Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

It’s not really anything new to assert that relationships as they’re portrayed on TV are total bullcrap. All the people are beautiful and everything is drama all the time. It’s not exactly a perfect representation of everyday relationships. There are many, many things that are unrealistic and unhelpful about the way that media portrays romantic relationships. But lately there’s been a particularly bad doozy of a trope that’s driving me up the wall.

It’s one about breakups, and it’s one that is entwined with all sorts of negative attitudes about both romantic relationships and the ending of romantic relationships. This is the trope in which a woman breaks up with a man, and in response the man utterly loses any compassion or care for the woman, yells, rages, threatens, and becomes basically an asshole.

I was watching The Vampire Diaries (I give 0 craps about your judgment for my taste in TV btw) and the two main characters broke up. After breaking up, the woman got into a relationship with the brother of her ex. Yes, this is not the coolest thing in the world to do, but they were broken up and it’s her life.

In response, he essentially told her that he didn’t care if she lived or died and that moving forward he would no longer put forth any effort if she or her family or friends were in danger (despite the fact that in the past he was portrayed as the good hearted one and that he considered these people his friends as well).  He seemed to take joy in showing her how little he cared about her, and when she asked why he was being so cruel he just said “this is me. You’ve never seen me when I’m not in love with you.”

This was portrayed as a perfectly legitimate response.

In reality, this is ridiculously out of line. First and foremost, someone gets to have their own feelings whether they’re dating you or not, and after you’ve broken up with someone you certainly don’t get to dictate their relationship choices. While it makes perfect sense to have anger and hurt when someone breaks up with you, that does not mean that you get to behave in a cruel manner, yell, break things, imply that they could or should die, threaten, or harass.

Particularly troubling is the implication that the only thing that keeps a man from being all these things (many of which are at least bordering on abusive) is being “in love”. It plays once again into the idea that women tame men with their calming influence and that being in a romantic relationship with someone is what keeps your life functional and worth it.

A big part of this is our tendency to see romantic relationships as the defining things in our life, but also for men to feel possessive about their female partners. It has to do with the idea that “love makes you crazy”, and that “without love nothing matters”. And none of this is reality. Of course love is wonderful and can enrich a life, but when you turn one relationship into your whole reason for living, your only source of happiness, of course it will make complete sense if you have a personality transplant when you’re broken up with. No, you don’t own your ex, your ex does not owe you things (except for the basic respect they owe everyone), and you still have to continue being a functional and compassionate human being even without them.

However there are some people who confuse the call to behave reasonably towards your ex with a call to repress your feelings.

At about the same time that I watched this episode, someone posted a comment on one of my friend’s Facebook wall. He said that his fiance had broken up with him and seemed to be opining that according to feminists he was wrong to be heartbroken and sad. He said that his emotions were irrational and so he shouldn’t have them.

Here’s the difference: being heartbroken and sad makes perfect sense. Changing your values, becoming an asshole, blaming the other person for what’s wrong with your life, threatening the other person, verbally abusing the other person, or harassing and badmouthing them are what’s not ok. And those two things are conflated throughout TV relationships (probably because it’s easiest to illustrate hurt and sadness through big, dramatic actions). Then they’re deemed reasonable because “it makes perfect sense to be hurt and angry after a breakup”. 

Being angry is not the same as informing someone you don’t care if they live or die. Being an adult means that you have to learn how to feel big, scary, painful emotions, and still behave reasonably and compassionately. And a huge part of this is learning that when a woman breaks up with you, you don’t own her. Scratch that, it’s recognizing that no matter what your relationship is with a woman you don’t get to tell her that you don’t care if she lives or dies, you don’t get to put her in danger, and you don’t get to be verbally abusive. If the only thing that has compelled you to behave ethically and compassionately towards a person and their family/loved ones is that you’re in a relationship with them, you’re really doing love wrong.

It’s possible for either gender to behave inappropriately upon a breakup, to be possessive, to be cruel, to allow their anger to rule their actions and push them to hurt others. However more often than not this is portrayed as gendered. Men are expected to be angry at a breakup, to throw things, to yell, to have a complete personality change. It plays into the trope that a woman should “tame” a man and make him reasonable and good. Without the woman, he is an animal.

