Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Money for Misery

Only in America

Could Misery Be Turned Into a Commodity

By Joe Bageant, February 11, 2009.

Stress, depression and loneliness permeate daily life in America. Yet psychiatrists try to sell us on the idea that the pain is ours alone.

HOPKINS VILLAGE, Belize -- Sitting down here in Central America, happily abusing my health, occasionally, between the hangovers and the bouts with sand fleas and mosquitoes comes an insight or two, or at least what passes for insight in my lowbrow take on life.

One of these is just how damned lucky the Third World is that it cannot afford a sophisticated mental health system. By that I mean the kind like in the "developed countries," where murder and suicide rates are quintuple what they are here in this village. Not that we are without own village resources.

My Garifuna buddy Eljay, was in what we would call a depressed state a few months ago and went to a local "spirit doctor." The wizened old spirit mojo man cured Eljay with a single utterance: "Quit smokin' da ganja for one month." It worked. Total cost: About $2.50 and a pound of red beans.

They say the old spirit doctor also treats such things as sexual dysfunction, although I sure as hell cannot detect much evidence of dysfunction, judging from the noises in the village cabanas and under beachside palms at night.

In any case, it causes me to wonder why is there enough pain and alienation to sustain America's umpteen-billion-dollar mental health business and its 400-plus specialties, not to mention the inner self-help industry and Deepak Chopra's royal court. Why is it that during the months I spend in America, I meet so many obviously sick fuckers, some successfully practicing law or politics, others homeless and schizophrenic?

You need not be Marcus or R.D. Lang to feel the stress, depression, boredom and loneliness permeating everyday life up there in Gringolia. But to get an overview, it does help to be a couple thousand miles outside the place. Kind of like being high in the stands at the racetrack with binoculars rather than down at the rail next to the paddock.

Matters seem especially acute of late, with the entire American anthill in turmoil as its common god, the almighty economy, waves bye-bye while being noisily sucked down the global gurgler. Hell, 20 years ago, mental health problems were already being described as "epidemic," despite the joys of Facebook, iPod and the consumption of some 25 million pounds of hot wings on Super Bowl Sunday. A place where "normal" life includes Viagra, all the fried chicken you can stuff, around-the-clock televised crotch shots and HDTV as national mandate.

I used to think it was just some melancholic germ of my own that made me see a slowly increasing American alienation, anxiety and inner sadness over the span of my 62 years. Now however, I'm pretty convinced there is a national pathology at work, one that author Arthur Barsky called the "pathology of American normalcy." Sounds accurate to me.

In fact, this psychic poverty has been around so long that it has become something of a norm. Despite that we have not resorted to cannibalism, single-payer health care, or god forbid, socialism, we long ago passed into the realm of what we like to call an "unhealthy society."

Might not America's psychological malaise be the result of knowing deep inside that life can hold more meaning -- be more joyful? More emotionally rewarding and fulfilling? In a word, healthier?

Americans who can afford to be, are obsessed with health of any kind. The rest of us chain smoke in despair. All of which tosses fresh red meat to the politicians, who offer "plans,” all of which come down to the same thing -- we pay for corporate expansion of both the insurance and "medical industry," but through insignificantly different methods.

Interestingly, despite our pursuit of constant medical attention and the construction of the planet's largest and most profitable health machinery, treatment factories for every real and imagined or industry-manufactured ailment, surveys show, Americans do not trust doctors. They feel physicians are primarily businessmen or businesswomen who happen to practice medicine because that's where the real grease, the big bucks are.

This may or may not be true, but we see little evidence to counter their suspicions. Even the closest physician friend I have in the States insists on a $125 office visit -- cash at the front desk on the way out, please -- before he will refill a blood-pressure prescription I've been taking for 15 years. He knows I do not have health insurance, but hey, what's a bill-and-a-quarter between friends? Well, it's a month's grub for some of us, or dinner and drinks for two at the country club for others.

Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (Random House Crown), about working-class America. A complete archive of his online work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his Web site.

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