From the LA Times: “Britain's Daily Telegraph — a conservative paper and that country's bestselling broadsheet — diagnoses [America] as a nation depressed, and cites polling data describing alarming percentages of Americans who expect their own economic situation to deteriorate further and that of their children to be worse still. As Toby Harnden, the paper's U.S. editor, wrote: "A country whose hallmark has always been a sense of irrepressible optimism is in the grip of unprecedented uncertainty and self-doubt. With the United States mired in three foreign wars, beaten down by an economy that shows few signs of emerging from deep recession and deeply disillusioned with President Barack Obama, his Republican challengers and Congress, the mood is dark."
The news people love all this stuff because it sells papers. It means offering remedies for sale. Big Pharma is not the only force that loves trouble because it is so easy to commodify. So in the interest of not wasting money, I’m going to speculate a bit on alternative diagnoses. One wouldn’t want to take the wrong pill. Let us reflect on: disappointed expectations, confusion, anxiety, fatigue, culture-shock that one is subjected to by living through changing times (Oh, isn’t that future-shock? Remember that?), avoidance, preoccupation, and dementia (organic failure to compute).
Let’s go backwards. Some dementias are subtle: forgetting, losing inhibitions, personality change -- as compared to thinking your wife is your hat and trying to put her on your head. Quite different is Preoccupation, which is the absent-minded professor thing where one is thinking about something abstract so intensely that one fails to monitor what you’re actually doing. Pouring boiling water over my coffee beans without grinding them first. That’s me a lot of the time.
Avoidance can be either deliberate or unconscious. You just don’t want to deal with something so you change the subject or go the other way or lose the papers or accidently delete them. My cousin is an expert at the distracting question, which doesn’t have to be quite so blatant as the one I hit on Bing.com the other day. I punched in a url and got the message: “that url has been removed -- oh look, a puppy!” Sure enough, there was a cute puppy photo.
Future-shock is a toughy, sometimes terrifying and other times coming as rather a relief. It’s not always generational, as some old people like new stuff and challenges. Others of us still haven’t figured out that hotel rooms don’t have keys anymore and are humiliated once to think we’ve forgotten ours somewhere and then again when the desk clerk instructs us that the thing in our hand is the card that opens the door. It can be as necessary as moving to the city or going to college or joining the military, which doesn’t mean it’s not totally discombobulating.
Fatigue is one of those tricky things that feels very real and that the medical profession (maybe because they don’t know what to do about it) treats with great suspicion. Fibromyalgia is similar and often coincides. Only with great reluctance will medical people classify these as a disability.
Confusion, flooding, choking, brain fag are sort of the same: too much stuff to process. I had a good counselor once who was trying to explain something to me but stopped. She said, “You’re looking at me as though I were speaking Chinese!” No comprehension whatsoever. The ideas were too new for me to grasp. She taught me to say, “Wait a minute. I need a little processing time.” I had not known that a person was allowed to say this. Now that I’ve learned it, the simple request really helps. And also she explained that one is allowed to ask for definitions or examples.
That takes us to disappointed expectations which is really what the lead paragraph is talking about. It is a situation in which all the other phenomena, from confusion to preoccupation, can go to work to defeat clarity. Expectations creep up on us subtly, maybe through one’s family (who expects you to be a genius and shower honor on them all), or through one’s neighbors (who expect you to at least maintain your lawn in some kind of orderly way) or through the media (where sitcoms demonstrate how your house should look, what you should wear and what you should look like).
Most expectations are at least negotiable. But when politics leads you to expect that your social security check will soon be cut in half, all the afflictions listed above will come into play. There will be no pill, no brand of alcohol, no therapy, that will make a difference. When you expect to be healthy and discover that you will no longer be able to walk -- THAT’s more than disappointed expectations. It’s a real grief and mourning is entirely justified. The same as if the loss were a person or a marriage.
People say to me all the time, “Oh, that’s so depressing.” I’m more likely to find whatever-it-is infuriating. I’ve never been depressed, I don’t think, though when my marriage got absolutely stuck without any remedy except ending it, I had the “flu” for a while and slept day after day.
But this is what I really want to say. “Being depressed” because one will never have a house with a bathroom for each bedroom, a double garage, and a wireless network for your electronics -- which one’s parents had -- is not the same thing as the yawning abyss at the feet of the truly organically depressed. The latter is the darkness that engulfs and destroys, mocks with hissing evil every effort to act or to think. Most of us cannot even imagine it and those in the grip can’t describe it until later and then tell us that every effort fails.
To say that the ordinary set-backs and wrestling matches of the day are “so depressing” is to use a word to mean unpleasantness that can be addressed and resolved (possibly to excuse ourselves from doing exactly that) when REAL depression is demonic, catastrophic, nearly theological and beyond most medical help. It is apoptosis of the soul, apoptosis being the formal term for a cell that orders itself to die.
We can only pray for those suffering depression on that scale. But we should also pray for those suffering in extremis from hunger, disease, trauma, slavery, because those people are BEYOND depression themselves and should be beyond “depressing” us. NOT beyond our help.