THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY

A Reckoning With Depression

Daphne Merkin

A New York Times Book Review Favorite Read of 2016

“Despair is always described as dull,” writes Daphne Merkin, “when the truth is that despair has a light all its own, a lunar glow, the color of mottled silver.” This Close to Happy—Merkin’s rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression—captures this strange light.

Daphne Merkin has been hospitalized three times: first, in grade school, for childhood depression; years later, after her daughter was born, for severe postpartum depression; and later still, after her mother died,

more …

A New York Times Book Review Favorite Read of 2016

“Despair is always described as dull,” writes Daphne Merkin, “when the truth is that despair has a light all its own, a lunar glow, the color of mottled silver.” This Close to Happy—Merkin’s rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression—captures this strange light.

Daphne Merkin has been hospitalized three times: first, in grade school, for childhood depression; years later, after her daughter was born, for severe postpartum depression; and later still, after her mother died, for obsessive suicidal thinking. Recounting this series of hospitalizations, as well as her visits to myriad therapists and psychopharmacologists, Merkin fearlessly offers what the child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz calls “the inside view of navigating a chronic psychiatric illness to a realistic outcome.” The arc of Merkin’s affliction is lifelong, beginning in a childhood largely bereft of love and stretching into the present, where Merkin lives a high-functioning life and her depression is manageable, if not “cured.” “The opposite of depression,” she writes with characteristic insight, “is not a state of unimaginable happiness . . . but a state of relative all-right-ness.”

In this dark yet vital memoir, Merkin describes not only the harrowing sorrow that she has known all her life, but also her early, redemptive love of reading and gradual emergence as a writer. Written with an acute understanding of the ways in which her condition has evolved as well as affected those around her, This Close to Happy is an utterly candid coming-to-terms with an illness that many share but few talk about, one that remains shrouded in stigma. In the words of the distinguished psychologist Carol Gilligan, “It brings a stunningly perceptive voice into the forefront of the conversation about depression, one that is both reassuring and revelatory.”

less …
  • Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • February 2017
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780374140366

Buy the Book

$26.00

indies Bookstore indies Bookstore

About Daphne Merkin

Daphne Merkin is a former staff writer for The New Yorker and a regular contributor to ELLE. Her writing frequently appears in The New York Times, Bookforum, Departures, Travel + Leisure, W, Vogue, Tablet Magazine, and other publications. Merkin has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount College, and Hunter College. Her previous books include Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish theme, and two collections of essays, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in New York City.

Praise

“Merkin’s deeply intimate account of living with clinical depression is illuminating, heartbreaking, and powerfully written. With lively prose and shrewd observations . . . Merkin’s exploration into her complicated yet unconditional devotion to her mother is rendered with compassion and profound perception. Merkin eloquently blends the personal with the researched; her intellectual tenacity and emotional rawness impress as much as they entertain. This book is a wonderful addition to literature about the unrelenting battle against depression.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Merkin narrates] with insight, grace and excruciating clarity, in exquisite and sometimes darkly humorous prose . . . For all its highly personal focus, [This Close to Happy] is an important addition to the literature of mental illness.”Andrew Solomon, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“[A] triumph on many levels . . . as insightful and beautifully written as it is brave . . . [A]nyone who has experienced or witnessed the pain of clinical depression up close can’t help but be moved by her struggle. This Close to Happy earns a place among the canon of books on depression, including Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Susan Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted,—books that offer comfort to fellow depressives and elucidation for those lucky enough to have dodged its scourge.”Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post

Discussion Questions

1. How did the book enhance your understanding of depression? What does Daphne Merkin’s experience tell us about the impact of nature versus nurture on the psyche?

2. In chapter 4, the author writes, “The very presence of money in someone’s background tends to evoke envy and irritation . . . ‘What does she know of real suffering?’. . . and elicits a certain disbelief about the possibility of other kinds of privation.” Before reading about Merkin’s life, were you skeptical that someone from such a wealthy family could suffer such anguish?

3. As you read about Merkin’s lifetime of therapists and prescriptions, what did you make of the role of modern psychiatry?

4. In crystalline prose, Merkin describes the allure of suicide. How did you react to the logic of her thinking?

5. How did your image of Merkin’s mother shift from chapter to chapter? What fed Merkin’s fantasy that Ursula would rescue her?

