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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Published Elsewhere - Quoted in Entirety

Art of Darkness by Zach Gartenberg

A writer for the New York Times Magazine (Sept. 16, 2007), in reflecting on Owen Wilson's recent suicide attempt, wrote about her own experience with depression: "each time it occurs, I am struck by how paralyzing and isolating the experience is; it remains essentially impenetrable to people who can't (or don't care to) distinguish it from a random bad day." Later in the article, she remarks: "people who want to end it all have lost the necessary illusions that make their life bearable." Depression is an illness that affects many creative people. Those who have the keenness and verbal acuity to describe the experience often lend it an aesthetic meaning by virtue its profound and inscrutable painfulness. But there are serious disadvantages to making an artistic object out of a mental illness; literary treatments of this kind, it should be recognized, often ignore the practical and distort the difference between sickness and health.

Depression — to bring matters close to home — subverts the attempts of many students to have normal college careers. A student begins the semester at point A, and point B is not the end of the semester, but a premature departure for home — or the hospital. It is very difficult to halt the trajectory from A to B, and the reason for that has been suggested by writers on depression from William James to William Styron. The ubiquitous view of these writers is that their condition is too subjective and complex to be accurately described. If normal people can't recognize it, and depressed people can't communicate it, how can it be addressed effectively and in time? Yet the picture of depression as inaccessible to normal people merely reveals this difficulty without offering a positive solution to it.

Depression, while a mood disorder, ultimately affects and is expressed through one's behavior. And this fact does suggest ways to understand and deal with it. There are objective ways to tell that your friend is depressed – I mean clinically depressed – without reading his mind. (One indicator is that he seems to have withdrawn from the general sphere of human activity.) Most important, it is ultimately through regulating one's behavior that serious depression can be dealt with. By that I mean doing a few very practical things, impossible for a depressive person in the midst of an episode, absolutely essential for that person while not in one: taking medications as directed, exercising, eating healthily, talking to people, seeing a therapist. It is therefore unproductive to dwell, as many writers do, on the inscrutability of the experience of depression, when its symptoms are visible to sensitive observers and preventable by the very people who are at risk.

One can, I believe, only mitigate the effects of depression in concrete ways. Intellectualizing the experience, rendering it poetic, and exploring its enigma can be nothing more than challenging literary exercises. There is nothing wrong with taking up such exercises. But, while reading works like Styron's "Darkness Visible," one should bear in mind two things: (1) that meaningful accounts of depression can extend beyond the phenomenology of the illness; (2) that it is often by refusing to give depression's internal pain the time of day that the afflicted learn to cope with it.

What is misleading and perhaps harmful in writing on depression, however, is the notion that depression is what happens when one no longer has any illusions to prop him up. The message of the writer for the Times is that we must distort reality in order to tolerate it. Depressed people, she seems to say, see it like it is, and it does not look good. But that would seem to relieve them of combating their condition and all of the untrue thoughts that come with it. A sense of barren disillusionment is surely a feature of the experience of depression, but, in fact, the experience itself rests on illusions – that one is worthless, that things are hopeless, and so on. The idea that a healthy person is in some deep way deceived about the world is itself an illusion, one to which many writers on depression are prone. Writers who depict things this way lose sight of what is most important for those with depression to remember: that it is when one is healthy that one sees clearly.



At 9/19/2007 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Yojimbo_5 said...


That is why isolation is so deadly--left to your own thoughts without distraction, stimulation or argument starts a non-analytical spiral that re-affirms the negative rather than tossing it off.

But that sounds so HARD! Wouldn't it be easier to not be challenged, or "inconvenienced," to be left with one's own "special" thoughts, or better yet, not even get out of bed?

I've found depression to be easy. And attractive. When I find myself with a depressing thought, or a depressing trend of thoughts, I work...to exercise...to investigate whether my assumptions (in absence of fact) are true or not...to connect. Accomplishment is the best remedy for me. DOING something, rather than just being, helps a lot.

Depression is something we rise above, like ignorance, like prejudice, like evil.

Good God, I'm starting to sound like Obi-Won Kenobi!

At 9/20/2007 04:44:00 AM, Blogger soapysteve said...

Depression - the refusal of a person to heed the call to change from within his own mind. (anonymous)

At 9/20/2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger molly said...

You know what I find most interesting is I think Gartenberg is wrong to dispute how the Times writer sees depression; as having lost the ability to keep up the illusion that helps make life worth living. I see it her way, rather than his.

When I experience depression about my creative self, I am unable to overcome how futile my existence is, and it feels to me like a hard sort of clarity, like the truth about my reality is plainly present:

I am not financially independent (am working toward it, but my company is new) right now and if anything were to happen to my supportive partner, I'd would be better off dead as well because I'm unable to sustain myself.
I worry about what I am delivering to the world with my existence and don't see much merit in what I do.
I tire of being the one who needs reassurance about my work.
I lack the gift that others have.

