Melancholy of Mine Own"
Joshua Wolf Shenk
Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey (New York:
William Morrow, 2001)
After he has awoken, from uneasy
dreams, to find himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect, Gregor
Samsa's first encounter with the world outside his bedroom comes in the
form of his mother's voice. "Gregor," she says. "It's a quarter-to-seven.
Hadn't you a train to catch?" When he opens his mouth to answer, Gregor
hears a peculiar sound. The voice is "unmistakably his own" but has a
"persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone that
left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then
rose up reverberating round them to destroy their sense." And so, having
at first thought that he would "explain everything," Gregor says only
this: "Yes, yes, thank you Mother, I'm getting up now."
In "The Metamorphosis," a story about alienation, the first rupture is
one of language. Gregor Samsa cannot make himself known to the world.
Just as his body has become unrecognizable, inexplicably Other, so has
his voice. In this imagemore clearly, even, than in Gregorıs grotesque
physical formI feel the presence of the author. "I am constantly
trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable,"
Kafka wrote of himself. He was alienated from language, and even felt
trapped by it. But words, metaphors, and stories were his only way out.
When I was a small child, about eight I think, I ripped apart my bedroom
in a frenzy. I threw the pencil sharpener off my desk. I pulled the sheets
and blankets off my bed and turned over the mattress. I pulled clothes
out of their drawers, drawers out of the bureau. Eventually the bureau
itself toppled. A few moments later, my mom stood in my doorway and said,
with aplomb, "Looks like a tornado has been through here."
Five years later, I stood on the lawn of my father's house, just home
from summer camp. My oldest brother drove up the dead-end street in his
gray Fiat, and turned left into the short driveway. I ran over to see
him. I recall, as I ran, feeling a false expansiveness. I wore a too-wide
smile, like a clown scripted for a pratfall. As I began toward the car,
my brother leaned over and rolled up the window on the Fiatıs passenger
side. Then he backed down the driveway and drove away.
When I was seventeen, I carried these and other fragments up the stairs
of an old Victorian home in Cincinnati. As I sat in the waiting room of
a psychiatry practice, I knew I was lonely, unhappy, even desperate. I
did not know I was depressed. But that was the word that waited for me,
a diagnosis that physicians since Hippocrates have been trying to elucidate
and one that I would inherit.
The Hippocratic writers believed that gloom, abnegation, and misanthropy
could be traced to excesses of black bile. Unlike the other three bodily
humors (blood, phlegm, and yellow bile), black bile was never actually
observed. Today, we know no such substance ever existed. Still, the Greek
words for black (melan) and bile (khole) dominated the language of inner
states for more than two millennia.
In 1905, the influential American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer proposed that
"melancholy" and "melancholia" be retired from the clinical vocabulary.
He believed that the terms were used too broadly. They described "many
dissimilar conditions" and also "implied a knowledge of something that
we did not possess"that is, the causal role of black bile. Meyer
preferred the word depression. Other physicians followed him, as did medical
texts and the lay culture.
In the hands of modern writers, "melancholy" has recently experienced
a renaissance. In Darkness Visible, William Styron charges that
Meyer "had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was
unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering 'depression'
as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease." The word
depression, Styron continues, has "slithered innocuously through the language
like a slug, preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of
the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control."
Other writers have followed Styron's lead. It strikes me as telling that
writersfor whom words are tools and imprecision deathlyknowingly
use a term that is literally untrue; and that they use "depression," "melancholy,"
and other imperfect words interchangeably. These are two of many indications
that the experience they describe has no true name. Styron, for instance,
readily concedes the paradox that his memoir of melancholia is but a hazy
shadow of something "indescribable." Most accounts of depression will
have this sort of disclaimer. Others disclaim implicitly through dependence
on metaphor and allusion.
Perhaps depression is simply hard to conveyeven, as Styron says,
"indescribable." But I'd like to suggest another possibility: That what
we call "depression," like the mythical black bile, is a chimera. That
it is cobbled together of so many different parts, causes, experiences,
and affects, as to render the word ineffectual and perhaps even noxious
to a full, true narrative.
