the science of sadness

Non-fiction, 10/17/08

Why do I act the way I do? So irrational, so destructive. Countless times I have asked myself this question—tortuously wrestled with it—often in retrospect to some debacle or other I’d caused. This self-analysis has become rote in recent years; though, despite its banality, no less painful. Any explanations I glean are often ineffectual, nonsensical or maddeningly abstruse, or an amalgam of all three. For what comfort can I take from a study of my biochemistry? To be sure, I do not equate heredity with inevitability, but my genetic disposition stacks the odds against me. Let us, for the sake of discussion, explore this avenue further.

Research suggests I can (partially) chalk my depression up to genetics. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for the double dose of heritable depression and its concomitant physiology. I can fault my inferior hippocampus, whose scant chemical receptors deprive me of calming serotonin. Or perhaps it’s the spotty GABA neurotransmitters in my prefrontal cortex, who do such a piss-poor job of blocking dopamine uptake after a pleasurable experience (dopamine makes us feel good; GABA intervenes to prevent sensory overload) that I’m never satiated—hence my deplorable binge-eating. And let’s not forget the excess of cortisol flowing through my veins, a stress hormone that would normally be regulated by soothing pulses of serotonin, were it available for uptake.

But this is only part of the “answer” (assuming, for the time being, that we can describe mental illness as a discrete problem with various solutions). We turn, then, to another source of insight: my life. How I was raised, the company I keep, my emotional bearing—these factors, both tacit and explicit, are innumerable, yet each serves to subtly shape my being. Here, however, I have the power of choice in many respects (as opposed to a roll of the genetic dice). I can dwell in an environment conducive to happiness (where friends, laughter, and general joviality abound), or I can isolate myself and engage in anti-social behavior such as shoplifting (one of many grave mistakes). Seems like a no-brainer, right? I agree. But my judgment isn’t always so sound, and my rationale in decision-making can sometimes defy rationality.

Such is the quandary of this condition. No clear-cut answers, only nebulous speculation and the unsettling paradox of knowing what’s right but lacking the ability to act on it. Sometimes I want to spear my depression on the prongs of David Hume’s fork: either my actions are determined, in which case I’m not responsible for them (again, chalk it up to genes), or they’re the result of random events, in which case I’m also not responsible for them. Like the criminal who pleads insanity to shorten his sentence—shifting the onus to something, anything else. But this is a cop-out; I don’t buy it at all. I’m no blameless invalid, incapable of societal function. I can fight my melancholy.

I will say, though, that you were an invaluable ally.


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