Writers on

Nell Casey, Editor

Larry McMurtry survived by-pass surgery but found that for the next two years he could no longer travel, visit friends, or read books --- this last being his life-long passion. During this time, he says, "I began to feel that I...was one of my imposters, doomed to impersonate a person I now no longer was."

Russell Banks found the depression of his wife Chase Twichell "sexy" --- that's one of the reasons he married her --- but after living it for a couple of years, he felt he was beginning to catch it, like the flu. He was saved only by deciding "A husband cannot become his own wife."

When she got pregnant, Lauren Slater went off her anti-depression drugs and became so depressed she had to quit --- not the pregnancy, but being without medication. David Karp said that when it hit him, he turned into a "mental health detective," searching for answers in books, and, finally gave up:

    At age fifty-five, I have surrendered myself to depressive illness...I now see depression as akin to being tied to a chair with restraints on my wrists.

Jane Kenyon, wife to poet Donald Hall, was a lifer --- she grew up feeling miserable. There were some pills that helped, but there was one special thing that would make the "greyness" go away:

    an orgasm would make her happy and eager to work. She leaped out of bed to write or garden. Therefore, we made love whether we felt like it or not.

Merik Nana-Ana Danquah says, "For every twelve joys, I had twenty-five sorrows." When she told writer Robert Bly that she was writing a book on being black and depressed, he said, "Whew. That's going to be one really long book."

Lesley Dormen tells us that "the specific character of despair is precisely that it is unaware of being despair," thus she comes up with one of the great problems of The Blues. That is, the difficulty of, at first, giving a name to whatever it is that's got us. Her definition is one of the best:

    Depression says you can get blood from a stone, and so that's what you do. Competing voices are an irritating distraction from the work. No wonder depression doesn't get invited out much. Not because it's not the life of the party, it knows that it's not that, but because self-absorption as a work ethic is so prickly and one-eyed.

§     §     §

Throughout Unholy Ghost, there are some wonderful one-liners. Martha Manning, herself a psychotherapist, tells us that melancholia flows from one generation to the next. She says, of her grandmother, "The sheer exhaustion she conveyed in the act of stirring her tea made it look like she was mixing cement." On the other hand, Maud Casey's mother told her, If you commit suicide, I'll kill you. And William Styron quotes Baudelaire: I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.

It's one of those gifts that keeps on giving --- affecting family and friends alike. Nell Casey, the editor of this volume, tells about trying to keep her sister Maud from destroying herself all the while feeling herself being pulled down into the "black hole of doubt." Nell comes across as being good, true, and brave. She goes through the daily temporizing that's required to help someone else who is living at rock bottom --- all the while being at risk of be sucked down herself. She learns the awful truth that all of us melancholics must learn --- that we will never be done with it: this thing that gets hold of us will never let go.

    Slowly it dawned on me that Maud's sadness wasn't ever going away --- it was right there in every swell and turn of my consciousness, smuggled always into our everyday lives.

There were times as I was going through Unholy Ghost that I found myself getting the blues, sucked in by the heartache of it all. We humans live on such a frail keel, and when we lose our balance (as one out of ten of us are going to do sometime in our lives), we might end up spending the next year or ten years or even the rest of our lives in a hospital, getting our brains zapped with bolts of electricity or swallowing those little round things that Jane Kenyon took the trouble to make into a poem,

    Elevil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
    Norpramin, Prozac, lithium, Xanax,
    Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
    The coated ones smell sweet or have
    no smell; the powdery ones smell
    like the chemistry lab at school
    that made me hold my breath.

Depression, melancholia, the blues, black bile --- for most of us it involves being unable to move, or to write, or to (at times) even get out of bed, much less get out of the house. It does make for compelling story-telling, and I found myself hard-pressed to lay the book down. It has to do, I'm sure, with my own story. (All of us depressives have stories to tell --- sometimes gripping, often funny, always sad.)

I remember the whole summer of 1977 when I sat in the kitchen of a communal house in California staring at the wall, absently shooing flies out the kitchen window. For those of us who have been there, it is not only the freezing up of the machinery of our days, it is, too, not being able to get away from it and, most of all, the inability to sleep.

We are dying of tristesse, and it gives us no exit, morning, noon, night. 3:15 A.M. is the worst --- a dark and lonely and panic-inducing place. The babbler within won't leave you alone and you realize, with dread, that your own mind is not only no help at all, it's the source of it all.

I recall those friends who tried to help me, for better or for worse. The best were those who offered no judgment, who were there, day and night, when I needed them, who were willing to be woken from a sound sleep in the early hours and listen to my broken record: "What's wrong with me?" "I'm so scared --- and I can't figure out why," "Are you still there? Don't you dare fade out on me!"

Those are the ones I will never forget, will always care for --- those who put up with me day and night, helped me get dressed, helped get me to the store, get me to the doctors. The only mood-changers, back in those days, were pain pills (that would often leave one in a ditch the next day) and Valium (which turned us depressives into little cows).

§     §     §

It strikes me as passing strange that a book devoted to melancholia has so little to say about the old Freudian theory that depression is the mind at battle with itself. There comes a time --- the theory goes --- when the subconscious calls a halt to everything, says, "Until you pay attention to me, until you end this war, I'm not giving you an out. You won't be able to work, you won't be able to read, you won't be able to sleep --- you won't be able to run around and do your usual busywork. I'm not going to let you use the usual crutches until we get this thing out of the way."

In those pre-Prozac days, the way we took care of such an internal freeze job was talk therapy --- sitting with a non-judgmental someone for an hour or two a week, trying to find, somewhere in the sea of experiences the words to ferret out exactly what it was that was calling such an inconvenient halt to the whole movie of our days.

Almost all of the essays here concern appropriate drugs, what Lauren Slater refers to as "everyone else's psychotropic drug of choice" (Doxepin seems to be the favorite). The writers who worked with Freudians or Jungians or co-counselors or everyday psychologists seem mostly dissatisfied; only a very few seem to have been helped at all.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is one of them. He remembers his therapist defining the problem, correctly, as "a soundtrack of negative thoughts in your head --- the volume rising or falling, but never going silent." And Martha Manning, herself a psychotherapist, says that through her sessions she learned ways "to manage my anxiety and set limits in the many areas in which I felt overwhelmed." Outside of those two, Unholy Ghost doesn't do much to commend the 100,000 professionals in the United States who make it their business to listen.

In my own case, an irreverent and decidedly atypical therapist helped me stop being at sixes and sevens, helped me to put me back together again. Someday, when you and I have the time, and it's just after sunset, out there in the garden, under the plane tree, with, perhaps, a bit of wine --- I'll tell you how she and I slowly and patiently brought me to the point where I could go through the trauma all over again, in the vast free space that was her office. It's a classic cure story (at least to me) but I just don't have time to go through it right now. You understand: I've got this book review to finish.

Go on to Part II of this review

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