Peter Kramer on Romanticizing Depression

And why it’s so pernicious. Brilliantly stated:

Other questioners set aside that van Gogh was actually ill. They took mood disorder to be a heavy dose of the artistic temperament, so that any application of antidepressants is finally cosmetic, remolding personality into a more socially acceptable form. For them, depression was less than a disease.

These attributions stood in contrast to my own belief, that depression is neither more nor less than a disease, but disease simply and altogether. Audiences seemed to be aware of the medical perspective, even to endorse it — but not to have adopted it as a habit of mind. To underscore this inconsistency, I began to pose a test question: We say that depression is a disease. Does that mean that we want to eradicate it as we have eradicated smallpox, so that no human being need ever suffer depression again? I made it clear that mere sadness was not at issue. Take major depression, however you define it. Are you content to be rid of that condition?

Always, the response was hedged: aren’t we meant to be depressed? Are we talking about changing human nature?

I took those protective worries as expressions of what depression is to us. Asked whether we are content to eradicate arthritis, no one says, “Well, the end-stage deformation, yes, but let’s hang on to tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee and the early stages of rheumatoid disease.” Multiple sclerosis, acne, schizophrenia, psoriasis, bulimia, malaria — there is no other disease we consider preserving. But eradicating depression calls out the caveats.

To this way of thinking, to oppose depression too completely is to be coarse and reductionist — to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. To be depressed, even gravely, is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to occupy the role of rebel and social critic. Depression, in our culture, is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.

“because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

There’s Nothing Deep About Depression

From an old Peter Kramer New York Times Magazine article. You may recall that Kramer was the author of the bestseller, Listening to Prozac. He found the response to his book highlighted many curious attitudes toward depression:

Like tuberculosis 100 years ago, depression today carries with it an element of refinement, of sacredness. Kramer writes, “We idealize depression, associating it with perceptiveness, interpersonal sensitivity and other virtues. Like tuberculosis in its day, depression is a form of vulnerability that even contains a measure of erotic appeal.” He goes on to say that “Depression is not a perspective. It is a disease…We should have no trouble admiring what we do admire – depth, complexity, aesthetic brilliance – and standing foursquare against depression.

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, did you ever idealize it? Even once? It’s a fascinating read, explores the way depression has been romanticized. Kramer knows his stuff and writes persuasively and knowledgably. Worth a look. You can read the article here: There’s Nothing Deep About Depression.

“we’ve had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers…”

Oh?

They would do this bizarre thing. They didn’t take people out into the sunshine where they would begin to feel better. They didn’t include drumming or music to get their blood going. They didn’t involve the whole community. They didn’t externalize the depression as an invasive spirit. Instead what they did was they took people, one at a time into dingy little rooms and made them talk for an hour about bad things that had happened to them!

A Rwandan, speaking to Andrew Solomon, author of Noonday Demon (previous two posts).

On the East Side of Los Angeles? Need to get out of your dingy little room? Why not pick up a copy of the book at a local bookstore? Get out of the house!

Some options:

Skylight Books (Los Feliz)

Alias Books East (Atwater)

Stories (Echo Park)

Emily Dickinson on Depression

She really gets it right. Andrew Solomon (previous post) opened his Ted talk by quoting it.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)

BY EMILY DICKINSON

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

Kay Redfield Jamison on Depression

Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.
Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Kay, who is a psychiatrist, wrote about her experience with bipolar disorder. It’s a fascinating account of someone in the profession who also had to come to terms with the stigma of mental illness. She was quite wary of disclosing to colleagues, and when she did it was often with mixed results.

“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.” Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain

Andrew Solomon opens his talk on depression, in which he recalls his own experience, with a quote from Emily Dickinson. Solomon is the author of the comprehensive Noonday Demon. This Ted talk touches upon many of the themes in that great book. It’s full of the same pithy insights, including the delusions depressives tend to harbor.

I want to say that the treatments we have for depression are appalling.

There are three things people confuse – depression, grief and sadness.

Depression is a slower way of being dead.

And so on. Definitely worth a listen.

Two Great Graphic Novels that Deal with Depression

Here are two great graphic novels that deal with depression.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh is not only one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, it has a section that covers depression. Not only does it cover depression, but it has one of the best descriptions of what it’s like to be depressed that I have ever read. And I say that as someone that works with a lot of depressed people. The narrative is gritty, hilarious, and heartbreaking. (It also has a great subtitle.)

Another terrific graphic novel is Marbles by Ellen Forney. A first-person narrative about her experience with bipolar disorder, Forney really conveys the journey — from denial, to diagnosis, and the ongoing frustration with managing the highs and lows, lapses in judgment, and getting her meds just right. Given everything that she went through, it’s encouraging she got it together to write the book.

For those of you in Los Angeles, why not stroll down to Secret Headquarters on Sunset Junction and pick up a copy of one or both?

10 Bestselling Books on Depression

It’s sometimes a comfort to sit down and read about others’ experience with depression. If you are depressed yourself, this can help reduce that feeling that you are so alone.

  1. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D. Cover looks a little cheesy, but I’ve heard a couple of people swear by it, including graphic novelist Ellen Forney.
  2. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison. A harrowing ride, made all the more inspiring by the author’s level of success.
  3. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams and John Teasdale. Solid, practical, useful stuff. This is not a fluffy book.
  4. The Mindful Way Workbook. An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress by John D. Teasdale and Mark G. Williams. Not familiar with this book, but the authors’ previous work is very solid. Not just people hopping on the mindfulness bandwagon — they have been both researchers and clinicians.
  5. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. Helpful to accept the premise of this book.
  6. The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression by Dr. William J Knaus EdD and Albert Ellis PhD. Ellis is one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
  7. The Wounded Heart by Dan B. Allender. Well reviewed on Amazon.
  8. The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi. If only it were so easy. Well reviewed, though.
  9. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. Atlas is the word. Comprehensive and brilliant.
  10. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron. By all accounts a moving, tour de force. An inside look at suicidal depression.