6. How was Merkin affected by her emotionally aloof father, Hermann, and by watching her mother pamper him?

7. Orthodox Judaism was an integral part of Ursula and Hermann’s identity. Why did all of their children except Daphne integrate their parents’ orthodoxy into their own identities? If you had been Daphne, would you have signed Hermann’s contract, agreeing to keep kosher in exchange for a luxurious home?

8. Merkin’s mother eventually said it was a mistake to hire the abusive housekeeper Jane, though Jane lived with the Merkins for the rest of her life. How was Jane able to assert so much control?

9. How does the relationship between Merkin and her brothers and sisters relate to her depression? What determines whether siblings take care of each other or become rivals?

10. Does the fact that Merkin’s parents were refugees from Nazi Germany explain their approach to parenting, or would the household have been run the same way regardless of their tragic family history?

11. How is Zoë’s perception of the world influenced by her mother’s state of mind?

12. What enables Merkin to be such a high-functioning writer?

13. As Merkin surveyed a literary landscape populated by writers who struggled with depression (evoked by her tattered Virginia Woolf doll), what did you observe about the relationship between language and mental illness?

14. Merkin was born in the 1950s. How have attitudes about the authenticity of women evolved in American culture since then?

15. In chapter 8, Merkin recalls the psychiatrist she saw in her twenties who dug up a note that she had written as an eight-year-old patient at Columbia Presbyterian Babies’ Hospital. In the note, young Merkin says that she is afraid to go home, and she wants to know why her mother is only nice to her when she is sick. What significant truths are revealed in those words?

16. Is there evidence of Merkin’s chronic depression in her recent essay collection The Fame Lunches?

Excerpt

1

A woman is standing in her kitchen, making a pot of coffee, spooning out the pungent overpriced ground beans from their snappy little aluminum bag into a paper filter, trying to remember what number tablespoon she was on—four? six? three?—before the dark thoughts began tumbling in, doing their wild and wily gymnastics: You shouldn’t, you should have, why are you, why aren’t you, there’s no hope, it’s too late, it’s always been too late, give up, go back to bed, there’s no hope, the day is half gone, no, the day ahead is too long, there’s so much to do, there’s not enough to do, everything is futile, there is no hope.

What, she wonders for the zillionth time, would it be like to be someone with a brighter take on things, with a more sustainable sense of the purposefulness of his or her existence? Someone possessed of the necessary illusions—that things make sense and will work out for the better, especially if you cultivate your own garden—without which life is unbearable? Surely that person would be sticking with the coffee, not leapfrogging to suicidal desires at the first promptings of despair? What, that is, would it be like to be someone showered and dressed and more or less ready to face the day, not jumping for joy but not hobbled by gloom, either? For surely this is the worst part of being someone who is at the mercy of her own mind the way she is, pickled in the brine of self-hatred: the fact that there is no way out of the reality of being her, no relief in sight other than through forceful or at least conscientious intervention—talk therapy, medication, attempts at forward-march thinking, remembering the starving and the maimed and the generally less fortunate—until she’s up and standing and has hauled herself forward to that point of preparedness other people seem to arrive at with a naturalness of purpose that is utterly foreign to her.

The kitchen has a window that looks across a courtyard to other buildings, other lives. It is done up in bright antidepressant colors—orange and purple and aqua—and the recessed spotlights are on but it feels cast in shadows all the same. The woman in question has gone to great lengths to make her apartment feel inviting, and other people always respond positively to her choice of colors, art, and knickknacks; but when the wind of the dark season comes rustling around her, all her attentive homemaking efforts are to no avail. She has also gone to great lengths to create a life that includes a close relationship with her daughter and intimate friendships; a passionate interest in the surrounding culture in both its deeper and more frivolous aspects; and meaningful work as a writer. She is appreciated for her gimlet eye, her curiosity, her wry humor and warmth; from the outside in, her life might strike others as good, if not enviable. She knows this on some level but the knowledge dries up as the wind howls through her, reminding her that she feels barren and lost and quite without hope.

