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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

Pills & Melancholy

Our culture isn’t only keen for us to find happiness, it is – on many occasions – distinctly intolerant of sorrowful or dejected moods. At the onset of anything doleful, it may seek to change the subject, recommend a thrilling film, encourage us to go skiing or show us something sugary or gold-plated. And if our state of mind were to remain entrenched, we would then be directed towards a psychiatric intervention that would play with our serotonin levels and aim to return us as quickly as possible to a condition in which we would be able to play team sports, go to the office, honour our families and discharge our duties to the state.

Psychiatric drugs have – in certain circumstances – offered major breakthroughs. The worry is not so much a society that wants to help us with our sadness as one that cannot beneath the surface abide that we should sometimes need legitimately to weep. One of the routine assumptions made about babies is that they should always and invariably be up for a laugh. A certain kind of stranger who visits one may therefore rigidly try to get a giggle out of it, by jangling keys, pulling extreme faces or starting a game of peekaboo. It seems well-meaning, but babies – like adults – often have weighty and serious things on their minds. They might, at a given moment, be missing the womb or wondering when the next feed might be, trying to work out what a leaf is or reflecting on how a button is held in place. But a jollying grown-up isn’t just happy, their particular sickness is that they cannot tolerate unhappiness in others, even an eight month old, because it threatens to highlight areas of grief that they have not processed or learnt to absorb in themselves. The baby’s thoughtful face is at risk of evoking important people they have lost and regrets they have never come to terms with – and so the keys get jangled with ever greater ferocity.

A whole culture can – at scale – fall prey to a form of denied pain that passes itself off as good cheer. It may spend its time promoting vigour and triumph and leave aside how much in the life of every nation is also about loss, vulnerability and regret. In its eagerness to present a smiling face, a culture can fail to nurture rituals in which sadness can be mutualised, periods of nation-wide mourning where a lot that is individually difficult can find collective expression and catharsis. For example, birthdays shouldn’t just be framed at the group-level as occasions for joy, they should be moments when what is incomplete can be confronted and sympathised with in company. Mother’s Day or Father’s Day shouldn’t be about sheer gratitude and delight, they must also allow for ambivalence and anger (sometimes even fury) – for only then can expressions of love feel genuine. Likewise, family holidays should never be presented as moments of unalloyed festivity; they are times when we must be able to squabble, sulk and face up to what is radically imperfect about where we have come from. Rather than being squeamish about the darkness, an intelligent culture helps us to name and pass through it with our hand held.

By being too quick to prescribe pills for dolefulness, a culture is at risk of wilfully escaping what melancholy deep down calls for. The melancholic doesn’t usually want ‘solutions’ to their pain so much as an opportunity to share its details with people who are kind, non-judgemental and a little broken themselves. They want pain to feel normalised; company around sadness is the chief ‘solution’ they need. However, by generating powerful chemical highs, pills deny the melancholic the chance to address the isolation behind their disconsolate moods – and so fuel the very feeling of abnormality that can turn a merely sad mood into thorough-going despair.

By framing the melancholic as ‘ill’ and separating them from the rest of humanity in a special pen implicitly marked ‘mad’, medical culture offers no lasting help to those it seeks to treat. Previous eras, though they might have been less medically gifted, were more psychologically canny. In a charming and emotionally intelligent fable, they allowed those subject to black moods to tell others that they had been born under the sign of Saturn and, because of the influence of this planet, would not always be up for joining in the singing, coming out to parties or chatting merrily. They weren’t ill, and they weren’t mad. They were just in a saturnine phase and hoped to feel a bit better soon.

Zacharias Dolendo, Saturn as Melancholy, 1595

By avidly prescribing pills for sadness, we are hinting that sadness does not legitimately belong within the circumference of a decent life. Far more than any pill, what we crave in our melancholy is a warm hearted community that understands the tragedy and sorrows of life and is kind enough to allow us to sit with our feelings for as long as these may require to pass.

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