There’s something in this trope that says it’s totally reasonable to be angry (which it is) and it’s perfectly reasonable to want to be loved (which it is) and so if you don’t have those things then you should do whatever it takes to get those things because you’re angry (not reasonable). Somewhere in there, a switch got crossed that said  ‘having an emotion’ and ‘acting on an emotion’ are the same thing, and it’s part of our larger cultural inability to regulate our emotions appropriately.

In real life, if someone tells you upon your breakup that they would let you die if they were given the option, or that they suddenly don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves, that is called abuse. That is the moment when you feel solid in your decision to break up with them because that is straight out manipulative bullcrap. It implies that you have created a monster and that if you don’t get back together with the individual, you’re responsible for their shitty behavior.

For those who think that this is only a TV phenomenon, let me just assure you that while it is rampant on TV, it has been picked up by people in real life. I’ve had people tell me things like this upon breaking up with them. Now thankfully because we’re not in a fantasy world in which I could be killed by vampires at any moment it doesn’t matter in quite the same way, but it is still manipulative, it is still painful, and it is still unnecessarily cruel.

We can do better. We can write stories in which men are adult enough to manage their emotions, ask for help, do some venting, cry a bit, and then move the fuck on. A break up is not the end of the world. A break up is something that happens. Relationships grow and hold and wane and end, and that is a part of life. People don’t stay the same forever, and we cannot all grow together.

Of course it’s sad to let go of something that you loved, but in almost no other place in life do we see people losing it over the organic end of things (when a pet dies, when a friendship ends, when someone moves away, when school ends). All of these endings are understood as part of life, and, while sad or melancholy, not a reflection upon you as a person, or an attack. We allow people a time to grieve, and then we expect them to continue their lives.

As a culture, we need to learn how to see the ending of relationships as something that can be coped with. It is hard, and we can survive. It is hard, and we can still behave well. It is hard, and we can move on. It is hard, and we can still do better.

Gender: Female…I Guess

I’m pretty clearly a cis individual. I’m pretty straight and I wear relatively femme clothes. I have a feminine haircut (although it’s short) and rarely (if ever) present in a way that isn’t quickly and clearly recognizable as female. When asked to identify my gender on surveys and such I answer “female” without hesitation.

And yet.

And yet I feel almost no attachment to the idea of being a woman. I don’t have any strong feelings about making sure people identify me as the correct gender (although when my mom said I looked like a twelve year old boy I was a bit miffed). At one point I was posed with the hypothetical question whether it would bother me a whole lot if my breasts were removed and I was pretty much not bothered by the whole idea. I could take em or leave em. I don’t really much care what my gender is. This is not to say that I identify as agender or feel uncomfortable presenting as femme, just that I only do it because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy.

I’ve wondered for quite some time now whether I would even identify as female if it weren’t for the strict policing of the gender binary. The more I think about my gender, the more I think that it is the way it is because I’m a rule follower, I’m not strongly attached to any gender, and I’m fairly lazy about my gender presentation so I end up firmly in the “cis” category simply because it’s where society has pushed all of my impulses. Want to dress up fancy? Buy a dress. Want to look pretty? Wear make up. I’m encouraged in some things and discouraged in others, an so I end up with the amalgam that most people identify as female just by not fighting back.

And for a long time I didn’t even think about gender identity. I just went about my life and wore whatever I felt like wearing and ignored the elements of being female that I didn’t really care about (makeup? What’s that?). But despite the fact that I’ve never made any effort whatsoever to look, act, or be female, somehow I ended up squarely in the “lady” camp.

So I feel like I have to ask myself: if I lived in a society in which gender was more fluid, there was more of a spectrum, and things weren’t policed so heavily, would I even identify as female? The answer is probably not. Would I be happier and more comfortable in my skin if I didn’t feel like I had to follow certain rules and boundaries and ways of being because I’ve somehow ended up as a woman? Most likely. It isn’t like I’ve spent my life feeling deep anxiety about my gender identity, but perhaps if things were more fluid and open I would feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.

