Sunday, July 20, 2008

Uncomfortably Numb

I watched the movie Garden State for the first time recently. I felt rather depressed while watching it. Afterwards, I tried to figure out why I felt this way. If you haven't watched it, I have two pieces of advice: don't watch it unless you are feeling rather invulnerable, and, don't the rest of this post until you read the plot synopsis.

For one thing, the protagonist, Andrew Largeman, is numb to life for a number of reasons. The relevant ones for me were, first, his guilt about his mother - a less significant reason, I'd argue; second, his medication - lithium; and third, his lack of direction in life - arguably a result of the first two factors.

Andrew's numbness eventually ends, partly because he stops taking lithium, but mostly, he is thawed by the warmth of life when he meets an eccentric girl (not the best description, but oh well) and falls for her. The redeeming power of love is grand.

Andrew's situation, however, seems to be shared, to some extent or another, by many people today. The one example I have in mind is medication, specifically, anti-depressants. I think medications that interfere with the mind's chemistry are far more potent than our doctors want to admit, especially when taken for long periods of time. In Andrew's case, he took lithium for 16 years, beginning when he was 10 years old.

I do not believe that anti-depressants and other similar substances are useless per se. I believe they can help some people very much. I do believe, however, that too many people take them while ignoring the underlying causes of their depression. Doctors are partly to blame for this; there is a trend today to prescribe drugs to treat a symptom without seeking out the underlying bad habits that cause the illness. Just look at the plethora of prescription advertisements in today's media.

Moreover, many college students struggle with depression while simultaneously maintaining drinking habits that can only be described as alcoholism. Consumption of alcohol to the extent many of us did in college alters the brain's chemistry. This often makes people prone to, if it does not outright cause, depression. Oftentimes, doctors prescribe anti-depressants without simultaneously recommending reducing alcohol consumption. Even if doctors do make such a recommendation, once someone begins taking anti-depressants, they rarely stop. They may switch medications, but because the withdrawal process is often very difficult, and depression inducing in and of itself, they usually remain on medication for a long if not indefinite period of time.

I've struggled with depression in the past, although it was never too serious. I think that much of it was caused by messing with my brain's chemistry with alcohol, bad diet, and the general roller coaster of emotion that defines college for many of us. Speaking of roller coasters, I think that depression, to some extent, is to be expected in life, especially in college. Many of us had life pretty easy up to that point, and the crushed expectations, confusing situations, and academic stress often lead to depression. If depression is natural, perhaps we should try first to control it naturally before bringing out the big guns of medication.

Anti-depressants, I would argue, function as an override switch on the brain. Therefore, they should only be used when someone is irretrievably depressed. Furthermore, because anti-depressants are often used for a long time, and their long term effects are not well known, there is a significant risk to prescribing them for what is often a short-term problem.

Going back to Garden State, we of course have extreme example: Andrew took lithium for 16 years, beginning when he was 10 years old. His father, a psychiatrist, prescribed it because Andrew was having issues coping with the fact that he accidentally caused his mother to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Any behavioral problems a 10 year old might have are most likely short term, and should not be controlled with something as potent as lithium. I could argue here against giving ADD/ADHD drugs to young people, but let's save that for another post.

Bottom line is that the medical profession is too prone to solving problems with pills, and that if we rely on doctors to solve all our problems, we risk ending up like Andrew Largeman was before he providentially left his lithium prescription behind in L.A.

Postscript: Another problem I did not discuss is that most doctors are very much like sheep when it comes to proposing cures. This innate medical conservatism will be the subject of a later post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Belgian Prince,

I completely agree with you. I would rather 'feel' than not feel, good or bad...anyday. Thanks for your post. BTW - I loved the movie Garden State

9:13 PM  

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