, patches of rubble, tank traps. A smoky steel-blue haze hung over the city and, even though it was summer, the few trees were bare and skeletal.
We landed at Sarajevo International, then run by the French Foreign Legion, at 4:00 p.m. Concertina wire ringed the perimeter. Machine-gun emplacements were dug in between the runways. Snipers were positioned in the sandbagged control tower. Everywhere I looked there were Legionnaires with assault rifles. Except for a huge Russian jet crumpled at the end of the runway, we were the only plane.
Within minutes a crew of Frenchies in khaki hot pants had unloaded the aid and was ushering us outside. I grabbed my stuff and followed the others out to the tarmac, where I caught my first whiff of war — a strange amalgamation of burning plastic and wood smoke, mixed with a dash of horseshit. Not pleasant, but exotic enough to have a certain allure. In the distance I could hear gunfire.
From the plane, we were led down a sandbagged alley where my papers were processed by a UN press officer. Within three minutes I was in the pickup area, a parking lot surrounded on three sides by a ten-foot wall of dirt. Except for the black SWAT body armor and helmet I wore, everything I had brought from Long Island was packed away in the medium L.L. Bean canvas duffel bag I dragged behind me.
It held: four pairs of boxers and socks, three golf shirts from the Gap, two pairs of stone-washed jeans, a ribbed-neck sweater from J. Crew, two cartons of Camel Lights, a year's supply of the antidepressant Zoloft stuffed in a tube sock, $300 American, a shortwave radio, pens and a notebook, recording equipment from Radio Shack, a 35mm camera and film, half a bar of Toblerone chocolate, five rolls of two-ply Scott toilet paper, a Serbo-Croatian phrase book, plus The End of History and the Last Man and a dog-eared, underlined copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But my most valuable possession wasn't in my bag: In my pocket was a crumpled-up cocktail napkin with a crude map sketched on it, a "reward" for my agreeing to be a courier for a Macedonian I had met in Croatia. The plan called for me to deliver a bag of mail to a woman named Szezana in Sarajevo.
Back in Croatia, I was told that the most important thing I needed to make it in Sarajevo was an ally, someone who knew the city and would be willing to give me a safe place to crash. Szezana, I'd decided, was going to be my ally, but to rendezvous with her I had to get into the city. To do that, I was to hook up with an Egyptian armored personnel carrier (APC), which would take me to some building called the PTT. But the Egyptian APC was nowhere in sight.
An Australian reporter was hovering close by, so I showed him my mailbag, told him about the Macedonian and Szezana, and described the map.
"Let me see," he said, storing his cigarette in the corner of his mouth. After glancing down, he grinned. "No way, mate," he said, handing back the map. "You go there today, tomorrow you go home in a box."
"What the hell do you mean"? I asked, panicked.
"Someone doesn't like you much. That address is the worst in the world. It's in the middle of goddamn Sniper Alley."
But that napkin was the Jesus-bolt holding my whole plan together: "What should I do?"
"If I were you, I'd get out of here. It's not a place to fuck around, mate." Then he hopped into an armored Land Rover and drove away.
I was as scared as I had ever been and I hadn't even been on the ground for ten minutes. In seconds, I had gone from this sense of having a friend in Sarajevo to feeling completely alone in the most dangerous city on the planet. But no way was I going to turn back. So, though I didn't really want to, I approached Mort — the tall American reporter who had bitched and moaned more than anyone on the plane. Maybe he would help me, but it would probably cost something.
"Who gave you this piece of shit?" he roared at the map.
"A Macedonian," I told him, holding out my napkin. "I'm supposed to deliver some mail for her at that address."
"Nice of you. Piece of advice, though? Next time don't take shit from no one. You don't know what you're carrying in. Military maps. Messages. If the Serbs find any of that shit, you're fucked."
"Listen. Normally I would never ask this. But could you please help me. Just one night."
"Why don't you just stay at the Holiday Inn?"
I had heard about the Holiday Inn. It was on a front line and half of it was history. Rooms in the other half were going for $200 a night — more if you wanted soup.
He looked away, then back, then did it again. Someplace not far off, a machine gun burped. "OK," he said. "You've come this far, so I guess someone owes you a day."
"Thanks, man," I told him. "Really."
"But remember, tomorrow morning, whatever happens, you're on your own." Then he put his right hand on my left shoulder and looked me in the eye. "If you fuck up my gig at the church, I mean at all, I'll kill ya."
