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A century ago, psychiatric issues were almost never discussed. They were rarely diagnosed and barbarically treated if they were. If you look into your own family history, or of those close to you, you’re more than likely to find an aunt who “took to their bed”, a grandmother who “had the vapours”, or a great uncle who was “troubled”. Anyone attempting to seek out their genealogy had better have handy a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, because otherwise there’s no way to account for the number of lives that ended early beneath a cloak of mystery. Over the years, I’ve asked older relatives why nobody ever tried to do anything for these people. The universal response has been, “Oh, we never talked about that kind of thing.” The idea of taking a pill — any pill — and having life improve, or even alter your mood or your state of consciousness, would have seemed preposterous. Until the mid-20th century, alcohol was it.
If someone time travelled from 1990 (let alone from 1900) to 2015 and was asked to describe the difference between then and now, they might report back: “Well, people don’t use light bulbs any more; they use these things called LED lights, which I guess save energy, but the light they cast is cold. What else? Teenagers seem to no longer have acne or cavities, cars are much quieter, but the weirdest thing is that everyone everywhere is looking at little pieces of glass they’re holding in their hands, and people everywhere have tiny earphones in their ears. And if you do find someone without a piece of glass or earphones, their faces have this pained expression as if to say, “Where is my little piece of glass?” What could possibly be in or on that little piece of glass that could so completely dominate a species in one generation?”
To pull back a step or two; as a species we ought to congratulate ourselves. In just a quarter of a century we have completely rewritten the menu of possible human moods, and quite possibly for the better. Psychopharmacology, combined with the neural reconfiguration generated by extended internet usage, has turned human behaviour into something inexplicable to someone from the not too distant past. We forget this so easily. Until Prozac came out in 1987, the only mood-altering options were mid-century: booze, pot and whatever MGM fed Judy Garland to keep her vibrating for three decades. The Prozac ripple was enormous . . . You mean I don’t have to feel bad any more? Or at least that was the way it was oversimplified. Another oversimplification was that you wouldn’t necessarily feel like yourself either. But that was almost 30 years ago. As a category, antidepressants barely existed but today there are about 40 of them, and they’re no longer just used for depression, they’re used for almost anything, it seems, whether they’re intelligently or stupidly prescribed.
We now live in a world of a million — a billion — moods. Some are good, some are downers, but I have noticed nobody’s actually ever in a catastrophic mood — angry, lost or violent — the way people sometimes used to be. Moods were once much more clearly etched on faces; you could read a mood far more quickly. Nowadays, if you bump into someone you haven’t seen in a while and their behaviour is weird, you say hello, depart and think, “Well, they seemed a bit medsy, didn’t they?” And then you move on.
Did we eradicate bad moods? Did we eradicate grief? Did we eradicate depressiveness itself? No. That all still exists. It’s just that moods have become like TV and, in the span of 24 hours, there are simply far more mood options to choose from, and we can tailor our moods too. Throw in Ritalin and concentration drugs such as Adderall and moods quickly become very, very niche: Wellbutrin + online binge shopping; Effexor + Facebook + three scotches; Adderall plus Celexa and sitting at your desk dispiritedly checking for new emails every two-and-a-half minutes. These all sound beyond mundane but explain them to someone from 1980. There’s a smugness that can creep into this kind of discussion. Not me: my brain is free range. I need neither the internet nor drugs. Fine, but I doubt you exist, and if you do exist, maybe you’re missing out on something good. Or you’re the Unabomber — who actually did need some psychopharmaceuticals.
The way I now look at the world is that everyone’s going through something. It doesn’t matter who or where you are, how old you are or if you’re male or female. Everyone’s going through something: jealousy, grief, gambling addiction, love, motherhood, business woes, ambitious dreams, whatever — always. The only three people I’ve ever truly thought were going through nothing killed themselves. As a result, I’m suspicious when someone’s seemingly overly OK. But given that we’re all going through something, how, then, do you get through your days? At least you’ve now got the internet to give you living options, or to link you up with people who share your experiences or pain. And if things get too bad, you have many medical options — instead of teeter-tottering between despair and “feeling good”, there are countless options in between. And finally, ask yourself how many relatives you have living up in the attic who never come down and who never will. That’s right. They’re all gone.
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. Twitter @dougcoupland
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios @douglas coupland