Friday, March 12, 2010

Trying to cure life

Last night I re-read my sidebar. I wrote that I'm a person who's struggled with depression. I came close to deleting the whole thing, but I was tired. I started writing this entry, but I put it in the drafts folder where things always languish and die. For the first time, I'm interested enough to go back and finish what I started; that's a big thing for me!

What is this thing called depression, anyway? It's been called a disease, and the drug companies sure would like us all to believe that, for diseases can be cured with medication. Anti-depressants have never worked for me, so what have the doctors said? "You have medication resistant depression." Intractable. Oh, a very bad case indeed!

When I was in high school, I read R.D.Laing's "Sanity, Madness, and the Family." This book saved my sanity. The quick and dirty explanation of what Laing wrote is that the "crazy people" were having reasonable responses to insane circumstances. I was a miserable kid with a host of problems who started going to shrinks at a young age. But what good was that (especially back then), when they couldn't get my family to change their crazy-making behavior? If only there was behavioral therapy back then, the shrinks may have been helpful. I would have learned better coping skills. I'm grateful I'm not a teenager now, for I'd have been drugged to the eyeteeth. My own self-medicating, I'm sure, was a whole lot less harmful in the long run.

So, this brings me to what I was thinking about earlier. Can we drug people out of feeling unhappy? As far as I can tell, most depressed people are depressed because of something. I used to balk at that idea when I was feeling at my worst, for it challenged me to examine my life and make changes. Oh no, there's nothing wrong! I just have the "disease of depression."

Is it even ethical to drug people who are unsatisfied with their lives, their jobs, their marriages, their finances, and even their health? I'm beginning to think not. Why don't we just hand out heroin to the entire populace? That would solve everyone's ills, and quite inexpensively, too. But that won't do, for big pharma wouldn't make the big bucks.

We don't hear much of the word "unhappy" these days. We hear people use the word "happiness" quite a lot, but it's flip side has fallen into disuse. What if therapists stopped using the word "depression" and used the word "unhappy" instead?

For one thing, there'd be an awful lot of angry patients. Imagine if you will a woman who's married to an unemployed drunk, is saddled with a posse of kids, does all the housework and cooking and has a low-paying 40-hour a week job, whose home is falling down around her, has a car that needs works but can't afford it, and is being harrassed by social services because those kids are doing poorly in school and they think she needs to spend more quality time with them. That sounds like a lot of people around here.

So, this imaginary woman is stressed out and unhappy. She's been unhappy so long that she has a pessimistic mindset and, yes, is depressed. All the joys in life, which are there on occasion, give her little pleasure. For one thing, she's too tired to feel much pleasure. She hurts all over because she's sleep deprived and eats a terrible diet of over-processed food straight from the microwave.

When this woman finally makes it to a psychiatrist's office, as she might, she's diagnosed with major depression. Oh, the notes might say there's mitigating circumstances, but doesn't everyone have them? What does she get? Prescriptions. Something to make her feel more upbeat, even if there's nothing to be upbeat about. Maybe she'll get some painkillers, too. Five years down the road she'll be in rehab and on Seboxyn.

What if, instead, her living problems were addressed? Well, no, one can't do that. But, if one stops for a moment and thinks about the price of meds and doctors and shrinks and social service workers, giving this woman a monthly stipend so she can work less outside the home, or hire a bi-weekly housecleaner, or whatever might ease some of her burden, well, it'd be a bargain. But no, that is just too simple And, on top of that, tea-party types would say we're handing out checks to folks who've made their own dirty beds and deserve to lay in them.

Well, to those who think the above, everyone is paying a lot for a huge bulk of our society's unhappy overburdened people already. What do you think is best? Enforced sterilization for the poor or soon-to-be-poor?

So, we've got a society in which we have many chronically unhappy people. It's not limited to the poor, of course, but poverty is the great equalizer in terms of creating misery. Sure, one can live in poverty and be happy, but it's not normative, especially in this society where families and communities are fractured, total self-reliance is the norm, and having money and lots of stuff is the barometer of success. This last bit alone is a major cause of unhappiness in itself. Any day of the week, one can read an inspiring story on the Web or watch one on TV about vibrant happy people who live in dire circumstances, but they are regarded as freakish exceptions. The reasons why these folks are doing so well are not examined closely enough. We study disease and dis-ease, not happiness.

