Tag Archives: sad

‘My brother is a worst-case scenario’

This is the best personal essay I’ve read in ages. It starts like this

I received an email from a Department of Corrections social worker about four years ago. She had a message for me from my older brother Michael. He wanted contact with his family after fifteen years in a prison psychiatric treatment facility, to which he had been sentenced after trying unsuccessfully to murder my mother, father, and younger brother in an arson attempt at our home in suburban Tidewater, Virginia.

and concludes

I wish I could offer some kind of easy prescription here—something to do with politics and policy, with therapeutic philosophies or biochemical treatment protocols. But the mystery of mental anguish, of the mind on the outs with itself, of a version of hell made manifest in a suburban living room, is the one thing in my life that has brought me to the point where my only option seemed to be to pray. 

We hear stories of personal tragedy or disaster and we try to process them through a frame of ‘What can politicians do?’ or, perhaps more relevantly, ‘What can I do?’ I sometimes wonder if, faced with a situation you are utterly powerless to comprehend, it’s better to just shut up and listen.

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May all your days be gold my child

My parents made me go to church every Sunday until I was 16. Around 14, I told them that I was leaving their traditional church to attend a younger, hipper church down the road. Just drop me off outside on the way, I told them, and pick me up on the way home.

That's how it came to be that every Sunday at 10 am, for two years, I would get out of the car, wait until my parents turned the corner, then walk two blocks to Tower Records and listen to music for two hours. I was always back out front of the church, shirt tucked in, when my parents came to pick me up.

I don't know what possessed me to listen to Sparklehorse the first time, but that's where it was. Most Sundays I tried to listen to 5 or 10 bands in my loitering Sabbaths. I would always start out, though, by listening to 'Homecoming Queen', the first track on Sparklehorse's first album. I knew I would never hear anything that weird on the radio, so I tried to memorize it, Sunday by Sunday.

Freshman year of college, about five minutes after asking 'What's this Napster thing everyone's talking about?' I was hearing it again.

Sparklehorse – Home Coming Queen

Mark Linkous, the guy behind Sparklehorse, killed himself this past weekend, and even though I never learned one solitary thing about the guy beyond his music, I find myself strangely affected. It's a reminder that talent, like everything else, isn't a sufficient rampart against despair.

I'm not going to speculate on Mark Linkous's problems, or read anything into his lyrics. I just thought I would share our little 'how we met' story, and thank him. 

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Depression is contagious


Yesterday I found a fascinating article in Psychology Today:

Epidemiologic evidence also points to the major role of contagion factors in depression. The rate and nature of depression vary dramatically from culture to culture—unlike with schizophrenia, where roughly 1 percent of the population is affected no matter the culture sampled. The World Health Organization recently declared depression the fourth leading cause of human disability and suffering and predicted that by the year 2020 it will be the second leading cause. That's not biology run amok; it reflects the social spread of the kinds of cultural values and social conditions that give rise to depression.

It's funny to think about depression-proneness as a cultural value, but this really isn't all that surprising. Having lived in four countries now, I'm endlessly amazed at how each culture collaborates to create rules and circumstances that actively prevent their citizens from finding happiness.

Long-term epidemiologic studies show that depression intensifies from one generation to the next. Today's parents represent the largest group of depression sufferers raising the fastest-growing group of depression sufferers. We are on average four times more depressed than our parents and ten times more than our grandparents.

Shit, that's dire, and I never would have expected it. You want to read that and say 'what do young people have to be depressed about?! They have it better than any previous generation!' But of course that's not the point. Depression is the telescope, not the view.

[Depression largely] comes from the ways we learn to regulate our own internal experience, which includes our explanatory style (the meaning we attach to life experiences), our cognitive style (how we think and use information), our coping style (how we manage stress and adversity) , our problem-solving style, and our relational style.

All of these are acquired through socialization forces in the family.[…] Every time a child asks, "Why, Mommy?" or "Why, Daddy?" the explanation provided invariably embodies a particular style of thinking and attributions of causality. […]

"Why didn't Uncle Bob come to the picnic, Mom?" There's a world of difference between "He must be mad at me" and " I don't know, the next time we talk to Uncle Bob let's ask him." There are also the kinds of attributions that reflect a permanently negative perspective: "Mom, I tried to do this and couldn't, would you help me do it?" "No, you'll never be able to do it, it's too hard."

There's a cultural component to this phenomenon, too. Think of how a British person is expected to react to a job loss, for example, compared to how an Italian or a German or an American is expected to react. Think of the support structures built into those societies. Our cultures, to an extent I think we don't realize, are built into our explanations of routine experiences. 

Studies show that such a pattern in interpreting experience is established early in life. In one study, children 8 years old were asked how they would respond if they were out shopping with their mother in a crowded department store 30 miles from home and suddenly found themselves separated from their parent. The anxious children generated scary scenarios of never seeing their parents again and being adopted into families of strangers. But the nonanxious kids said they'd simply go to the store manager and ask that an announcement be made on the public address system. In short, free of inner emotional turmoil, they could focus on and think their way through to solving the problem.

In other words, you shouldn't be telling your kids 'be good' or 'treat others how you want to be treated.' You should be saying 'chill the fuck out' and 'handle your shit'.

Another important element of socialization that operates in families (and other groups) is whether emotions can be expressed or not, what kinds of emotions can be expressed, and to what degree. Children learn quickly from the affective displays within a family or community what will be tolerated and what will not. Many families, for example, prohibit expressions of anger and so teach their children to suppress the emotion. Being devalued with no means of expression modeled, anger can too easily become explosive, a common theme in depressed relationships.

