Where the Roots
Reach for Water

Jeffrey Smith
(North Point)
Not long ago, Jeff Smith, a psychiatric case manager in Missoula, Montana, went into deep depression --- a depression that lasted for over two years. This is his story of that depression, what it did to him, what it felt like, how he survived.

It is, too, a history of pernicious sadness, as described over the last 2,500 years in literature, case-studies, and memoirs of a variety of artists, writers, religious figures, and philosophers who have lived --- or in some cases, not lived through --- such a sad state.

It is, too, a summary of the myriad theories of what causes melancholia, how it manifests itself, and how it has been dealt with over the centuries. There are thoughts about some of the medications that are currently used to try to bring Smith and others like him out of the worst of depression. Finally, there are descriptions of famous melancholics --- people like Sylvia Plath, Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, St. Paul, Charles Darwin, William and Henry James, Henry Adams, and Herman Melville.

It's a careful, scholarly approach to a real problem. And it's a bit of a put-on, too.

§     §     §

A few years ago, I had a chance to review Arthur Miller's autobiography, Timebends. Miller is no slouch as a narrative writer, and his life story is an interesting one. I was swept up with his words and it wasn't until it was all over and done with that I thought, a couple of days later, "Where in the hell did he put Marilyn Monroe?" For Miller managed to get his life down in 450 pages, but he also managed to pretend that the most interesting and controversial parts of his life's story didn't even exist.

Jeffrey Smith is no slouch as a narrative writer, so I find myself going along with the history of melancholia, and the history of his own melancholia, and the scientific theories about melancholia, and the medicines they have come up with for melancholia --- I am finding myself caught up on the whole apparatus, hooked on his sad experience, and the scientific literature about his sad experience (his bibliography alone runs over ten pages, and contains almost 300 references).

And after it is over and done, I am thinking, "Where's Marilyn?" Or, in Smith's case --- where the hell is the psychotherapy? There's no end of descriptions of his plight, and his love affairs, and the effect of the drugs --- but there is scarcely a mention of one of the most common aids for depression; namely --- good old-fashioned talk therapy. And this is coming from a guy who is in "the helping profession."

Smith tells us of an idyllic childhood in West Virginia, where his mother raised him and his brother, where his father worked as a "gas jockey" in a filling station. The story is one of near-perfection, in nature, in the life of the family, in growing up. They lived in one of the lush valleys, with creeks and the Ohio River nearby --- the green foothills of the valley long before industries moved in. The perfect childhood. Wonderful mother --- who loved books like he did, read to him all the time, talked with him. Wonderful Mom, wonderful Dad. Where's the beef?

Well, the beef, it turns out, is all over the place --- if you're willing to look for it. But we have to do all the work, because Smith sure isn't going to tell us about the aches and pains of growing up in what was, apparently, a rather screwy family system. He sprinkles clues here and about. Mom and Dad divorced when Jeff was sixteen. Why? There's a brother around here somewhere --- how come he doesn't get mentioned all that often? Was Mum really all that perfect? How about Dad? Smith says "our home was like two separate households?" There didn't seem to be much communication there at all, especially on weekends when Dad and brother were out doing motocross.

Furthermore, throughout our tale, there are constant put-downs --- not of Mum or Dad or the mysterious brother --- but of Jeffrey Smith. He stutters, he's always dropping things, he's accident prone, he's awkward, he's shy, he doesn't know how to communicate with people.

At one point, late in his narrative, he us tells that, after the worst sieges of depression, he started seeing a psychotherapist, Anita. She turns up in a couple of places, maybe six pages in all --- but she's one of the most interesting people in all of Where the Roots Reach for Water. At least, she pops a couple of worthy, searching questions, ones that no one else has the brains to ask:

    The best place to start with that is to figure out what it [i.e., the depression] wants from you, what role it wants in your life.

And when she talks about his job of being a depressed counsellor counselling other depressives: "I'm not sure your depression cares that much about it..." ("It" being his job).

That's it for Anita, and for "talk therapy." Smith goes on and on about the planet Saturn, and its supposed malevolent influence on humans. He quotes Grandmother Thomas, who tells him that "It's in your blood." He spends pages on the biology of psychiatric illness. He talks on-and-on about historic concepts of depression --- not only the supposed effect of the planet Saturn, but black bile, the humors, and all those crenellations in the brain.

