Life Out of Balance

Life Out of Balance


By Tom Robotham

One night a few weeks ago, while I was scrolling through Facebook, a meme on a friend’s page caught my eye. At the top, printed over a photograph of a forest, were the words, “This is an antidepressant.” At the bottom, over a photo of some pharmaceuticals, were the words, “This is shit.”

I shared it immediately—and it didn’t take long to get a few dozen reactions.

“This meme is so offensive,” read one of the comments. “It implies that clinical depression can be treated with fresh air.”

“What a load of anti-scientific, ableist bullshit,” read another. “You are no longer welcome on my feed.”

Not all of the reactions were hostile. But nearly all of the people who commented were offended by the meme. To them it reinforced the stigma that our society has long imposed upon people who openly seek medical help for mental illness.

I can understand their viewpoint. As I’ve indicated in other essays in this space, I have experienced bouts of depression myself. In the course of my struggles I have talked with many friends who’ve been in the same boat. Some have told me that pharmaceuticals have helped them restore a sense of wellbeing. At least as many have told me that the pills they took made matters worse. But I do recognize that for people with the most debilitating forms of mental illness—a suffering that makes it impossible to even get out of bed—prescription drugs can be lifesaving.

Likewise, I understand that for such people a walk in the woods will solve nothing. Indeed, it has always irked me when I encounter people who say, “Just go for a run,” or “find a new hobby.” They mean well. But because they’ve never experienced depression themselves, they cannot begin to understand how overwhelming it can be.

So why did I share the meme?

Well, for one thing, I found it to be thought-provoking. To my mind, in fact, it wasn’t at all suggesting that depression could be cured with a bit of fresh air. My friend who posted it before I did felt the same way—and got the same kinds of reactions. “You just don’t understand,” people told her.

As it turns out, she understands a great deal. In a private message she told me that she had been diagnosed, years ago, with bipolar disorder. She had tried medications but had eventually concluded that the answer “didn’t lie in Western medicine,” as she put it.

Our exchange reminded me that one of the gravest problems we face in our society is that we are too quick to judge people—especially on social media. Because of it, we are experiencing an erosion of respect—a word, that if broken down means quite literally, to look again.

But back to the meme. What it suggested to me is that depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are on the rise because our society is out of sync with our natural rhythms. As a result, we feel pressured to suppress our natural instincts.

The problem starts in childhood. According to a number of studies I’ve seen, rates of depression and anxiety among young people have been increasing steadily for the past 50 years or more. I realize we must take such studies with a grain of salt, since depression wasn’t widely discussed 50 years ago. But when I consider how childhood has changed over the last half century, I can’t help but think, why wouldn’t children be more depressed and anxious?

One of the major problems, as a 2010 article in Psychology Today noted, is that “children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult supervision, has declined greatly in recent decades.” We all know this. Unlike children of previous generations, who ventured off after school and on weekends to play in the woods or the schoolyard with no adults in sight, children of today’s generation, by and large, grew up being chauffeured from one highly-structured, adult-supervised and goal-oriented activity to another.

To my mind, children also suffer today from the burden of absurd amounts of homework, thanks in large part to the obsession with the standards movement in education, and the increasingly competitive nature of society. A great illustration of this mindset can be found in a scene in the 1987 movie Baby Boom, in which the main character—a new mom—overhears the mother of young toddler fretting that her child might not get into the “right” pre-school. “If she doesn’t get into the right pre-school,” the mother exclaims, “she won’t get into the right kindergarten—and then we can forget about Harvard.”

The result of all this is that some children buckle down in an effort to meet all of these demands but often end up feeling that they’ll never measure up to expectations. Others, unable to suppress their natural instincts, commit the cardinal sin of “fidgeting” in school. The answer? Well, obviously, they suffer from ADHD, so we must put them on Adderall.

The great tragedy of all this is that the inherent promise—work hard in school, and you can have the life you want—often turns out to be an empty one. The problem was documented powerfully back in 1993 by Juliet B. Schor in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. She found that over the previous two decades, the amount of leisure time available to us had declined dramatically.

Since then, the problem has clearly gotten worse, thanks to the pervasiveness of electronic-communications devices. We’re on call 24/7—a phenomenon that affects not only our working life but our social interactions as well. It is not just my students at Old Dominion University who are thoroughly addicted to their smart phones. I know many people in middle age who check them incessantly, even in the company of others. Paradoxically, I have a number of friends who have told me they don’t return text messages because they feel overwhelmed by the prospect—a problem that, in turn, increases anxiety in the minds of people who are awaiting a response.

Anxiety, in other words, all the way around.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not lecturing. I often get caught up in the grinding gears of this machinery myself. As a result, I smoke too much, and drink too much and feel anxious and/or depressed too often. I’m simply reflecting on the problem, and sharing those reflections with you.

All of this, it seems to me—our obsessive emphasis on career goals and money; our loss of leisure time; our stigmatizing, as “slackers,” people who don’t run fast enough on the treadmill, and our addiction to our electronic devices—has a tendency to push our minds into some imagined future or past, where we worry or become consumed with regret.

Alas, if only we could find a way more frequently to simply dwell in the present—to pay attention to what’s going on around us and inside of us, without clinging to any of it.

Some people are more capable of this than others. And for those who cannot handle the pressure, one kind of pill or another may be the only solution. I certainly don’t believe that there’s a simple alternative to any of this.

Indeed, our craving for easy solutions may be another source of our dis-ease. The craving has been reflected this last year in the popularity of Donald Trump, who promised to fix all of our problems with “amazing” plans and walls to keep the villains at bay.

The real solutions will come only in more organic forms—by which I don’t just mean “natural” but slow growing. If nature teaches us one thing, after all, it’s the necessity of patience.

Let me reiterate once again, then, that I do understand the value of prescription drugs for some people who are paralyzed by depression or anxiety. But if we continue to ignore the aforementioned problems in our society—to take them as a given, rather than a set of characteristics that might be altered over time—we will never get to the root of the problem.