It is ironic, given the criticism directed at him, that Adolf Meyer seemed
to have in mind the limits of single-word diagnoses when he proposed that
depression replace melancholy. Meyer believed the former word, obviously
inadequate, would force doctors to tailor their descriptions to individual
cases. "Nobody would doubt that for medical purposes the term would have
to be amplified so as to denote the kind of depression," Meyer
wrote. (Italics added.) Perhaps Meyer even liked the insipid quality of
"depression," believing it would announce (like a blank canvas or the
blue screen on a film set) the absence of material to come.
If so, what transpired over the century can be counted among the great
tragicomedies in the history of language: Somehow, we have come to believe
that "depression" is the art, is the phantasm of special
effects, is the evocative detail or phrase or storyrather than a
mere placeholder. The DSM-IV lists only a few qualifiers for "major
depressive disorder." Psychiatrists and medical texts treat depression
as a discrete entity, and assume it adheres to a particular course and
treatment. Ads for drugs, herbal remedies, and nutritional supplements
refer to depression as though it is a foreign invader, unrelated to the
In lay culture, meanwhile, the word is often used with no context at all.
A New York Times report on the rising suicide rate in Japan notes
that the cause might be "depression," but does not offer even a single
phrase to elaborate. In conversation, otherwise imaginative, articulate
speakers toss around the words "depressive" and "depressed" as if they
capture a person's essence. In his story "The Depressed Person," David
Foster Wallace gives the eponymous character no other name, which I take
as sardonic reflection on the way we drape over diverse sufferers a label
that hides more than it reveals.
Perhaps, for many, staying hidden is part of the point. I think of Tipper
Gore, who first spoke publicly of her depression in a front-page interview
with USA Today. After her son recovered from a nearly fatal accident,
Gore explained, she saw a social worker and was told she "had a clinical
depression and one that I was going to have to have help to overcome."
She continued, "What I learned about it is your brain needs a certain
amount of serotonin and when you run out of that, it's like running out
of gas, it's like you're on empty. When you get to this point of being
seriously depressed or what we call 'clinically depressed,' you just can't
will your way out of that or pray your way out of that or pull yourself
up by the boot straps out of that. You really have to go and get help,
and I did. And I was treated for it successfully, I'm happy to report."
Gore did not describe in what way she felt depressed, nor how it affected
her lifeonly that she had a "clinical depression ... and I was treated
for it successfully." Her reticence might have been motivated by discretion,
or a wish for privacy, and I do not begrudge her these. I appreciate her
candor, insofar as many would choose to say nothing. Still, like so many
public figures who have made similar confessions, she hinted at intimacy
then quickly withdrew behind a wall. The word depression was that wall.
It is inevitable that we abbreviate and simplify. (It is apparent even
in this essay that I see no way around the words "depression" and "melancholy.")
But it is one thing to use shorthand while straining against the limits
of language. It is quite another to mistake such brevities for the face
of suffering. Each year, 17 million Americans and 100 million people worldwide
experience clinical depression. What does this mean, exactly? Perhaps
they all have deficits of serotonin, feel hopeless, ruminate on suicide.
But why? What wrinkles crease their minds? How are they impaired? For
how longtwo weeks? a month each year? an entire life? And from where
does this depression come?
Rather than acknowledge these variations and uncertainties, many react
against them, taking comfort in language that raises the fewest questions,
provokes the least fear of the unknown. Such is the case with the equation
of emotional problems and mechanical failure. Phrases like "running out
of gas," "neurotransmitter deficits," "biochemical malfunctions," and
"biological brain disease" are terribly common, and are favored by well-intentioned
activists who seek parity between emotional and somatic illnesses. Pharmaceutical
companies also like machine imagery, since they manufacture the oils,
coolants, and fuels that are supposed to make us run without knocks or
This language not only reflects, but constructs, our reality. When we
funnel a sea of human experience into the linguistic equivalent of a laboratory
beaker; when we discuss suffering in simple terms of broken and fixed,
mad and sane, depressed and "treated successfully," we choke the long
streams of breath needed to tell of a life in whole.
Just as we hear music through intervals, experience is often easiest to
understand in terms of contrast. And so despair is often best expressed
in terms of what has changed. "I used to relish crowds on the street,
but now people repulse me." Or, "I used to wake up with a feeling of expectancy.
Now I can only wrap the pillow around my head and pray for more sleep."