Out of this fog of Smith's words, however, we get practically nothing, outside of idyllic platitudes, about what formed him --- the father who didn't give beans about words and a mother who kept the local lending library in business. His descriptions of Mom do get a little weird; they certainly create some atrocious writing:

    It was my mother's eyes that showed me the shifting hues of the world. In the sun they gathered off the horizon a topaz glow, and when she was angry they went the orange of the fire in the grate; when she laughed they danced and the irises sparkled with yellow; when she crouched alongside our dogs and gathered them into her embrace her eyes softened to the shade of damp earth. She was young and people admired her: all kinds of people. Old people, young people, women, children. She could talk with anybody. It was always a little amazing to me that her circle included me.

Whew. She starts off being the world of light, and comes down to little old screwed-up me. A competent shrink would have a field day with this one, especially with that "gas-jockey" --- what a word! --- hovering behind it all: Dad, whose chief indulgence is racing noisy cars on weekends, getting as far away as possible from Mum and her quiet, intimate readings with her beloved son.

§     §     §

Many of those of us who have had the experience of being depressed for months or years have, too, tried Zoloft, studied the biological theories, read books about famous melancholics (Samuel Johnson is my own personal favorite). At the same time, many of us have chosen to go through the scary experience of a year or more of talking, straight-on, to someone who has the appropriate rapport (with the appropriate experience, the appropriate distance) to listen to what we have to say, to try to make sense of the world we have constructed --- to help us, perhaps, see our world in a slightly different light, to help us escape from some of the emotional crab-traps we have so carefully wrought.

I know from personal experience that studying the history of melancholia doesn't amount to a hill of beans when one is in pain. You can read every treatise that has ever been written on depression --- but not a one of them is going to chase away the 3 AM boogie-man. Books can't and won't get at the root of this thing that smites us, turns our days to nightmares, our nights to a fearful nervous insomniac- ridden state.

Looking back on my own years of melancholia, and my own treatment, I've come up with a theory about it. It goes like this:

    Sometimes this thing called "ego" --- the self, the part of us that we always turn to the world --- gets out of control. At that point, the subconscious rises up and puts a freeze job on everything. It says (not in words, but in truth), "I'm going to take away all your toys. I am going to deprive you of your pleasure in reading, wandering in the woods, diversions, booze, movies, TV --- even being with your friends. I'm going to take them all away from you so that you will begin to spend howsoever much time necessary to figure out what the hell you are doing wrong. And nothing you do --- drink, drugs, reading books on melancholia, howling at the moon, contemplating the gun in the closet --- is going to put an end to my strike until you figure it out."

The prevailing cant is that there are 50,000,000 of us depressives in the U.S. alone. Like Jeff, there are some of us who refuse to merely (merely!) jump off the nearest bridge. We try to figure out what is going on in our lives underneath all costumes and masks and strutting about on the stage. We sort through our childhood loves and fears and horrors, using all the clues we can come up with. We learn to keep accurate records of dreams and fantasies in journals which contain, as well, notes on our day-to-day feelings, joys, despairs, small defeats and victories.

If we are fortunate we have the company of an expert to sort through these, to listen --- carefully --- to words that come out of our mouths (for we speak the truth even when we lie; a good master can recognize the truths buried in the lies).

Soon enough, we realize that the lies we have propounded for so long were not meant to be hurtful or mean --- to ourselves, to others --- but to protect some aching part of the self, whatever the source (cruel mother, distant father, all-enveloping sister, wretched brother, out-of-the-blue death or trauma). We depend on the lies long after they are needed; we continue to protect them long after they are necessary, appropriate, or right --- and the breakdown, the putting ourselves back together, means finally ejecting those inappropriate emotional habits which can only hold us back from ultimate freedom.

This non-verbal part of us --- the one that, despite all pretense to the contrary, really runs us --- thus starts the process by putting a hold on everything. Some call it depression, some call it melancholia, some call it "breakdown." Whatever its name, it hangs around like a fog until we can make our way back into and through the forest of our lives, sort through what we've done and felt and thought (or better --- what we think we've done, what we think we've felt, what we think we've thought) --- until we learn enough to purge ourselves of the lies that have damaged us and those we love. And after we are done, after we have finished telling our story to someone who is wise and gentle and understanding, the pain doesn't go away --- that will never happen --- but it sure as hell gets more bearable.

§     §     §

If I were Jeff Smith, I'd get rid of this Planet Saturn nonsense posthaste and hot-foot it back to Anita for a couple more years of real (not intellectual, not historical, not herbal, not chemical) treatment.

With great effort, and no little pain, perhaps she can help him get rid of that boogie-man that haunted him for so long. The one named Jeff Smith.

--- L. W. Milam

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