I swore I wouldn't, but I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.
Five minutes later, the Egyptian APC arrived. Locked away in its steel belly, we couldn't see anything. The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers who opened the back hatch to make sure we weren't hauling Muslims. My first look at soldiers at war, they were well armed and surly, but still they didn't seem like the genocidal maniacs I had seen on TV back in America. A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace's living room.
After the Egyptians dropped us off at the PTT building, a Spanish reporter drove us to a section of Sarajevo called Old Town. To get there, we drove down Aldo od Bosna, the city's main boulevard, now called simply Sniper Alley. We were the only car on the road, and most of the time the driver did about 80 in order to give the Serb snipers hunting the street a more difficult target. But as Mort and the Spaniard were casually chitchatting up front and didn't seem too worried, I relaxed. Pressing my face to the window, I tried to take in as much as I could. I noticed there was no glass remaining in any windows anywhere; most of the taller building had been blown apart; the streets were littered with burnt hulks of cars and trolleys; and the few people I did see were either pushing baby carriages full of plastic jerry cans or pulling sleds piled high with firewood. The strangest sight I saw was an old man dressed in a three-piece suit walking down the middle of the road holding two dead pigeons.
Mort's gig turned out to be a room he had scored inside a Roman Catholic church that stood at an intersection of three narrow cobblestone streets. As we pulled up, a pack of scruffy kids were kicking the hell out of a patched soccer ball where two uniformed men with machine guns stood watching from inside a sandbagged bunker.
As soon as Mort stepped out, the kids started screaming, running in circles, and chanting "Mort, Mort, Mort." A small crowd, including a cop, gathered as Mort grabbed his luggage, then took out some candy. The kids went nuts.
While Mort was doing his thing with the kids, the cop caught my eye and gestured for a cigarette. I had quit the day before but brought a few cartons because I heard they were better than gold for making allies. Reaching into my bag, I tossed a fresh pack of Camel Lights to the cop, who pumped my hand.
After we got inside, Mort and I put down our bags. The marble-floored church, lit by a few candles, was real chilly. In the dim light I heard whispered conversations. Mort ushered me into an office just off the main entrance and gave explicit instructions: "Sit-the-fuck-down!"
Confused, I just stood there.
"Fine, stand up, I don't give a shit. You really fucked up out there. You know what the fuck you did?"
"No? Put a gun to your head, and more importantly, mine."
"The whole fucking street saw you toss those butts to that cop, asshole. Now everyone knows that the rich fuck American is here — with me."
Mort spun on his heels and went out the door. Ten seconds later he was back and pacing.
"This is Vietnam, dickhead. These people hate your guts," he told me through clenched teeth. "Don't be a fucking fool, especially when you're around me. They hate you because you can leave. They hate you because you have money. They hate you for being here. Don't trust these motherfuckers for one second, not once."
A knock on the door brought a teenage boy — short, skinny, and dark haired. Putting a hand around the kid's shoulder, Mort was suddenly all smiles. After he mumbled something in Bosnian, the kid left. Mort stood there with this beatific smile on his face. I was starting to wonder what was under Mort's hood.
"Do you know who Satso is?" he asked, suddenly pissed again.
"Well, he's God to these fucking idiots. The local warlord. Controls everything in Old Town. Hates Serbs. Hates the U.N. But the thing he hates most is you. In fact, he digs kidnapping foreign journalists."
Then Mort suddenly changed gears again, calming down and taking a seat next to me on the couch. "You know The Lawrence Welk Show?"
"The one with the cascading bubbles?"
"Yeah, yeah. On PBS. Bubbles. Sure."
"Well, Satso used to be lead guitarist on the Bosnian version." He said, leaning back into the couch as if he was fondly remembering every bubble. "He was good. I mean real good, for Bosnia anyway."
He lit himself a cigarette.
"But in the first days of the war, Satso lost his arm. He couldn't play his guitar anymore and snapped, went psychotic. He did some bad shit, but what's important is he's a warlord now. Commands 5000 men and when they're not fucking up Serbs, they come down here to Old Town and do two things: kill police and kidnap foreign reporters. The point is: Don't give anyone anything. Fuck 'em, they probably deserve it."