When I began psychotherapy late in high school, I had a clear and persistent
sense that something was wrong with me, but no vocabulary with which to
describe it. I could not draw on contrast because I didnıt remember a
time when I felt differently or better. I did not have seasons of happiness
followed by epochs of misery, or fall off cliffs and climb back up among
the daisies. I felt as I felt for as long as I could remember. I did not
go to therapy to understand, or to get through, an episode. I needed to
understand and get through my life.
Since my "condition" is so deeply rooted, much of my personality grew
out of it and developed to cloak it. This made expressing myself even
harder. I did well in school, stayed out of trouble, behaved like a son
my parents could be proud of. I wrapped myself in a skin of normalcy and
success but grew more hidden, from others and from myself. In high school,
I wrote in a poem that I wished "to be a slug," to have an exterior that
expressed what I felt. Like Gregor Samsa, I greatly desired to speak the
whole truth. Instead, much of the time, I merely said, Thank you, thank
you, Iım getting up nowgoing to school, going eventually to college
and the bright future that everyone expected. But the present, which I
tried so hard to dodge, could not be dodged.
In Seeing Voices, his book on the language of the deaf, Oliver
Sacks notes that philosophers have long dreamed of "a primordial
or original human language, in which everything has its true and natural
name; a language so concrete, so particular, that it can catch the essence,
the 'itness,' of everything; so spontaneous that it expresses all emotion
directly; and so transparent that it is incapable of any evasion or deception.
Such a language would be without (and indeed would have no need for) logic,
grammar, metaphor, or abstractionsit would be a language not mediated,
a symbolic expression of thought and feeling, but, almost magically, an
I hoped for such fluid, full, direct communication in therapy. I tried
to express the relentless stream of criticism that I directed at myself
and others, the way I felt split in two, the dull and sharp aches that
moved around my body as though taunting me. I wished to plug a probe from
my brain to the doctorıs, so that he could seewithout mediationhow
I stood outside myself, watching and criticizing, and could never fully
participate in a moment. How I felt bewildered, anguished, horrified.
Instead, I often found myself silent. When I spoke, it was with stumbles
and stammers. Words"unhappy," "anxious," "lonely"seemed plainly
inadequate, as did modifiers: "all the time," "without relief." Ordinary
phrases such as "I feel bad" or "I am unhappy" seemed pallid. Evocative
metaphors"My soul is like burnt skin, aching at any touch"; "I have
the emotional equivalent of a dislocated limb"were garish. Though
this language hinted at how bad I felt, it could not express what it felt
like to be me.
The soundtrack image was an imperfect one, as I do not "hear voices" in
the sense of hallucination; nor are the bad feelings that echo inside
me always in words; nor can I always discern the difference between "self-criticism"
and observation, between a gratuitous self-slap and a guide to truth.
But of several hundred afternoons in that Cincinnati office, this moment
stands outthe offer and acceptance of a liberating, idiosyncratic
metaphor, one that would need many revisions, but at least got me on the
page. By contrast, I have no memory of hearing the word "depressed," which
was how I was described at that time to my parents and to insurance companies.
In his exhaustive survey, Melancholia & Depression: From Hippocratic
Times to Modern Times, the historian Stanley W. Jackson concludes
that "no literal statement" can convey the experience. But he found that,
over 2,500 years, two images recur most often: "being in a state of darkness
and being weighed down." If we consider "melancholy" and "depression"
as condensations of these imagesas more than diagnosesthey
retain enormous power. One of my earliest attempts at essay writing dwelled
at length on an image of a dark room lit only by the space beneath the
closed door. I did not make a habit of spending time in such rooms. The
image of darkness imposed itself upon me, as it has for so many, as a
symbol of distress.
And my dislike for the word "depression" does not mean that it has no
application to my life. I am often "bowed down greatly" (from Psalm 38),
feel weighed upon, feel myself on lower than level ground. Compared with
others, it seems, I get less pleasure from what's pleasurable and have
a harder time with what's hard. My sex drive is often muted (even without
antidepressant medication, which exacerbates this problem). Work and activity
that require some suspension of self-consciousnesslike playing team
sportsare difficult, bordering on impossible. I've tended toward
activities in which self-criticism can be an asset, like writing. A tightness,
an anxiety, a desperation usually grips me when I wake, relaxes its hold
only occasionally through the day, and accompanies me when I lie down.
