Saturday, November 22, 2008

homo economus

I feel a little self-conscious being so 'out there' with my depression and anxiety issues, but writing about them is helpful - especially since my shrink is out of town for a few weeks and I've got nowhere else to spill.  Let me say here that I am not one of those people who revel in their own misery.  There's nothing exhibitionistic about any of this.  I'm looking forward to having this episode go away, to getting past it and getting back to some semblance of normality. Luckily, I'm not completely debilitated.  I'm going to work, doing my job, exercising, seeing friends, working around the house, etc.  I even went on two dates last weekend.  But I feel different from my normal self - more nervous, less focussed, more distracted, less engaged, more fearful of some impending disaster, less motivated... When I'm at my best, there aren't enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want to do.  When I'm at my worst, I can't wait for the day to end so that I can find peace in sleep.  I'm not at my worst anymore, due in large part to a change in meds after 15 years or so of being on the same thing.  (Antidepressants apparently 'poop out' after extended use).  That I can sit down and write this blog post is a tribute to the effectiveness of the new meds. Antidepressants used to take a few weeks to kick in.  Now they work right away...    So I'm not at rock bottom,  but I'm also far from being at my best.  I haven't really been able to do much work on my book or short story in the last few weeks. I also haven't been eating as much as I normally do (which may be a hidden blessing), and I still have my morose moments and episodes of intense anxiety.

I'm not a doctor or an expert, but I've read enough to know that depression and anxiety are partly physiological phenomena having to do with imbalances in brain chemistry.  This is the part of the equation that the meds can address.  But there's also the external triggers - the things outside of oneself that impinge on the brain chemistry and lead to certain responses. In my case, the biggest external trigger at the moment is the state of the U.S. and global economy.  It may seem silly to spend so much energy worrying about something over which I have no control, but the fact that I can't control it only makes me feel more anxious.  And the trappings of the Information Age only serve to make the fear worse.  It would be great if I could just put my head down, go on about my normal business, and forget about things that are beyond my reach.  Some people can do this.  I envy them.  Trouble is, these days we're all bombarded with horrible news wherever we go.  Let me describe how my morning went yesterday...

It was Friday, my day off.  I woke up, popped my new pills, and read my e-mail.  Then I looked at  The headline read, 'Economists predict prolonged, severe recession.'  OK, not exactly a Kellogg's mornin'...  I get dressed and head to Starbucks for my daily fix.  I sit down with my coffee and there's an L.A. Times on the table in front of me with a headline that's something like, 'Markets in Free Fall over Fear of Bank Failures:  Years of Gains Wiped Out.'  My stomach begins to tighten, but I do what I can to shake it off...  I drive to the bank to make a deposit and take out some money for the weekend.  There's a flat screen over the teller's window.   CNN is reporting that jobless claims are at their highest in 16 years.  My knees get rubbery, but all I can do is absorb the blow and move on... I drive to the barber shop.  The place is normally jam packed but today it's strangely empty.  My barber, Juan, takes me right away.  He watches the Telemundo news on an old Zenith T.V. while he works.  The report's in Spanish, but I can tell from the graphics and the sound of the words that they're talking about recession, unemployment, foreclosures, and all that other pleasant stuff. By the time I walk out of the shop, I look good but I'm a complete mess emotionally.  ...As I drive back home, I tune in to Sports Talk because I figure they won't be talking about economic stuff.  Sports are a soothing escape.  But the first thing I hear when I turn on the radio is an ad for some company selling gold.  Gold, the announcer says, increases in value during times of crisis.  He adds that it's important to own gold now because 'things will be getting much worse before they get better.'  Thanks for that.  ...Once I'm back home, I respond to a few e-mails.  Then, although I know I'll regret doing it, I look at again and see a story header that reads:  'What's next?  Severe recession or something worse?'  It's not even lunchtime yet and I'm already sick to my stomach, scared, and depressed.  For the rest of the day I vow to stay away from all forms of media, lest I go completely fucking insane.  But the tone for the day has already been set, and sticking one's head in the sand probably isn't a viable coping strategy anyway.

Several years ago, I went out a few times with a woman who teaches in the Spanish Department at UC Riverside.  She was a lovely and very intelligent woman.  I can't remember why things didn't go anywhere.  I think I may have put her off when I took her to an Allman Brothers concert at the Greek Theater.  I vaguely remember being surrounded that night by older, grizzled biker gang types.  It was probably more than she bargained for, or less... Anyway, the two of us were having dinner one night at Fred 62 in Los Feliz when we started talking about the generally grim direction in which America was headed.  I don't recall whether this was before or after Bush's reelection, but the Iraq War had by then turned into a quagmire, religious yahoos were ascendant, and Bush was hellbent on making the distribution of wealth in the country even more lopsided.  Things just didn't feel like they were going well at all.  ...At one point, she asked me what I thought it would take to turn the country around.  Never one to shy away from sweeping historical analysis, I began by explaining that when I was in college I thought socialism was the answer to all the world's ills.  But then the fall of the Soviet Union, combined with the inevitable cooling effect aging has on the utopian dreams of middle class 'radicals', led me to eventually conclude that another New Deal was the best we could hope for.  I said that all empires eventually decline and that the American Empire appeared to be finally stretched to the breaking point.  I predicted that the resultant crisis would turn the tide away from expansionist laissez-faire economics and back towards heavy government involvement in the economy and a reinvigoration of the welfare state. (That's some dinner conversation, huh?).

I don't wanna toot my own horn here too much, but I think my analysis was right on the money.  President-elect Obama, for example, is already talking about public works projects to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure. This is beside the point I wanted to make.  I remember this dinner at Fred 62 very clearly because at one point I said, "I look forward to the end of the American empire."  I said it breezily, unthinkingly, like some sheltered college student.  My dinner date was both more thoughtful and more guarded.  "Well," she replied, "we'll see how we like it."  I see now that she was wise to be more sober.  America's decline may be a good thing in the abstract, but it seems as though living through its convulsive manifestations may very well be painful, difficult and, yes, depressing.  So maybe it's not so crazy to be depressed and anxious.  Still, there's gotta be a way to remain fatalistic and calm, even in circumstances where there's no hiding from the relentless onslaught of information about the difficult challenges that lie ahead.  I need to learn how to do this.

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