Tuesday, January 29, 2008

But we're not supposed to be happy...are we?

The other day at work, one of my co-workers told me I was hateful and bitter, to which I laughed heartily. She actually is one of my favorite co-workers and we get along really well, and she was mostly teasing me, but I think there was some truth in her condemnation. Then the other day she asked me if I considered myself a happy person. When I asked her why she was asking, she told me she found it disturbing how miserable and bitter so many of the people that worked there seemed to be. And since she considered herself to be mostly pretty happy, and since so many of the people that work there are so young, she just wondered why so many people seemed so unhappy.

Aside from the fact that I think working retail just brings that out of you (particularly where we work, where it's pretty much written in the rule book that customers are allowed to abuse you however they see fit, because a sense of entitlement is something the company wants to foster among the customers), I also think sometimes that's a byproduct of being young. As one gets older, I think maybe they learn to appreciate the small things more. After a certain age, I think people start getting broken down into accepting that mostly everything sucks and that's just the way it is, so they stop expecting things to be different, which is what causes so much misery among the young and idealistic.

Well, okay, maybe that's the just case with me. Once I realized that pretty much nothing works out the way you want it to, that relationships are always gonna fall apart, that most things are gonna hurt, that anything worth having takes an enormous struggle, and that nobody owes you shit, I was much happier. Or, at the very least, I kind of stopped having expectations. Which in turn made me happier. Or more accepting. I stopped fighting so much. As my mother told me after my last wretched breakup when I was crying on the phone to her, I had to learn to accept things as they are, and stop trying to force everything all the time.

All of which is to say, even though I haven't yet read the book, this guy might be my new hero.

He's mentioned in an article on Salon this morning about the quiet rebellion of psychologists and therapists against our pill-crazed culture.

To that end, Eric Wilson's "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy" is a loopy, feeble blow against the empire. The new book is a heartfelt defense of being bummed out. The chairman of the Wake Forest University English department, Wilson is Hamlet-mad for sadness. He extols depression the way 19th-century aesthetes swooned over tuberculosis because it made them fashionably pale and broody.

Life means pain and death, Wilson repeatedly reminds us, and we must embrace these to find our "sorrowful joy." But most people are too harried and hollow to grasp this, too distracted by happy pills and shopping malls. We've probably never taken the time to walk through "autumn's multihued lustrousness ... with hearts irreparably ripped." Nor have we "stared for an hour at the sparrow lying stiff on the soiled snow."

I was on antidepressants once, briefly, and they helped me tremendously, but it wasn't the kind of help I needed. I could get out of bed in the morning; I could hold down a job and still get good grades at school; I could go out with my friends and laugh and have a good time and be engaged; I could still take care of myself and eat right and shave. I also didn't realize they helped so much until I stopped taking them, and then started feeling like hell again and not sleeping. But what I didn't need was a pill; what I needed was to learn adequate methods of handling my emotions so they didn't feel so fucking overwhelming to me. I'm a lot better now than I used to be, but I still sometimes feel myself facing the options of either being totally overwhelmed, or just shutting down. Lately I've been finding it much easier to shut down. When I really need to feel something, I go to bed.

One unintended consequence of defining depression downward has been an inability to distinguish -- with any accuracy -- severe depression from garden-variety glumness. Drug companies and doctors started a cascade, a blurring of categories between depression and anxiety, anger, laziness or low self-esteem. Treating them represented a huge market expansion into "lifestyle issues." As a result, millions of people have been prescribed pills -- that is, treated as if they were ill -- when they were just feeling, well, sad.

I'm glad the Salon article goes on to extol the virtues of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and the statistics that it works (reports as high a success rate with clients) as well as taking antidepressants. But yes, it takes time, and it's painful, two things Americans are vastly opposed to as a group.

Ironically, it was CBT that really enabled me to grasp that concept, to love my pain and misery and welcome it whenever it knocked. I haven't been the most gracious host, admittedly, but I know what I need to do, and that's half the battle, right? I'm trying. My misery and I have formed a tenuous friendship, a light give-and-take, that sometimes is kind of comforting in a twisted way.

1 comment:

zen imbecile said...

According to an English prof of mine, Elizabethan intellectuals and artists considered melancholy a gift. For some reason, when I feel really low, that always makes me smile a bit. She used to talk about the "punk rock" poets of the day who used to dress in black in psuedo pirate garb and be all nihilistic. That made me smile even more.