“This Close to Happy” By Daphne Merkin: Severe Recurrent Depression

The opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness…but a state of relative all-right-ness. Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy

I think the experience of depression that I most think remains true throughout the years is it’s very isolating. That to me is its strongest quality. That you’re alone in a room, that you’re cut off, you’re just sort of stuck with it. It puts up a wall. Maybe other people are more hopeful for you when you’re depressed when you’re young. Daphne Merkin (Boston Globe)

As introduced by the publisher of Daphne Merkin‘s This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression (2017):

Daphne Merkin has been hospitalized three times: first, in grade school, for childhood depression; years later, after her daughter was born, for severe postpartum depression; and later still, after her mother died, for obsessive suicidal thinking. Recounting this series of hospitalizations, as well as her visits to myriad therapists and psychopharmacologists, Merkin fearlessly offers what the child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz calls ‘the inside view of navigating a chronic psychiatric illness to a realistic outcome.’ The arc of Merkin’s affliction is lifelong, beginning in a childhood largely bereft of love and stretching into the present, where Merkin lives a high-functioning life and her depression is manageable, if not ‘cured.’

Publishers Weekly on Merkin’s past and its possible effects on her mood disorder:

Merkin arrives at no easy conclusions about childhood trauma or biological circumstances. She writes candidly about her lonely childhood with Holocaust survivor parents who were forced to fight their own demons. Despite her family’s wealth, Merkin and her siblings were subjected to austerity and abusive caretakers, and their mother was emotionally absent. Merkin’s exploration into her complicated yet unconditional devotion to her mother is rendered with compassion and profound perception.

Andrew Solomon, another who’s written eloquently about personal depression (The Noonday Demon), praises This Close to Happy (New York Times), noting that “(t)his is not a how-to-get-better book, but we hardly need another one of those; it is a how-to-be-desolate book, which is an altogether more crucial manual.”

Which is not to say that Merkin doesn’t tell readers about her struggles to get better, which have included medication and therapy. Kirkus Reviews:

She believes in the benefits of decades of therapy and medication, without which it’s doubtful she would have been able to write this book…Hospital stays (the last was eight years ago) have provided respite and occasionally companionship, but circumstances have been rarely much better upon her exit. Merkin has deeply ambivalent feelings about electroshock treatment, resisting a doctor’s suggestion of how much she would benefit and then regretting her refusal.

Selected Praise

Glen O. Gabbard, MD: “This beautifully written tale of Daphne Merkin’s depressive demons is by far the most accurate and human account of depression and its impact that I have ever read. I highly recommend it, both to those in the mental health professions and to those who care about the suffering of their loved ones.”

Adam Phillips, therapist: “D. W. Winnicott wrote that depression is the fog over the battlefield. In this extraordinarily lucid and moving book, Daphne Merkin illuminates the dark and desperate battle that depression can be. This is a book for all those who know nothing about depression and for those who know too much.”

Carol Gilligan: “This Close to Happy belongs on the shelf with William Styron’s Darkness, Visible and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. It brings a stunningly perceptive voice to the forefront of the conversation about depression, one that is both reassuring and revelatory.”

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