If I feel like this, someone who was raised by staunch feminists, who is surrounded by queer and non binary people, who has very little by way of gender enforcement in their life, and who generally doesn’t care a whole lot for performing roles for others, then how many other people must there be out there who are probably somewhere closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than even they might imagine? How many other people would identify in a different way if it had even been presented as an option for them? How many people wouldn’t even identify at all if we weren’t so fixated on gender as the end all be all category?

In terms of the larger questions about gender, sexuality, and oppression, this group of people is probably not at the top of the list of “people who need our help”. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that if we open the door for a wider variety of gender identifications in order to help those who truly are distressed by the current state of things, there are probably thousands of other people who will feel just a bit more comfortable, a bit more themselves. And while that shouldn’t be the focus of activism, it’s a great thing to keep in the back of our minds: there are tons of much quieter people out there whose lives will be made easier and better for all the loud, out, genderqueer or trans* people we know and are fighting for.

But it also makes me sad, because if somehow I, the most cis, straight person in the world, can have my gender identity damaged and distorted by the gender binary, then think of all the other people out there who have had small parts of them taken away. If all we see are the people who are SO hurt by the mandatory gender binary that they feel they must speak up about it and must fight back against it, then imagine all the smaller hurts and destructions.

Of course this is all speculative. I have no evidence that there are tons of other people out there who only identify as cis because they hadn’t even thought about an alternative, and who have suppressed certain parts of themselves in order to be cis. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised. And if that’s the case then it’s just another little reason to push back against gender policing of all kinds.

Staying Functional

It’s been a rough week. Many of my friends, fellow bloggers, and role models are starting to show a bit of wear and tear. The whole internet has been buzzing with news about the shooting, with debates, with misogyny, with threats, with victim blaming. I’m tired. My patience is worn out. I’m getting triggered left and right by the smallest, stupidest things, and my coping skills are slowly running out.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t stop when my spoons run out. I still have to work. My dad’s birthday will still happen this weekend and I’ll have to be social and entertain. I still have to write. I still have to clean my kitchen and cook (somehow) and deal with the sudden heat and plan for my move to Ireland next year. I just have to do it all while also feeling like I’m about to snap or break down and start bawling or just run out, stop moving, fall over and not get up.

I’m sure this is the same quandary that all those with mental illness, or those who engage with difficult topics, or those with chronic illness face: how do I remain functional and keep anything from getting worse when my reserves are almost out? I drag myself into the office, but how do I accomplish anything when my brain power is spent just trying to refocus my mind on something other than sexism and shootings and self hatred?

I’ve been trying to use a few tactics, but I would certainly appreciate any suggestions that you all have. Mostly, I’ve been trying to reorganize my priorities so that I can accomplish some things with minimal brain power. This means that my to do list has shifted away from more writing and into some easier tasks at work (as well as I can). At home, instead of trying to tackle some of the bigger project I’ve limited myself to basic, mindless things that will help me feel accomplished: putting away my clean laundry right away, making a big pot of rice and beans so I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week, paying close attention to my schedule so that I don’t miss anything. It’s hard sometimes to feel like I can do these things, but if I get one or two done each day I can head off a lot of the feelings of uselessness and keep myself from hitting a bigger breakdown later.

This also means that at work I am shying away from things that I might really screw up if I’m not all the way present. I’m doing behind the scenes work and trying to save my energy for the times I’m in meetings or have to be front facing for the company. This is the biggest challenge. Part of me is trying to accept that there are certain tasks I simply can’t do right now, but that isn’t something I like to accept and of course it makes me feel like I cannot do my job. In reality, what it means is that right now I need to focus on something slightly different, make my job something a bit different.

And when I don’t have anything that needs to get done, that means complete and utter self indulgence. It means I get to go home and take a nap, or buy myself ice cream every day if I feel like it, or go running twice, or avoid everyone if I want to, or whatever the hell at that moment sounds like it might break through the hazy fear that’s hampering me right now. I hate feeling that desperate. I hate grabbing on to any impulse that seems like it could be remotely positive, but I know that if I simply won’t get through. I hate listening to my needs. I am demanding it of myself though.

Perhaps the hardest part is being responsible for myself and my emotions. I want to fall apart over everyone, bitch people out, yell and scream and swear and cry. I want to tell everyone to piss the fuck off. I want the people who are nonchalantly commenting on blog posts about misogyny to hurt as badly as I do when I see people talk about how mental illness makes you violent. I want to puke.

