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.

I Expect a Guardian!

Book Group Thing has started back up, and with
it, a stream of winding Harrius Potterdiscourse on more diverse topics than our ostensible subject, Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy.  A tangent on book-thievery and book-reclaiming prompted me to bring up Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, which is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin.

“How did the translator render the spells?” wondered my fellow bibliophiles.  “Some of them are already in Latin, yeah?  How do they get set apart as spells?”

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much to the characters, does it?” said I.  “Instead of thinking of the spell as Nox, they just say, Night!  Or [instead of Expecto Patronum,] I EXPECT A GUARDIAN!

Which prompted a bit more laughter than I expected, and more thought on the Patronus Charm than is typical.  Not everyone reading is a Potterite, so here’s a brief description: a Patronus is a sort of offensive shield, a silvery animal-shaped guardian which is the corporeal form of a happy memory or thought.  It launches itself at both Dementors and Lethifolds, holding them at bay if not driving them off.

There are several occasions where Harry or other characters conjure a Patronus; the spell’s use becomes ever more frequent in the later books, as war descends and Dementors appear more and more often.  I wanted to focus on three particular occasions of Patronus charm use:

– In the maze Harry goes through to reach the Goblet of Fire, he meets a Dementor-shaped Boggart.  Driving it away isn’t quite the same as driving away a real Dementor, but the mechanism is the same: he concentrates on getting out of the maze and celebrating with Ron and Hermione, something that hasn’t happened, but which he hopes for.

– During battle in Deathly Hallows, Harry attempts to conjure a Patronus but cannot summon up any happy thought whatsoever.  Luna prompts him with “We’re all still here; we’re still fighting.”  It costs him more effort to conjure than it ever has before, as the situation is so grim, but Harry’s Patronus still bursts forth to stand guard.

– Harry uses one to drive away a lot of Dementors near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.  In his words, “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it – does that make sense?”  In this event, he focuses not on a happy memory, nor a positive thought, but on his certainty that the Patronus will save him because it already has in his other-time’s experience.

Dementors as Rowling wrote them aren’t a foe we ever meet with; that said, it is Monday again, and we have our own battles to fight, be they e’er so humble.  Where a happy memory may not get us through, our hopes may; perseverance may; or faith may, the assurance about what we do not see.

There are occasions, even in the Muggle world, when our happiness is drained away, when we feel as though we will never be happy again.  What happy memory or hope is your guardian against Dementor-like feelings?