Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

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-energize 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.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

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3 thoughts on “Review: This Close to Happy

  1. “If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?” My guess would be “no,” but as you astutely point out, these things vary as much as the people who experience them.

    Depression runs in my family. It practically gallops. ;P
    My father’s mother, probably bi-polar, committed suicide. My dad, my brother, and I all suffer from depression that seems to be a chemical shift as opposed to something brought on by events. I don’t think, in my case, that it’s a marker of any more than usual human dysfunction.

    My strategies for coping, whether the depression is mild or sever has always been “one step at a time,” because I know that the malaise will lift. It always does. The one exception I experienced was when I had a bout of depression brought on by and compounded by a crisis of faith. This depression lasted well over a year and was so severe that I stopped seeing color, tasting things, and smelling things. Though I’m thankful I was never suicidal, that has been the only time in my life, so far, when I really, truly, wanted to die. But I made it through that, as well. And something about it seems to have reset my brain chemistry. I’m approaching ten years, now, with nothing worse than the occasional low mood. I won’t bank on my being cured, but I’ll accept any and all relief from depression that I am offered.

    I think my experiences with depression have made me more resilient. They’ve also made it possible for me to really talk to and help other people who suffer from it. So as with most things, God has brought good out of evil in this for me.

    So there’s another, much shorter report from the trenches. I’ll pray for your encouragement and for your deliverance from your current depression. And for good to come of it, as well. Though it doesn’t necessarily help with the feelings, I’ve found that knowing that it won’t last forever has helped me keep going even when all I wanted to do way lay down on the floor.

    • Yeah, my mom’s side has it trotting along. No one’s committed suicide, but there is, as you say, that chemical shift.

      re: depression that stops your perception of color/taste/smell: That is *intense!* I’m relieved on your behalf that that has passed. God be praised for ten years of relief! May it continue.

      “One day at a time” is a helpful mentality. It’s funny – I’m sure I’ve described my spiritual life as being more cerebral or intellectual than it is …heart-deep? Faithful? Soulful? There have been times when I’ve longed for a way to take that intellectual knowledge and shove it down into my chest. But where depression is concerned, it’s so beneficial to have the brain tell the heart “This is not forever.” So…well. Who knows what that might mean for my heart and head as a whole.

      Thank you for your thoughts and your prayers! I hope all goes well with you 🙂

      • It was so horribly intense. I still shudder when I think about it. If there’s such a thing as a mortal tasting hell, I’m pretty sure that was close.

        Yeah, me as well, me as well. I’m definitely of the intellectual bent. It makes trust in God challenging sometimes. But I do think He gave us intellect for a reason, and so long as we remember its limits, He’s happy for us to use it to its best effect. ^_^

        Absolutely! And thank you!

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