But it is no one else’s fault that I feel this way. Even the people who are pushing my buttons in all the wrong ways. I still need to be responsible, and when I do lose it, I have to know to apologize and take responsibility for the ways that I can’t cope. I need to be able to set healthy boundaries: I can’t just avoid people, but I need to actively tell them I need space. It is so hard to find the emotional resources to recognize when you’re being out of line when everything feels raw. But as someone who wants to be a positive ambassador for mental illness, I need to be able to function appropriately in my relationships and with my acquaintances even when my mind is not acting appropriately.

And just for fun, I’ve been trying to take mini breaks at work during which I look at goofy GIFs on Tumblr or watch lindy hop on youtube. Little things are all that get me through. Little things are what distract me and keep my mind from spiraling. Little things are what drag me away from that nasty comment.

I will remain functional.

The Shame of Sweetness: Food As Code

This morning as I was making my coffee (four creamers and four packets of sugar, thanks very much), I realized that I was mildly uncomfortable. There was another person in the kitchen with me, and I was shielding my coffee from her with my body, vaguely ashamed that I fill my delicious morning beverage with sweet, sugary goodness.

I’ve noticed this before. People talk about drinking black coffee like a badge of pride. They ridicule mochas and frappuccinos and people who put cream and sugar into their coffee as if it was a sin to want something that tastes yummy. And it’s not just with coffee drinks: think of the ridicule that people who drink appletinis face. Sure it’s not really a big deal. No one will beat you for drinking a pink cocktail of some sort, but there’s an undercurrent in which things that are sweet are consistently seen as “covering up” what you’re actually consuming, and thus as bad.

But why does it matter? Why do we care if people quietly (or not so quietly) judge our food choices?

For some insight, let’s think about the adjective that people use when they ridicule these drinks: girly. Girly drinks. With a little umbrella in them. For the ladies who can’t handle “real” booze or “real” coffee.

Sweetness is code for feminine. It’s code for not being able to handle “reality” and having to cover it up. Because people really need to read that much into a desire to eat or drink something that tastes good/actually listen to your palette when it says that you do or don’t like something.

There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.

Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world (eating disorders are a good example of this, but many people choose their food to signify what kind of a person they are). We don’t often look to food consciously as a way to reveal our prejudices or assumptions, but it’s woven into every day of our lives (even when we’re not eating it).

As someone who has spent nearly five years spending the majority of their time thinking about food, I have found that it says a lot more about what we think that we might at first believe. Which means that this phenomenon of saying that sweet things are girly and because they’re girly we shouldn’t drink them or we should be horribly ashamed to drink them probably says more about American culture than what it appears at face value.

It says that acting “sweet” is covering things up, but it’s also feminine. It says that no one should want to be like that because it’s weak and it’s fake, but I guess if you’re cute and girly enough you can get away with it (but probably only if you have a big, beer drinking man with you). But it also says that if you’re sweet and pink and drink things with an umbrella, then you’re not to be taken seriously. You can go sit on the porch while the big kids talk.

I’ve seen this happen in an internalized misogyny kind of way too: women who refuse to drink anything but straight bourbon because they’re convinced it makes them look more “serious”. Women who feel like they  need to learn how to drink beer because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously when they go out with coworkers or go to networking events. Because we have to signal with what we put into our bodies that we are not weak: we can tolerate discomfort or bitterness. We can like it. We can be “one of the boys”.

And yet no one seems to question it. No one seems to feel any need to mention the fact that pushing people to consume things that they actually find horribly disgusting is a fairly harmful norm to be teaching (yes, do that thing you hate because it will show that you’re one of the guys!), and that it all stems from sexist notions that things which are pleasant are feminine and thus to be derided.

Fuck that noise. It is strong to know what I like and to listen to my likes and dislikes. There is nothing weak about doing things that feel nice. There’s nothing weak about things coded feminine. And guess what? Even men should be allowed to do things that they like and which are utterly frivolous. It might seem silly to start with food. That might seem like it’s unimportant, or not really making a change. But we eat every day and the ways we behave around food can easily translate into other, larger actions. I will make no apologies about what I like, and I encourage others to do the same. I feel no need to force myself to drink beer in order to learn to like it, and if men can’t respect me because I prefer a hard cider that’s their own damn sexist fault.

