I posted this piece in the comments section of my latest article for Suicide Girls. In case you’re too lazy the click on the link over there to your left, the article ends with the following paragraph:
“I would never claim to have The Answer to the problem of depression. But I can say what has worked for me, and what continues to work. It’s not as easy or as quick a solution as popping a few pills each day. But in the long run it’s better to learn how to deal with your self by yourself rather than letting drugs do all the work for you. For one thing, you’ll never forget to fill your prescription. Yet the solution that worked for me involves opting out of what most people consider to be a ‘normal’ way of life and ‘normal’ over-indulgences. If you’re ready to make the sacrifice you’ll end up seeing it’s no sacrifice at all.”
A number of people over at SG took exception to my stance about drugs as a means for dealing with depression. Though I thought what I said was pretty clear, and though some of the posters did get it, I decided to add a bit of clarification anyway.
But before you read this, I want to say that I am not interested in debating the merits of the kinds of drugs prescribed by psychiatrists. There is plenty of debate on that subject already. Boring! If you want to debate it, that’s fine. Just don’t expect me to jump in.
I am, however, interested in Nishijima Sensei’s idea that some things can be “too excellent.” And that’s what I wanted to comment about here. So, here’s what I posted (with a couple minor changes):
When I wrote that line about Zazen being better for depression than popping pills I was not imagining a person with cripplingly severe depression who turned to medication only after everything else failed. Sometimes the medical solution is the only way to deal with a problem that has become too severe to be dealt with in any other way. If I were in a car crash or diagnosed with cancer I would want to see a doctor, not a Zen Master.
But with the heaps of cash the pharmaceutical companies are pouring into developing new markets for their potions, it often looks to me like an entire generation of Americans has been duped into believing they can’t possibly deal with life without artificially altering their brain chemistry. The ads for those tonics make it sound like every case of existential ennui calls for a dose of Prozac® or Paxil® lest you begin questioning the society those drugs make you capable of fitting in with.
Still, there’s no way for me to know the hearts and minds of the people who’ve been upset by what I said. Maybe they were among those rare cases whose situation was so severe that drugs really were the only reasonable solution. Maybe without them these people would be out there shooting up their high schools or assassinating pop stars and politicians. I do not know. I cannot judge.
I can’t speak about anyone else. But this is what I can say about myself. I’m thankful that I got through my adolescence before anti-depressants were fully developed and that I spent my twenties too poor to afford psychiatric treatment because I have no doubt whatsoever I would have been prescribed medication to relieve my depression. Had I gone that route I might never have been forced to dig out the deeper cause of my pain.
I do not doubt the effectiveness of these medications. But, to say they are effective means that they produce the desired effect. I wonder if the effect we desire is always what we really need. I used to suffer from severe headaches on an almost weekly basis. Large doses of Ibuprofen were an effective treatment. I took the pills and the pain stopped. Yet my reliance on the magic solution provided by the Advil corporation kept me from having to deal with the actual causes of my headaches. It also turned my poop hard as a rock, the repercussions of which I still deal with today. Those nice little ads on TV never seem to mention this, do they?
It was only when I stopped taking so much medicine and began trying to get at the real problem that I was able to make my way towards solving what really needed to be solved. There are times when pain, even emotional pain, is a signal that something important needs to be dealt with directly. My experience was that drugs could be a very effective way to avoid confronting what’s really wrong.
Once when my Zen teacher, Nishijima Sensei, had injured his back, one of his students brought over a thing that looked like a heating pad that was supposed to zap some kind of healing electrical energy into your muscles. After the student badgered him for a long time, Nishijima finally gave it a try. His verdict was that the machine was “too excellent” and he preferred to let his injury heal naturally. Likewise, I think most of our medications are “too excellent.” They’re good when you need a quick fix for a very severe problem. But whenever it’s possible to use a more natural approach, the natural approach is always better. Even if it takes longer and seems less “effective” — meaning the solution is not quite what we imagined or wanted.