What If the Problem’s Not You?

You’re anxious. Depressed. There’s something wrong with your brain, a chemical imbalance that prevents you from being happy. From enjoying life. From being a productive, contributing member of society. It’s not your fault. Your brain just doesn’t work right. It happens. Once you accept that, you can accept help. See a doctor, a therapist. Maybe try taking drugs to alter your brain chemistry. Get you back up and running. Functional, if not happy. Able to contribute, and not be a burden on those who don’t share your curse.

I understand. I am like that, too. Have been for as long as I can remember. It sucks.

But what if the problem’s not you? What if your depression and anxiety are perfectly rational responses to a toxic environment?

There’s a quote usually attributed to William Gibson (but apparently originated by a twitter user named @debihope). “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” It’s pithy, and clever, and wise. I bring it up for those reasons, but also because of the very reasonable suggestion that factors beyond your brain chemistry may and almost certainly do play a part in your subjective experience of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Even if you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.

Context, in short, matters.

I mean, let’s face it. Very few human societies have ever been built with happiness and well-being in mind, save for those few at the top of the pyramid scheme. Even in our present abundance, it’s become increasingly rare for the average person to have the kind of stability and prosperity that are the baseline requirements for psychological equilibrium. How many people work jobs they hate? How many are one missed paycheck, one accident or unforeseen illness away from homelessness? How many people have the opportunity to find meaning and significance in their lives? How many people seek shelter and solace in addiction, in overwork, in bullshit hierarch mentalities that take comfort in knowing that however miserable they are, there is someone more misable than they?

What if the real asshole is how we’ve arranged our society?

Look, if you are depressed, or anxious, or have low self-esteem, there could very well be something wrong with your brain. There’s sure as fuck something wrong with mine. But it’s time for us to stop locating the problem solely in individuals, whether we conceive that problem as failing or pathology. It’s time to take a step back and see the forest and the tree. To see that systemic factors play as much of a part as individual ones do, and that fixes, if we want them to be effective, have to take into account more than just whether a sad person has enough serotonin in their brain.

To quote the Guardian article that inspired this:

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.


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