In the early hours of Saturday morning, as I was settling into bed after a farewell dinner for one of my favorite colleagues, the Twitter beast was feasting on its freshest scandal, sinking its fangs into the declaration, #ineedmymedsmarianne. This hashtag was inspired—though perhaps the brooding intellectual force of social media is best served by a term less gentle than “inspired”—by Marianne Williamson, who skipped out on the grand opening of her presidential campaign’s New Hampshire headquarters to fly to California and participate in Real Time with Bill Maher. I’ve watched almost none of Bill Maher’s partisan propaganda program ever since he betrayed Julian Assange, but all the same, a presidential candidate—in particular a member of the Democratic Party—is effectively obligated to appear on Real Time and to put up with Maher’s tedious jokes.
Anyway, Williamson spent part of her appearance describing the American healthcare system as a “sick-care system”. She is neither the only nor the first Democratic candidate to use this term, but she distinguishes herself from most of her contemporaries by describing the broader American culture as a breeding ground for sickness. She explains that Americans live unhealthy lifestyles, eat poorly, and take way too many medications, including psychotropics. She believes that we will not “get better” unless we take serious steps to make ourselves better, and this, she argues, exceeds the debates over universal healthcare: even the most efficient healthcare system possible cannot help us if we continue to make self-destructive decisions.
In the not-so-distant past, these comments would have been patently inoffensive, even forgettable. However, we don’t live in any kind of past, and in the fluid present, in the Trumpish Age, there is nothing that the Twitter beast cannot reconstruct as an ad hominem attack. According to that most amorphous predator, these words of Williamson’s were a ruthless assault against the mentally ill: she was scolding the hapless and helpless victims of forces far beyond their control, and shaming them for accepting the blessing of psychotropics, without which they would be confined to asylums or to the cemetery. It’s unclear if the siren #ineedmymedsmarianne was promoted initially by “the mentally ill” or by their advocates, but in any case, the hashtag made the rounds for a day or two. It has since died down, and presently, it will disappear alongside so many others.
The collective failure of the Twitter beast to empower the hashtag proves one thing: the corporate media is not aligned against Williamson; if it were, then that hashtag would have been as prominent as the bogus claim that Tulsi Gabbard cheerleads for Bashar al-Assad. Come to think of it, it might prove something else: perhaps it proves that the discussion about mental illness has been abridged, even truncated, so haphazardly that it has been reduced to incoherence. How can we hope to make sense of this subject when we don’t even know what we’re talking about?
By way of a for instance, consider that we have spent the last few paragraphs talking about mental illness when Marianne Williamson was talking about depression, antidepressants in particular. The American lexicon has been bastardized and muddled so badly that these two subjects are addressed interchangeably, and the problem will likely be exacerbated by the recent news of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas. We will have to fight our way out of this issue, and our first step towards doing so is to restrict ourselves to the subject of depression, a subject that includes the antidepressants to which Williamson referred. The broader topic of “mental illness”, which must be considered apart from depression, anyway, will be abandoned in the remainder of our present discussion, unless it becomes necessary to reiterate the distinction.
So, let’s talk about depression. Depression is an interesting discussion, in no small part because it is still so mysterious: despite all of the research, we still haven’t the slightest idea what depression is. I don’t like it when a self-righteous ignoramus says, “Depression isn’t real because everybody gets unhappy sometimes!” Nevertheless, a fair point can be made that we don’t know where simple unhappiness ends and psycho-medical dysfunction begins. Personally, I’m miserable. I am deeply unhappy. I have a very unpleasant past, I’m disgusted with society in its present state, and I have the profoundest pessimism for humanity’s future. It is very difficult, at least for me, to meet people and to form friendships when literally everyone I meet appears to contribute to the grotesquerie of the day. Consequently, I have no friends, and I haven’t for the last few years. I can’t really tolerate the loneliness, and in the absence of any meaningful human contact, I have very little confidence in my ability to make such contact in the future. I am convinced that I will die alone, unachieved, and unloved, which is why I daydream of suicide daily.
It probably won’t be long before the cops are knocking on my door—again—and hauling me off to the looney bin—again. But what can we learn from such specific action? If you call the cops to report my behavior, then you’re assuming that there is something definitively wrong or misguided in my behavior. So, what is my behavior? Most simply put, my behavior is a reaction, a saddened reaction to the unpleasant stimuli before me, the stimuli being both my loneliness and the ugliness of the world around me. Is there anything objectively incorrect about my reaction? Of course not: the world is far more problematic and flawed than I could ever hope to describe in these pages, so it stands to reason that my reaction might, at its most articulate and potent, mirror the degradation of the world around me?
