This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depressionby 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 HappyMerkin’s rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from/i>/b>/i>
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 HappyMerkin’s rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depressioncaptures 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.”
Merkin’s deeply intimate account of living with clinical depression is illuminating, heartbreaking, and powerfully written. With lively prose and shrewd observations, Merkin (Dreaming of Hitler) examines the contending discourses on the potential causes of depression as she bravely exposes her lifelong struggle with suicidal thoughts and attempts to overcome them. Merkin arrives at no easy conclusions about childhood trauma or biological circumstances. She writes candidly about her lonely childhood with Holocaust survivor parents who were forced to fight their own demons. Despite her family’s wealth, Merkin and her siblings were subjected to austerity and abusive caretakers, and their mother was emotionally absent. Merkin’s exploration into her complicated yet unconditional devotion to her mother is rendered with compassion and profound perception. The book is not without humor or hope as Merkin takes readers on the journey from childhood to the present, and into her passion for literature. She writes about the past—such as the time when she was a young, aspiring writer who stayed with Saul Bellow at his summer home—into the present with the same astute eye. She also relates her experience with different treatments for depression, including the early days of Prozac and her frequent hospitalizations. 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. (Feb.)
"[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)
"I will not be the last to thank Ms. Merkin for resisting this desire [to die] long enough to give us what is one of the most accurate, and therefore most harrowing, accounts of depression to be written in the last century . . . Ms. Merkin speaks candidly and beautifully about aspects of the human condition that usually remain pointedly silent." John Kaag, The Wall Street Journal
“A hybrid of memoir, case study, and confession, which joins such classics as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon in the contemporary literature of depression. . . Merkin has written [a book] that will illuminate, challenge, and possibly even console.” Adam Kirsch, Tablet
“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)
“Dark thoughts hover over virtually every page of this mesmerizing memoir, and yet there is also the very real possibility of hope. . . Merkin’s exceptional book belongs on the same shelf as such classics as William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990) and Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind (1995).” Booklist (starred review)
“[Merkin] has a signature method to her writing, one that exuberantly crosshatches high- and lowbrow, and one that reveals and protects in equal measure.” Bookforum
“Opening This Close to Happy was like getting a long letter from my best friend at sleepaway camp. I had no idea it was this bad for you, was my first thought, and then, we have both been so paralyzed by grief. This is why we all feel so lonely right nowthe longing, the depression, the comedy of it all, wrapped up in a story about sex and Judaism, our mothers. I felt so whole when snuggling up alone with Merkin’s brilliant, full-of-feeling masterpiece. I flew through it and hated to let go when it ended.” Jill Soloway
“Fierce, clear-eyed, and beautifully honest, Daphne Merkin’s is an essential voice. This Close to Happy, a lucid and elegantly written account of her lifelong struggles withdepression, unsettles and illuminates in equal measure. This is an important book.” Claire Messud
“If the face presented to the world is a mask to protect ourselves, Daphne Merkin bravely removes hers, revealing the truth of herself, courageously exploring, seekingand sometimes even findingthe hope that glimmers at the end of the tunnel. Please read as soon as possible.” Gloria Vanderbilt
“This beautifully written tale of Daphne Merkin’s depressive demons is by far the most accurate and human account of depression and its impact that I have ever read. I highly recommend it, both to those in the mental health professions and to those who care about the suffering of their loved ones.” Glen O. Gabbard, M.D.
“The greatness of this book is in the way Merkin takes the measure of the adversary.” Peter Sacks
“D. W. Winnicott wrote that depression is the fog over the battlefield. In this extraordinarily lucid and moving book, Daphne Merkin illuminates the dark and desperate battle that depression can be. This is a book for all those who know nothing about depression and for those who know too much.” Adam Phillips
“This Close to Happy belongs on the shelf with William Styron's Darkness, Visible and Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon. It brings a stunningly perceptive voice to the forefront of the conversation about depression, one that is both reassuring and revelatory.” Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice
"This Close to Happy is honest, fearless in the way we have come to expect from Daphne Merkin, and, as a bonus, frankly informative. From Merkin we get the inside view of navigating a chronic psychiatric illness to a realistic outcome. As she writes, 'the opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of relative all-right-ness.' For some, that insight alone will speak volumes. Her candor discussing the fears, tribulations, and triumphs of a lifetime of treatment will be valuable for anyone who loves someone with depression but makes necessary reading for the mental health professionals on the other side of the couch." Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., President, Child Mind Institute
Merkin (The Fame Lunches) expands on essays she has written for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine to clarify what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression over a lifetime.
A writer reflects on her unceasing struggle with clinical depression.Although Merkin (The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags, 2014, etc.) is an undeniably talented writer, this memoir of her depression is as tough to read as it must have been to write. This is "the book about depression that I had been contacted to write by three successive publishing houses over the course of more than a decade," and the author admits that "my daughter has been dealing with the reality of my depression for so much of her life that I'm convinced it half bores her." Many readers will feel the same way, no matter how much they empathize with a writer who confesses, "most of all I am tired of myself and my battles." In the first sentence, Merkin introduces "the allure of suicide," an option that never goes away. She believes in the benefits of decades of therapy and medication, without which it's doubtful she would have been able to write this book. The author writes that the "root cause" of her depression is "the nature of the family itself, as rotten at its core as Hamlet's Denmark," and she builds a convincing case, particularly in regard to her cold, neglectful parents—though she finds it impossible to extricate herself from the mother who has ruined her. Hospital stays (the last was eight years ago) have provided respite and occasionally companionship, but circumstances have been rarely much better upon her exit. Merkin has deeply ambivalent feelings about electroshock treatment, resisting a doctor's suggestion of how much she would benefit and then regretting her refusal. Those who have read her incisive and well-crafted pieces as a staff writer for the New Yorker and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Elle will wonder how she managed to get any work done when she was feeling so bad. It's hard to find much solace within the relentless gloom—however insightfully explored—of one writer's depression.
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This Close to Happy
A Reckoning with Depression
By Daphne Merkin
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2017 Daphne Merkin
All rights reserved.
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.
Excerpted from This Close to Happy by Daphne Merkin. Copyright © 2017 Daphne Merkin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
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.
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