The plunge in mood can be sudden and steep, taking her unawares: one minute she’s feeling more or less okay, the next like shooting her head off. It can occur on a Monday afternoon, for instance, when she’s returned home from a dentist appointment to an empty apartment and the very motes in the air strike her as desolate. She feels isolated, stuck in a cave of grief, of ancient and permanent sorrow. And then, right on the wings of this feeling, gurgling up from somewhere inside her, comes the impulse to kill herself. It’s so strong that she goes over to the wood block of knives that sits on the kitchen counter and takes one out, running its serrated edge across her thumb. She envisions herself slashing her wrists … no, filling a bathtub with water first and then slashing her wrists, isn’t that the way to ensure death, the way Diane Arbus did it? To stop herself from thinking about it any further, she gets into her bed and lies there, waiting for the impulse to pass.

Then again, the dark season can take its own sweet time to make itself known, stretching out over weeks or even months until it announces itself as having irrevocably arrived. The particular afternoon alluded to here puts in an appearance in mid-March, but it could just as likely be a day in mid-December, or mid-August. The condition that envelops her respects no calendar; it arrives precisely when it feels like it. To the woman, it seems as if she has felt this way, in one form or another, for what feels like forever. She is always noticing the grime on the bricks, the flaws in her friends, the heartache lying in wait—the sadness that courses just underneath the skin of life, like blood.

Depression is a global problem, affecting 350 million people worldwide; in the United States 16 million people had at least one major depressive episode in 2012, and in 2014 there were more than 40,000 deaths by suicide. And yet this is a sadness that no one seems to want to talk about in public, not even in this Age of Indiscretion. At cocktail parties, for instance, you can talk endlessly about attending AA meetings or your stint in rehab without raising any eyebrows. But just imagine trying to tell the truth about how you feel at an upscale social gathering, where everyone’s milling around, wine glass in hand, keeping a narrowed eye out for the next person, the person who isn’t you:

“How are you?”

“Not fine. Very depressed, in fact. Can barely get out of bed. Have no idea what’s happening in the world lately and don’t much care.”

Who wants to hear it? Has ever wanted to hear it? Will ever want to hear it? In spite of our anything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure, too much ruffling of the surface. We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority, unless it is presented in a shrill, almost campy style under the aegis of the recovery movement, with its insistence on dramatic personal testimony. Rigorous self-reflection—a sober and nuanced wrestling with personal demons—has gone out with the great, vexed Victorians, like John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold.

Nor is the private realm particularly conducive to airing this sort of implacable feeling, no matter how affectionate or willing to listen friends are. Depression, in its insistence on its own stubborn one-note reality, becomes boring for other people to hear about, patient as they may initially be. Take a yoga class, they advise, or Get a massage. Just don’t go on and on about it, is what they don’t say, but you can see the resistance to joining you in your gloom in the set of their jaw.

When the woman finally disappears once again into the murky haze of the dark season—it has crept in as it always does, an invasion of negative thoughts that take over her interior, unnoticed by others, making no sound, raising no alarms except to she who hosts it, and by then it’s too late—its malignant work is done and there is no one to intervene on her behalf.

This woman has a child named Zoë, a vivid daughter in her twenties with whom she laughs until the tears run in the emotionally incestuous way of mothers and daughters. She worries that Zoë has, willy-nilly, been placed too much in a caretaker role, keeping one eye out for a mother who was first hospitalized for depression six months after her birth—and again when she was not yet four, and then again when she was in her late teens. The woman loves this daughter with all her might but often feels that if she really loved her she would free her from the presence of a mother who is too much shade and too little sun, the better to let the girl flourish.

The woman is me, of course, but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it. (They are also four times more likely to kill themselves than women are, though they are diagnosed as depressed and populate psychiatric units in far smaller numbers than women.) It’s always interested me that notwithstanding the far greater statistical occurrence of depression in women, men seem to cast larger shadows than women even here, as though their illness were evidence of a cultural rather than personal distress. In the male version of the depression narrative, the blackness of mood arrives mostly like a pox, without warning. There are exceptions to this model, such as the accounts by Andrew Solomon and Edward St. Aubyn, but usually there is no indication of gloomy temperamental leanings; instead the finger is pointed at a specific precipitating cause outside the self, such as the aftereffects of a significant death, or withdrawing from alcohol or a sleeping pill—or, again, of being diagnosed with a serious illness. One minute you are puttering about, being a highly successful writer or scientist; the next, you are seriously contemplating jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Or, conversely, there is no external cause at all: like Chicken Little, you wake up one morning to discover the sky is falling.