Now excuse me, I have a mocha to buy. Maybe I’ll stick a tiny umbrella in it.

Dieting: A Gateway Drug to Eating Disorders

I probably read too much about eating disorders. Whenever an article related to them pops across my Facebook feed or shows up on Twitter, I click. And there’s a frustrating element of these articles that has begun to grate on me more and more. Every single time someone writes about eating disorders, they have to bring up those “terrifying statistics” about dieting and body dissatisfaction in girls and women. In one article I read last night, the author even went so far as to suggest that “dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders”.

Now these are of course important concerns. Dieting isn’t a particularly healthy practice most of the time. Women thinking that they should or must be thin is not exactly an ideal state. But where I run into problems is this: a diet is not an eating disorder. Dieting does not lead to developing an eating disorder because an eating disorder is not just an extreme version of a diet or a choice or a lifestyle change. It is a disease. You can’t catch the eating disorders from a diet.

So what is the relationship between diets and eating disorders? Why do people keep throwing into the same sentences as if everyone knows the clear link between them? I can’t help but come from my own perspective and my first thought is that diets and eating disorders belong nowhere near each other. I have never in my life been on a diet. Up until my eating disorder came bearing down full force I had never even imagined restricting my food intake. And when my eating disorder happened, it was never anything like a diet. There may have been a couple of weeks during which I wasn’t aware that I was making destructive choices, but it became quite clear quite quickly.

I get the feeling that I’m not the typical case and that many people experiment with dieting before they fall into a full blown eating disorder. But it is the case that there are many, many people who diet and never develop and eating disorder, and I am evidence that the opposite can be true as well. The deep link that most people seem to assume between the two can be questioned.

And then there’s the evidence. Do we have any evidence that dieting leads to eating disorders, or even that dieting can predict eating disorders? There is evidence that those who diet are about six times more likely to develop eating disorders. We don’t however know whether those who are already predisposed to having an eating disorder are more likely to diet, or whether diets lead to eating disorders. The vast majority of dieters never develop an eating disorder, so there is no certain way to determine whether an increase in dieting will lead to an increase in eating disorders.

“Recent research indicates that 50-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic (Kaye, 2007).  Patients with AN typically demonstrate high levels of anxiety, harm avoidance, and behavioral inhibition (Shaw et al. 1997) – all traits which are heavily influenced by genetics (Cloninger, 1986, 1987, 1988).  Perfectionism, obsessionality, and cognitive rigidity, which are also highly heritable, have been identified as risk factors for AN (Kaye et al., 2009).  Most patients with AN have exhibited one or more of these traits since early childhood, long before the development of an eating disorder.  These traits tend to be exacerbated during bouts of malnutrition and persist long after recovery, albeit to a lesser degree (Kaye, 2007).” Source

There are chemical changes in the brain when we deprive ourselves of food and for those who have the predisposition for an eating disorder, a diet can be the moment that flips the switch as it were. So while there is a relationship between diets and eating disorders, an increase in dieting does not necessarily imply that there will be an increase in eating disorders (unless there were a whole lot of predisposed people running around who never hit any level of nutrition deprivation or stressful circumstances that would have precipitated the illness). It is possible that an increase in dieting would trigger an illness in those with a smaller predisposition, but that’s all speculation.

So we have evidence that dieting does correlate with eating disorders. We have no evidence that it causes eating disorders. There are however many problems with talking about dieting as if it caused eating disorders (beyond the fact that it’s probably not accurate). Especially when the connection is drawn in a sloppy fashion, it implies that eating disorders are on a spectrum with diets and that one can slip from one into the other with ease. The further implication is that eating disorders are a choice, obscuring the reality of the genetic components of eating disorders, as well as the psychosocial aspects (which tend to be less about diet culture and more about individual stresses in someone’s life).

