Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Blues Pill

I feel a little silly responding to so many of Christopher Hitchens’ autobiographical nuggets on this sparsely-frequented corner of the internet, but so it goes. (This will probably be the last such entry, except for a possible review.) I was moved to write after reading this:

[W]hen I abandoned the smoking habit of more than three decades I was given a supposedly helpful pill called Wellbutrin. But as soon as I discovered that this was the brand name for an antidepressant, I tossed the bottle away. There may be successful methods for overcoming the blues but for me they cannot include a capsule that says: “Fool yourself into happiness, while pretending not to do so.” I should actually want my mind to be strong enough to circumvent such a trick. I try to deny myself any illusions or delusions, and I think that this perhaps entitles me to try and deny the same to others, at least as long as they refuse to keep their fantasies to themselves.

This isn’t a developed argument so much as it is a part of one—it’s part of several overlapping larger points, really, whose through line I admit I cannot fully trace (something to do with how learning the facts changes the facts, and living without illusions, and taking advice)—but I found it obnoxiously ill-considered all the same. I was diagnosed many years ago with what the clinicians call depression, Hitchens' late friend William Styron called a brainstorm, and most sufferers would call agony. I've been on Wellbutrin--the mention of it is what caught my eye--and it is actually one of the safer antidepressants, as I understand it, not having the minor side effect of increasing suicidal thoughts that tends to accompany others (though it comes with side effects of its own).

I too would have loved to have had the mental fortitude to beat back the blues, and indeed tried to stick it out before. But when the mind effortlessly and most naturally marshals all of its energies toward convincing the individual of his own worthlessness and the futility of anything getting any better, at all, ever, trying to rely exclusively on willpower to get on is to play a dangerous game with weighted dice. Depression is very often a grueling confluence of biology, neurochemistry, and circumstance. Hitchens, an admirer of Darwin, a friend of Sam Harris, and the son of a suicide, ought to appreciate this more than he indicates.

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