Periscope Depth

it’s just that demon life has got me in its sway

don’t know that a reasonable conversation1 about guns will happen in the United States any time soon. It doesn’t help that there’s documented dishonesty by intellectuals on both sides of the debate. Attempts at divining the founders’ intent on the Second Amendment are equally fruitless. Has the clarity of the First Amendment blocked laws that contravene it? The Fourth? The Sixth?

For as long as I’ve been politically conscious, I’ve believed in the right of civilians to own firearms. This belief has followed me from my conservative days through my more libertarian period and into whatever pseudo-progressive niche I’ve dug out now. I believed this when I thought rights were endowed in Man by a Creator; I believed it when I thought they were logical outgrowths of objective human nature; I believe it today, when I view the whole notion of rights with skepticism2. I (hope I) would believe in the right of gun ownership even in the absence of a Second Amendment; I certainly believe in lots other rights without a Bill to enumerate them.

And yet I’m much happier living in a city where guns are hard to come by. Criminals who want to kill someone still find a way, despite some of the most stringent gun laws in the country (pdf). There are hundreds of factors that could contribute to a reduction in gun violence, and gun control laws are only one of them3. But I just feel better – while acknowledging that this feeling may be totally illusory – not seeing semi-automatics in every waistband.

I don’t want to live in a place where anyone who wants a gun can get their hands on one. But I don’t want to live in a place where cops are the only people carrying guns, either. The aftermath of the Empire State Building shooting (which inspired this post) serves as a reminder that superior training and good intentions aren’t enough to guarantee civilian safety. Where superior training and good intentions are absent, the record is worse. And a cop who shoots someone who committed no crime is unlikely to go to jail; civilians don’t get such protection.

I’m simplifying a lot of really complex issues for the sake of brevity, so I don’t mind if something in the above paragraphs set you off. My point in laying all that out: the definitive truth about guns in America isn’t clear yet. “No one has a good reason to own a gun” is as silly as “armed bystanders would have prevented that massacre.” The more nuanced views – allow these guns, ban those – treat symptoms but not causes. And neither side of the debate appears ready to relax their stance for the sake of compromise.

So maybe the truth about guns isn’t clear, nor will it be for some time. But we can say this with certainty: anyone who takes a weapon of any sort and wades into a crowd of civilians, slaying indiscriminately, has mental health issues. This is true for killers with ostensive political motives and for those without. This is a common denominator that unites all of them. So if we can’t make headway on the guns issue, maybe we can make some ground on mental health.

# # #

There is an immense stigma against mental illness. This is true enough that it barely merits argument. Imagine telling your significant other, or a prospective employer, or a police officer, “I have sciatica. I’m treating it with medication, and I’ve got it under control, but it may limit the number of things I can do.” Not a problem. Now substitute “schizophrenia” for “sciatica” and see what it gets you. If you think that’s too extreme, try “anxiety attacks.” Or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We have a much easier time acknowledging physical illness, and treating the people who have it as real people regardless, than we do mental illness.

Stigmas aren’t enforced by law (though laws can certainly help them). They arrive through a series of unspoken understandings. Your mom tells you not to make eye contact with the unwashed man who keeps shaking his head. Your friends joke about the lady in the overstuffed coat who started screaming curses in the convenience store. We pick up enough cues, form them into a pattern, and pretty soon we’re crossing the street to avoid the ranting schizophrenic, instead of calling 9-1-1 to make sure he’s okay.4

If we want to cure a stigma, we don’t do it through new laws. We do it by talking.

# # #

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve battled on and off with a mild form of depression.

I haven’t spent enough time in clinical contexts to have the official langage for whatever it is I’ve got. But David Foster Wallace gave a good rundown of the different levels of depression in Infinite Jest, and he’s as solid a layman expert as any, so I’ll let him do the talking:

One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges [...] The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overly painful its deadness is disconcerting and … well, depressing.

It doesn’t happen often, and it never lasts for long. But when it does, I struggle to do anything. I curl up in bed and shut the blinds. I stare into space, unable to focus. I can still go to work and make social engagements, because the human brain’s chief evolutionary advantage is running etiquette routines on autopilot. But I can’t care about what I’m doing5.

What convinces me that this is depression, and not just “the blues” or “exhaustion” or any of a handful of colloquialisms, is that sense of metaphysical wholeness that accompanies it. When I’m lying on my couch, convincing myself that none of my accomplishments mean anything, that none of the people I like actually like me, that everything in my life is cheap and foolish, I feel validated. I feel validated in a way that nothing else in the world can match.