In the second instance, the writer suddenly adduces the possibility of a hitherto overlooked genetic shadow; a schizophrenic uncle or a suicidal third cousin is conveniently recalled. Either way, the subject is spared the need to expose his own vulnerability or examine his problems; everything is linked to circumstances outside his own psychology. William Styron took this road in his poignant but strangely contextless memoir Darkness Visible, where he linked his depression almost entirely to going on the wagon. And then there is the British biologist Lewis Wolpert, who, toward the end of his memoir Malignant Sadness, mentions the many readers who have thanked him for openly discussing his personal experience with depression but adds the crucial qualifier: “I must admit that I am not free of the stigma, for I prefer a biological explanation for my depression rather than a psychological one.”

Men, that is, have cannily figured out how to sidestep the implication of moral failing that attaches to mental illness—as well as the specific criticism of self-indulgence that is attributed to more introspective accounts of this condition—by insisting on a force outside themselves, or on a purely genetic susceptibility. The female version, by contrast, tends to tip the other way. As epitomized by Anne Sexton’s poetry and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, female sufferers tend to take ownership of the condition of depression, accepting that it springs not only from errant biology but from a yawning inner lack—some elusive craving for wholeness or well-being. This writing is usually highly interior almost to a fault: the world in which the narrator moves when she is not depressed is given such short shrift that it tends to fall away entirely.

In the autobiographical novels of Jean Rhys, for instance, Rhys’s dysphoric heroines prowl the dingier neighborhoods of Paris in a state of such inner malaise that the reader is left with little other than a hermetic atmosphere of intense despair. The risk with these narratives is that they end up consuming any flicker of vitality and in the process threaten to alienate the reader’s patience and sympathy. This brings us back to the gender divide once again, which suggests that women’s depression is an entirely idiosyncratic matter, an accumulation of bereft responses to unlucky incidents—failed love affairs, thwarted work, bad childhoods—that has little to teach us as a paradigmatic model, with conclusions that might be drawn and applied to someone other than the depressed person under scrutiny.

As for the affliction itself, it has been called different names at different times in history—acedia, melancholia, malaise, cafard, brown study, the hypes, the blues, the mean reds, the black dog, the blue devils, the dismals, Lapp sickness, Anfechtung (the term the Hutterites use, meaning “temptation by the devil”)—and has been treated as a spiritual malady, a failure of will, a biochemical malfunctioning, a psychic conundrum, or sometimes several things at once. (The French, with their aptitude for elegant packaging, have devised a whole moody philosophy of “abjection,” as explicated by psychoanalytic thinkers like Julia Kristeva, in lieu of anything simpler. Both abjection and depression involve an impossible state of mourning for the lost maternal object, although, in her book Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Kristeva posits depression as a discourse with a learned language rather than strictly a pathology to be treated.) The condition arouses, depending on the circumstances, pity, hostility, suspicion, sympathy, contempt, disregard, respect, or some unsorted-out combination thereof.

It’s one thing, that is, if you’re a suitably heroic or accomplished figure: Winston Churchill, valiantly waging war against Hitler while fending off bouts of melancholy by way of painting and bricklaying (although it seems to have been his wife, Clementine, who suffered more deeply from depression, eventually seeking out ECT—electroconvulsive therapy, or as it has come to be known, shock therapy—in her latter years); or Abraham Lincoln, wrestling with self-doubt and despair while pursuing his vision of a republic free of slavery. It’s another thing entirely if you’re one of millions of anonymous sufferers who are living as best they can while they fend off similar demons. Like the painter from Chapel Hill who’s read my articles about depression that have appeared over the years in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and once wrote me: “The black dog has followed me since my late teens and sleeps beside my bed. He put my father in the hospital.”

