No Laughing Matter

In my previous post, I mentioned my alarm at seeing so many people taking antidepressant medication. My friend Jess Kaplan, in an email, points out that I have rather glibly lumped together an entire spectrum of mental disorders. He is quite right, and I should address his criticism.

Severe bipolar disorder is a truly horrible physiological affliction; I have known several people who have suffered from it, and it is immensely destructive both for the sufferers and their families and friends. It is manageable with medication, and I in no way meant to trivialize this serious illness, nor to suggest that people who suffer from it are in any way “better off” if they shun such treatment. They are not. Nor do I presume to sit in judgment, Tom Cruise – style, of the decisions people make in an effort to find some peace, and to get through their days.

Thomas Edison said that “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and as Jess points out, in some cases it has likely been the driving, compulsive energy of the manic state that has provided the “perspiration” behind works of genius, an energy that, as we look at the sad, short lives of some of these gifted but tormented individuals, has been dearly bought.

Jess remarks also that psychiatry is a science still in its infancy, and that the causes of, and appropriate treatment for, these problems, are often, still, just a guess, and he’s right about that too. Questions of “nature/nurture” are important here, and difficult to answer. Necessarily, unless we believe in mind-body dualism (and even, perhaps, if we do), all of our experiences make physical changes in the brain, and drawing the line between what is “psychological”, what is “chemical”, what is “genetic”, and what is acquired as a result of “experience” (and of course “experience” can be what is said to us, done to us, or what we eat, drink, or smoke, or otherwise inhale or absorb, pre- or post-partum) is just about impossible, for now at least.

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