This is another cultural component. I'm consistently amazed at the marathons of emotionally bereft conversations that seem to take place in Danish and British families. Americans, who endlessly focus-group every molecule of their emotional experience, are amazed at how skilled northern Europeans are at inhibiting this impulse. We all learned these strategies somewhere.

It is possible to make people less susceptible to depression by teaching children social and cognitive skills. But there's growing evidence that social skills are deteriorating and that people are less available and less deliberate about building quality relationships. Studies show that young people are becoming more impulsive, more aggressive, more narcissistic, more self-absorbed. The more self-absorbed people are, the more negative feedback they absorb from others, the worse they feel, and the less skilled they are in building relationships.

I'm really skeptical of this. In what way are we 'less available' than we were before we had free, instant, constant communication? The fact that we're less deliberate about building relationships doesn't necessarily mean we have fewer, or that our social skills are deteriorating. Maybe it just means we have access to a much wider range of acquaintances, and we don't have to be as deliberate. 

I could be totally wrong about this. But everything in that paragraph sounds like it's just recycling the conventional wisdom.

Nonetheless, this article makes me wish governments would be a bit more ambitious in experimenting with 'soft' social engineering. We know more about the human experience, and human happiness, now than at any previous time in history. We know that the social structures our traditions have built around us, like our obsession with class-based behavior norms, or our systematic abandonment of our elderly, are making us all less happy and less productive.

Our cultures have changed drastically in the last 50 years, for the better and for the worse. It would be nice to begin a discussion of where we want this to lead, and how our cultures can build values that help us cope with each other in an emotionally sustainable way. Otherwise, we're all just that kid in the grocery store, waiting for our foster parents to rescue us.

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Are Americans the only ones who habitually conflate the personal and the political?

This is a pretty amazing story. Some shit is too serious for the verb 'blog'.

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Stark raving sad


You know, given the number of dorkfish in the Loser Aquarium known as the Internet, you’d think you’d come across more solid, existential, pixellated dread. Or at least some Scandinavia-grade lamentations of loneliness beyond whatever the shut-ins at The Corner can come up with.

Reading this blog, it struck me that the Internet isn’t really set up for crock-pot emotions like melancholy, or wistfulness, or satisfaction. It’s much better at boiling irritation, flash-fried ire and reheated amusement. The kind of stimuli that pops the moment you pierce it with any reflection.

I read the other day how our sense of hearing really only responds to changes. This is why you can be at a football game for an hour and not notice that, as far as your cochlear is concerned, you might as well spend 60 minutes inside of a Harley Davidson exhaust pipe. Rather remarkably, your ears get used to whatever drone you’re immersed in, however hideous, and then only perceive escalations and cessations. The 60-times-a-minute version of this process is known as ‘dance music’.


Sometimes I think our constitutions work like this, we only see the dips and bursts. I think of that line in ‘The Virgin Suicides’: ‘Some thought the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.’

Many of the ‘flaws’ that make us so angry—the teenagers on your block make too much noise, your cubicle mate keeps hiccupping, different-colour people are loitering down your property values—are deviations from the drone. We don’t notice that we need to sleep every single night, for example, or that we sell eight hours of our day to a money-machine with a logo, or how the rich escape justice.


The world fails to live up to our expectations in a million little ways, every little day. The smart people, the simple ones, don’t give a shit. The drone is too loud. Let someone else worry about changing the tax code, setting up a diversity awareness program, ploughing the parched earth of politics. All you’re doing is shushing the family next to you at a football game.


There’s little room for non-targeted misanthropy on the Internet, yep. As soon as this guy starts blaming a demographic group or recent social phenomenon for his ills (the Kurds? Texting?), he’ll be the next Chris Crocker.

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What is the smallest number of words it takes to make you cry?

If that was a contest, The New York Times today would be in the running:

Many victims of the quake are children in a country where most families are allowed to have only one.

I didn't know it was possible to have your heart broken by a sub-headline, but here we are. Jesus.

This story, and this entire episode, reminds me of this affluent-guilt-wrangling blog post from last month:

Last week, after four years nearly to the day, my boyfriend and I split up. We were living together in the home that we bought last year. […]

It's one thing to go to sleep alone after being used to have a body beside you. You can read until your eyes shut and the book falls from your hands, or you can count your breath backwards out of consciousness, or you can go to a friend's house and have one extra, soporific glass of wine with dinner. It's quite another to wake up alone, with no body beside you, with no tricks or techniques but to swing your legs over the side of the bed and walk to the bathroom through a closet still full of the detritus of your shared life.[…]

I nearly wept on the bus–the bus! I can't concentrate. I hurt palpably, as if deep water were crushing me. I feel utterly bereft, without worth or hope.

Now if this is how I feel after something so quotidian as a break-up; if I feel my frankly comfortable, untroubled life to be exploding into a thousand sorrows just because my lover and I reached an impasse that we couldn't negotiate together; if such bleakness, helplessness, and desperation as I've never felt in my life can come from something so insubstantial as having to buy new furniture or a new jacket because he's taking my favorites; if I am wracked by fear–real, true fear as I haven't felt since I was a child–about being alone for a while; then just how the fuck must it feel to be an Iraqi or an Afghani or a Palestinian? If it's bad to lose a lover in Pittsburgh, what must it be like to see your family killed, or your husband kidnapped, or your home destroyed in Baghdad? […]

Consider the most terrible thing that has ever happened to you and your family, and then look at a picture of a woman wailing over a husband killed by a bomb, or a man tearing his hair out over the body of his brother with a bullet in the head, and consider that for them the reoccurence of such tragedy is inevitable, and the closeness to it daily and inescapable. How must they hurt, those people caught between nations, armies, insurgencies? And how is it that I am crying on a bus for myself, and not for them?

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