Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Whiny Demon and the Literature of Melancholy
Currently in the processed of reading Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.
I recently finished his more recent volume (Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity) about how adults experience their children who are radically different from them, either thru disability, behavior or an identity foreign to their parents.
Far From the Tree is a masterpiece, if you read nonfiction to get a new perspective on the world and educate yourself about people different than you whose lives are hidden from your experience, than there isn't a better book that I could think of.
Solomon covers people on the autistic spectrum, schizophrenics, the deaf, transgender people, children who resulted from rape, parents who gave birth to musical prodigies and families whose offspring succumb to criminal behavior.
He examines these multiple stories from perspectives of the children, parents, the family's struggles with the larger society and its expectations; he interlaces those stories with his own perspective and scientific, sociological and historical insights.
Although Solomon narrates the lives of people with a multitude of radically different identities, I never felt like I was taken on a patronizing trip to the disability petting zoo where one can observe all kinds of lives one could consider unlivable and emerge with a corny inspirational perspective that unconditionally affirms existence.
This book is life-affirming, true, but not in a trite way one would expect, the book doesn't censor out the pain, loss and fruitless struggle people can experience when their child has a medical condition or deviates from the societal norm. Solomon's seemingly effortless flexibility of expression and command of the English language are awe-inspiring.
His book on depression brings up a more ambiguous reaction in me. I haven't finished reading it yet so I can't pass a final judgment on it, though that judgment almost certainly wouldn't be negative.
In the Noonday Demon, he uses his own bouts of depressive illness as a narrative ark around which he weaves experiences of other people with depression as well as the science and history of this mood disorder.
Its no surprise that Noonday Demon won a National Book award and became a finalist for a Pulitzer. For a an intelligent person who experienced depression Solomon's book is a one-stop shop that has everything a general reader would want in a book about depression; memoir, journalism, science, analysis, great writing. Since many readers are not strangers to this mood disorder, his book found a natural constituency.
My ambivalence stems from some of narratives of depression encountered in the book.
To put it bluntly, people describing depression inevitably sound like they are whining. The feeling that accompanies depression are as painful as they are irrational and I am not sure that they always merit being turned into a flowing personal narrative. Reading the Noonday Demon, I realized that much of depression shouldn't be turned into prose because that prose adds little to the world and, in my case at least, fails to inspire deep empathy.
At the outset of the book, Solomon dismisses those who refer to their depression in the abstract. Those who
perceive their depression as an impersonal chemical process in their head fail to acknowledge that its takes place in the context of their life, that is expressed in their particular cultural environment and that their depression is inseparable from their self. Although the self doesn't create depression and depression definitely doesn't create the self, they are inseparable because each defines the other.
Solomon points out that both happiness and love are chemical processes in our brain and we would never refer to them with the same impersonal, scientific terms some people use to describe their depression.
All of these are valid points that are presented more richly in the book by the author than my rendition on this blog post.
And yet if there's a philosophical spectrum with one end populated by those who want to treat their depression as a deep personal experience and the other side who see their malady primarily as an in-personal chemical reaction (viewed by the afflicted person with a scientific detachment), I would plant my flag firmly in the latter camp.
Its true that a precious few would regard their experience of happiness or love as chemical process bubbling in their brains. But its also true that few people suffer from irrational happiness. And love brings about a lot of misery.
People commit suicide because of rejection, homicides are inspired around fanatical love, stalking behavior is inspired by love, misery haunts people whose loved ones died. Maybe for some of the citizens of the dark side of love, it wouldn't hurt to view their mental anguish as a result of a chemical process instead of being one with their pain and always rationalizing it and completely identifying with it.
The depressions described in the Noonday Demon are on a whole other level from what I tend to experience. While I had moments in my life where I would stay indoor for days, venturing out only to the neighborhood store in the evening to get a few groceries. These episodes were atypical and were attached to objective reasons to be sad.
Mostly I deal in dysthymia, life appears bleak and pointless, I am more tired than would be rational considering my work and sleep levels. I want to be alone and have a world-weariness that would be more appropriate to a concentration camp survivor of post-war Eastern Europe rather than a twenty-something college graduate in twenty first century America.
This mood is strong when I wake up and recedes toward the evening. Its not always intense and doesn't prevent me from functioning therefore my depression is not really ambitious. More of slacker that doesn't remotely approach its more dynamic relative, clinical depression, which can leave people bed-ridden for days and for some sufferers only recedes when a low-voltage electric shock is applied to the brain resulting in partial memory loss.
I am not miserable but I am not as productive as I should be. I live in perpetual mental fog, life is random and incoherent. This is not misery or profound pain that cries out for therapy or medication but neither is it really what I would call a healthy mood.
The problem I see are a few times a year when my continuum of low-level melancholy coagulates into something more intense. Sometimes my wavering abstract wish for non-existence acquires boldness, and appears to want to move closer to the magical place where bad thoughts turn into bad actions.
In reading the Noonday Demon, the destructive force of clinical depression became most apparent to me when the impact was described in third person, showing how it wrecked adult lives from the outside as oppose to first-person descriptions of the day-to-day fluctuations in psychological misery. A story of a high-powered executive who after becoming depressed lost her career and many friendships and ended up feeding people's cats for money (with the attention she received from different cats being one of the highlights of her day) shows how a depression is not a variation on sadness but is something totally more sinister.
The stories of people who were afflicted with chronic depression, and as adults had no idea how to form friendships because their self-esteem was wrecked and their mood isolating, were equally powerful.
The book also included prolonged descriptions of depression provided by two relatively young and affluent women. One narrative provided by a woman who doesn't work on account of her clinical depression and is supported by her boyfriend. One moment of her story that struck in my mind was when she wrote how she prefers to take baths because the ordeal of taking a shower is too stressful. I don't have the exact words in front of me, but I am pretty sure that the idea of water hitting her body was described as unbearable.
Here was the moment when I had to call timeout on the value of this narrative or -to be more specific- on the way it was presented by her. To drop my pretentious language, I was annoyed by it, it was too whiny.
Whether depression is caused primarily by genes, environment, life choices, hormonal fluctuations, a hex placed by an old gypsy, a combination of these factors or something else entirely, the end result is brain chemistry that creates irrational mental pain. IRRATIONAL pain. Pain that has the same relationship to reality that the voices schizophrenics hear have to reality. Neither mental phenomena is based on reality. Both exist in their own self-enforcing loops.
We live in a world that in the past century turned multitudes into camp dust. Millions were slaughtered by wars and regimes of all stripes. Beaten to death, worked to death, frozen to death in the Russian snow.
Each day people die from preventable deceases, they die because they don't have access to fresh water.
Taking a daily shower is a distant luxury to millions, probably billions, in the world we inhabit.
It is undeniably progress that more and more people are moving to recognize illness and suffering that are invisible to the eye as just as worthy of treatments as ailments that bleed and cripple the body.
But also I don't think it is valuable to indulge the pain of depression, to rationalize it, to always identify with it.
We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that experiencing taking a shower as a form of unbearable suffering is ridiculous. I wish the author of that shower narrative would recognize the absurdity of it instead of continuing this plea for empathy without any trace of irony.
I experience perceiving the depression as an impersonal chemical process as liberating. Merging the self with that chemical deficiency is exhausting.
To me my mood is like music and my thoughts are like a song you compose on top of it. You can't alter the music easily, you can never shut it off entirely. The only freedom you have is not to sing along.
If the hymn of depression is coming from a malfunctioning neurological soup, then it becomes easier to not indulge the melody as you would if you saw it as some spiritual cry of the self.
I need my clinical detachment, the sterility it affords is a platform for freedom and hope.