I have received letters, some of them eloquent and some nearly inarticulate, from a thirty-five-year-old inmate in Sing Sing; an ancient golfing buddy of John Updike’s; and a “melancholic old English professor” whose daughter died at the age of twenty-nine, after being in and out of locked wards. Then there was the pseudonymous “Lisa,” whose communication arrived in an assertive priority mail package and consisted of several pages torn from a yellow legal pad across which she had scrawled in a childlike print a list of “Hints from Heloise”–type suggestions for staving off depression, some of them commonsensical and some mystifying (“avoid every bit of grapefruit” and “avoid all songs with words”). Although the rush of recognition from others who have suffered doesn’t do much to relieve the immediate anguish, coming as it does from someone who has survived on his or her own highly particular terms, there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.

For years now, I have been on the lookout for a report from the battlefield that matched my own experience of depression and have failed to discover one. I am writing this book in part to fill that void, to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside, in a way that I hope will speak to both the sufferers and the onlookers to that suffering, whether friends or family. Although the past two decades have seen a significant number of books that have taken up the issues of depression, both unipolar and bipolar, including Styron’s Darkness Visible, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, and Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, it seems to me that these characterizations tend to bracket the episodes of breakdown or incapacitating depression within unimpeachable demonstrations of the writer’s otherwise hyperfunctioning existence. (It is worth noting in this regard that Darkness Visible begins when Styron is on his way to Paris to receive a prestigious award, and that the book’s subtitle is “a memoir of madness.”)

This characterization allows the reader to see depression as fascinatingly rare and abnormal, rather than as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self. Whether this is done out of a self-protective impulse or out of a wish to protect the reader is hard to say, and I’m not sure even the writer would know.

What I do know is that, as I experience it, the stigma surrounding depression remains very real. There is something about the state that is both shameful and self-implicating in a way that other illnesses aren’t. It does not, for example, fit neatly in with the literature of addiction and recovery, and it offers the reader no vicarious thrills, mostly because its symptoms are rarely florid enough to alienate or even titillate people. If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence—of appetite, energy, sociability—rather than as a presence. There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energized behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies. It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.

Then, too, the very murkiness surrounding depression—involving as it does both a biological and psychological component—has made it the phenomenological whipping boy of the ongoing heated nature/nurture debate about the evolution and content of our respective characters. It has become a magnet for the worst projections of both our Puritan heritage and our pill-happy contemporary moment, with the unfortunate result being that it is both underdiagnosed and overmedicalized. We veer, on the one hand, between shooing depression away as a phantom illness amenable to exertions of willpower (put one foot ahead of the other), and, on the other, treating it as an issue for the ministrations of the general practitioner, who is deemed as capable of dispensing antidepressants as he is of giving flu shots.

I first agreed to write this book fifteen years ago, in the wake of publishing a piece in The New Yorker about being hospitalized for depression. I believe it has taken me this long to actually get it done because in writing about depression I am doing battle with both my ongoing fear of depression’s return and my actual recurring bouts of it. But I am also doing battle with childhood ghosts, with the inhibitions I carry about the value of my story and whether I’m allowed to tell it. The slaying of ghosts is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, exhorting me to keep my head down and my saga to myself. Finally, though, I am writing this book in an effort to exert some mastery over my own experience by closely observing it. My hope is that I will improve my chances of survival if I am clear about what is at stake: my life as I have slowly begun to make it, not as it has been made by others. In the process, I am trying not only to shatter the sinister enchantment of my childhood but also to wrest my story away from my own earlier telling of it—a narrative that once may have felt necessary and true, but that has by now become its own sort of prison.

I try to think of my experience of depression as “the dark season,” in part as a gesture of hope that it will depart just as it has arrived and in part as an effort at prettifying a condition that is wholly unaesthetic. When it comes, it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve been here before, that the place isn’t entirely new, that it’s got a familiar stale smell, a familiar lack of light and excess of enclosure. It doesn’t help to think of the poor or lost or blighted, of people being tortured in Syria, starved in the Sudan, or beaten in Baltimore. What I want to know is how I will ever get out from under, and whether there is really any other kind of season. You see, down here, where life hangs heavy like a suffocating cloak, I can’t remember that I’ve ever felt any other way. I need to be reminded that there are reasons in the world to hold on, even if I have forgotten them; I tell myself if I can just hold on I will remember them, these reasons, they will come back to me.

Copyright © 2017 by Daphne Merkin