But, even as metaphors, these words are too thin to contain a life. For
example, the times when I do pass from withdrawn to talkative are often
quite unpleasant. Darkness aches, but light blinds.
At this point I encounter in the margins a note from my editor asking
for further explanation of what is written above. And I shudder from the
memory of moments like this: I am trying to explain myself and I encounter
"Why?s" and "What do you mean?s"questions I fear can't be answered.
I imagine the seams of this essay splitting, and the meaning and emotion
I am struggling to convey here falling out like beans from a sack.
And so I remind myself: An imperfect word is sometimes better than silence,
a pale metaphor better than suicide. Researchers and therapists want to
understand problems in their broad dimensions; families and friends want
to make sense of their afflicted loved ones; and, of course, those who
suffer in isolation, starved for connection, mad with the sense that they
will never be understood and never find relief, need to say something,
even if itıs wrong, or not wholly right.
Still, while we cannot be silent, or forsake the available word or metaphor
for the perfect one that eludes us, we also cannot stop at those less-than-perfect
words and metaphors. Insufficient or overused phraseswhich resolve
eventually into clichéslose their power to evoke a fresh, startling
image. They stop tapping into the field of primal meaning that precedes
language and to which, through language, we are forever trying to return.
Worse, poor language can cripple the capacity to imagine. "A man may take
to drink because he feels himself to be a failure," George Orwell writes
, "and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."
The failure begins when words intended to codify or categorize, what Maurice
Merleau-Ponty calls "empirical speech," actually disrupts or preempts
"creative speech," or "that which frees the meaning captive in a thing."
Every breath and word is an effort at translation and, at times, that
effort can seem impossible. But poems, lyrics, storiescan do an
end run around the stubborn distance that separates us, helping us feel
what it is to be alive. Words can create meaning, teach us our own thoughts,
and perhaps even describe a life. But we have to plumb, with curiosity
sustained over time, with toleration of uncertainty, the unsettling, elusive
stories that make us who we are.
Letters form meaning from lines and curves. Words form meaning from letters.
Metaphors form meaning from words. None of these units are large enough
to encompass, to identify, to "diagnose" a person. If pressed, one could
call Ahab "mad," or Bartleby "depressed." But to know these characters,
you must read the story. To tell a life, you must tell a story.
Which is not by any means a straightforward task. Freud's idea of "repression"
suggests that unconscious experience is like water pressed against a dam,
that we need only remove the blockage and allow our memories to pour out.
This is a dominant image of emotional healing in our culture. I think
of it as the Hawkeye Pierce model of psychotherapy, after the last episode
in MASH, in which Alan Alda's character has been confined in an asylum
and is coaxed into retelling a traumatic episode. One by one, the authentic
details emerge until he remembers the repressed memory of a small child's
death. He cries. He is healed.
The psychoanalyst Donnel Stern, in his book Unformulated Experience,
suggests another way of thinking about "repression." He uses the metaphor
of the rock at the bottom of a lake, which requires great and sustained
effort to recover. Perhaps our lives are many such rocks. Perhaps we have
to raise the ones we can, imagine the rest and then, with these images
and memories and emotions laid before us, find the patterns and shapes.
We are all natural storytellers. Even as we think we are just seeing a
concrete image or hearing a distinct sound, we are in fact filling in
gaps, putting material in context, constructing a narrative. That muted
howl from the apartment next dooris it a woman crying, or a child
laughing, or the laugh track from a television set? We make such choices
at every moment, usually without conscious thought. We tell stories about
other people, and we tell one big story about ourselves.
But sometimes, for some people, the story is torn. The essential sense
of who we are, of what the world means, becomes lost. All the bits of
life's evidence that must be sifted, digested, or passed over, instead
fly like shrapnel. This happened to me a long time ago. In high school,
when I first saw my name over small stories and articles, those words
"Josh Shenk"in ink against newsprintstruck me with dumb shock.
I was thrilled and horrified at a small glimpse of what it meant to be
real. It may seem strange that someone haunted by the inadequacy of words
would become a writer, but I've often felt no other choice but to struggle
and claw for what should be a simple birthright: to tell myself and others
who I am.
