How do you live with a mind that can’t hold on? And how do you describe what the “hanging on” is like when “depression,” as a descriptor, as prognosis, as an experience, seems inadequate and incomplete? That’s what 2001’s collection, Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey, and with contributions from Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, tries to uncover.
It took me until I got the final two essays in the book, the one by Nell Casey, and then by Maud Casey, Nell Casey’s younger sister, who went through a series of manic-depression-inspired hospitalizations, steeped in suicidal ideation, to realize what the title meant. Initially, I figured it was yet another in a 3,000-some-year tradition of trying to wrap our chemically drowning brains around melancholia, and then depression, the term Swiss psychiatrist Adolph Meyer in the early 1900s proffered as a replacement, which has stuck over the last century (some essayists in the collection argue, rightly, how important language is and that perhaps melancholia was better and/or that perhaps we ought to come up with a new word).
Maud, who I think wrote the best, closest depiction to what I see as my own experience with depression, said, “Being depressed felt like living in a corpse, so being dead seemed like a ‘better place to live’.” That is the depiction of depression which most mirrors my own experience, but to get at what the title of the book actually means, we need to see Maud’s depression through the lens of her sister, Nell, who described Nell’s “absence” during her depression, the removal of her personality. She described her sister as “hollow lifelessness.”
She continued, “The listless physicality. I have watched Maud shuffle down hospital corridors — dirty sweatsocks, toes knocking into the backs of her ankles as she saunters up and down to nowhere.” All the while, Nell is thinking, for chrissakes, pick up your feet! Another friend said Maud seemed dead.
We — we, the depressed — are the unholy ghosts. The walking dead. The ones so ravaged by depression as to be dead. Or as two other essayists, Larry McMurty (who had quadruple bypass surgery) and A. Alvarez (who attempted to kill himself by ingesting 45 sleeping pills), explained in their own respective essays, there was the person they were before, and the person they became after their surgeries/near-death experiences.
In other words, there is no getting to the other side of depression, if one does, without being irrevocably changed. As Maud wondered, what is my personality? As I’ve also wondered in a prior blog post, who am I without my depression? Suicidal ideation? That was my normal for so long. That was my identity for so long, or so it seemed.
And yes, I, too, as a “writer” have felt the frustration with my inadequacy in trying to describe what it is like to ostensibly be alive but dead to those who have not faced it. But on the other side, I appreciated getting the perspectives from a few of the essayists, like Nelly, and her and Maud’s mother, whose diary excerpts featured in Maud’s essay, about what it’s like for family members to witness their loved one going through depression, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.
So, naturally, not only do I gravitate toward other writers also attempting to describe their own experiences with depression, but inevitability, I try to see if my own experiences are reflected in theirs. Which was the case across many of them. For example, in the first essay, Virginia Heffernan essentially talks about sabotaging yourself because … why does it matter? There are no consequences for the person who is depressed, and especially for the person who thinks they’ll be dead soon.
Or Larry McMurtry, whose depression hit later in life and affected his ability to be a voracious reader (seriously, this dude talked about having hundreds of thousands of books!). I think depression hit me in the same way. I used to be a more voracious reader in my budding youth, but as I got older and depression sunk its claws deeper into me, reading fell by the wayside. I used to scapegoat the advent of my Twitter usage, or college, or a girlfriend, for my lack of reading, but if I’m being honest, I think I experienced what McMurtry did, too.
I also appreciated that many of the essayists, looked to poetry (both from others and writing it themselves), if not for answers, then at least as catharsis, a sort of, “Talking through it,” as writers for centuries before them had. This one by Saito Mokichi shared in Chase Twichell’s essay knocked me down, which is why I adore short poems: Their ability to be poignant with so few words:
a red tomato
I am only
a few steps away
And that is depression, too.
Jane Kenyon in her poem, Having it Out with Melancholy (great title), featured at the start of the collection, not only gets at the namesake of the collection, but also another way of describing depression mirroring my own experience. Here is an excerpt:
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
Whether it is that sense that depression will chronically be with us in spite of “pharmaceutical wonders,” as Kenyon calls them (and I would concur!), or therapy, or whatever else, or the sense that depression was always here with us since the first days in the crib, many of the essayists conveyed that sense of depression as being one with our souls.
If you’re someone who has also gone through depression (or is still going through depression) and you want to experience some corpse camaraderie, if you will, then I highly recommend this book. Not all the essays are going to speak to you — not all of them hit for me, such as Susanna Kaysen’s (she seemed against pathologizing depression), or interestingly enough since he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of the collection, William Styron’s (it felt too detached for me) — and I wouldn’t expect that! I don’t think every piece in a collection, nonfiction or otherwise, is necessarily going to land, but that’s why I enjoy reading collections because you get variety.
Or, if you’re someone who knows someone going through depression, then maybe you will find comfort of a kind in the essays by similarly situated people.
Either way, don’t let this collection being more than 20 years old dissuade you. After all, unfortunately, depression ages like a fine wine with an impossible-to-open cork. But hey, we can still read the label and try to make sense of what it might taste like.