If I caught your attention with my title, good. That was the point. Because it was absurd (my title, I mean). Let’s celebrate AIDS! Breast Cancer! Dementia! Yeah! They are all ways of embracing our darker sides! Let’s create t-shirts that say “Suffering is Awesome!”
We read those statements as unreasonable and idiotic, and yet we are told (too many times this week, thank you very much!) to treasure our melancholy, like Abraham Lincoln did, because it leads to a path of heroic triumphs.
English professor Eric Wilson has penned a polemic entitled “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy,” which was discussed as part of Sharon Begley’s Newsweek article. Now he makes an NPR appearance, in which he says:
At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. … I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. … I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.
Some days I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Today I do because I’m not dealing with a little boo-hoo here and there. I’m fighting a dangerous and debilitating depression. Hard. Really damn hard. Extra hard because I’m trying to figure out how to work out with a busted hip. And how to fit the prayer and meditation I need into an already jam-packed schedule. Plus some of my recovery tools aren’t working because I’m sick (hold the spinach; crackers and Sprite, please), and I can feel myself getting pulled into that scary Black Hole.
It’s a delicate dance every day, my depression is. Even if I don’t talk about, I’m working against it almost every minute. I drink one cup of coffee too many, and I feel fragile. I don’t exercise for two days in a row, I’m in trouble. I forget the fish-oil capsules, you bet I can tell. It isn’t something to take lightly, this illness of mine. Every day it demands more time and attention than does anything else in my life.
Unlike Wilson’s depression, my Black Hole isn’t a place where I can compose gorgeous lyrics that articulate the world’s sadness. No, my Black Hole tells me how and where I should kill myself. That I should do it as soon as possible, so that I don’t screw up the lives of my children…so that they have a chance to grow up with a good mother (Eric’s next wife).
No poetry there. No beauty either.
Wison’s depression must have been mild for him to be able to function, for him to APPRECIATE his symptoms. Mine comes over me like a thunderstorm. I run for cover and wait, terrified, to come out into existence again.
Like a diabetic who risks going into a coma, my mood disorder can disable me to the point where I have trouble feeding myself, because my shaking hands can’t meet my mouth in one swift movement. I have lost so much weight in depressive cycles that I stop menstruating, which in turn causes bone-mass deficiencies.
When the worst of my symptoms persist I can’t get anything out of therapy, or cognitive-behavioral techniques, or the other 15 ways I treat my depression.
I guess I need to shout this for my own sanity, on a day like today, when I don’t see anything positive in my bipolar disorder, when I’m already fighting it as hard as I can with all the help that’s possible: DRUGS HELP ME STAY ALIVE!!
Which is why I grow weary of articles and radio interviews like this.
Wilson says he is clear about not “romanticizing” clinical depression and that serious conditions should be treated. But then he focuses on the many wonderful things melancholy can do for you. Here’s the summary of his interview on NPR which you can find my clicking here:
Wilson has embraced his inner gloom, and he wishes more people would do the same.
The English professor at Wake Forest University wants to be clear that he is not “romanticizing” clinical depression and that he believes it is a serious condition that should be treated.
But he worries that today’s cornucopia of antidepressants — used to treat even what he calls “mild to moderate sadness” — might make “sweet sorrow” a thing of the past.
“And if that happens, I wonder, what will the future hold? Will our culture become less vital? Will it become less creative?” he asks.
Wilson talks to Melissa Block about why the world needs melancholy — how it pushes people to think about their relation to the world in new ways and ultimately to relate to the world in a richer, deeper way.
He also explores the link between sadness, artistic creation and depression — which has led to suicide in many well-known cases: Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway, for instance.
Wilson says perhaps this is “just part of the tragic nature of existence, that sometimes there’s a great price to be paid for great works or beauty, for truth.”
“We can look at the lives of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane and others and lament the fact that they suffered so. Yet at the same time, we’re buoyed, we’re overjoyed by the works they left behind,” Wilson says.
The husband and father of a young daughter also acknowledges that melancholy is “difficult terrain to negotiate in domestic situations.” He says there are certainly times when his family hoped he would be “happier,” and yet they would not want him to pretend to feel something he doesn’t.
Wilson says that by taking his melancholy seriously, his family ultimately will get to know him more deeply and develop a more intimate relationship with him.
“To get to know your partner, your spouse, your friend fully, you really have to find a way to embrace the dark as well as the light. Only then can you know that person,” he says.
Again, I go to an interview with Peter Kramer, author or “Against Depression,” for the facts. In “The Johns Hopkins White Papers, 2006, Depression and Anxiety”:
“Against Depression” grew out of Kramer’s frustration in repeatedly being asked the same question after public speaking engagements, “What if Prozac had been available in van Gogh’s time?” The assumption behind this question is that grappling with depression leads to insight, creativity, and depth, ultimately conferring noblility on the sufferer. Kramer attempts to answer and challenge the van Gogh question by breaking it down into two queries: It is truly noble or productive to suffer? And just how harmful to one’s health is depression really?Kramer does not mince words. From a public health perspective, “depression is the most devastating disease known to mankind.” Unlike many diseases that occur mainly in later life, depression often robs sufferers of prime years—often decades—of life. It is a chronic stressor that significantly worsens the severity of diabetes, arthritis, pneumonia, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. “Even if it had no effects on schooling and work and marriage and parenting, if it caused no daily suffering, if it were as invisible as blood pressure, depression would still earn its place among a brutal and elite group of chronic illnesses,” Kramer writes. “but of course, depression causes significant harm on all those levels.”
Kramer describes his approach in “Against Depression”: “This book is about discrepancies between standard medical views of depression on the one hand, and popular or culturally determined views of depression on the other. It offers a way of merging points of view from genetics to cultural history.”
Kramer acknowledges that the research and development of new treatments for depression has been “treading water” for a decade, but explains that enormous progress has been made in using imaging technology to identify the disease’s pathological devastation in the brain. He provides an overview of research studies that sketch out the effect of stress hormones in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The amydala and hippocampus regions are shown to suffer significant death and shrinkage, and show diminished capacity for nerve regeneration. This devastation contributes to fragility at the emotional level. Kramer says this evidence has changed attitudes. “Psychiatrists have learned that depression is progressive, and there is widespread agreement that we need to interrupt it very promptly and decisively to prevent further deterioration.”