Public displays of emotion and the medicalisation of the self: the two-headed zeitgeist of my generation. Self-importance masquerading as vicarious suffering, histrionic displays of self-pity disguised as the spreading of empathy; feeling the pain so that you don’t have to. That’s us – me and my generation – those of us still plausibly young, but old enough to remember a time when not everything was an indication of some syndrome or disorder which could be used expediently in providing oneself with a sense of identity; those of us old enough to remember the grand old days when social anxiety disorder was still boring old shyness, those halcyon days when one would have a headache rather than a migraine, when one would be unhappy without being depressed; we are those who were coming of age when the internet was still the new fangled world wide web, an invention which could, after half an hour of nail-biting anticipation, present one with a picture of Oasis or some football team or something. Gone are those golden days when not everybody was on the spectrum – alas – because along came the medicalisation of everyday life (as Thomas Szasz would put it), holding hands with social media; and now there is no point in suffering unless you are broadcasting all your problems to the world via YouTube. These are the times when a twelve-year-old gets diagnosed with depression and kills herself on Facebook, when a sense of identity is nurtured through getting diagnosed with some fashionable condition and strengthened through the corollary sympathy; these are the times when pretty average people can get diagnosed with being on the autistic spectrum. But we’re all on the spectrum, so you can get diagnosed with whatever takes your fancy. Hurrah!
At a Christmas family get-together the other evening, my sister happened to mention the benefits of getting a diagnosis of ADHD and the effective treatments available. (My sister being a healthcare worker, not someone diagnosed with ADHD – though that girl can talk when she wants to). I postulated – oh so gently – that there was no such thing as ADHD, that the condition was an invention rather than a discovery; a condition, that is, which had been invented to cater for a feeble, sentimental – even infantile – generation rather than being a primordial truth which had recently been discovered. My suggestion was met with indignation from my sister. Well, I’ve seen the evidence, she said; so you might need educating. At this point, my brother (siding with my sister, as was everybody else – bunch o’ demagogues) mentioned the DSM, in such a way as to suggest that I get reading and educate myself on mental illness – ‘cause as it stood I really didn’t know what I was talking about, natch. The validity of the DSM could not be questioned: Why, indeed, when mental illness was all the rage, would one want to question it? With admirable calm – although the room was getting hotter – I said that the DSM was not necessarily a collection of incontrovertible truths based on irrefutable evidence, that – rather – the information it provided could be spurious, even wholly factitious, and put together by a load of mealy-mouthed… prats. (There were elders present). My sister smirked, my ignorance beyond belief. Wanting to deflect an undoubtedly heated debate – for the sake of our dear mother – I made a pleasant comment about the cake I was eating which my sister had baked, cake which had a mollifying effect because it was indeed very nice – and was thus expediently useful.
There is more ‘stigma attached’ (yuck) to challenging received opinion about mental health than there is to mental health itself; and besides, if we are all on the spectrum, then none of us are: and if everybody is suffering from mental illness, then nobody is; and what needs to be done – as some old confused fellow once said – remains undone. The rather lame term ‘parity of esteem’ – with reference to mental health services – has been used in politics of late, presumably in response to calls of ‘ending the stigma’ (gag) surrounding mental health; but when people say they can’t receive the mental health care they need, what are they hoping for? More effective medication? Better counselling? More tea, sympathy and biscuits, perhaps? To invert the words of a character in Brave New World – via that song by the Buzzcocks – nobody’s unhappy nowadays. Huxley, of course, prophesied a future of conformity through contentment; but my generation prefers discontentment through conformity, finding happiness through being unhappy – that is, through suffering from mild depression, generalised anxiety disorder and irritable bowel syndrome, with a touch of spring fever. This is not to roundly denounce depression, of course. Dorothy Rowe points out that depression is not the same as unhappiness, that depression is where one does not want to be helped, preferring to push people away. Miss Rowe – incidentally – led a seminar with about four students, of which I was one, when she began her role at London Metropolitan University about ten years ago; not that I gave much of a toss back then, but at least I turned up. It was around that time that my outlook on mental health matters began to change gradually, my pathetic self-pity segueing richly into admirable self-restraint. But then I would say that, arrogant sod that I am. Once upon a time, I believed I was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, not pausing to think that perhaps – just perhaps – things weren’t so good inside because of the fact that my staple diet consisted primarily of tortilla crisps with those spicy dips, and lager, lots of lager. (I hadn’t discovered the dignity of campaigning for real ale yet). I didn’t get to the stage of seeing a doctor, thank heavens, coming to realise, as I did, that no such diagnosis was necessary: and the same goes for my flirtations with obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Nowadays, I just think of myself as being poor old Edward, and to hell with all the swanky labels up for grabs.
It was raining pretty damned hard when I was returning home the other day, one hand holding my brolly up, the other clutching my bag which was brimming with books, distressingly dampening books… and my thoughts naturally became murderous: misery, murder and the weather. My seething resentment for Providence didn’t last, of course; and I was soon back to being my peaceful and charming self. But if I was convinced that I was suffering from seasonal affective disorder – and was so pathetically inclined to see a doctor about this – how hard would it be for me to get diagnosed? Probably not that hard. I shall suggest the same for Asperger’s syndrome. In these days of whine and roses, Asperger’s, alongside depression, is among the most fashionable of conditions to get diagnosed with; but if an ‘aspie’ – (aspies being a minority at present, but only just) – claims to be really good at pretending to be normal, then perhaps he or she is normal – or at least more normal than he or she would like people to think. I worked for several years with autistic adults, that is to say, adults who actually are autistic and are thus dependent on assistance and care. Autistic people, it seems to me, are too busy being autistic to care about gaining kudos on social media: they don’t have the option of pretending to be normal. Meanwhile, some hipster thinks of themselves as being really, really… misunderstood, and promptly gets diagnosed with the obligatory depression alongside an optional Asperger’s; because as long as one thinks oneself to be suffering from this or that condition, then that’s good enough for a diagnosis; thus, even if one has no problems whatsoever with social interaction – has, indeed, a flourishing social life – one could still get an Asperger’s diagnosis without much difficulty; meanwhile, someone who actually does struggle with social interaction, but nevertheless doesn’t care for a diagnosis of anything – well, they’re just that weirdo from down the road. Must be a pervert of some kind. And depression, of course, is the requisite diagnosis for any self-respecting member of my generation, the sufferer being more profound, more emotionally tortured, more angst-ridden, more intense, more…
I blame that Kurt Cobain – the Sylvia Plath of my generation: talented, good-looking, privileged and full of middle-class resentment and histrionic self-pity. Then again, Kurt was really, really popular – and being really, really popular is all that matters these days.[pullquote]
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Edward David Cooper