But perhaps worse is that it gives the picture that everyone who has an eating disorder is a chronic dieter, the kind of person who is always belittling themselves, or obsessed with their looks. This leads to the distinct possibility that people won’t get proper diagnosis, treatment, or support. It continues the love/hate relationship with eating disorders that our culture has in which the anorexic does what everyone else does but just does it better, so if you aren’t a model/fashionista/weight obsessed salad eater, you don’t have an eating disorder. And that’s a problem.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recognize that diets can predict eating disorders, but it’s not as if that’s not already in common parlance. Let’s spend some time focusing on the things no one thinks of, like a rape, or a bad breakup, or a bad family situation, or any other form of trauma that can easily precipitate a mental illness. Let’s get over the idea that an eating disorder is a part of diet culture, because it’s something else altogether and we know that.

deal with it animated GIF

 

Happiness Pills: Yay or Nay?

Over the weekend I was hanging out listening to one of my old professors play music (because that’s how I roll). He introduced one of his songs with the question “if I could get happiness with a pill, would I do it?” Instantly my “grrrr, mental illness stigma” detectors went off, but I have great respect for this particular individual and challenged myself to think a bit further about it. I realized that in general, the question “if I could be happy with a pill” is a. unclear and b. misleading, as well as c. totally unrelated to the antidepressants that actually exist today.

The biggest problem I have with the question is what we mean by “happy”. Is it the actual presence of a positive emotion? Or is it simply a lack of negative emotion? Does it mean you can’t feel negative emotions, even when they’re appropriate? I suspect that when this question is posed most people mean feeling on the positive side of the emotion spectrum constantly. While this might sound appealing to lots of people, I think there are actually some serious problems with this concept, and that even the idea of a pill that can do this is self-contradictory.

Emotions have appropriate times and places. They come as reactions when they’re functioning healthily. They fit situations or they don’t. If you aren’t happy and you take a pill to be happy, your emotions probably don’t make any sense for the situation that’s happening around you. It seems a bit like taking away physical pain: you no longer have a barometer for when something is wrong or hurting you. You no longer have the emotions that tell you something has violated your boundaries or treated you inappropriately. Just as with a lack of physical pain, this will probably result in doing things that are actually hurting you without realizing it.

Negative emotions give us information. They make us more aware of what’s happening around us because they clearly communicate to us “something bad is happening”. Fear tells us to escape, anger tells us that a boundary has been violated, sadness and grief tell us that we’ve lost something we care about. This makes them appropriate.

We all understood why Ten was crying, and it would have been creepy if he wasn’t.

Oftentimes this awareness does more than simply tell an individual about situations that are harmful to them. We have empathy, so our negative emotions often inform us about things that are morally inappropriate and then give us an impetus to act. If I didn’t have anger or sadness, I think I would be hard pressed to care about something like anti-gay hate crimes, or oppression of women. I could come to an intellectual conclusion about why those things were wrong, but without any feelings of sadness it doesn’t have the same impact. Without our emotions we are less aware of the world around us, particularly the things that need to be improved.

I’m less worried about the concept of an identity or an essential self that many people find themselves wondering about when they think of pharmaceuticals. Every time we make choices we affect our brains and through our brains our emotions, thoughts, and selves. When we try to change a habit, when we go somewhere new for the first time, when we learn a new fact or skill, we are training our brains to operate differently. Therapy is all about changing the patterns that your brain uses and finding more effective ones. Perhaps there is some core that holds steady through all of that, but every human being in the world encounters so much change and adjustment to their personality, from within and without, that it seems a bit silly to be worried about losing yourself, especially if what you’re changing will improve things.

But that’s the question here: will being constantly happy improve your life and the world?

Will this make me a better, healthier, more functional person who is more capable of improving the world around me and contributing something? I don’t think depression or sadness are necessary to be productive or creative or any of those other silly myths that depression tells, but I do think having the full spectrum of human emotion is deeply important for having empathy, for understanding why certain things are morally inappropriate and others are morally praiseworthy, and for gaining motivations to make changes.

There are some ways in which always being positive will improve the world around you (for example you’ll probably be a much nicer person to be around), but as I mentioned above, it also makes you less aware of what’s wrong with the world, and in the end I think the balance would point towards no, it would not improve the world unless everyone in the world were fed happy pills at the same time so that we didn’t need to empathize with people who were in pain. As long as there are injustices and other unhappy people in the world, it’s important for our understanding of those people to be able to empathize and feel anger or sadness on their behalf. But what about improving your life?

