When I was young, perhaps in my early teenage years, I experienced a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness I had never felt before. The feeling passed after a while, then occurred again some time later. I experienced it on and off for years until I first heard of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, and realized that my depression seemed to occur at the same time of year every year. And that knowledge alone was enough to make me realize that this change of mood had an explanation and could be dealt with.
When I began to feel this sense of depression coming on—it usually began after Thanksgiving and lasted up until Christmas—I had a name to call it, recognized it as a transient phase rather than some unknowable darkness that had descended upon me and might never leave. In this way I could manage my depression. One, by telling myself it was something I only had to endure for a limited span of time, and two, by making sure I stayed occupied and didn’t allow myself to dwell in it too much. For years I coped with feelings of hopelessness at this time of the year, but each year seemed to get easier as I got better at dealing with it.
But something has happened in the last few years, so that now a third stage of what I once called depression and later called SAD has emerged: I have come to view this change of seasons not as a bad thing at all but merely something to be accepted and embraced for what it is. In short, I no longer view it as a condition or a disease, but merely a necessary change. I have come to appreciate the change of seasons, come to realize there is a need deep within me to change inwardly as my external environment changes. Winter has become a time to rest, recuperate, plan, and work towards an impending spring.
For years my internal processes were at odds with external patterns. In my youth and without the background to see it properly, I named that discord depression. Later, having something upon which to base my experience and emotional transformation, I called it SAD. Still later, having an outlook that makes me seek balance between external reality and my inner workings, I have come to see a need for me to change with the seasons. While the suffering I felt was real, the process I went through was a necessary and helpful one. Progress comes through pain because discomfort is an incentive to change. Through it all, never did I feel the need to be prescribed drugs. I did, however, suffer; I don’t want to make light of that.
Now let me stop my story for a moment in order to address an argument many have expressed to me: “You were able to work through whatever was wrong and that’s good. But there are others who require drugs in order to help their depression, and you shouldn’t judge.”
Fine, I accept that argument. Some people need drugs in order to cope with their mental or biological deficiencies. There is something lacking in them that requires help from an external source, something wrong with their internal chemistry that requires added chemicals.
Nevertheless, I did not require drugs prescribed to me and it turns out there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me that I could not fix on my own. I’m sure there are those who would have been willing to provide me with medication to solve my problem had I sought help. As a matter of fact, my general practitioner once asked me if I wanted some kind of psychoactive drug even though I never made the slightest indication that I had a problem. I believe that not one of us would be turned away from being given prescription drugs to deal with emotional or psychological issues should we seek it out (and have the money to pay for it).
Again, drugs may be necessary or at least useful in some circumstances, but that does not mean that in other circumstances we are not better off figuring our own way to deal with problems that cause us emotional pain or psychological discomfort. If this is true, then some individuals are being hurt by unnecessary drug prescriptions rather than being encouraged to seek out natural, moral and spiritual paths to answers. And the harm done to individuals by unnecessarily medicating pales in comparison to the damage caused to society. When we visit a doctor—be it one for the body or the mind—we are never told that the fault lies in society. We are never told that we feel bad because injustice exists or that institutions are corrupt or inefficient. In short, we are never encouraged to work together to solve the problems that are causing our physical or psychological ailments. It is the job of the medical professional to fix the individual so that he/she can function in the society in which he/she lives rather than considering it is the existing systems and society that are the problem. Medicine cannot address the problems of a society, it can only help the individual adapt to his society, be it a healthy or a sick one. If society itself is sick, molding individuals to function within its framework will only make society that much worse.
When Leo Tolstoy reached the age of 50, he underwent a profound disillusionment with his life. He was unable to find contentment in his success or his place in the world. Had he lived in the present age he most surely would have sought help and been given medication in order to make him once again content with the role he played in society. As it was, after thorough soul-searching and a great deal of personal unpleasantness, he underwent a spiritual transformation that altered the course of his life. Not only did it change his own life, it went on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tolstoy’s conversion to the principles of non-violence have literally reshaped the 20th Century, and the full reverberations of his final thirty years have yet to be felt.
One last time, let me reiterate that I do not say drugs are never necessary. What I am saying is that they are not the answer for every instance where an individual feels anxious, uneasy, or depressed. Quite often there are legitimate reasons for their psychological anguish. But to administer drugs without ruling out every other possibility is akin to prescribing oxycontin to a patient who has a pain in his foot without first checking to see if he may have a piece of glass lodged in it. It is generally better for the individual—and much better for society at large—to experience emotions, even unpleasant ones, rather than automatically drown them out by altering the chemistry of the individual. The human being is a tremendous creation (of God or nature, I care not which you choose). We are capable of far more than science has yet begun to realize, more complex in our relationship to others than perhaps our conscious minds can ever understand. To tamper lightly with God’s or nature’s creation is not wisdom but foolishness.