I have sometimes wrestled with the idea that I might suffer from some sort of seasonal anxiety. Something, usually unknown for at least a time, seems to trigger it. Right now, it’s the Holidays and I am prone to waking up almost every day with a nervous, heart-wrenching feeling in my gut and throat. I’ve been doing more yoga to combat it. Inversions are supposed to be good for your mental health because it fills the brain with fresh blood. I think it helps. I’ve been feeling a lot better.
It’s been a difficult year. To be honest, that’s quite an understatement. In a lot of ways, it’s been the most difficult year of my adulthood so far. And I have been quite anxious for much of it. Grad school, foreign people problems, major physical injuries, financial planning and well-being, grief and loss, etc. For most of the year, it feels like there was little respite; something was always happening. Indeed there was a lot to be grateful for too but it was still overwhelmingly frustrating. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. Some days it seemed like I was in Depression’s waiting room, waiting for my name to be called.
My relationship with depression and with mental illness has always been close – I have had loved ones suffer from it. I have witnessed its destruction right in front of my eyes. I have witnessed the pain, the shame, and the complications of watching someone you love transform into someone else. And all because of an illness they can’t simply take a pill for, an illness they can’t simply be “stronger” for; illnesses that are so misunderstood. I have never made light of any mental illness because of these experiences. But in a society where it seems we are often too quick to run away from any form of pain, I think it is valuable to question ourselves.
In grad school, one of the best classes I ever took was called, “The Social Construction of Health.” It was a class that left a deep impression on me, and one that affected how I practically view not only health-related social conversations, but the world itself. It was a class in which I can truly say I got an education. My focus research in that class was based on a book called, Stigma and Mental Illness. It focused on everything from homeless populations affected by mental illness, to how families of a loved one may cope. It was brilliant and I highly recommend it.
Because of these life experiences and my education, I hesitate to negate anyone’s experience of mental illness because it is such a curious disease that has an uncanny way of manifesting itself. And it is different for each person. And yet because of that class, and perhaps indeed because of the type of year I had, I also know that we are all prone to self-diagnosis. As someone who has lived elsewhere, that class helped me to name and explain certain experiences and ideas. Including that health – in terms of physical wellness, as well as emotional and mental health, is in fact also a culturally specific phenomenon. Even though we often think of it as strictly biological and physiological in a universal way. Culture seems to play a role in all things. I think that’s why I love it. But it’s always why it’s complicated. And the culture of modern America is this: Americans don’t like to be sad. But more than that, many Americans don’t know how to be sad.
In a culture where happiness is far too often tied to not only monetary well-being but individual satisfaction, instant gratification, and the absence of “bad feelings,” it is easy to feel like one might be depressed. It is easy to want an immediate antidote to sadness. Even though we often like to talk about our emotions being on a continuum, it seems that this culture lives as if, if one isn’t happy, then one is depressed.
Of course it’s ironic because the constant obsession with finding happiness and wondering whether one is happy or not – is why many people deduce that Americans are not particularly happy, as a nation. There are arguments to be made about whether that is true or not. But I can say in my foreign experience that I do not view Americans as particularly happy people. This is not a critique. And if it is, it is a subjective one that I cannot prove. But I have lived and been to poorer nations where I can say happiness, despite incomparable suffering, was still present in the fabric of community. Now I do not buy into the popular notion that “the poor are happy.” I deduce that it is not only nonsense to make that claim as if it were a cause and effect incident, but it is a way to seemingly feel comfortable with ignoring the plight of the poor. Without negating the poor among us, perhaps the poor of the world appear to know something many Americans don’t. The jury is still out on exactly what that is.
In my class in grad school, I remember talking about melancholy. It’s a concept I seemed to have only encountered in fictional classical texts. And after trying to understand it’s place in terms of it’s historical positioning in the world of health sciences – one that is problematic and riddled with sexism amongst many other things – I think melancholy is a concept that might need to be resurrected in popular culture and conversation, in a new and meaningful way.
Melancholy, before modern medicine, was seen as a temperament, a gloomy one, caused by too much black bile. It was a state of mind that didn’t necessarily need an external cause. It was something that some civilizations believed could be cured by diet and exercise. And it was something that many did not think of as bad, but as a necessary part of the human experience. Indeed it aligns with what we know today about the brain and mental illness – brain chemistry affects our moods, our DNA is responsible to some extent for the emotions we experience, and how we may respond to particular life events. Of course, culture and upbringing play their roles as they always do.
But where does melancholy stand in an age of depression and anxiety? An age where any and all sadness seems to be something unacceptable for many in this part of the world, who indeed have enough influence to export these ideas to the globe in general? Are we simply the saddest generation ever? Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy might agree with that. He wrote, “He that increases wisdom, increases sorrow,” and we are very much an educated and aware generation. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Simply as a matter of mere schooling, we are the most educated. But are we so aware of everything around us, and at all times, that our collective state of mind has promulgated a culture of depression beyond what aligns with what is physiological? I do not know the answer to this but I suspect we are more in charge of our culture than we are in charge of our brain, even when both evolve.
When I put it altogether, despite my bad year and despite this Holiday season that I tend to associate with negative life events from the past, I don’t suffer in the way those who suffer from depression and anxiety do. And indeed I strongly advocate for those who do and their loved ones, to seek the help they need. I advocate more for a world that confronts our stigmas and learns to treat these illnesses seriously. In many parts of the world, we are gravely lacking.
Still, I know I have had a hard time this year. I know I have been more sad and worried than usual. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay that there was a sadness that I sometimes could explain and sometimes could not. Maybe it’s okay that this sadness felt longer than most. Maybe it’s okay that all I could do with this sadness was wait it out. I still found beauty in it, after all. And empathy and compassion. That was part of my human experience this year. I think it was an experience with melancholy. And maybe you’ve experienced it too.