I have a hard time imagining how a pill that consistently makes you happy would actually do anything to improve your life, because as I mentioned before, negative emotions tell us when a situation is bad for us. If we don’t have that information, we’re likely to stay in situations that will hurt us. Additionally, we’re less likely to develop healthy coping strategies. Pain gives us a reason to find a better way of doing things. This is why antidepressants are almost always accompanied by talk therapy so that the patient can find effective ways of managing their lives and emotions.

As an example, let’s say you were in a relationship where your significant other was emotionally abusive. They berated you constantly, expected you to do all the work, and never did anything for you. But despite all that you were constantly feeling just fine. It seems unlikely to me that you would be willing to work towards better relationship strategies, leave the relationship, or confront your partner about their inappropriate behavior if it never made you feel sad or unhappy. You would never learn that the things they said were inappropriate because they didn’t hurt you. You would never spend time trying to understand why they did what they did because it never had any impact on you.

What about appropriate emotions? How would we feel grief for things ending if we took a pill that made us always happy? Doesn’t it seem deeply wrong to not grieve things, unhealthy even? I suspect that not grieving (which leads to not processing and not effectively storing those memories and relationship in a way that you can cope with them and they’re not consistently popping into your mind) would make it harder and harder to be happy and we’d have to increase our happy pill dose again and again and again.

Unless happy pills came with effective coping techniques, appropriately living on conjunction with your values, healthy relationships, and other positive ways of living, they would stop working. And if everything feels ok all the time, why would you have any motivation to do all these other things? Most often the ways we understand what our values are is by feeling guilt or shame when we violate them. If you don’t have these emotions, it would be nearly impossible to live in tune with your values. People who don’t have these emotions get labeled sociopaths and psychopaths. We understand there’s something wrong with that.

The problem is that if you were made this way by a pill, you wouldn’t set up your life in such a way to create happiness, which means that you would keep yourself in bad situations, living antithetically to your values, in shitty relationships. And so the happy pills would have to do more and more work. And then you’d have to up the dosage, and you’d make your life even worse. And then the pills would have to do more so you’d have to up the dose…

We actually already do have these hypothetical happy pills that cut us off from appropriate emotions and make us feel good. They’re called drugs and most people agree that they’re a bad way of dealing with your emotions. They don’t provide a stable foundation for happiness and good living, because they mean if you stop taking them your happiness can flit away. They mean that you lose the fear of being homeless or starving because you’re stuck in the happy of this exact moment. They are deeply unhelpful.

The other thing I’d worry about is whether this stunted way of feeling would leave me with less happiness overall. Would you still get those melancholy/bittersweet moments that are so flipping good because of the fact that they hurt? Would I still get to watch Romeo and Juliet and love it? Would I still understand culture and relationships and other people? Would I turn into an annoying asshole because I never have to work on myself? What about the high of coming up from a bad day? The adrenaline of fear and anxiety heightens everything…what do we do without that?

If I could find a pill that made me content (which is what an antidepressant is supposed to help with: give you the emotional space to be able to tolerate things and find some contentment), that I would take. I would take the possibility of reacting accurately and effectively to the stimuli that surround me, of being able to reach my goals without my emotions getting in my way. What I wouldn’t take is a pill that disturbs the relationship between stimulus and appropriate response. Many people get these two things mixed up, and so when this question comes up in the context of antidepressants, I think it’s important that we remember to distinguish.

Sure it might be nice to feel good no matter what you’re doing, but what’s the point? It’s easy to be oblivious. It’s hard to be aware and truly work on yourself and your world.

