Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The blues

The fabulous Dr. B. has the blues. I use the term not to diminish the real suffering she's feeling, but to pay my own little tribute to the creativity that springs therefrom. The blues are what you get when you make art out of pain; she does the same thing with her blog. The blues, at their best, also tap into a sort of deep, collective human mournfulness, a kind of shared universe of pain. There's something about the academic (and friends) blogging circle that, at its best, echoes that communality. I don't want to overstate my case. But it seems to me that the kind of intimacy and immediacy associated with the blues might also describe the best of blogging. So hop on over to her blog and share the love.

Like so many of my fellow academics and grad-school colleagues, I've had my own struggles with depression. My husband and I often joke that Zoloft is what makes our marriage work; that's a bit of an overstatement, but I don't think we could have gotten married, or made it through some horrific patches in the past few years, without it.

Dr. B raises the point that depression is perhaps "socially constructed." A similar argument appeared in the NYTimes Magazine a couple of weeks back, where the author of Listening to Prozac discussed our cultural investment in depression as both a mark of genius and a test of one's superiority (i.e., alienation and despair demonstrate one's unfittedness for the humdrum world). He claims that many of his audiences resist the idea that depression is a disease, or that it should be fully clear, because they romanticize the intellectual and artistic potential associated with it. (The link to the article is here, but it costs money to access the full text--sorry).

I think his article raises some interesting points about how intellectuals relate to depression. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to me that much of what we identify as depression is in fact a pretty logical, sane response to a fucked-up world in which our country is waging unprompted and trumped up wars, trampling on civil liberties, and apparently working hard to pretend the last 50 years (at least!) of social progress never happened. It's like those bumper stickers I see; the ones that say, "If you're not outraged, you haven't been paying attention." If you are a progressive, a feminist, a pacifist, a humanist, a thinker, an altruist--then it's impossible not to be depressed by the cultural "shift" (so they say) to national values that are not only foreign but hostile to one's own.

And it seems perfectly sensible to me, furthermore, to be highly suspicious of the current generous distribution of anti-depressants, and of the apparently endemic nature of depression. The bar is now set ridiculously low; almost anyone who complains of sadness and laziness can be issued a prescription for anti-depressants, often without any sort of complementary counseling that might allow them to address some of the cultural, personal issues that might catalyze or exacerbate depression.

But the fact that both of those positions seem eminently reasonable does not at all negate the amazing power these new drugs have. There's a genuine difference--although I'd be hard-pressed to define or identify it--between the frustration and sadness one logically feels at the world gone wrong and the enervated hopelessness that is perhaps best labeled "depression." It seems to me that part of the problem is semantic; calling this chemical imbalance "depression" maybe inadequately differentiates it from the more mundane, temporary situation expressed by "I feel depressed." I have days where I "feel depressed"--my students frustrate me, I fail to live up to my own expectations, little obstacles feel insurmountable. But even on those days, there's an undercurrent of health and stability that is entirely missing in "depression." For me, the key issue with depression was my absolute inability to envision that I would ever feel better. I lacked the energy even to imagine feeling better--let alone how I might arrange things in my life so that I could feel better. At that point, it makes no difference whether the depression is socially constructed or not--and right now, the thing that seems most effective in breaking the cycle is drugs. It may very well be that the rampant spread of depression has everything to do with social and historical causes--our lack of exercise, our toxic environment, the lack of meaningful social exchange, the death of god (just kidding, people), and our desire for a quick, individual fix for what are systemic issues. It could be that the depression, like the increase in types of cancer, is one more real sign that we are destroying ourselves as a species. It may also be true that, as Kramer's article suggests, depression is a disease of privilege brought on by an excess of thinking.

None of that, to my mind, justifies refusing the drugs that clear away the fog. With the drugs, with that choking dead weight lifted, you can find the energy to deal with the situational, cultural, and political things that depress you. Without the drugs, you risk becoming their victim.


At 1:09 PM , Anonymous Jesse said...

I frequently debate internally if I am depressed. I feel depressed, I think... Then I think about it, and I dont seem to display the *typical* signs of it. i.e. I still enjoy doing the things I like, I dont have sleeping issues.. which leads me to believe I am not actually depressed, but more likey just not happy. and not being happy is not indicative of being depressed.

which got me think about the widespread sprawl of depression in our society. I think it has something to do with an assumption that everyone should be happy, because popular culture says so. so if you are not happy, you may assume there is something wrong and immediately assume depression? Or not, I dont know...

