Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The New Black (2/2)

I'm mildly peeved, y'all. First of all, you know I'm peeved when I employ the atavistic contraction y'all, as if I'm reaching back to my Texan forefathers. And I say mildly because I'm not surprised. My anger has finally motivated me to write the second part of this blog. Readers will refer to March 20 for the first part. The school psychiatrist suggested that my daughter Jessi take some medication to help her with anxiety at night. To her credit, Jessi responded to her mother regarding this counsel with something like, "The best medication I need is summer vacation and it's almost here.” Way to go, Jessi!

What is this epidemic of mental ailments and disorders? I realize that I’m not the first one to question the efficacy of anti-depressants in our modern age. I’m not the first one to wander how homo sapiens for millennia got along without the pharmaceutical industry.  Last semester a student in my class periodically pointed out that historical figures like Churchill and Lincoln achieved great things in spite of their mental handicaps.  What she was really saying was that they suffered from Bi-polar Disorder just like she did.  Little did she know she was getting my goat many times over with her self-centered comment.

British psychoanalyst Darian Leader in his book The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression is speaking my language.  The subtitle of caught my eye at Barnes and Noble.  He argues that the treatment of "depression," a catch-all term that really masks a number of issues, has become a quick-fix designed to line the pockets of companies and also satisfy the demands of a public looking for easy solutions to deeply-embedded problems. We don’t want to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of analysis, reflection, and diagnosis; rather, we’re content with throwing anti-depressants and quick-fix therapies at the problem. He writes that

we want to avoid the labour of exploring our inner lives, which means that we prefer to see symptoms as signs of some local disturbance rather than difficulties which concern our whole existence. Being able to group our feelings of malaise, anxiety or sadness under the blanket term ‘depression’ and then take a pill for will naturally seem more attractive than putting our whole life under a psychological microscope.

That we live in a quick-fix culture is no revelation, but such impatience is most lamentable in matters related to mental health. Our healthcare industry would much rather throw drugs and surface-level therapies at deep-seeded and complex issues that are particular to each individual. Physicians, psychiatrists and cognitive therapists are seemingly content with “observable behavior,” deft at pinpoint a symptom and even removing it but inattentive to the root cause. Leader gives the example of an anorexic woman who would stop eating once she reached ninety-nine pounds. This number had particular significance after hearing someone remark about her deceased grandfather weighing no more than nine-nine pounds in the casket. Leader imagines a cognitive behaviorist ignoring these details and instead determining ways (such as keeping a diary) to eradicate the behavior. “Her symptoms,” he writes, “expressed less a cognitive mistake than a subjective, personal truth, involving her identification with the devastated image of the grandfather.” Both therapy and drugs, it would seem, prevent many people from overcoming their depression or at least identifying the causes thereof. Keep in mind, dear readers, that I am an advocate of medication when it comes to schizophrenia and similar pathologies of a serious (and sometimes violent) nature.

How people cope with depression is a touchy topic to be sure. I wouldn’t venture into this forbidden terrain for no reason. Truth is, I’ve come across too many individuals who’ve highly recommended that I think about medication for myself. I don’t intend to be insensitive to those of you who suffer, or at any rate feel you suffer, from a disorder or imbalance of some kind. Prescription medicine, I submit, will help you clear the spider webs at best, but you’ll never squash the spider. To stay with the metaphor for a moment, be prepared to have more webs in the future. You might argue that anti-depressant drugs help you cope with the problem; they enable you to manage the depression better. Fine. You must honestly ask yourself, however, whether you’re better off with the drugs than without them. You should also recognize that drug companies have a vested (read: financial) interest in manufacturing and promoting their product. The pharmaceutical industry funds most of the so-called “objective” research into the safety and efficacy of drugs on the market. These drugs are not as specific as the experts and advertisements claim, and they laud the benefits, or perceived benefits in some cases, over the nasty side effects. These factors do not mean that drugs have no validity whatsoever, but they should give you pause.

Though I’m in general agreement with Leader with regard to our postmodern conception of depression and its marketplace value, I’m weary of his more theoretical discussion, especially as he interprets the work of Freud, Karl Abraham, Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan. For instance, I find his interpretation of melancholy fascinating, but I’m not convinced that he’s actually accounting for the reality of the situation. I sometimes get this same impression with literary critics who appear to be too clever by half.

I would like to highlight some insights with which I happen to concur or resonate with me. He makes a distinction between truth and the facts. His point is that too often therapists and physicians take the latter for the former. Leader argues that “most conventional forms of healthcare” stay at the surface level and ignore the unconscious workings of the mind. Similarly, my perspicacious friend John has often noted the difference between nonfiction reporting the facts and fiction conveying the truth. One example he gives a couple of times in the book is a boy who would go inside a suitcase after the death of his father. Ostensibly this is bizarre behavior, and the fact is that he’s confined in a suitcase. But Leader suggests the truth of the matter is that he was lying in a coffin like his deceased father.

Bouncing off of Freud and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, Leader suggests that the melancholy is still living with the dead, unable to let a loved on go and thereby inhabiting two worlds at the same time. Having a foot in both is a source of much consternation and pain. Consequently, the melancholy has a surreal sense of solitude and feels detached from the life he or she is living in the real world. The grieving process, writes Leader, should involve a killing off of the dead, as it were, so that one left behind in this world can go on. Melancholic individuals, however, do not engage in this process but instead die with the dead on a continual basis. I’m not sure I buy into this conception of melancholy. Leader is making the mistake that social scientists too often make: they tend to overemphasize nurture over nature. They don’t pay heed to the biological sciences which tell us that genetics play a key role.