You can disagree with suicide as a coping mechanism, but don’t ever pretend that you can support your argument with inflexible reason, with the omnipotence of incontrovertibility. It could be that I will die alone, unachieved, and unloved, so who are you to say that I will suffer less if I end the psychic bloodletting tonight? I’m not about to kill myself, in case you were wondering, but clearly, any personal interest in doing so would not be wholly detached from reality, now would it?
My purpose here is not to endorse suicide, either in theory or as a means to an end, but to provide a striking illustration of the fallibility of presumed omniscience, especially in regard to the state of mind known as depression. Even the most unlearned psychologist could read my essay and declare that I’m depressed—but does the psychologist mean to say that I am sad, or that I am afflicted by a disorganization of the mind? Only a buffoon would say that I’m not sad, but how can you prove that this is not only the most sensible response to the sadism of the world in which I live? Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t be distressed by what I see, that I should be enamored by it? Even if I were willing to grant you this point without compelling you to the burden of proof, still you would have to explain how your preferred correction—antidepressants, presumably—would teach me to be “enamored”, a concept which I don’t think I’ve read in any description of any medication.
I don’t mean to suggest that every person who suffers from debilitating sadness shares my views, either of the world or of any particular thing. I am, however, saying that it makes little sense for a psychiatrist to read what I have written here and to declare that I suffer from mental or emotional dysfunction, the surest cure to which is psychotropic medication. My unhappiness is not baseless; it is entirely grounded in the factual reality of the situation in which I find myself. You could argue that the extent of my unhappiness is excessive, but you cannot argue that it is completely divorced from reality.
There is, however, another group of people who are commonly described in precisely these terms, as being “completely divorced from reality”. I am speaking, of course, of the schizophrenics and of all the other people who have been diagnosed, rightly or wrongly, with any of those psychiatric conditions, the names of which chill a complacent person’s blood. Obviously, I wouldn’t assume that all of “those people” are afflicted with my specific form of rational dissatisfaction, either, but I do believe that the compulsion to treat their disorders pharmacologically is at least as misguided. How can you presume to know that every so-called schizophrenic suffers from precisely the same set of conditions, and that those conditions are invariably cured through the dispensation of a single specific prescription? Do you have any evidence of the same formula’s consistent success in other patients? Of course not; if you did, then mental illness—to say nothing of depression—wouldn’t be such an unfathomable puzzle, now would it?
You don’t need me to tell you about Ronald Reagan’s drain on public funding for mental healthcare treatment. Better researchers than I have already covered that topic in exhaustive, dispiriting detail. However, you might want to take a look at the work of Harry Stack Sullivan, a man who actually believed in sitting down with one’s patients and listening to them. He wasn’t imprisoned by the arbitrary scheduling parameters of insurance companies, nor was he pressured professionally or financially to prescribe unproven medications to his patients. He lived and worked in a preferable time, in a time when he was encouraged to work with his patients, and not simply to burn through their cases at a breakneck pace, and to do so strictly to satisfy the financial obsessions of corporate loyalists. I’m not suggesting that he never erred, any more than I’m suggesting Freud never made a mistake, but I do believe that there was something to be said for their work, for their earnest interest in the scholarly aspect to their labor, and this “something” is sorely missing from the modern field of psychology, quite clearly.
Unfortunately, this nuance is missing from #ineedmymedsmarianne. The hashtag implies that there is no way out of depression, save for psychotropics, and that there is no correlation between the degradation of mental healthcare publicly and the stagnation of mental healthcare treatment. There is no scientific, political, or moral creativity applied to any of these challenges, and in our insipid worldview, our only response is to prescribe more medication.
In light of the hollow controversy surrounding Marianne Williamson’s overdue diagnosis, I have decided to stop taking the Trazodone that my physician prescribed thirteen months ago. I accepted medication out of desperation, earnestly believing that there was no other way for me to fall asleep, but I’m thirteen months older and thirteen months smarter, and I don’t have to depend on a bucket of mysterious pills to set my mind at ease—at least, for six hours at night. I can’t pretend that I’ve felt wonderful in the four days that I stopped taking that medication, but I know that the time has come for me to stop acting like my unhappiness at being so lonely speaks to something wrong with my mental apparatus. It speaks to something wrong with a society that makes legitimate interaction with thoughtful human beings so preternatural, and not even the largest supply of white tablets can—or even worse, should—override that fact.
By no means is this the final word on the subject. It isn’t meant to inspire you to stop taking your medications, especially if you feel you really need them, and if you don’t have the solace of writing and reading philosophy, like I do. This is merely an introduction to an alternative point of view, one which finds no patience in the totality of #ineedmymedsmarianne. I look forward to hearing your continuance of the conversation.