To calm myself, I lit my first cigarette. I wasn't so much worried about this Satso as I was about Mort. I didn't think he'd really kick me out in the morning if I hadn't yet found a place, but I wasn't sure. As I smoked, the teenage boy walked back in, mumbling something in Bosnian.
"Great. Our room's ready, buddy," he told me, suddenly Mr. Sunshine. "The kid here set up a cot for you. Let's drop our shit in the room. Then you can come with me while I drop off a care package. It will be good for you."
Except for the occasional gunshot up in the hills, it was quiet, more so than I thought it should have been. I guessed it was around seven, still light, but the streets were mostly deserted. Zipped up in my body armor, I was soaked in sweat.
We were headed to the home of the Kukic family so Mort could drop off a big bag of food. They were friends of his, he said.
"The old man's a surgeon," he told me. "Really well respected. A great guy."
Dr. Kukic and his family lived in a still almost-charming wood-and-stucco two-story house, about a quarter mile from the church. The home looked like an antique, with carved wooden shutters, Tudor-like trim, and a cobblestone driveway, walled off from the street by a solid high metal gate. But the place hadn't escaped the war unscathed; the windows had been replaced by thick, milky-colored plastic sheeting; the detached garage was sliced in half; and there was a large jagged hole in the upper corner of the house, as if a giant rat had taken a bite out of it.
"Listen," Mort said, as we headed up the driveway. "When we get inside, take off your shoes. It's custom. Also, they're going to offer you coffee. Take it because they're gonna give it to you anyway. But be a mensch. When they offer you food, don't take it. They barely have enough to feed themselves."
"Mort! Oh my God!" a middle-aged woman cried out as she hustled down the hallway toward us. It was the doctor's wife, Mrs. Kukic. Mort unzipped his body armor, and she gave him a huge hug, held his head in her hands, and planted two big kisses on each of his cheeks. Then Mrs. Kukic's sister came down the stairs and repeated the hello frame by frame, only in Bosnian.
"We worry about you," said Mrs. Kukic quietly. "We did not hear for a long time."
"You know me. I'm fine," he told her, slipping off his shoes. "How are you is the question."
"Ah, good," Mrs. Kukic answered. "You know, not much shelling. But still, very difficult, of course."
Mort handed her the bag of food.
"Please, you do not need," she began. "Please, Mort. You are family. Welcome, gifts or not."
"I know. I just wanted to."
Mrs. Kukic and her sister were more carefully dressed and elegant than I would have imagined in these circumstances. Mrs. Kukic's hair was styled, her nails were smooth and shaped, her blue house dress ironed and bordered with lace. The sister was basically the same.
We gathered in the living room, where there was a mahogany baby grand piano, china in a glass cabinet, a Persian rug on the floor, and expensive-looking artwork on the walls. Mort and I sat on the couch, Mrs. Kukic in an armchair facing us. Just like Mort said, the first thing she did was offer coffee. When we said yes, her sister excused herself.
Mort and Mrs. Kukic caught up on old times, dancing easily back and forth between Bosnian and English so it was difficult to follow. I did manage to glean that an elderly man close to Mrs. Kukic had been killed by a sniper recently, shot in his bedroom when a strong gust of wind parted the drapes, exposing him for a split second. The rest of the conversation seemed to concern water, candles, food, and the possibilities of American military intervention. After five minutes, I stopped trying to piece it together and looked out the window. I saw the sister on the patio, squatting over a small bonfire made of twigs and what looked like part of a chair. Motionless, she stared into an ornate metal pot she was holding over the flames, her hand wrapped in a floral dish towel. She was heating the water for our coffee.
Ten minutes later, she appeared with the drinks along with sugar in a china bowl. She handed us two tiny cups without handles from a silver tray. I watched Mort prepare his and followed his lead. It tasted like espresso. Mrs. Kukic reached over and tapped me on the knee.
"John, some cakes?"
I said no, as Mort had instructed, cleverly blaming a full stomach.
"How about you, Mort? Cakes?"
"What kind do you have?"
"War cakes. Even a little baklava."
"How about some of those war cakes, then. They sound good."
When she left the room, Mort and I sat there in silence. I was pissed and wanted to know why he fucked me out of the cakes. But he was silent until we heard the soft shuffle of Mrs. Kukic returning with the dessert tray. Then he leaned across the couch and whispered, "Pretty fucked up, huh?" I concluded then that come the next morning, Mort was going to be true to his word: this prick was gonna kick me out into the street. No matter what bombs were falling.