When I’m deep in that self-hating torpor, I don’t recognize it as silly or temporary or wrong. On the contrary, it feels amazingly right. The puzzle piece that I spend ninety-nine percent of my waking hours missing snaps into place. It’s that level of revelatory, “Eureka!” rightness that a movie would score with a triumphant soundtrack, only I’m sitting there in yesterday’s T-shirt, unwilling to stir. I’ve found the hidden truth that gives life meaning, and it’s that I don’t deserve to be happy.

# # #

Of course, in my healthier moments6, I know that’s not true. I deserve happiness. And I know that my happiness is not purely a product of my circumstances, but of my attitude toward them. I was happy when I was making half of what I make now, when I didn’t know any of the people I know today; I’m happy now; I could be happy tomorrow if all of that changed7. At my best, the nutshell prison and the accompanying majesty of depression feel silly and foreign.

But it’s taken a lot of years, a support network of loving friends, a few therapists and the relative comfort of a middle-class income to get to this point. Not everyone in America gets all of the above.

# # #

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. made headlines with his recent diagnosis of bipolar depression. Even if he wins re-election in November, it’s hard to imagine that his political career will last much longer or enjoy much more glory. And yet it shouldn’t be newsworthy that one member of Congress is bipolar. What would be more newsworthy is if no one else is.

The United States has a 4.4% rate of bipolar disorder. With 535 members of Congress, that makes decent odds that at least twenty lawmakers have it. Add to that the 2,650,000 federal employees, the ones who write and enforce the regulations that actually comprise the law, and the number of likely sufferers crests one hundred thousand. And yet Jesse Jackson, Jr. will forever be known as “that manic-depressive Congressman.”

No sitting member of Congress would admit to suffering from manic depression unless they absolutely had to, because it would very likely cost them the next election. And when nobody in power will willingly do something, no one who aspires to power will do it either. And so on down the line, in an uncoiling chain of disincentives, until we get to mothers telling their children to hush up and not bother the crazy man. Only the lowest castes are obligated to be honest.

# # #

Conservatives recoil from socialized medicine; liberals decry the rising costs of healthcare. But would a few thousand dollars in time, treatment and medication have been too much to pay if it kept Jared Loughner from killing six people? Or James Eagan Holmes from allegedly killing twelve?

Of course, all the free MAOIs in the world won’t help if people are scared to admit they need them.

I can’t come up with a formula that apportions guns to only those people who would use them responsibly. Even if such a formula existed, I couldn’t get it written into law single-handed. All I can do is talk about my experience. I can say: these are the things I’ve felt, and I’ve survived them. My hope is that, in doing that, I’ll encourage other people who’ve lived with some form of mental illness, however mild, to do the same. But even if no one else follows suit8, my other hope is that someone reads this someday, realizes that another human being has gone through the same thing they have and succeeded in spite of it, and is inspired to seek help because of it.

Or, at the very least, not do anything tragic.


1. Does “conversation” in this context mean anything other than “impassioned op-eds”? Never seen a better definition. (return)

2. Briefly: if you need to be told you have it, or if you need to tell someone else you have it, it’s not really a right. It’s a privilege, and the people who granted it to you will be looking for every chance they can to snatch it back. (return)

3. Per the Brady Campaign, Maryland is only a little less stringent than Massachusetts, and yet Baltimore is a much more violent city than Boston. Unless you think the corner boys are all picking up their .45s at gun shows in Hagerstown, a few marginal statutes aren’t going to make the difference. (return)

4. It doesn’t help matters that the American attitude towards mental health, in the 20th century alone, has waxed from “savage medical experiments” to “involuntary prolonged confinement” to “cut ‘em free and let nature run its course.” (return)

5. The ability of humans to continue doing something they don’t care about is either the great blessing or the great curse that the Industrial Age left with us; I haven’t decided yet. (return)

6. Which are 99% of my life; no one panic. (return)

7. It’s certainly easier to be happy at my current income level than it was at half this level, and I’d deserve a kick in the throat if I said otherwise. But it’s not impossible for someone making what I make to be miserable. Try hard enough and you’ll find a way. (return)

8. And I get that it’s a hell of a thing to ask, too. “Hey, you with the crippling social anxiety! Speak up!” Choose your own level of engagement, as always. (return)

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