This Close To Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin (Farrar, straus, and giroux 2017)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Not glamorous, not an artistically-hued state of suffering for the more sensitive souls on earth. Not a story that can be told with the dramatic climax and victorious transcendency that characterizes heroic tales. No. Depression is unabated suffering whose victims, often blamed for self-absorption, shunned as social pariahs, writhe in silence. Daphne Merkin, the writer and literary critic, tells her depression tale in the dark memoir, This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression.
Merkin removes the false smiles, the fake-it-till-you-make-it pro-social self that enables her to feel tolerable to others, and shows us, nakedly, how depression hurts. Without the dulling, life-smothering clinical language of neurovegetative states, depressogenic thinking, and malignant symbiotic attachments, Merkin brings us inside her dark, sad world. Her pungent descriptions of multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, psychiatrists, and medications, are woven into a decades-long tapestry of sorrow.
An author and frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker, Merkin’s style combines eloquence and candor to tackle touchy subjects such as family life, mental illness, religion, and sex.
The daughter of a wealthy, socially prominent New York City family, Merkin grew up in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment with her five siblings, her German immigrant parents, and a household staff that included a chauffeur, cook, laundress, cleaning woman, and nanny. This abundance belied her parents’ icy distance. They crafted a life apart from their children, causing Merkin to sink into a “loneliness that wrapped around my bones.” (56) Her grandmother once said that “my parents should never have had children, that there was no love in our home.” (56)
Yet despite the chilliness of her parents — or because of it — Merkin grew deeply attached to her mother, permanently locked in a Sisyphean struggle for warmth, validation, and affection.
Only when she was seriously ill and hospitalized on psychiatric wards, did her mother provide the nurturance that was otherwise absent. Years later, Merkin wondered if these recurrent, severe depressive episodes were prompted or augmented by the promise of maternal attention at those times. A psychiatrist once said to her: “Abused children cling.” (60)
Unable to land on a scintilla of safety or a crumble of consistency, Merkin fell into a depressive purgatory. “By the age of eight I was such a traumatized specimen, such an anxious, constipated mess (I drank prune juice every morning, like an old man) and unstoppable fount of tears—I cried inconsolably about everything…” (68) And so began her lifelong struggle with major depression.
Merkin’s experience with depression is not an uncommon one. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 16 million adults in the U.S. have one major depressive episode per year. The prevalence of depression is twice as high in women as in men. Over the past 20 years, the rates of depression and suicide have increased by 33%.
In marked contrast to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which enumerates the depressive traits necessary to form a clinical diagnosis in a lifeless, ingredients-like list, Merkin describes depression this way:
“Depression insinuates itself everywhere in your life, casting a pall not only over the present but the past and the future as well, suggesting nothing but its own inevitability. For the quiet terror of severe depression never entirely passes once you’ve experienced it…”(98)
Depression, Merkin says, is a “state that is both shameful and self-implicating in a way that other illnesses are not.” (16)
“We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority, unless it’s presented in a shrill, almost campy style under the aegis of the recovery movement with its insistence on dramatic personal testimony. There is a sadness that no one seems to want to talk about even in this Age of Indiscretion,” (10)
Yet, Merkin’s depression is not totally unabated. Her passion for reading and writing and her love for her daughter, Zoe, her sisters, and dear friends, are lifelines that keep her afloat, and subdue the suicidal urges that pepper her life. People and writing ease the “hole in me, a hole that could never be filled.” (196). To expose the undue judgment made of depressed people, to capture how it feels firsthand, and “to exert some mastery over my own experience by closely observing it;” all propelled Merkin to write this book. (17)
Rectifying the gender imbalance that permeates the literature on depression also motivated Merkin to write her story. Women writing about depression are underrepresented even though women suffer in far greater numbers than men.
Men write more narratives, treat depression like a pox that afflicts them – an external cause (such as going on the wagon, a loss, or an attack of genes, preferring a biological explanation to exposing interior vulnerability. (12-13)
The female version, by contrast, tends to tip the other way. Women “take ownership of the condition of depression, accepting that it springs not only from errant biology but from a yawning inner lack – some exhaustive craving for wholeness or well-being.” (13)
Merkin’s depression does not resolve as in a heroic tale. She does not attain happiness. But she does reckon with her depression and learns to cope better to keep its monstrous talons at bay as they claw into her life. Immersion in literature and her deep love for key people in her life enable Merkin to understand that depression is a “chronic condition, as much a part of me as my literary bent.” (282)