Ten minutes later, Mort told the ladies we had to leave. There were a few entreaties about staying, having dinner, and waiting for Dr. Kukic, but Mort insisted.
"I understand," said Mrs. Kukic. "Work comes first. But please, if you ever need a place to stay, you come to us first. I have a room upstairs anytime you want."
It was one of those moments when you know you shouldn't, but you have to. I really had to. I knew that. "I need a room," I told her.
She looked at Mort and smiled. Only then did she look at me.
"When?" she asked, obviously hoping I would say in a year or two.
"For how long?"
"I don't know."
"OK. Be here in the morning."
With that, Mort and I strapped on our body armor, put on our shoes, and left. I knew I had crossed some kind of line. Way down the street, far enough from the Kukics' for some good screaming, Mort stopped and put his right hand on my left shoulder. I was ready to eat whatever abuse he was about to throw. But I wasn't prepared for what he said.
"You just might have what it takes to make it. I didn't think you had it in ya, so I'm gonna do you a big favor. I'm gonna show you a secret."
It was darker than anyplace I had ever been. We were taking shortcuts through the rubble of destroyed apartments and the beam of Mort's flashlight swept back and forth, giving me little flashes of lives as they had been before the artillery shells crashed through the walls: light blue wallpaper, the outline of a diamond-shaped sconce, the brass stub of a chandelier.
"Listen," Mort whispered. "Hear that?"
Standing in what I now took to be the living room of a gutted apartment, all I heard was the rat-tat-tat of machine guns in the hills.
"No," I said.
"The gunfire, stupid. Hear it?"
"What do you hear?"
"What am I supposed to hear?"
"The Rolling Stones," he said. "Listen."
Sure enough, when I concentrated, I could make out the opening riff of the Stones' "Satisfaction" being played with an AK-47 assault rifle.
"Yeah, they're doing a heroin deal up there," he told me. "Or exchanging some prisoners. Or giving orders to someone." Almost imperceptibly, unconsciously, he rocked his head back and forth, keeping time. "You picked the right place, buddy. This really is a fucked-up war."
I still hadn't been shown the secret and moments later, we exited out onto Tito Street, the pre-war Fifth Avenue of Sarajevo. Mort still wouldn't tell me where we were going, but when we hit Tito I thought we had arrived. Actually, I smelled it before I saw it, an overwhelming blast of that powerful odor I snorted when I first got off the German C-130 six hours earlier.
Looking down Tito that night was like stumbling upon my first sight of the Apocalypse. The street was literally on fire and, except for Mort and myself, empty of life. It was lit up by bonfires jumping out of silvery metal Dumpsters. Each fire fed a column of black smoke, which melded together about 40 feet above the street in a swirling, blackish roof. The light from the bonfires cast eerie down-up shadows on the buildings. As I was taking this all in, a pickup truck materialized out of the smoke at the far end and raced down the street. The headlights were out, but the light from the flames bounced off the tinted front window as it blew past. I saw a clean-cut blond boy standing bolt straight in the bay manning a giant machine gun. Moments later, a grainy fist of dirt and ash smacked us in the face. If the Devil had a driveway, I imagined it would look a lot like this.
"Holy fucking shit," I let out, lightly punching Mort on the shoulder. "Is it always like this?"
"Ah, Jesus Christ, man, you think this is something? They're burning garbage, that's all. Come on," he said, checking his watch. "We gotta move if we're gonna make it."
Fifteen minutes later, we finally arrived: Mort's secret gift turned out to be a small stone building topped by a 20-foot minaret. "Wait here," he told me. "I wanna make sure everything's OK first."
Mort walked across the street and lightly knocked on a green double door, but no one answered so he stepped back into the street and looked up at a window on the second floor. Nothing. He tapped the door again, waited, and then knocked one more time. In the distance I heard a series of loud explosions. After a few minutes he gave up. I expected his secret had to do with some kind of nightlife, an underground club or whorehouse.
"Fuckers are probably sleeping," he said. "It's amazing anything gets done around here." He put his right hand on my left shoulder, a sure sign something important was about to happen. "None of the other hacks knows about this, so keep your mouth shut. This is the morgue for Old Town. The others go to Kosovo looking for body counts. But this is the place to get the numbers. Trust me, when something goes down in Old Town and you wanna count bodies, come here. Just tell 'em I sent you."
