There’s a scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (It’s definitely in the BBC Radio version, possibly in the BBC TV version, and I don’t think it’s in the Hollywood travesty version at all). Trillian, at her wits’ end with Marvin (The Paranoid Android) asks in a frustrated voice “What are you supposed to do with a manically depressed robot?” to which Marvin replies, “You think you’ve got problems. What are you supposed to do if you are a manically depressed robot?”
This is all by the way of starting to think about depression and how to talk about it. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, and I don’t think I suffer from chronic depression. But there are occasional times in my life when I become literally paralyzed with depression. Things pile up, and the whole world is just too much, and my brain and will just call it quits. I’ve seen it happen to other people, and I suspect that it happens to many, if no most, people. So much so that we kind of like to make fun of it (whistling in the dark?). There’s a scene concerning two depressed women (Elizabeth and Jane) in a “modern day” version of Pride and Prejudice that captures depression’s paralytic nature while managing to be funny at the same time. But depression isn’t funny when it happens to you.
Moreover, it’s not necessarily something that happens to you that starts it; depression is something you can absorb through your skin or your eyes. When I was in college, I got into reading Russian authors (a bad sign right there, probably). I remember reading Crime and Punishment and getting so depressed at Raskolnikov’s situation that I just wanted to creep into my room and live off stale crackers and tepid water. Blagh.
Last night I began to fell into depression. My spouse and I went to walk around a mall (the temperature outside was a little brisk) and a number of things hit me all at once. Some of them were cultural, some of them had to do with realizing my age (I have two granddaughters, both of whom I love dearly, but I find that shopping for baby/toddler clothes for them really brings me down after a while), and some of them have to do with economics. And some have to do with my upcoming bar exam in 37 days. Blagh.
When I got home, I continued to feel like I was heading for the basement to dig holes. I could easily have fallen into an anomic fugue. But I knew I had things to do today–so I did a bunch of the things that I know from past experience will make me feel better. I made a cup of tea. I had a bit of cheese and a slice of cherry pie (once again–thanks, Tess!). I read something that wasn’t depressing. And I emerged, three quarter or so of an hour later, feeling somehow “unwound.” Not as happy as I’d like to be, but not paralyzed. Self-medicated.
Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work for everybody. Some people do live their lives in hurt. Some seek God, some seek self-medication, some seek help. But for most, I think it takes more than a clap on the shoulder and a “snap out of it.” I think it takes work. It takes work and it takes whatever pharmacological assistance you may need. This is a new realization for me; in my mind, I’ve always sort of vaguely stigmatized people who needed antidepressants.
But then I realized something: almost everyone medicates for something. My boss has asthma, and without an inhaler, he’d be in bad shape. I’m diabetic and hypothyroid–without insulin and something-or-other-the-name-of-which-escapes-me, I’d be in bad shape. I know people whose blood is too thick, their blood pressure too high, who sleep too much or too little, who are allergic to peanuts or sneeze at the sun or have low vitamin B or high cholesterol. Almost everyone I know is imperfect in some way. Yet, medicating your mind always seemed to me like a moral failing (I blame the Rolling Stones for Mother’s Little Helper.
But you know what? Why should it make a difference whether you’re taking medication to make your body work right or your mind?
The difference is that, historically, we believe there is a fundamental difference between mind and body. We are the one, and we merely inhabit the other. This is a very old distinction, and it stands behind a lot of theology and philosophy. Generally, we treat the mind as somehow sacred, the body as profane (hence terms like “carnal” are used to refer to the body, and the body is seen in Christian theology as being an evil influence on the mind.
This same distinction has given us incredibly harsh drug laws (save for the approved drugs, like limited quantities of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, theobromine, and so forth) to penalize self-medication, and has perpetuated the idea that the mind must not be messed with. It’s OK to perform surgery to fix a damaged or diseased organ, but it’s a moral failing to medicate or self-medicate the body in a way that affects the mind.
The mind/body distinction is one I’ve struggled with over my life, and over the past few years I’ve come to think it’s bogus. We are what we are–and if we’re broken, if we’re hurting, we need adjustment and/or repair. Our minds are not merely inhabitants of our bodies…they are a function of our bodies. And that’s really pretty neat, if you think about it. If there is no difference, there is no moral failure in needing assistance.
Someone who is depressed may have a chemical imbalance. There is no shame in correcting it, any more than there would be in wearing orthopedic shoes (though I had a girlfriend one time who seemed to think that wearing orthopedic shoes could demonstrate a moral failing–I kid you not!).
I’ll take my help, and you take yours. If it’s talking things out, that’s OK. If it’s taking medication, that’s OK, too. To steal the title of a book from the ’70s, “our bodies, our selves.” There is no shame in that.
This is not a last word. It’s a first hack at trying to think about difficult things. Comments especially welcome.