And then, the drug companies do not want us to know about how to improve our resiliency and health. Where would they be if we all woke up to the simple physical and mental health-affirming realities of good support systems, life-in-community, and finding true meaning and purpose in these lives of ours?

What if the doctors simply diagnosed "unhappiness"?

I think it would cause a revolution. We all know intuitively that pills can't cure the pain of unhappiness. Numb a person out enough, and they will feel better (or at least they'll feel less), but a nation of zombies we will become. I fear, sadly, that this is what we're becoming.

I, for one, am glad I woke up. I was unhappy. I may be unhappy again. That's life.

Image note: Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne "Allegory of Poverty" c.1630


BitterGrace said...

Yes! Yes to everything you wrote. As another who has "struggled with depression," I am dismayed by the way drugs and the disease model have taken over our understanding of human feelings. I rarely feel free to say it as openly as you have, because so many people in my life take these drugs and they feel attacked by any questioning of the model.

When I was dying of anorexia--and that's not too strong a way of putting it--I got enormous pressure to take medication, and my refusal was considered evidence of my mental illness. That's the Catch-22 of the disease model. You are reduced to helplessness, and you begin to doubt your own ability to improve your life.

Thank you, Julie.

Julie H. Rose said...

I'm reading a new book,"Manufacturing Depression", and I will send it to you when I'm done reading it.

I suppose I don't worry what others think, which is both a good and bad thing, but that's who I am. If someone is threatened by my opinion, I rather think they must be insecure about their own.

I'm glad you appreciated the post.

The disease model has taken over every sphere of human behavior. At the same time, new behavioral therapies are proving to have enormous efficacy. To my mind, that doesn't add up.

We CAN improve our own lives, and I agree wholeheartedly that the disease model creates helplessness (and hopelessness, I might add). AA is based on the disease model, and it also is based on saying "I am powerless. . ." This, I must disagree with. We must re-take our power, not give it up! There's a book (name forgotten) that has a feminist perspective on AA, and in it the author changed the 1st step to something like "I WAS powerless and my life was unmanageable. . ."

Excuse me, I'm all over the map today (not unusual for me!)

Dick Fischbeck said...

I read to the part were you started using the phrase 'drug people.'

Is that anything like, for example, 'feed people' or 'house people?'

If you don't like drugs, don't take them.

I guess I should finish reading in all fairness.

Larry said...

Hi there

First, I personally do not believe that it's unethical or even unwise to give people drugs if it makes them feel better even if their unhappiness is because of life situations. You ask, why not give everyone heroine? Well, that drug has very bad side effects. But if there is a drug with minor side effects that could, for example, shorten the grieving process, why not take it. I know people say it's important to go through the grieving process, but where's the proof of that? Maybe the end of grieving is just a matter of time -- say 6 months. If you can take something that can help you during those six months, why not take it? And does going through the pain of depression based on a life situation make one more resilient? I don't know that that's true. It could just as easily break someone, demoralize them. Say one is depressed because she's a single mother with many kids, poor housing and little money. If an anti-depression drug can help her gain the self-confidence to go back to school despite all the challenges, why not prescribe it? I know someone who was having a hard time because both her children were diagnosed at the same time with a disease which would render them legally blind. The doctor gave her something to help her through this: to allow her to eat and sleep and deal with what she had to deal with. What's the harm?

Anyway, I highly recommend this New Yorker article (, which discusses the very issues you bring up from a number of different points of view.

Larry said...

By the way, I read R.S. Lang's "Knots" and was very impressed with him. Of course, he wrote during a time when there were few drugs to treat anxiety or depression. If he were alive today, he might very well have the same point of view as he expressed in his books. But my views have changed after seeing the inability of talk therapy to help anyone who I know and the ability of chemicals to help at least some people that I know.