Since psychiatry has proven itself to be anything but a science, the entire concept of mental anguish must be reexamined. Might the elements of “mental illness” more properly be called personality traits as well as reflections of the societies in which those traits occur? Might those elements even be called talents of a sort?

Psychiatry’s masterwork of pseudo-science, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), once included homosexuality amongst its “scientific” diagnoses. Psychiatry thus reflects the “values” of the United States far more than concerning itself with patients, much less looking past and through society’s existing prejudices.

Even those behind psychiatry’s Shroud of Turin question its validity. Of late, there has been talk of attributing DSM diagnoses by degrees rather than mere labels. Thus, a person would “have” a “mental illness” on a scale, not just “have” it. In such a case, the flatliners who dominate the population would once again establish the “typical American’s” plot-pointed life as “sanity.”

Yet no one who suffers emotional distress would applaud the benefits of that distress. To do so would be to refute its existence and betray oneself as an imposter. Far more likely is it that many flatliners never mention their irregular heartbeats. Could it be a Second Renaissance lies beneath the ever-recycling digital ruins and its constant skies of acid rain?

Consider anxiety. Those with anxious traits are often highly-attuned. To call them “sensitive” is, in this society, an insult. “Sensitive” implies weakness, an inability to “man up.” Instead, the anxious should be viewed as a tuning fork against which society reveals itself — rather than the “patient” — as out of tune. That no one else recognizes society’s discordant sounds only proves the anxious to be society’s musicians. Countless permutations of that metaphor support themselves.

The same may be said about every other “diagnosis.” Schizophrenia might be viewed as a William S. Burroughs’ cutup of “reality” as presented, emphasis on “presented” because, of course, most of our environment has nothing natural about it and is, in fact, a presentation in every sense.

Some conditions do respond to medication. Usually, the reasons remain unknown. In turn, the medication may solve one “problem” while creating many more. Those who take most antidepressants may no longer feel depressed about nothing, but they feel depressed about their diminished sexuality, especially males whenever they try to… express their end of sexuality’s conclusion.

Returning to anxiety, medication does relieve its incapacitating aspect, but the medications that accomplish the effect also accomplish something else, that being the worst addiction known to humankind. This class of drugs, benzodiazepines, includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc., the whole lot of tranquilizers, excepting the rarely-prescribed barbiturates. In some cases, antidepressants may relieve anxiety. However, they do so for reasons as unknown as the reasons antidepressants diminish depression. Likewise, they alleviate anxiety but create symptoms that mirror anxiety, such as trembling hands, odd emotional states, etc.

Rather than diagnoses, all of these traits show themselves to be products of society, products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits, and the products society sells to treat the products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits. That’s to say, they’re products of an environment completely divorced from nature.

All of this enshrouds some rather simplistic facts about a complicated subject. To martyr those suffering in the way biographers now “diagnose” every author, musician and artist “of the ages” as “bipolar” reduces suffering by labeling it, making suffering a product of their products, that being books and, eventually, films based on those books. Those who write memoirs about their “mental illnesses” bend over backwards for sainthood and reveal themselves willing to do endure any humiliation in exchange for profit.

On the other hand, failing to notice the strange talents hidden within the emotionally inflamed creates an even greater injustice. These strange talents do not prove the existence of artistic talent, as many would like to believe, but they do reveal an artistic temperament. No one can suffer emotionally but for recognition of something and, more likely, many things, and their recognitions go unnoticed by the general public. Why does no one listen to them? Who do “doctors” listen only to themselves when they recognize nothing beyond the power of their prescription pads? Is it because they realize their absolute lack of talent, strange or otherwise?

Most of those suffering in the ways described cycle through life in various stages of function and dysfunction, and most have periods of absolute dysfunction. To calls these periods “nervous breakdowns” would be far more accurate than to split the hairs of the suffering with psychiatry’s blunt axe. They must be tended to as they once were, in humane sanitariums surrounded by the true environment. Such sanitariums could — with no joke intended — be established on useless golf courses around the nation.

With that, some proposals:

1) Psychiatry should be abolished. It simply lacks the will, or even desire to have the will, to fulfill its dream of being medicine. Psychiatrists should be stripped of their meaningless licenses and sent on their way to more suitable careers, like accounting.

2) The “mentally ill” should be educated to understand their conditions as also encompassing strange talents, until they begin to believe the fact that their recognitions are true even when masked by the wildest hallucinations.

3) Medications should be dispensed by doctors who have achieved certification in dispensing those medications. They should know, and prove that knowledge by required yearly testing, that they understand prescribing medications and the facts of addictions that may occur to any such medication they dispense.As it stands, psychiatrists receive eight hours of addiction “education.”

4) Medications known to cause addiction should be removed from any policing or government surveillance whatsoever. Those subject to mental anguish should not be criminalized for trying to relieve that anguish, including and even especially when relieving the added anguish of addiction to a prescribed medication.

5) All those suffering from the acute perceptions so well described in Rumblefish should ultimately determine their own treatment, including beginning or continuing use of addictive prescribed substances, even when addiction has established itself, for the suffering caused by eliminating that addiction will likely lead to more dangerous and illegal addiction.

Flatliners already receive society’s benefits. Those who benefit society without society knowing it — those with strange talents — deserve just as many benefits.

I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr