Misery is its own medicine

By Ray O'Reilly

Being called a miserable sod might not be everyone's moniker of choice, but was on to something with his comment “The miserable hath no other medicine but only hope”.
10 July 2009

Where I grew up a slap on the back and reassuring “cheer up mate!” meant two things: people cared how you were feeling, but they were also serving you notice that moody buggars would not be tolerated for too long. You had to get it together.

Times have clearly changed since the days I was climbing trees to brood over puppy love. Today, it seems a shoulder to cry on has been replaced by a bottle of pills. And the heavy dose of reality-check you might expect from friends or family has been supplemented, even replaced, by sessions with a shrink.

I am wondering if moods and are out of step with a world that covets happiness and consistency. And antidepressants are a salvo fired at life's inevitable low patches – loneliness, break-ups, redundancies, exam stress, disappointments…

But I fear we could be missing the whole point of sadness. Are we messing with a natural process? Is the marketing of drugs too pervasive and persuasive? And how clear is the boundary between sadness and clinical ?

It's not really for me to answer – at least not here – but a recent story in the New Scientist* has stirred up a simmering debate about the treatment of “normal sadness” as a disease.

Monkeying around with nature

One side argues that something so hardwired as sorrow must serve a purpose, so purging it artificially could be doing more harm than good, “playing fast and loose with a crucial part of biology”.

The other side is adamant that sadness, if left unchecked, can sometimes tailspin into something more intractable.

Apes, the nature guys say, which refuse to skulk off remorsefully after clashing with the dominant male, risk another, potentially fatal, beating. Sorrow, it follows, might have evolved to help us learn from our mistakes – say, being too blasé with relationships.

I'm not sure this evolutionary tale would work round the O'Reilly house during so-called low patches because the dominant male is four years old. Granted, since discovering Kung Fu Panda, he has learned to administer a decent low blow, but I'm not sure that sort of pain qualifies as one of life's big learning experiences!

(Sorry, I digress.)

Either way you look at this mood-altering argument, it's hard to ignore the exponential growth in use, and the billions it is worth to drug-makers. It's also hard to ignore the help that these drugs have given to people struggling to cope – including quite a few near and dear to me.

Alas, this is my 500 words, so I get the last word. And as someone who has been known to dine on a mood for creative sustenance, I could no more contemplate banishing my muse as I would my four-year-old.

(On second thoughts…)

So, I'll take Shakespeare's prescription and declare with the clarity of the cavalier: I'm glad when I'm sad, even if no-one round me likes it much!

More information:

Is it really bad to be sad?, 14 January 2009, New Scientist

The loss of sadness: How psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder, Oxford University Press, 2007

This article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author's permission. © Copyright Ray O'Reilly.


  • Ray O'Reilly

    Ray O'Reilly writes like he thinks… between the lines. Formerly a columnist for (A)WAY, an English-language magazine in Belgium, today Ray focuses on script-writing projects, blogging and avoiding parties.

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