Undergrowth with Two Figures, Vincent Van Gogh, Cincinnati Art Museum.
Why do I write?
Sometimes I write with a purpose: an underlying drive to express myself on a particular subject, and show the world some small fact or theory that I have distilled out of the detritus of information that I have gathered in my lifetime. This item has become crystallized in my mind as if it were a mote of dust in a super-saturated solution, driving all else before it until I have expressed its vision of reality.
Sometimes I write simply to stay sane.
Sanity for me is a hard won and often fleeting gift: curse and blessing all in one. If I were mad, I could pretend the world is different from what it is; ignore the suffering and pain I see around me, and go blithely through life as if none mattered save myself. I would not feel the desperation of the mother telling her child to not drop the ice cream sandwich, because she cannot afford to buy her another. I would not have to watch helplessly, my own wallet nearly empty, as an old woman decides between not enough healthy food to ease the ache in her stomach, or barely enough unhealthy food to fill her pleading gut.
I see the despair that surrounds me as more and more Americans have their financial legs cut out from under them by the oligarchs who increasingly have a say in every facet of our lives. Hope is offered by individuals like President Obama, and snatched away in the name of compromise and political expediency.
To quote Czech playwright, dissident, and former President Va'clav Havel (from Disturbing the Peace, chapter 5; 1986), " Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." This is also the essence of sanity: not an impossible belief that all will turn out well, but that there is some meaning behind the actions of others: that they are not simply repeating their self-serving acts of willful destruction and repression from ignorance, but out of some malicious intent. Evil can be directly and openly opposed; ignorance only endured and corrected over time.
The word "depression" is used to describe both what mental health professionals acknowledge is a very serious and growing (in numbers) character disorder in this country, as well as the worst sort of economic downturn. This downturn includes a severe slow down or stagnation of a nation's economic growth, combined with a hoarding of money by banks, large businesses, and the wealthy. This in turn creates a heterodyning effect that drives a nation's economy into a cycle of wide-spread unemployment, the closure of small or less profitable businesses, and the wide-spread inability of governments at every level to provide necessary services to the rapidly increasing numbers of destitute citizens.
The second often leads to a wide-spread outbreak of the first.
I suffer from either type II or III bipolar disorder; what once upon a time was referred to (at least in its type I form) as manic depression. There have been periods in my life where I suffered what, in retrospect, appear to be bouts of hypomania (type II). Today I suffer bouts of cyclothymia, which defines type III bipolar disorder. Both types of attacks have always been followed by bouts of deep depression.
I realized nearly twenty years ago (after going on antidepressants) that if I allowed myself too much "enthusiasm"--what I now believe was hypomania--I would end up in bed for a week or more with an exceptionally deep bout of depression. So I keep those moments of over-enthusiasm under tight control: consciously avoiding too great a high in order to reduce the depth of the subsequent crash.
Unfortunately, the doyens of the American financial community have never learned the lesson with our nation's economy that I have learned with my own mental health. America has been suffering through a seemingly endless cycle of economic bubbles and crippling recessions for as long as I can remember. In the last ten years, our economy has experienced the national equivalent of type I manic depression. The richest two percent of Americans, Dubya's "haves and have mores," have been the part of the nation experiencing the manic episodes. It has been the bottom 90 percent who have experienced the depressive episodes, and they have been severe.
Tax laws, limitations on funds going abroad, anti-trust suits, and financial regulations are supposed to act as the equivalent of lithium and other mood stabilizing chemicals in the treatment of bipolar disorder. These limitations are supposed to prevent (or at least ameliorate the effect) our economy from entering the sort of manic episodes we have seen in the last ten years that led to disasters such as credit default swaps, major bank and other financial institution failures, as well as insider manipulation of the commodity and stock markets in the name of profit.
The government, at all levels, is supposed to act like the various anti-depressants that bipolar patients are given, so that society can continue to function during the economic downturn. Unemployment; aid with refinancing home mortgages; maintaining the money supply; additional monies to support education, health care, and job creation for those on the wrong side of the economic downturn; protecting the economy's primary employers like America's Big Three auto makers; all of these are very important needs in the middle of an economic recession in order to prevent it from growing into a full blown depression.
Austerity measures are the moral equivalent of denying the bipolar patient his anti-depressant medications. And this denial often leads to a bad end for both the bipolar patient, and the people around him.
The worst thing about the depressed state of mind is the struggle to maintain hope, as Va'clav Havel described hope above. I believe that depression is the number four or five cause of death in the United States today. We know that suicide is the number eight cause of death, and depression is at the heart of most suicides. I think that most of the deaths directly caused by drugs and alcohol can be laid squarely at the feet of people self-medicating against depression. I believe that a significant percentage of accidental deaths from firearms, single car auto accidents, etc., are suicides where the victim was smart enough to make it look like an accident. And let us not forget the millions of Americans who indulge in self-destructive behavior (like overeating) to try and numb the pain of being depressed. (I am one of those.) A slow-motion suicide is still a suicide.