Freudian Shifts

Did you know that going on extremely long vacations and then forgetting about them used to be a socially legitimate—if not exactly socially acceptable—way to go crazy?

Maybe. It’s certainly not an original discovery of mine: it has come from reading Ian Hacking’s brilliant Mad Travelers, which explores the cultural niche, formed from anxiety about vagrancy and romantic celebration of tourism, within which “fugues”—long, aimless, unconscious journeys—flourished in 19th century France. My own version of madness (or maybe it’s just procrastination) has kept me from (re)embarking on any original research of my own. In the meantime, I’m content with methodically consuming the social-scientific literature on mental illness and vaguely imagining a future contribution to it in dissertation form.

In truth, I’ve never been as uncomfortable with social science as I am now. Perhaps that’s because I’ve previously always studied questions that, while important (“Will capitalism survive?” “Will we do anything about climate change?”) did not exactly bear on my day-to-day life. Reading about the “social construction” of mental illness, on the other hand, impinges on my ongoing own interpretation and processing of the last ten years of my life.

Prior to reading Hacking, I worked through Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us, which explores the globalization of American psychiatry through processes that range from clueless (telling post-Tsunami Sri Lankans that they really must be suffering from PTSD a la American) to sinister (convincing Japanese people that melancholy was a disease and that only U.S. pharmaceuticals could cure it). His most interesting vignette describes a more inadvertent sort of mental colonization. Anorexia virtually didn’t exist in Hong Kong—despite the long-running penetration of Western advertising and ideals of body type—until a 14-year-old collapsed and died in public. Despite exhibiting virtually none of the symptoms that usually come alongside not-eating, such as obsessions with thinness or fear of fatness, the press widely publicized it as a case of “anorexia.” Almost overnight, an epidemic of anorexia emerged—not of people claiming to be anorexic, but people who weren’t before and suddenly were.

The take-away lesson is that every culture opens up certain avenues for expressing distress and shuts down others. This notion worries me a bit, because it fits too easily into the don’t-talk-about-suicide-because-it-gives-people-the-idea-to-kill-themselves narrative (which, frustratingly, seems to have some sociological data to support it). More proximately, I am uncomfortable with this because it challenges the assumption—to which I cling rather dearly—that my own depression is biology, pure and simple, and that it was medication that pulled me out of it. Radical, Foucaultian critiques of psychiatry and “pharmaceuticalization” as forms of social control fit neatly in with my political worldview, but less easily with the fact that I believe—and, in a way, need to believe—that I have been saved by Big Pharma and Western medicine.

This week, I’ve been plodding through Freud. I had read Civilization and Its Discontents during my brief flirtation with anarcho-primitivism in college, but I doubt I would ever have seen reading hundreds of pages about phallic symbols and infantile sexuality as a good use of time had I not taken a year off. Most of what Freud said apparently is wrong—psycho-analysis has been shown to be no more effective than anti-depressants, which is to say, apparently not very effective—and yet I’m finding, just as the sociology of mental health tells me they should, that his theories about the manifestations of mental illness have a way of making themselves true.

When I was really depressed, I didn’t dream at all; sleep was a form of blissful oblivion, a well-earned respite prior to the mornings, which were inevitably the worst (the fact that I had read prior that depressed people don’t dream and feel worst in the mornings is, perhaps, not coincidental). As my waking life has improved, my nocturnal existence has deteriorated: I have nightmares almost every night. I usually don’t remember much from them, except that they are—surprise!—about being depressed again.

And then came this week, when I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. All of the sudden, my dreams are full of symbols—of hints of repression and sublimation and transference, a horde of thoughts that day-to-day existence as a sane person requires I keep at bay. And the weird thing is, I’m convinced that it’s not just that I’m noticing these symbols now: I really think that my dreams were fairly meaningless, and now have becoming meaningful, just as I have read that they should be. And so I am reminded that studying oneself is a never-ending mindfuck, and that maybe it’d be more straightforward to crack capitalism than to crack my own brain.


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