DPH’s effect is shown by two electrophysiological tracings taken by Dr. James Toman. Chemicals have made a frog’s sciatic nerve overexcitable. Top, an electrical shock applied to the nerve produces a series of erratic impulses, as evidenced by the repeated rise and fall of the white line. Bottom, after DPH has been administered, a shock causes only one impulse—the normal reaction.

An Incredible Piece of Luck

Dr. Silbermann and I had numerous discussions about why I was depressed, without reaching any conclusions. There was a theory, proffered by relatives of mine in Boston, that I was neurotic and needed to be psychoanalyzed. Dr. Silbermann didn’t agree that psychoanalysis was what I needed, and as a practical matter felt that it would be too arduous while I was depressed.

On my own, as objectively as I could, I considered my relatives’ suggestion. I didn’t question that I was neurotic. But I didn’t see how that could be the answer. Presumably I’d been neurotic before the depression, yet my nerves had been fine. I began to notice that changes in my mood frequently occurred without apparent environmental or psychological cause. And the same stimulus didn’t always evoke the same response. Sometimes, while driving in the country, I would see a dead woodchuck on the side of the road. The sight would hit me like a blow and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But on other occasions I’d see a dead woodchuck and react in what seemed a normal way. The difference in reactions couldn’t be caused by my being neurotic; my childhood from one to five hadn’t changed. It seemed plausible that these disparate reactions were due to changes in my body.

I discussed this with Dr. Silbermann, and he was inclined to go along with the idea that there might be something wrong in my body “chemistry.” But Max said that he didn’t really know, and emphasized that when he said “chemistry,” he was using the word in quotes.

One night, a seemingly insignificant incident started a chain of events that changed my life. A young woman took my hand and massaged my fingers. I was full of tension at the time. As she pressed my fingertips I felt the tension slip away, and I had the feeling that electricity was going out of my body. This didn’t make sense to me. I’d never heard of electricity in the body—but the impression was strong. The next day, a Sunday, the impression of electricity was still with me.

It’s a misconception, I believe, that we originate ideas. I used to think we did, but I don’t anymore. Too often I find my brain does what it wants—it’s on automatic pilot most of the time. That was the case this particular Sunday because, without instruction from me, my brain went into its files and came up with three experiences I’d had with electricity. The first went back almost forty years.

One. When I was a little boy I saw a brass plate with a hole in it, in the baseboard. It aroused my curiosity. I stuck my finger in the hole and my curiosity was satisfied. The electric shock I got, and the sudden, intense fear that came with it, were indelibly impressed on my memory. I remember that after the shock I had a flat, metallic taste in my mouth.

Two. I had gone into a garage with my former wife to get the car. I picked up an old vacuum cleaner, to get it out of the way, and received an electrical jolt. I said to Joan, “This damn thing shocked me.”

“It always does that,” she said quietly.

At this calm appraisal I exploded. “What do you mean, ‘It always does that!’” and I took Joan by the shoulders and shook her. This was so unlike me that I felt my explosion of anger had been caused by the electricity.

Three. On two successive nights I’d had the same frightening dream, or was it a dream? Each of these nights, before going to sleep, I had intense feelings of fear. The “dreams” occurred early in the morning. I felt that I was awake and couldn’t open my eyes. I tried to reach for the table light but couldn’t move—in the dream I felt I was frozen with electricity.

Each of these experiences with electricity was associated with a symptom of my depression. As I reviewed them, side by side so to speak, they seemed to be related. Numbers one and three made a connection between electricity and fear. Number two connected electricity with anger. And number one also made a connection with the metallic taste in my mouth which I associated with fear. The logic of these connections was not clear then. But the pieces held together well enough for me to say to myself, When I see Max on Monday I am going to bring up the subject of electricity.