I also think a lot of it stems from boredom. Survival for most of us is no longer much of a concern. As a species we are doing far to good. In our individiaul lives survival is a given (for most people in out society, granted there are exceptions, there are always exceptions..) food and shelter are not hard to come by. So, I think people get bored, and have to figure out other ways to keep busy.

So now, we also have excess amounts of self impossed schedules, and uneccessary stressors, and for what? personal self gain usually.

I dont think we are doing what we are *suposed* to be doing, not say what we are doing is wrong, or claiming to know what we should be doing. But I often think I would feel less depressed if I had to work hard to survive, not happier, just less depressed, as I wouldn't have the luxury.

But those are just my thoughts, and what do I know?

At 6:31 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...

I started to comment here, but ended up doing a lengthy post on my site. Just know that I'm with you on this...

At 9:00 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

I totally agree with you that a lot of what is popularly referred to as "depression" is socially constructed in just the way you mention--that is, as some sort of state counter to the popular culture ideal of constant "happiness"--which is, as you say, largely defined by personal gain. I think most philosophical systems offer some sort of "service" to others as an antidote for boredom, depression, and stress--but, of course, this being America, we're instead offered products we can purchase to make ourselves happy--whether those products be shoes, bustiers, or prozac. But I do think there is a difference between a general malaise or dissatisfaction and the anguished stupor that is perhaps best addressed by drugs of some kind. I just don't know whether it's a difference of quality or one of degree.

At 7:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worry too about the frequent distribution of anti-depressants and the willingness to diagnose depression. I started having panic attacks last year, and my regular doctor gave me Atavan to take on an attack by attack basis. I was hesitant to take the pills, and even when I did, they made me very groggy, so I stopped taking them. She later referred me to a psych to started me on celexa two weeks ago. I'm on a very low dose, and I do notice a positive change, but I was shocked that she just perscribed the meds after talking to me for only half an hour on my first visit. I've never been to a psych before and don't know if it's common, but I just felt unsettled that someone who knew so little about me was fine just doing out meds.


At 2:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rhodiola Rosea is the latest natural remedy to join the arsenal of natural anxiety and stress (rhodiola root) reducers.

Rhodiola Rosea, also known as Golden Root, is a native plant of arctic Siberia. For centuries it has been used by eastern European and Asian cultures for physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders.

The first recorded medicinal applications of rodia riza (renamed Rhodiola Rosea) was made by the Greek physician, Dioscorides, in 77 C.E. in 'De Materia Medica'. Rhodiola Rosea has been included in official Russian medicine since 1969.

Despite its long history, the Western world has only recently become aware of the health benefits of Rhodiola Rosea. It has come to the attention of many natural health practitioners because of studies which tested its affects on combating anxiety and stress.

Rhodiola Rosea is considered an adaptogen. This means it has an overall stabilizing effect on the body without disrupting other functions. Its ability to normalize hormones may be effective for treating depression and anxiety.

Studies of Rhodiola Rosea show that it stimulates neurotransmitters and enhances their effects on the brain. This includes the ability for the brain to process serotonin which helps the body to adapt to stress.

Since adaptogens improve the body's overall ability to handle stress, it has been studied to identify it's effects on biological, chemical and physical stress.

A study was performed to test the effects of Rhodiola Rosea when stress or rhodiola root is caused by intense mental work (such as final exams). Such tests concluded that using Rhodiola Rosea improved the amount and quality of work, increasing mental clarity and reducing the effects of fatigue.

The effects of Rhodiola Rosea have also been tested on stress and anxiety from both physical and emotional sources. A report by the American Botanical Council states that "Most users find that it improves their mood, energy level, and mental clarity." They also report on a study that indicated Rhodiola Rosea could increase stress tolerance while at the same time protecting the brain and heart from the physical affects of stress.

This report included details of studies which highlight the overall health benefits of Rhodiola Rosea.

The generally recommended dose is 200-600mg/day. The active properties should be a minimum 0.8 percent salidroside and 3 percent rosavin.

It is important for consumers to know that Rhodiola may be sold using other species that do not share the properties of Rhodiola Rosea, rhodiola root, or at ineffective strengths for treatment. Anyone with depression or anxiety should also check with a health professional when treating these symptoms.

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