In The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, published an amazing essay called "There's Nothing Deep About Depression." He combats the myth that depression offers special powers of insight and creativity, a fantasy he traces back to the dawn of history. After a down period, melancholy surged in status during the Renaissance, and still rides the wave of Hamlet, a text that "cements our admiration for doubt, paralysis, and alienation." According to Kramer, "the rumination of the depressive, however solipsistic, is deemed admirable. Repeatedly, melancholy returns to fashion."
Nine years ago, in 12th grade at Groton, I gave my Chapel Talk about depression. I decried what I called the glorification of suffering:
At times I've told myself that I don't want to defeat my depression, or even that I want to make it worse. There is this romanticized image of depression, of dark and mysterious individuals who somehow have stronger emotions than those who don't feel their pain. Tortured artists and poets and brilliant madmen sealed off in their own little world. I must admit that I have entertained this image of myself. I've held a certain pride knowing that I have gone to depths that most other people couldn't imagine, that I have suffered and survived, that I'm experienced. But at times I've been so caught up in this self-defeating image that I've worked just to pull myself downward, and these habits have become second nature.
But depression isn't romantic. It's dirt. It's lack of control. It pummels you and makes you look and feel like ass.
My favorite part was using the phrase "feel like ass" in Chapel.
I emphasized the difference between sadness and depression. Sadness is a tool. It comes and hurts, but you can stand up when it goes, and you may be stronger for it. Depression is a handicap. It defeats you and leaves you battling only ghosts.
Yet, when Kramer lectures, people always ask, "What if Prozac had been available in van Gogh's time?"
His illness, they thought, conferred special vision. In a short story, Poe likens "an utter depression of soul" to "the hideous dropping off of the veil." The questioners maintained this 19th-century belief, that depression reveals essence to those brave enough to face it.
Later, he writes:
To this way of thinking, to oppose depression too completely is to be coarse and reductionist -- to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. To be depressed, even gravely, is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to occupy the role of rebel and social critic. Depression, in our culture, is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.
Sure, I thought my eyes were open to the sublime grittiness of reality. I thought I could see the defects in people they could not see in themselves, the places where relationships fail. But my sensitivity was over-tuned. Tiny personal flaws became stark rifts in people's souls. Misunderstandings opened huge gaps in my world. Minute setbacks overcame me, and my self-perceived frailness sent me inward. Poe's veil was replaced with a lead cloak.
Sure, I thought deeply, in a way. I spent so many hours tightly wound inside my head that I twisted my own deep analyses. I lost grasp of reality. When there's no light at the end of the tunnel, insight fails. You are left with illusion.
But I clung to my special vision. In a suicide note from 11th grade that I fortunately never had occasion to use, I wrote:
Even when I am on medication and I am "happy," I can still see the brutality and emptiness underneath all of my surreal positivity. The carefree mood is only a mask, where I am still aware of the ugly face of reality underneath the chemicals. I will never be cured. The medication can put me in an unnaturally positive and complacent mindstate, but it will never erase all of the pain within. And if I could be disconnected from all of the pain within, then I would not be myself. I would be an artificial and superficial facade lacking the depth that defines me.
Heresy. Pure crazytalk. I repeat Kramer's claim: There's nothing deep about depression.