It's these things that are always there which are a reality, in my view. Most of the time I feel fine because I have plenty to distract me in the way of busy work, travel, learning. But these things are constant and while I'd never harm myself because I haven't the guts, I do sometimes wish I could walk into the sea and inhale.

At 9/20/2007 08:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it can be either one thing or the other - while it is true that one's perception of the world as a depressing place may be caused in some part by one's illness, it is not true to say that the world is intrinsically an uplifting and rewarding place if only we could all see it that way.

There is nothing inherent in the human condition for life to be happy - the Constitution notwithstanding. To see clearly is to recognize that? While those of us who have struggled with the depths that despair can lead you into may need help to rise above the futility of depression, there is a grain of truth in the depressive's view of the world if not their weighting of those perceptions.

Hope is not enough.

At 9/22/2007 11:27:00 PM, Blogger soapysteve said...

I'm not supposed to agree with Molly, but I also disagree with the majority of the article. Mostly with the idea that there is one solution for all depressed people, or that a particular course of action is incorrect for everyone. Any article that talks in absolutes like that totally turns me off.

"Refusing to give depression's internal pain the time of day" sounds about as easy as a smoker simply "refusing" to smoke.

At 9/22/2007 11:42:00 PM, Blogger soapysteve said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/22/2007 11:45:00 PM, Blogger soapysteve said...

"what is most important for those with depression to remember: that it is when one is healthy that one sees clearly." is also b.s.

All the big, life-altering decisions I've made, from grade school to the present, have had one unifying quality - they all happened while I was seething with anger. My judgment was skewed by negativity, and some would call that clouded thinking, but you know what? I got stuff done and made sweeping changes and bettered my situation. Like, fast and now, with inhuman efficiency.

When I'm happy and content I'm less inclined to rock the boat. I've ended up in many bad situations that just got worse over time because my sadness was increasing in increments too tiny to notice. All of sudden, pow, blindsiding depression. Usually it was because I had gone a long time without getting really ticked about anything, which to me means I hadn't been critical or looked really hard at life in a long time. Sometimes a little detonating can shake off the barnacles and refresh perspective.

"it is not true to say that the world is intrinsically an uplifting and rewarding place if only we could all see it that way."

I agree with anonymous. That too.

At 9/23/2007 07:22:00 AM, Blogger molly said...

And I'm not supposed to agree with Soapy, but I do. Humans and Humanity experience changes and paradigm shifts in times of stress. It's a survival thing. I think guess it comes down to whether or not one has the coping skills to deal with the stress. Does that mean that negative can translate into positive? I think so.

I think that Gartenberg doesn't quite get tat some of us need depression to kick ourselves in the ass. The challenge is to not destroy one's self or the people around you.

I wonder how Owen Wilson is getting on?

At 9/24/2007 09:42:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Great series of comments y'all. I'm impressed with the overall analysis and agree with most of your points.

Knowing the author a bit, I'm certain that he's talking about clinical depression, not the periodic blues that one feels when the season's change, or a loved one dies, or you've got writer's block. He's talking about that gripping depression that binds you to the couch for weeks... often lasting months. The kind that really screws up your life because you drop out of school, quit your job, break up with your girlfriend, start using heroin, etc, etc.

Also, I'll point out that Soapy, while disagreeing with Gartenberg, kind of reinforces his point. Soapy mentions how anger has helped him snap out of depression and take action. While Anger is often thought of as another negative emotion (to be avoided) it is clear that Soapy and Gartenberg agree about the warped, paralyzing effects of depression. While Gartenberg espouses his own method of avoiding depression (as does Yojimbo in the first response) Soapy offers another alternative: "Hulk Smash!"

Personally, my disagreement with the author stems from his demonizing the artistic expression of depression. I don't mind that so much. I don't think it makes depression romantic, I think it gives depressives an outlet. Whenever I draw a picture, or write a song I feel better... And that can't be a bad thing.

At 9/25/2007 09:17:00 AM, Blogger soapysteve said...

Gartenberg made far more than one point. If you're referring to the last sentence of his article as his point, then no, I'm not reinforcing it. I'm disagreeing with it. One can see clearly when one is not healthy.

How have I reinforced that article's points?

At 9/25/2007 10:27:00 AM, Blogger John said...

I'm saying that you are agreeing with Gartenberg's thrust that a person suffering from depression isn't thinking clearly.

In your case, anger has been a useful tool to snap yourself out of the fog of depression. Gartenberg has a different prescription, but you seem to agree that depression (far from being romantic) can cause distorted, unhealthy thinking.

At 9/25/2007 10:54:00 AM, Blogger soapysteve said...

And when you're next shinto collapses, over unbringing thirst, the whole mixes throughout jets! And BELTS!

At 9/25/2007 01:21:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Soapy, are you depressed? You don't seem to be thinking clearly.


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