Depressed Area

I’ve noticed that an awful lot of people around here are taking antidepressants. Admittedly, I live in New York City, but still, it seems a little creepy. I haven’t bothered to hunt down any statistics, but even just counting the number of people who are casual enough about it to have mentioned it to me (and I figure it’s safe to say that at least half the folks who take them don’t let on) it’s starting to look pretty rampant.

I realize that the sample here is a little skewed. New York’s population includes a lot of people who came here from somewhere else to try to Make It, and right there you have a selection effect: all that hoping and striving can get you pretty wound up, and Making It in the Big City requires a sustained and strenuous effort in a highly stressful environment.

Of course, the sad truth is that brilliance and depression often go hand in hand. Many of history’s greatest thinkers, artists, and statesmen grappled with the wild oscillations of mood that we now call “bipolar disorder”. Churchill struggled with it his whole life; he had bouts of debilitating depression that he called his “black dog”. But when the pendulum swung the other way, he was a dynamo, an irresistible force – it is difficult to imagine how one man, in one lifetime, could have done all that he did. His literary output alone would have been a stupendous life’s work, let alone that little business of rallying his nation and ours to defeat the Nazis.

But what if Sir Winston had had a prescription for Prozac? What if Mozart or Beethoven or van Gogh had enjoyed the blessings of modern psychopharmacology? They might very well have been happier. And the world would be a very different – and poorer – place.

How many of the bright and creative people I know who spare themselves the pain of depression by taking these medicines are at the same time muting the glow of their brilliance? I suppose we’ll never know. Those of us who stay naturally on an even keel are often grateful for it (I know I am); our lives are relatively tranquil, and we are spared the suffering we see in our more labile acquaintances. We are living in the fat part of the bell curve, the “normal” part. But, speaking for myself at least, I am well aware that my sedate and level psyche contains no spark of genius; that it is not given to someone like me to create anything truly extraordinary. No, it is out on the edges of the map – where there be monsters – that all the interesting things happen.

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