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.

2020: New Year / New Decade

anxiety, booze

I recently read an article in The Atlantic that suggests 2020 is not really the mark of a new cultural decade, but maybe it is for me. While it’s clear that eras rarely correspond to years ending in zero, author Amanda Mull’s point in her piece was that 2010 did not see enough changes to give the 2010s distinction from the 2000s.

She notes that the economic downturn, which showed itself in mortgage loan crises that exploded in 2008 were showing signs back in 2001. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that back in 1999 everyone was talking about Y2K and how it could destroy life as we knew it. This did not happen on NYE 2000, but something really bad did happen 21 months later.

9/11 — September 11, 2001 changed life as we knew it. Air travel would never be the same again. And the dotcom economy as I’d seen it crumbled. Seemed like more than a coincidence to me. Back in 2000 and earlier, it appeared like anyone who wanted one could get a graphic design job. Then, nobody could get any good creative job.

So, for me that’s when the 90s ended.

Also, for people like me working in media, all of our technology rapidly became obsolete. I could say a lot more about this, but it’s too boring and tragic to bother.

What I will say is that Mull also notes in her article how people at her high school were already texting each other in 2003, and that social media was a thing, too. Facebook had been preceded by Friendster and Myspace, blah blah blah. Sure, but the big thing about Facebook was the scale. And besides that, it was just a desktop application. Doing things online meant doing them on a computer, which usually meant sitting in a corner of someone’s house. Of course, laptops had been around forever and wifi was available and getting better everywhere, but to engage online meant being in front of a computer with a keyboard.

Cell phones were really more of an analog device before the release of the first iPhone in 2007. And even then, nobody really knew what to do with a data plan yet. People mostly called each other and sent small messages composed by tediously keying in T9 environments.

Then, suddenly, everyone was online. Grandmothers were sending emails and moms were addicted to looking at babies on Facebook. Plus your weird uncles had a place to share their conspiracy theories with thousands of like-minded individuals.

So, for me, the 2000s were a distinct period, an era that could be called a decade, though I’d say it started late and ended early. The Big Short housing bust coinciding closely with smartphones, the mobile web, retail dumps for online purchase and shipping, social media — which includes cyberstalking — and a shift in communication and decorum marked all pretty closely around 2010 seems like the start of something new. Several somethings. Also, 2007 was the peak year of paper usage in America, which I believe is a noteworthy change to the way we do business and communicate with one another.

2009 was the year I experienced my first full blown panic attack. I’d call that the end of innocence, maybe. And I’ve spent the last decade, these past ten years, dealing with generalized anxiety disorder in one way or another. Near the end of 2009, I also ended a toxic relationship that spanned most of the 2000s (even though it started near the beginning of 2005). The long three years leading into that were sort of a preamble of bumbling idiocy that I can only fairly call youthful indulgence, arrogance, indiscretion (that did include my first trip abroad). I was stupid and I did stupid things as I adjusted to life without chemical dependence.

But that’s only half true. I drank well from 2009-2017 because I drank heavily from 1996-2008 or whatever. Now I face this new decade, the first 20s of Millenium III with a couple of years of sobriety and a new mental health challenge: my anxiety has apparently waned in favor of depression. Hopeful depression, if that’s a thing.

I’ve also got some promising opportunities ahead and the release of new work, so maybe these things just go together. Let’s all have fun in our new 20s, no matter how old we are.

Bitch Please: Claiming and Reclaiming Words

anxiety, sex

In a new novel I’m currently pitching to agents and publishers, I introduce one of the main characters as an “alcoholic, bulimic bitch.” She arrives in chapter three, so not everyone gets a sample large enough to include this part, but the language makes me nervous anyway.

It’s not because I think it’s linguistically inappropriate. It fits the character, genre, temperament; the language is right. And this is both how others see her and how she often describes herself. It fits.

However, I am a man and I know that this word is loaded. Bitch. When I was a kid, it had very specific applications. Men called other men bitches to reduce them, to emasculate them, to suggest that they were weak. Not men. Sometimes it meant they were so soft that they were actually the property of the person defining them that way. You’re my bitch, you do what I say.

It was basically the same if a woman called a man a bitch, maybe worse, but with the same meaning. However, if anyone called a woman a bitch, it meant pretty much the opposite. That she was strong, tough, spiteful maybe, self-serving, unkind and uncaring. Driven beyond compromise. It wasn’t exactly a reduction of femininity, but it was reserved for a certain type of mean woman.

The polarity of any single word fascinates me. Bitch isn’t about who says it, who has a claim on it, really. But it changes meaning depending on who it is being thrown at.

Of course, my brother called me a bitch when he wasn’t calling me a runt or whatever else. My mom didn’t like that and she told him as much. It was heavier than it seemed like it should be.

The other form of the word is as a verb: to complain. And sometimes verbs become nouns because they describe a behavior that is so common it creates a condition, a type. A person who bitches too much might be a bitch. A whiner. But what does that mean? Which genders does it apply to in this context?

In high school, or maybe in college, I noticed that women were self-applying the word. They’d say, “I’m going out with my bitches,” or they’d run into some friends and say, “What’s up, bitches?!?!”

Sometimes gay men do this, too. Maybe there’s a subtle freedom in already identifying as what the oppressors are worried about being mistaken for.

In an excellent piece for The Paris Review, poet Danez Smith asks if we can reclaim a word that was never ours. They explore several other incendiary words along with discussing intent, audience, audacity.

The essay concludes:
Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.

I see this and I believe I get it. It’s real, raw, true. And I know I’m not exactly describing the character in my new novel affectionately. But she would say it about herself, I keep hearing myself say in defense. Yes, maybe, but also not affectionately. More like self-deprecation. She might say it about herself, but she wouldn’t like to hear it thrown at her like a rock.

Too many of my friends have told me about ugly pursuits made after them by creepy men. Men who are overly sweet and immediate toward strangers, who turn into monsters just as fast when they don’t get any sweetness in return. Men who think that a pretty lady or whoever is on the other end of their Hey baby is suddenly a bitch for not showing them some warmth.

I respect Danez Smith’s desire to re-frame bitch into a context where a recipient only feels inclusive affection, but the core of the word is rooted culturally, generationally somewhere else. Can it change that quickly? Or like they say in the essay, how does a stranger’s ear consider the unknown intent?

My character, Abbie, embodies all that being called a bitch can be. She’s mean; she’s bitchy, whiny; she’s also a friend, an intimate who gets to be affectionately called out for her antics. But since she’s my invention, does that mean I get to treat her the same way her friends do? Does it matter who I am?

Maybe I’ll get the chance to frame this as a discussion question or something eventually.
Or maybe I just did?