Depression Culture

anxiety, depression, drugs, mental health

I believe I heard writer Saeed Jones, during an interview on Fresh Air with Teri Gross back in November, say that anyone’s who paying enough attention to this life and these times is generally depressed. He was talking about his own depression after the loss of his mother, among other things. And he’s a poet, not a psychiatric professional.

Maybe he has had some personal reasons for his depression; there’s no way not to grant a person that. But the thing is, Jones’s idea that anyone watching the world (theirs or the larger one) must then be depressed is not at all right. There a lot of people who pay close attention to what’s happening in their lives and the world at large who exhibit no signs of clinical depression. And there are people who pay no attention to these things and who also lead otherwise advantageous lifestyles who are grossly depressed. The idea of real depression, as I’ve always understood it, is that it’s NOT tied to any rational triggers or easily identified causes.

Sometimes it’s just a chemical imbalance.

But even when it’s not exactly that, mood disorders do not connect to situations, usually.

However, I do consider myself situationally depressed, sometimes, though. As my anxiety wanes, it seems, depression increases. Sometimes I’m sad when I think I should be happy.

Last night I watched The Great Depresh, an HBO documentary / standup special about depression by Gary Gulman. I liked it. It was silly and insightful, and even though mental illness is no joke, it can be funny. Gary Gulman made it funny, albeit in a heartbreaking sort of way.

Later on that night, I saw a headline that Elizabeth Wurtzel had died of breast cancer at 52. She wrote a book about depression that made her famous back in 1994, published when she was 27. Before that, she’d gone to Harvard, I believe, and then immediately got hired to write about music for a big magazine.

I read Wurtzel’s book, Prozac Nation, in 2002, during a particularly low time for me. A friend gave it to me, thinking it would cheer me up. Then I watched the movie adaptation starring Christina Ricci as Wurtzel, which only dramatized limited sections of the narrative. I have no recollection of what I thought about that movie other than that I probably liked Chirstina Ricci because I usually like her work.

While I was reading the book — which I distinctly did not like but felt compelled to finish — my mom, a woman who by 54 had had many of her own experiences with Prozac, asked me why I was reading the book. And why I’d want to read it. My mom later revealed that she blamed herself for genetically passing generalized anxiety disorder and its related co-morbid companions (like depression, it appears) to me. I do not share her opinion, I do not blame her, I forgive her anyway, etc.

In his standup special, Gary Gulman said in the 70s and 80s when he was growing up, the most common anti-depressant was someone saying to you, “Suck it up,” or something like that. And the second most common anti-depressant was someone saying, “What do you have to be depressed about?”

And I have to say, while I was reading Prozac Nation, I could not help but think the same thing. Wurtzel seemed to be ungrateful about her charmed life. I mean, yeah sure, she was a child of divorce and that can be devastating, I know. I’ve heard about it. I’ve seen it. And getting dream jobs is not a cure for depression, I guess (but I’m not convinced of that yet because I’ve never had anything close to a dream job — plenty of nightmare jobs, though).

But frankly, her book just made her seem like an asshole to me. That’s what I saw as I read Prozac Nation eight years after its publication, eighteen years ago now; I see more clearly how the cultural conversation and attitudes about mental health and conditions like depression have changed in those subsequent years. I’ve been addressing it in myself and trying to listen to others, trying to be aware of how and why things happen.

And here’s something else: I believe Wurtzel would have probably agreed that it was fair to think she was an asshole. Based on some much more recent writing she did it appears she took some pride in that. She’d probably also say that life is an asshole, writing is an asshole, humanity sucks and here we all are. I don’t know her and never will. I’m just spit-balling here. I mean, she got famous in the the melancholia of the 90s, you know.

See, living a life of privilege and suffering depression can be controversial. It seems contradictory, but only if you don’t understand depression. Depression is a bitch.

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