We made it back to the church with five minutes to spare before the nightly curfew began. Mort used his flashlight to lead us to his room. It was small and without frills, like a monk's chamber with a bed against one wall and a cot set up against the other. There was a metal bowl full of water, two hand towels neatly folded, and a low wooden table. Mort lit a few candles, ate a Snickers, splashed his face with water, brushed his teeth, and then stripped down to a pair of multicolored, high-end jockey shorts.
"Stay up. Read, whatever," he said, getting into bed. "But don't forget to blow out the candles. You don't wanna be the one to burn this fucking church down."
Playing it safe, I blew out the candles right away and for hours I stretched out on my cot with my hands clasped behind my head listening to Mort snore and remembering the day that had begun in such a different place. For a while it was pretty quiet as I lay there, real keyed up, but around midnight something in the city woke. Gun battles broke out all over. Then came the shelling. At first it was far away, but then the explosions became sharper, louder, stronger. I opened the window and leaned out for a better look as the sound of war poured in.
The only thing I could see out my window was the stucco façade of the apartment house 20 feet away. But I could actually feel the explosions thumping closer, as if Godzilla himself was crashing his way through the city. I leaned farther out the window but couldn't see anything, though the tremors kept coming, stronger with each detonation. The explosions were incredible, concentrations of pure power. After a while, I saw a light flash against the wall across the street, and then the detonations started moving farther and farther away.
Within minutes they were just rumbles again and I returned to my cot, sat on the edge, and eyed Mort who was still out cold.
I was glad because I had forgotten something. Reaching into my duffel bag, I pulled out a tube sock, shook out my prescribed 200 mg of Zoloft, and washed them down with a handful of water from the metal bowl. I rechecked Mort again to make sure he didn't see anything, but he was still sleeping.
Wiping the last drops of water from my mouth, it was hard for me to believe I was actually there. Seven months ago, a day like this would have just been a fantasy, the kind of totally out-on-the-edge experience I daydreamed about to get me through the nights. And now, thanks to four little blue pills once a day, here I was, 25 and finally free to go out and discover those things I felt I had missed out on.
There had been a point when my biggest ambition was simply to make it to the next minute. I was that severely depressed. I wasn't sad, blue, anxious, upset, or any of those things. I would have welcomed those things. Rather, I was completely empty, devoid of emotions, living — if you could call it that — with no connection to anything other than the circular thoughts in my brain. It was life in a glass jar.
Things had come to a head late one night about two years before. I had hit bottom and was living in my childhood bedroom in my parents' attic, although it had been over a year since I had graduated from college. I had cut myself off from everyone I knew. I slept all day and spent my nights watching late-night Oprah reruns. Life had become meaningless, pointless, an unnecessary ordeal.
I cannot say exactly how it was that I came to find myself rummaging through the crawl space that night looking for that old shotgun. But when I found it, it didn't disappoint. It felt solid, powerful, almost magical. I looked down the barrel into the steel-blue sheen. What if? I thought. Just, you know, what if? The idea that I would just cease to exist made my stomach muscles ease suddenly and my heart slow down. I didn't feel like a trapped rat anymore. Here, in my hands, was a way out. But I still had enough fight that night to put it away. Its day was in the future, though. I had entered the endgame.
That night I lay on our roof, looking up at the stars. At some point, the tears started coming, not for me, because I didn't give a damn anymore, but for my family, especially my mother, who always made me promise that I would hang on, no matter what. "Trust me," she would say. "Just trust me. It will work out." But it wouldn't work out; that was impossible, and at some point I was simply going to have to break my promise.
At dawn, I finally crawled back inside my bedroom. Sometime later I realized I couldn't quit before I gave her a chance. I went downstairs and at the kitchen table I asked my mother the simplest and most difficult of favors: Please help me. This was the first time I had ever really reached out. I had never believed anyone could help me but myself.
The next day my mother drove me into Manhattan to see a prominent psychiatrist. I remember thinking, How the hell did it come to this? I had always been a happy kid, always took for granted that I belonged. Then one day when I was 12 I awoke and, poof, just like that I was on the outside of life looking in. No warning. No whistle. Nothing. Just nothing. One minute I was in the world, the next I was watching it. Over time I believed that I had succeeded in making a kind of peace with my disconnection, which I couldn't get rid of. But gradually, as the years passed, it had worn me down. At 23, I was defeated, helpless, and on my way to a shrink, which, to me, was a kind of giving up.
