Depression can’t be trusted for its world view, but it can be trusted for a couple insights. Like maybe, the cliché about urban/suburban/small town settings being dissatisfying is true; maybe they hide horror in plain sight.
This can easily come off as teen-angst whining or Ivory Tower elitism, so let me start my “critique” with a wider lens. There is now 10 to 20 times the amount of depression there was in the 50’s[i] (of course there are a myriad amount of reasons this is problematic. Less reporting of depression, less recognition of the disorder, different social expectations that determined when it was and wasn’t a disorder). That is to say, if we have been making progress then we’ve been cultivating a lot of mental disorder along with it. When it comes to the reasons a person has depression in the first place (the disorder as a whole, not the whys and wherefores of drifting into a particular episode at a particular time) the reasons tend to be more systemic than atomistic. In other words social practices and trends can often, unknowingly, help foster the birth of disorders rather than seek to alleviate them. For example, depression tends to increase in periods of great economic disparity, especially amongst the middle and working classes (though, because it is an alien illness it can very easily visit the upper class as well). Why not target these structural enablers (the bubble system of an unchecked marketplace, lack of safety net) of mental disorder instead of the individual sufferers of disorder? Many treatments seek to simply find a disease within a single person, and while the treatment might include environment, they leave the responsibility while a treatment like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy[ii] can be helpful, especially in dealing with phobias, it makes less sense to demand of every individual a conformation with practices or habits they find sincerely unpleasant just because there’s an unspoken social norm stating everyone should be capable of everything.
Okay, give me a second here. I know this might read the like the sound-bites of a precocious leftist undergrad, but I have reason to think them and experience that gave birth to said reason: I was in a grocery store. I don’t like grocery stores. I don’t like them for specific reasons.
I’m a sensitive person. It’s something I’m pretty ambivalent about because there’s a lot of good and bad that comes with it. It means I’m sensitive emotionally and if you say my comic book collection isn’t rad it’ll hurt my feelings, it also means that stimuli (loud music, crowds, parties, classrooms, bus stops, even a supposedly quiet but overbooked Barnes and Noble) do more than tire me out, they take my consciousness and give it a towel wringing, leaving me with an unpleasant floaty feeling.[iii] I often end up feeling like I’m dreaming and knowing I’m not really connecting to the world around me. For some reason my brain has to put my mind in bubble wrap. I never leave a grocery store in a state of reality.
Grocery stores are over-lit with flat fluorescent lighting, full of busy stressed people making a lot of noise grabbing at a couple water sprayed apples, colorful in a chaotic marketing way rather than a bright film or piece of art (I once heard an ornithologist on NPR talk about how you could tell the health of an environment by the plentitude of its sounds; birds needing to adapt to new scales and chords to distinguish themselves from other birds. Their differentiation was the sound of fecund life. It seems grocery stores are similar with their colorful displays all vying for consumer attention, but perverse in that, unlike the songs of birds which speak of mating, sex, the turning wheel of life, these colorful displays only speak of money) Grocery stores can range from the gargantuan, like the warehouse heights of a Shaw’s, to the labyrinthine and claustrophobic, with aisles turning into other aisles one selling five flavors of vinegar, the next ten shades of baking powder. They are a special type of American hell.
BUT! Grocery stores are necessary to purchase food. Being a human, I have to buy food and I can’t afford to eat out every day. Therefore, I have to go in grocery stores. I hate this fact. Apparently, to be a functional adult I have to go in them regularly and operate in a smart consumer fashion, with coupons and lists, I think tax auditors are less prepared with bureaucratic recording instruments than the modern American grocery goer.
Here’s the thing, grocery stores were not built with human comfort in mind. They were built on floor space convenience and splashy marketing. They do not care. And yet, when I was going through CBT I had to go through grocery stores repeatedly. This caused three weeks where at some point in the day I’d end up feeling that sickly-stoned depersonalization feeling because CBT said I should have anxiety about grocery stores or large crowds of people or carnivals etc. etc. and if I do it enough I’ll stop being so deviant.
It didn’t work.
When one thinks about it, grocery stores, as we Americans know them, are an aberration of the 20th-21st century, they never existed before Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis in 1916. How is my ability to be an adult now hung on the horror of visiting a grocery store? How is this a criteria of my mental health? People have been getting depressed since Aristotle was writing (and possibly much longer) and yet, because grocery stores are institutional in that they replaced marketplaces in providing food, and because they went from experimental business model to thriving economic beacons of vulgar opulence, they must be good for people.
What I’m getting at is this: Just because something is part of our social fabric does not mean that those who deviate are the unhealthy ones. Nor am I casting a condescending scowl at the entire social fabric. I am entreating you, the reader, to perhaps think of mental disorder itself as a symptom of an increasingly lonely, disconnected, harsh, environment. And if you do think this way, remember, your love starts to matter. In fact, all your efforts to be good to others start to matter. That one smile to the person across the street brightens things a bit, things are stitched a little closer. I know it would help me, wouldn’t it help you?
[ii] AKA CBT, Cognitive Behavior Therapy claims to change the neurological wiring of a person by instantiating more “healthy” practices. It often includes exposure therapy, in which a person is exposed to an anxiety inducing stimulus enough times that they become desensitized to the stimulus (e.g. I’m afraid of snakes, I look at pictures of snakes until they no longer cause anxiety, then look at a real snake until there isn’t any anxiety, then maybe I can touch a snake! Boom! Cured!) Don’t get me wrong CBT can be very effect, but I do have an axe to grind with it. It seems to have its roots directly in ole’ BF Skinner’s behaviorism. I find it dehumanizing. It says, this person’s fears, anxieties, where they came from, what they represent, do not matter, we must program the person so as not to fear the thing, with little regard for what the thing is. It is also the most cookie cutter of the treatments. Work one way with all patients and it will work with all patients. But that’s my own axe don’t take it as truth.
[iii] The technical term for this is depersonalization. But that term does nothing to convey the surrealism of the state.