Like everyone, I start with a handicap, which is that I don't know my
own beginnings. Births and early infancy precede memory. Many later memories,
which we should in theory have access to, are still as elusive as mist.
So we become historians of our own lives, dependent on unreliable, reluctant
sources. I can describe with precision the home I grew up in, its brown
paint and simple brick, the gnarled limbs on the trees outside. But what
did it feel like to live there? How did it form me?
I need to find these feelings, because the facts communicate so little.
For instance, I was the youngest of three children and my parents divorced
when I was seven. This is a story too common to be distinctive, but too
important to be ignoredthe slow leakage of affection and kindness
from my parents marriage, the grim entrance of resentment, confusion,
and anger. The unspoken rules of the house forbade expressing these emotions,
and this remained true after the divorce.
My brothers fled the home as best they could. I, the adoring younger brother,
tried to follow them. But they had no interest in me, except as an occasional
object of humiliation. I suppose I reminded them of what they hated in
themselves: the vulnerable, longing, suffering son of their parents.
When I tried to let out my own feelingstearing apart that room,
for instancemy family pretended they were invisible. I learned to
not speak how I felt, soon stopped knowing, and slowly but certainly developed
a way of beinga sense of being split, an aching numbness, a cascade
of critical voicesthat would keep things that way. Some psychiatrists
have described this as "depersonalization." It is a diagnosis listed in
the DSM-IV in the category of dissociative disorders, along with
post-traumatic stress and what used to be called multiple-personality
disorder. Depersonalization, the manual says, is characterized by persistent
or recurring feelings of "detachment or estrangement from one's self ...
a sensation of being an outside observer of one's mental process, one's
body, or parts of one's body." "Often," the manual continues, "individuals
with Depersonalization Disorder may have difficulty describing their symptoms."
No diagnosis can tell my story. Still, depersonalization has the advantage
of nicely announcing what is missing. To treat this "disorder" requires
nothing less than removing the "de" to find the personwhatever is
There is no drug for depersonalization, which leaves me adrift in an era
where pharmaceuticals offer identity: If Ritalin or lithium or Xanax ease
your symptoms, you can fit into the narrative of the corresponding disorder
(attention deficit, bipolar, anxiety). If an anti-depressant helps, you
can toss off the four letters preceding the hyphen and proudly affix to
yourself the word that remains. I havenıt been helped by medication. Many
have. But I wonder if all of us are depleted by the way brand names, dosages,
and combinations have eclipsed talk of agonies, fears, and dreams. Good
stories must be reined in from chaos (the whole truth), which our imaginations
are too feeble to comprehend. But good stories are never simple or precise.
To shape and order our lives, without molding them into caricatures, is
to hew a course between the poles of chaos and clichéthe course
I still need to imagine my life, to find my story by living it, following
moments of emotional clarity through life's maze. I look for help in therapy,
in relationships, and faith in its broadest sensethe faith of the
gardener, the faith of the lover, the faith of the writer. The faith that
I can experience what is real about the world, that I can hurt plainly,
love ravenously, feel purely, and be strong enough to go on.
At the end of As You Like It, Shakespeare's famous "melancholy"
character Jaques hears that a duke has "put on a religious life/ And thrown
into neglect the pompous court." Jaques instantly declares, "To him will
I/ Out of these convertites/ There is much matter to be heard and learn'd."
It is a striking contrast to his earlier cynicism that "All the world's
a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." It is the declaration
of a character intent on finding some meaning.
But, in contrast to the smug assurance that passes for faith on the "700
Club," the truest faith reckons with uncertainty. It must account for
the inevitable mystery, must survive the tension between the familiar
and the shocking unknown (and the shocking unknowable). If one were forced
to choose a single word to describe Jaqueswho anguishes at the death
of animals, wishes for love, longs for a fool's easy laughterperhaps
"melancholy" or "depressed" would be a good choice among poor options.
Shakespeare chose "melancholy," but then had Jaques proclaim that he has
neither the scholar's melancholy, nor the musician's, nor the courtier's,
nor the soldier's, nor the lawyer's, nor the lady's, nor the lover's.
Jaques has, he insists, "a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many
simples, extracted from many objects." And off the stage he walks. Having
hinted at his story, he goes to live it.