in defense of sadness…
Once upon a time, if you felt sad for a few weeks and just couldn’t take pleasure in the same things that used to get you excited, it was considered a perfectly normal phenomenon. People would give you some space to figure out what was wrong and ask if you needed help. As far as medicine was concerned, your sadness was just a part of being human. Today, the same symptoms are considered to be the warning signs of a serious mental disorder to be treated with medication and therapy. Countless ads from drug companies tell you that being down for a few weeks means you that should see a doctor and ask about the newest way to mute the sad feelings. And that has some observers alarmed that sadness seems to be treated like a pathology.
First, let’s clear something up. There are crippling depressive disorders that leave people unable to function, something that requires medical attention and psychiatric help. However, there are depressive episodes that tend to be a perfectly normal part of life. Just like pain signals physical distress, depression can be a warning of mental distress. When terrible things happen, you’re supposed to feel sad. An unfortunate part of being an intelligent creature is realizing that life isn’t always peachy and bad things randomly happen to good people. If you look in the Old Testament, the question of why life seems so arbitrary and unfair greatly bothered us from the very dawn of civilization so much so, it prompted an entire theological treatise in the most important books of ancient cultures. The idea that there must be some sort of reason behind everything we see is the bedrock of most religious beliefs, one we designed to make us feel a little better about our existence.
But in the real world, we lose jobs, break up with our significant others, have fights with our loved ones or see those close to us die. The natural response of our brain is sadness. We spend sleepless nights staring at a television set without actually bothering to discern what’s on. We lose our appetite. We don’t go out unless we really have to, and even when we do, we’re quiet, sullen and our minds are somewhere else. Our brains are busy trying to process what happened and how we’ll deal with what comes next. And there’s no need for pills to lull our minds to sleep while we pretend the problems causing our depression will go away if we take just enough of those colorful tablets. Scars from traumatic events in our lives never quite heal and instead of trying to make them go away, we should take them as lessons and experiences that define our life in all its beauty and ugliness. And if you want to be masochistically creative, you can use them as a driving force behind what your big projects, channeling your frustrations and anger into energy for something useful and beneficial.
This is where medicine comes in. Some experts started worrying that the way depression is now diagnosed by mental health professionals makes it very difficult if not impossible to find the context of the issue. Feeling sad for no discernible reason and being unable to stop feeling sad long enough to get by in daily life indicates some sort of medical problem. Feeling sad as an emotional response to negative events is normal. In fact, it would be very bizarre if a person had absolutely no emotions or was always happy no matter what. But when the distinction between an emotional response and an internal dysfunction is lost, the result is an overuse of medications on people who really don’t need them. Even more dangerous is the idea that depression isn’t a normal human experience but a problem to be corrected. So next time you’re feeling down and happen to see a commercial for a chemical solution to that empty feeling, think about why it is that you’re sad before asking your doctor to write a prescription for an anti-depressant.