That Monday my appointment with Dr. Silbermann was after dinner, around ten o’clock. I had some “problems” that I wanted to talk out. It wasn’t until late in the hour that I brought up the subject of electricity. I said to Max, “You know, I think my problem is electricity, and electricity causes some people to get depressed, others to bump themselves off, and others to go crazy.” I said this as though I meant it, but actually I had little conviction. At that moment my brain jumped back twenty years to a bridge tournament. My partner and I had got the best of two hands, and one of our opponents, a famous player, P. Hal Sims, made some pointed remarks to his partner. I noticed the partner’s neck getting red. As we moved to the next table there was a commotion, and I turned and saw the man on the floor, having convulsions. Someone said he was having an epileptic attack. Now, as I thought back to the attack, the convulsions looked like they had been caused by a series of electrical shocks.

I continued with my hypothesis and said, “And some people have an electrical explosion which we call epilepsy.” Max said, “It’s curious that you mention epilepsy. We know from brain wave tests that the epileptic has a problem with his body electricity.” This was the first time I’d heard that there was such a thing as body electricity. Also, connecting the epileptic to an electrical problem was a direct hit. When I’d started the discussion I’d thought the odds were 10,000-to-1 against me. But now the odds dropped sharply, and they were realistic enough to make the subject worth pursuing. I knew a girl who’d had an epileptic attack when she was six. She was now fifteen and seemed to be leading a normal and happy life. She had been given a medicine for her epilepsy and I asked Dr. Silbermann what it was. He told me it was Dilantin.

 “Well, why don’t I try that?” I asked.

I didn’t realize then how crucial Max’s answer would be for me. He could easily have said no—and that might have been the end of it. But he said, “You can try it if you like. I don’t think it will do you any good, but it won’t do you any harm.” That night Max gave me a prescription for Dilantin and told me of an all-night drugstore where I could fill it. He suggested that I take 100 mg before going to bed and skip my sleeping pill. He thought the Dilantin might put me to sleep. I followed instructions. Around midnight I took 100 mg of Dilantin, and no sleeping pill.

Apparently I was dependent on the sleeping medication because when I went to bed I promptly fell awake. Before I finally got to sleep, at four in the morning, I thought, this medicine is a flop. Not until years later did it occur to me that I would not have lain quietly in bed for four hours if I’d had my usual fears. I’d have gotten up and taken the sleeping medicine.

I awoke at eight the next morning and, as Dr. Silbermann had instructed me, took another 100 mg of Dilantin. I had missed half a night’s sleep. Sleep was so important that when I saw Max that afternoon, I started to tell him the Dilantin didn’t work. But Max said, “You look better than you did yesterday.” Then I looked at myself and realized that in spite of the loss of sleep I felt much better. We agreed that I should continue the Dilantin. The following morning, according to routine, I called Dr. Silbermann. I couldn’t make an appointment to see him because I was going to be too busy that day. The next day I was too busy again. The third day, when I was going to make the same excuse, I realized that I wasn’t too busy. I was ducking the appointment. It was the first time in five years that I didn’t feel a need to see Max.

I saw Dr. Silbermann only three more times in his office. My need for psychotherapy was gone, and we just talked as friends. Max told me he had never heard of Dilantin being used for the purposes I was using it. And he was a close friend of Dr. Houston Merritt, of Putnam and Merritt, who, twenty years earlier, had discovered the first clinical use for Dilantin. So for a while we were waiting for the phenomenon to go away. At least I’m pretty sure Max was. Intellectually I was too. But my feelings told me things were all right.

On my last visit Max gave me a renewable prescription for Dilantin. I haven’t seen him as a patient since. We’ve stayed the closest of friends, and frequently have dinner together to swap lies and trade psychotherapy. From the day I took Dilantin my major symptoms of distress disappeared. I noticed fundamental differences. My brain, which had been overactive and filled with negative thoughts, was calmer and functioned as it had before the depression. The headaches, the stomach distress, the neck pain all disappeared. And my patience returned. I enjoyed partners’ meetings again and could sit back and observe someone else getting impatient, which was a switch.

Before taking Dilantin I’d been so tired and worn out I just dragged myself around. Although Dilantin had a calming effect on me, to my surprise it didn’t slow me down. On the contrary my energy returned full force. It was as though the energy that had been wasted in my overactive brain was made available for healthier purposes. I didn’t realize it right away, but my good health had returned. I was neither tranquil nor ecstatic. I was just all right. For the first time in my life I realized how good you feel when you feel “all right.”

Next Section: New Evidence and a Broadening Perspective