Friday, March 10, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Holding On

Mental Health: 1:3
“Happy is the man…”

“Is there no way out of the mind?” 
Sylvia Plath [1932–1963],
The Bell Jar (1963)

I came across this article (“Depression Classic”: February 6, 2017), by Adam Kirsch, in Tablet magazine, which led me to a book excerpt from This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression (2017) by Daphne Merkin, who writes:
I try to think of my experience of depression as “the dark season,” in part as a gesture of hope that it will depart just as it has arrived and in part as an effort at prettifying a condition that is wholly unaesthetic. When it comes, it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve been here before, that the place isn’t entirely new, that it’s got a familiar stale smell, a familiar lack of light and excess of enclosure. It doesn’t help to think of the poor or lost or blighted, of people being tortured in Syria, starved in the Sudan, or beaten in Baltimore. What I want to know is how I will ever get out from under, and whether there is really any other kind of season. You see, down here, where life hangs heavy like a suffocating cloak, I can’t remember that I’ve ever felt any other way. I need to be reminded that there are reasons in the world to hold on, even if I have forgotten them; I tell myself if I can just hold on I will remember them, these reasons, they will come back to me.
Well said, Ms. Merkin; and thank you for such expressions of honesty on a subject that remains difficult to discuss publicly with understanding, even today when so much else is discussed openly and glibly. What this writer does is say something important without inviting the need for pity or unsolicited advice. One good turn deserves another, I say. So, here goes; my turn.

I am by nature or by design or by circumstance—I am not sure which applies—an anxious person. I remember my mother as anxious. I have had bouts of depression in my life, although I have never taken any medication for it or have been hospitalized. I have, however, seen a number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists in my life, first starting at age 23 after the death of my father (in 1980 from colorectal cancer), a good and decent man who had more than his share of sufferings. Since this time, I have continued to visit with mental-health professions at various stages of my life after suffering losses that deeply affected me.

These mental-health professionals, who had various abilities and reservoirs of empathy, have proved helpful in dealing with my emotions and my fears and in sorting out my thought life. But they have not cured me, which I think will forever prove elusive. It’s an illness that one lives with for the rest of his life. Some can live with “it” better than others. I was sensitive as a child and am sensitive as an adult, probably overly sensitive for a world that views harshness and cruelty as normative. This is the way I see it. I truly wish I could see the world differently. It would ease my burdens and make my life easier.

For the millions of people who suffer from depression, Daphne Merkin’s writing explains much what we, to various degrees and at various times, feel and think. It occurs very much in the mind, those ruminating thoughts that are at times brilliant, but are often self-defeating. There is a large amount of guilt and self-recrimination. They can creep up on you or strike you at any time, on both sunny days and cloudy days, but the former is worse than the latter for me. Toronto has many cloudy days. We, as Merkin says, battle to “just hold on.” Writing helps for me, as does reading others’ confessions of how difficult it often is to live in this crazy and confusing world.

There is no way out of the mind, no way to escape it, for better or worse. The 21st century has not been kind to persons like me. We are “dinosaurs” on our way to extinction. I doubt that we will have a place in the history books. There might be a brief record of our existence. We continue, nevertheless; we hold on.

There is some comfort in an acknowledgement that someone cares, that someone understands and that someone will not abandon his friend because of his difficulties. Sure, it is not easy to be around an anxious or a depressed or a sad person—even a happy curmudgeon. The expression “thick and thin” means a lot for a reason.

As does that rarest of human qualities: loving-kindness.

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