 

Treating Depression Is Not Medicalizing Sadness

One of the criticisms I often see leveled at therapy and medication is that it’s turning basic human emotion into an illness. There was a huge outcry of this when the DSM V took out the grief clause from the diagnosis of depression (previously one could not be diagnosed with depression 6 months after a major loss), people often throw this at ADD, and in this otherwise lovely article about chronic depression, one psychiatrist refers to diagnoses like dysthymia as follows: “The ‘thymias’ which the DSMs discover – cyclothymia, dysthymia – are helpful for private practitioners in the States. They provide another disorder to be diagnosed, treated and billed for.” The author follows this up with “We’ve reached a point where if you are not actively experiencing ‘happiness’ then you feel you are ill. And if your friends and family think you aren’t happy enough or making them happy enough, they advise a trip to the doctor. “

Now don’t get me wrong, I do think there are many ways that our society fetishizes happiness. Many people find ways to run away from any negative emotions, and those who do act down or angry or sad are generally encouraged to do whatever they can to change that. Those of us with fairly pessimistic temperaments are accused of self-sabotage, of choosing a bad attitude, of being debbie downers. No one really much wants to be around us and we are informed in no uncertain terms of that fact.

But where I do want to differ from these criticisms is that they seem to equate the treatment of depression, even low level depression, with our society’s inability to handle negative emotions. These are two very different things. There’s an odd perception from those who haven’t actually experienced therapy that it’s about getting rid of all the bad feelings and that the end goal is to create someone who is happy clappy skippy doo. At the very least, people who go to therapy are supposed to come out “well adjusted” which for some reason is often associated with a Stepfordish oddness or calmness. We imagine Chris Traeger bouncing around like a hyperactive puppy when we think of those who have overcome depression.

parks and recreation animated GIF (not me)

In reality, this is exactly the opposite of the experience that I have had with therapy, and I suspect that many other people have had to delve into some extremely unpleasant emotions as a result of therapy. One of the main elements of therapy for me has been learning that negative emotions are necessary, provide information, and can be tolerated. I have learned tools to be able to feel bad and not immediately spring to fix whatever is wrong (which oftentimes is nothing).  My therapists have repeatedly told me that they want to find the appropriate place for all of the elements that make me up, including such winners as ennui, existential angst, and an overactive sense of guilt.

Here’s the clear and defining line between depression and normal, healthy sadness: depression affects your ability to function in your life. Whether that’s because it’s major depressive disorder and you have reached a point where you can’t shower in the mornings or whether that’s because it’s pervasive depressive disorder and you’ve felt low level emptiness your entire life and you just can’t handle it anymore, what makes something a problem is when it starts to interfere with someone’s life in a negative way. Now this isn’t as clear and defining of a line as we would like, but there it is and most individuals would be able to tell you if they feel like their emotions are getting in the way of their life.

Treating depression, whether with medication or with therapy, is about allowing an individual to function again. A functional human being feels painful feelings sometimes. One of the most obvious examples of the ways in which treatment of depression is actually antithetical to happiness obsessions is in mindfulness practices, particularly DBT. These ask an individual to simply notice their feelings without judgment, letting them happen without trying to change them.

One of the many reasons that people often end up in therapy or on medication is because they have been too afraid to honestly look at their negative emotions, feel them, and let them go. Of course there are some therapists and clinics that may go too far and end up treating any negative emotions as problematic, but overall the profession’s aim is to help people who are struggling.

The other piece of the puzzle is medication, which many people view as a “quick fix” for those who refuse to deal with their problems and just want to be happy all the time. Now I haven’t been on every medication ever so I can’t speak to all experiences, but that really is not how medication works most of the time. I have never had medication actually lift my mood, it simply has held back some of the negative so that I have space to work towards positive for myself. It allows me to go about my daily life in a relatively normal manner so that I can find ways to be effective long term. Again, it’s about keeping depression from drastically impacting my life.

Perhaps the reason that so many people point towards the prevalence of therapy and medication in our society as evidence that we refuse to be happy is because of a basic misunderstanding of what those treatments do. If someone’s emotions are keeping them from achieving their goals in life, from having relationships, from effectively doing their jobs, then the aim of treating those emotions is to help that person live their life. That doesn’t require happiness, but it does require the ability to cope with negative emotions.

I do think that it’s important to address our societal phobia of sadness, grief, and pain. But the way to do that is not to throw the mentally ill under the bus by implying they are running from their negative emotions when they seek out treatment. A diagnosis of depression does not say “this person is too sad”. It says “this person can’t function the way they would like to because their emotions are consistently out of control”. There is a world of difference between those two statements.

Ok, maybe I’m a little bit Chris Traeger.