In the category of memoirs about depression, there are some distinguished contributions. They include, for example, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.
Daphne Merkin knows these books well, but as someone who has dealt with serious depression her entire life, she finds them lacking.
“It seems to me that these characterizations tend to bracket the episodes of breakdown or incapacitating depression within unimpeachable demonstrations of the writer’s otherwise hyperfunctioning existence,” writes Merkin.
With This Close to Happy, Merkin wanted to do something different, to “describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside, in a way that I hope will speak to both the sufferers and the onlookers to that suffering, whether friends or family.”
She succeeds at this brilliantly. To people who have similarly experienced deep depression, not as a bracketed section of their lives but as an enduring theme, the beautifully written This Close to Happy is a gift. To those who would blithely tell people who are seriously depressed to just snap out of it, or look on the bright side, This Close to Happy is a wake-up call.
Daphne Merkin could have arranged the pieces of her life into one of those “unimpeachable demonstrations of the writer’s otherwise hyperfunctioning existence.” She has ascended the heights of literary acclaim, having written as a staff writer for the prestigious The New Yorker. She is an award-winning author and was an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
In This Close to Happy, Merkin shares those experiences, as well as the other enticements she tries to grab onto when she is sinking. They include, for example, “the supreme diversion of reading and the gratifications of friendship, the enveloping bond of motherhood and the solace to be found in small pleasures.” But it takes an effort, a monumental effort, and many days that effort is beyond her.
That’s because her depression isn’t bracketed. It is interwoven with the rest of her life. Merkin has been in therapy for more than forty years. She takes copious quantities of prescription drugs. On three separate occasions, she has spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital.
This Close to Happy is about Daphne Merkin’s experiences of being this close to suicide. She wakes up feeling depressed nearly every day. She considers suicide regularly. She talks to herself about it, considers different ways of ending her life, and makes her case to her therapists. Those conversations happen on the good days. Other times, getting to her therapist’s office, talking, and even eating are just too difficult. The effort it takes a seriously depressed person to accomplish the ordinary tasks of everyday life is one of the recurrent themes of the book.
If you have a clinically depressed person in your life, you might not know it, Merkin says. Many depressed people can summon what it takes to put on a happy, sociable face for a dinner party or some other time-limited social occasion. But it is a burden. In fact, in her nuanced discussion of all that is disconcerting about being institutionalized for depression, Merkin underscores one saving grace: There is no need to feign happiness in a psychiatric hospital.
If This Close to Happy were “just” a memoir, it would be immensely valuable. But it is more. The book also offers readable discussions of the social science of depression and suicide, touching on topics such as the prevalence of our maladies in the U.S. and globally, sex differences in depression, and the tendency of depression to run in families. Merkin knows a lot about the varieties of anti-depressant medications and she shares that understanding, too.
Equally intriguing are the sections in which Merkin sails beyond the science to offer her own musings on matters of depression. How much of it, really, is nature, and how much is nurture? Does psychotherapy help? What is it about the stigma of depression that makes it different from the sensibility of, say, addiction or schizophrenia? To what extent are childhood experiences implicated in lasting life difficulties?
Merkin’s childhood was a tangle of contradictions. There was never enough food in the house for the six children. Her mother was stunningly cruel, her father indifferent, and her nanny, cold. But there was a nanny. And a chauffeur, a cook, a cleaning woman and a laundress.
Eventually, Merkin would find skillful psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to help her navigate a life “marooned in misery.” Early on, though, there were many false starts and bad advice. For example, when her mother sought advice for dealing with her daughter’s uncontrollable crying spells, she was told to lock Daphne in a bedroom. She did.
“I once dreamed of conquering my depression for good, but I have come to understand that it is a chronic condition, as much a part of me as my literary bent,” writes Merkin.
Nonetheless, by the end of the book, Merkin really is “this close to happy.” Her readers will be, too.
This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression
FSG, February 2017
Hardcover, 289 pages