In the office I went down a checklist of symptoms for clinical depression. Prolonged and severe bouts of sadness, guilt, joylessness, hopelessness, and fatigue. Ideations of suicide. Difficulties in concentrating. Withdrawing from friends and family. Overwhelmed with feelings of isolation and worthlessness. I had it all in spades, a check for each box. The doctor diagnosed me as a unipolar depressive, someone he described as having a long-term, low-grade fever of the spirit brought about by faulty brain chemistry. Traditional psychoanalysis wasn't going to help in my case.
Through the years I had put a lot of goddamn work into trying to figure out why I felt the way I did. I had believed I was miserable and lost in the world because I didn't know something about life that others did: there was some fundamental lesson or experience I had missed out on. Until I found what I had missed, or went through some transformative experience, my life was going to suck. I felt taking an antidepressant was cheating, but the doctor told me my head was full of jive. My only job was to relax, take the medicine he gave me, and wait to get better. After that first visit, I was put on Prozac.
Six weeks later, I crawled back into his office, worse, not better. But he told me I had to hang in there. New antidepressants were already in trial runs, and he was confident one would work for me. A year later, I was a grad student at the University of Virginia, where I didn't attend many classes or do much else. I lived in the library of an old house and for company I had hundreds of my books, mounds of cigarette ash piled in makeshift ashtrays, and the endless cycle of my own thoughts. What if thoughts of suicide were never far away.
Then in late 1993 the doctor called and told me a new antidepressant called Zoloft had hit the market. I went on it the next day, and six weeks later I was walking across a bridge when suddenly, poof, I was back in the world. My 12-year ordeal was over.
Over the course of the next month and a half, though, and even with a bloodstream full of Zoloft, the world I had been trying so desperately to reconnect to didn't feel like the same world I had been snatched out of 12 years before. I had been missing from the world and I was a stranger, completely out of tune with the rhythms of the everyday world around me. Even with Zoloft, there was still something missing.
To keep myself going when I had been really depressed, completely isolated both physically and emotionally, I had read books about extraordinary lives where people were able to have the kinds of experiences I could only fantasize about. My favorites had been war correspondents, people who went out alone to the edge of history and learned things out there that just weren't possible to understand back in the safe, structured world. I decided that maybe with Zoloft I could do something. I could have an adventure that would bring me back to life and return me to the world. Once I had learned whatever it was I had to learn, I would be able to kick away the crutch of Zoloft. Deep down, it still felt like cheating, like I wasn't normal.
That's how I got to Sarajevo. As I had no journalism experience or training of any kind, it had appeared impossible at first. But never underestimate the ingenuity of a man on a mission. This was my dream, and I wasn't going to let anyone's crazy little rules or worries get in my way. I essentially accredited myself, declaring John Falk the Bosnian correspondent for NBC Radio. Then I started worrying about the meds. I figured I needed a year's supply of Zoloft. Who knew how long I'd be over there? Unfortunately, my original psychiatrist had moved to Massachusetts and was semi-retired.
So I went down to a local clinic to meet with a shrink who could dose me up. But the doctor who had been recommended — dressed in expensive peasant wear and speaking in this unnaturally soft tone — told me that if I wanted Zoloft I would have to place myself in her hands for a long time. "John," she said, in that voice of hers. "To truly get over depression, yes antidepressants are important, but just as important is understanding what you have just been through. You need time to heal, to learn life coping skills."
What she was essentially saying was that rather than diving back into life like I wanted to, I should tiptoe into the shallow end wearing water wings while holding her hand. No fucking way. I found Zoloft from a friend of a friend who happened to be a doctor.
A few weeks later it was time to go, but it was bittersweet. I was leaving my parents, who had stood by me through all my troubles, and they were very concerned about my going. We had been through it over and over. But I was leaving. I had lived in a cage and I had to break out before I fell too far behind in life to ever catch up.
As I lay on that cot the first night in Sarajevo, I assumed my life was starting over, a clean slate. I had been depressed, took some pills, and now I was better. What I didn't know then was that the shrink at the clinic had been right. It wasn't going to be so easy to leave my illness behind, even with the medication. My depression had changed me, made me who I was. I just didn't understand how far I still had to go.
Original cover art courtesy Rob Grom.
From the book: Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace, by John Falk, reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2005 by John Falk. All rights reserved.
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