Saturday, October 01, 2005

Melancholy and the Melancholic: Some Notes Towards An Essay Towards Some Notes

CAUTION: This is written in response to Bixblogger, and the issues are such that the tone herein is somewhat more serious -- okay, solemn -- than usual. It is also rather confessional, although not scandalously so, probably resulting in a certain lack of general interest. Readers are of course free to listen in, and make of it what they will. The abstraction quotient is probably 8.5 out of ten, so it may serve as an effective remedy for sleeplessness. Trained acrobats will return later in the program.

Bixblogger writes:

As I continue this endless journey into the self, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I’ve been depressed for most of my life, while struggling – sometimes heroically, sometimes not – to suppress it with the myriad distractions associated with work and achievement. Additionally, I sense that The Good Doctor is encouraging me to integrate my depression with my larger self instead of attempting to eradicate or disguise it with medication. Could it be that this depression I loathe has actually been instrumental in shaping my character? Would its elimination subtly but immutably alter an essential component of what I perceive to be me?

I'd not intended this blog to be any sort of confessional. Far from it, I'd conceived it as a discipline of sorts, whatever its fits and starts and disjunctions and irrelevancies; as an exercise, though not the sort that requires being attuned to the inner martinet; as an undirected social gesture, one where niceties could be overly broad and subversive of themselves, where nods and grins could be interjected randomly without regard to any external and ambiguous context; where notions might pass for ideas if dashingly spiffed out in ties and tails; where mere words might be free to mingle in pleasing consonances, without any burden of significance; where creatures of memory, long distinct and autonomous, might abruptly find themselves standing side by side; and where, most of all, I might write something that would make me laugh.

Well, things do change, and I've found myself writing several times about melancholia -- or, to use the technical term, which is helpful as often as it is not, major depression: atypical, chronic, unipolar. The "atypical" means, among other things, that it is characterized by early adolescent onset and by hypersomnia; the "chronic" means that it does not go away, although it may be vaguely worse or vaguely better, depending on the year or season or biochemical weather; and "unipolar" serves to distinguish it from manic depression, in which periods of mania alternate with periods of severe melancholy. One might also note that it is largely context-independent; it responds little or not at all to environment or to even extreme external changes. It's as though the figures of experience are inked strutting and fretting and dancing in ever-complex interaction; but the paper itself is always painted in the same charcoal-gray wash, obscuring contrasts, vital details, motion, and sense.

I'm not going to rehearse a medical history here, still less a personal one. (Those who had hoped that by "confessional" I meant a dark account of lip-quivering sensuality and flagrant vice had best stop reading here.) But Bixblogger explores any number of themes and tropes that have immense personal resonance for me -- and which I have for some time been forcing (or, more accurately, ineffectively attempting to force) from my mind. I find I gave a good deal to say -- in contrast with many of my customary subjects, on which I surprise myself by having so very little to say.

So, then, on with it.

Bixblogger wonders if she might not always have been depressed, in an endeavor to get at the always knotty question of identity. I've wondered the same, and if the answers are ambiguous and paradoxical, well, then, so is the question. It's one that can be explored, delimited, analyzed, looked at from this way and from that; but never conclusively answered. Even abstracting out the matter of depressive illness, ignoring it for the sake of argument, yields surprisingly little clarity; although it then becomes less of an urgent conundrum, and more of a puzzle. (The best I've been able to do is echo the famous philosopher Popeye: "I am what I am, and that's all what I am." Tootling on pipe optional.)

I have only my own experience to go by, which is -- officially -- atypical. I can still call up the day and time when full melancholy descended on me. It was not ambiguous: the world became cold, and stark, and vaguely sinister, and -- although it was daytime -- bathed in endless night. I was eleven. I knew that everything had changed. And my character changed as well -- my behavior, my demeanor, my thoughts, my emotions, my sense of connection to the world. But -- and this it took me some years to discover -- my innate self had not altered; the conditions that made it possible had altered. I hadn't yet left childhood behind, far from it, but I'd left that child behind -- the one who, for all his foibles and flaws, had done unthinkingly so many things that I could no longer do. Everything human now seemed to present an exhausting problem, one at which I flailed ineffectually, no longer understanding what it was I was supposed to do, nor (what seemed obvious to others) how to go about doing it. My first instinct was complete withdrawal; but, fortunately if painfully, a plethora of social connections and obligations precluded that. Partly, I proceeded on some sort of momentum from earlier times; partly, I proceeded on the conviction that others must not know -- although what it was they must not know I myself did not know. It had no name; but it was more real than anything else.

Which brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to the question of identity. In my case, I knew whom I had been. And that was something very like who I was -- but that older self lurking somewhere beneath was largely (though not entirely) incapable of expression, of action, even of giving direction to the lost, squinting, tired thing I had become. I knew that that inner self was me, and I knew its dimensions and qualities and modes of engagement; but I also knew that it was alien, in that it could no longer inform my judgments, or actions, or even thoughts. It wasn't dead, but it was buried in some unmarked place.

One is of course scarred and shaped by depression. At very least, it is an experience among others; at most, it is an experience that distorts and obscures all others. But one is more than the sum of one's experiences. I should undoubtedly be a vastly different person were it not for depression; but I would also (I reach this counterfactual conclusion without proof) be very much the same, in ways that I can clearly delineate. There are of course shadowy borderlands where the self and the illness blur. If it were not for depression -- Would I be less kind and more selfish? Would I be less introspective and more outgoing? Would I be more certain of the central things -- have some abiding faith in the rightness of things? Would I love the same poems, the same music? Would I write the way I do? Would I speak as I do? Would I have been a greater or lesser sinner? Would I notice what I notice now -- the things that others miss? and would I know what they know, without knowing that they know them?

I'm afraid I do not believe in what someone called "the inner strength of depression." I do believe that one can (must) call forth inner strength against depression. The fact that gains against it can often seem ephemeral argues defeat -- and argues it daily, incessantly, and with quite an arsenal of quasi-evidence, adduced with tireless repetition. But something else -- the innate, unclouded self -- argues this: At very least, stay where you are. Push ahead if you can, but don't lose ground. Stay, stay, stay.

Some years back, I took a medication (one among many, before and since) that dispelled my depression for around a year. (For students of psychopharmacology, it was one of the earliest and most traditional antidepressants, an MAOI.) It did not make me happy, which was not among my expectations in any case, but it did make happiness possible. It alleviated my perpetual exhaustion, and cleared my mind wonderfully. It put me back in the world. It gave me a future (something that melancholia obliterates mercilessly.) But, what I remember most of all, is this: I no longer thought about depression. I had periods of normal depression, to be sure, but -- mirabile dictu -- they passed, or could be shaken off -- by playing music, or going out, or by utilizing that most tiresome of folk remedies, "getting some fresh air." Then it stopped working.

Sometimes, around one or two or three a.m., the dark night of the soul spontaneously passes. I'll look at the stars. I'll revel in some favorite recording. I'll think, with clarity and joy. I know the phase will last only for an hour or so, after which I'll be so exhausted I'll have to go to bed. But I always think to myself: Remember what this is like. It's so simple. But of course it isn't. One remembers "what it is like;" but not how to get there. Still, the memory is enough for small purposes. You know it's there. And that the dark world of melancholy is an illusion. Perhaps the illusion is largely intractable, but knowing that it is an illusion is something grand.

Finally, I'll leave you with words from the Johnny Mercer song that always make me feel just a bit better: "Things never are as bad as they seem/ So dream, dream, dream."

Did that help? I hope so.

NOTE: I would like to contratulate Bixblogger for using the adjective "myriad" correctly. Others take notice.