Saturday, October 10, 2009

Melancholy as a response to daily life

Susanna Kaysen wrote the book Girl, Interrupted, some years back, and you may recall that it was made into a movie that was somewhat popular. Kaysen has a sharp intellect, though, and that movie didn't do her writing justice. Today, as I sat in a bookstore, like all the bookstores I've sat in one hundred million times, I read an excerpt from an essay by Kaysen, entitled, "Three Cheers for Melancholy", in a book called Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Here is that quote:

My main objection to optimism is that it's incorrect. Things are somewhat more likely to turn out badly. Taking the long view, things are definitely going to turn out badly, since we all die in the end.

Kaysen's argument in this well-written essay is that depression is a normal response to the lives we live on this planet at this point in time. She says that, rather than medicate ourselves for it, we should understand, and, ultimately, accept depression as a natural, normal occurrence, and not a biological entity.

I can't say I agree with that. I've been through much depression in my life, for, probably, most of my life, and some of it was what doctors refer to as severe clinical depression (if not most of it). At the same time, I understand what Kaysen's getting at.

I think there are too many self-help books in this world. I think there are too many memoirs about people's languishing through drug and alcohol and gambling and sex and food addictions and how, finally, they saw the light and got a therapist and everything got better so they wrote a book about their misery to help all of the other miserable people on the planet. Depression, or melancholy, has been the topic of much literature throughout the history of the written word, and perhaps that is because depression has been a part of the human experience throughout the history of time, rather than a newly discovered illness with biological underpinnings that need to be repaired immediately, lest we suffer any more.

I don't like suffering. But I guess I don't know what life is like without it either. And maybe some of the reasons, maybe all of the reasons as to why I'm "depressed" right now are because of the facts of my life.

And here are some of those facts:

-I'm 34 years old.
-I have no college degree
-I have no partner, boyfriend, husband, whatever you want to call it
-I have no children and probably never will
-I can only work part time and might never be able to work full-time
-I'm poor, and that's not going to change any time soon, so there are a million poverty-related reasons as to why I might be depressed
-I have few friends, and only one with whom I spend any actual time doing anything remotely enjoyable
-I have a humiliating, stigmatized mental illness that few people understand and few people want to understand
-I have numerous physical problems I've been living with for the past 15 years or so, and they are cumbersome, painful, and also, so ingrained in me at this point that I never even talk about them
-I have untold thousands of dollars in medical debt that I cannot ever pay, so I do not open my bills
-I might not be able to get another student loan to go back to college because I had to withdraw and was not able to pay back the money I owed.
-I have no college degree (I know I said it already)
-I might never have a college degree
-I live in Florida, and I hate Florida
-I'm severely overweight even after six months of strict food control and serious exercise on a very consistent basis
-I have to take medications for the rest of my life that made me gain 100 pounds in three years
-My entire family is severely screwed up with a million problems, and I worry about some other people's problems so much, it makes me completely deflated and miserable, yet, I don't know how to not worry about them
-I am horribly lonely
-I haven't accomplished 80% of the things I wanted to do with my life

I guess that sums it up. The crux of the problem is, I believe, my life.

I should add that I know there is depression that is helped by medications, and that sometimes medications are necessary. But I'm on two antidepressants, and have been for years, yet they don't seem to be helping much these days. Then again, without them, I might be totally apathetic and too exhausted to get out of bed - who knows?
I just think that sometimes in our culture today, people, including myself, put so much faith in medical science that we can lose sight of common sense. Logic would say that grief is a normal part of life, that sadness is a normal part of life, that fatigue is a normal part of modern life to some degree, that pessimism is, actually, often warranted and smart rather than being totally "negative", and that pop psychology is full of a bull. And I say this, even though I do cognitive behavorial therapy and I constantly do try to be positive and think of the glass as half full - not half empty - and that is how I deal with life these days. It just doesn't always feel authentic, and it doesn't always work.


  1. Your list made me very sad, especially since i find myself often doing the same thing in my head - listing all the things that are wrong in my life. You'd think I was a lawyer, how good I am at arguing against anyone who tries to argue my fatalistic point of view. Yet here I am, ready to do just that to you because I know that if you were to make a corresponding list of blessings (even though it might seem impossible at first) you could do it. Even if they're as ridiculous as "I don't live in a 3rd world country" at first, just whatever you can think of that you're grateful for. I'd love it if you did that, whether you posted it or not, if might help. Obviously you've made it this far with debilitating mental and physical disease, and so there must be strength inside of you that's carried you this far.

    Also, as far as the college degree goes, maybe you should let go of that pressure on yourself. I understand it's a goal, and that you want to reach it, but it shouldn't become something that you make yourself miserable over if you can't do it right now, or ever. Because honestly, it's a piece of paper. I know that in the eyes of the professional world that's not the case, but as far as your self-worth goes, it's a piece of paper. I really believe that our society's too focused on 'the academy' and needs to be more open minded about 'self-teaching'. You can go to the library in your spare time and learn about any subject you might possible want to study in college and you can be just as accomplished. You can take classes here in there, volunteer in your field, do other things to acquire knowledge. It's harder, because you don't have a specific degree you can point to, but you can feel more confident each time you learn something new and this stuff REALLY can lead to jobs, I've seen it happen.

    I know it's easier said than done with you're depressed and in pain and it's hard to even get out of bed. I guess I just felt like someone needed to give you something positive. Figure out what you really can reasonably attain given your current situation, and really go for it - and let go of some of the dreams that maybe need to put on the back burner for a while. And rejoice in your successes and don't put yourself down!

  2. Jen-
    My negative list would also be a very long one but just like Brose said, you have to make the other list too. The one with the positives. I don't think you realize how much I admire you and how you deal with what you go through. You have become a friend to me, even if it is online, we have a connection.
    I am 52 as of last Friday and my dream is still to go to college. And I might even get there one day!!
    I hope you are having a good week.
    Thanks for your friendship.
    Janet in TN


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