Mar 12

Depression in Women: Three Recent Memoirs

Three recent memoirs by women living with depression. One brand new, the others from 2016 and 2017. One of the three, by the way, is an account by a psychiatrist—about herself.

I. Mary Cregan, The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery (March 2019)   

Although Cregan was first identified as suffering from severe clinical depression after the death of her infant daughter in 1983, she came to realize this wasn’t her first experience with the condition.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Moreover, depression had afflicted many members of her extended family, strong evidence of a genetic connection. As she discovered from research into the history of diagnosis and treatment, there has been much debate about whether the disorder arises from the mind or the body, whether it is a ‘maladaptive response’ to life circumstances or a biological mood disorder associated with chemical imbalances.

Cregan has benefited from therapy—including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—and medication, among other things.

II. Daphne Merkin, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression (2017) 

Merkin has experienced not one but three inpatient stays in her lifetime, starting in childhood. Despite lots of therapy and prescribed medications, depression is not something that completely goes away, Merkin has found.

She writes: “It was one thing to be depressed in your twenties or thirties, when the aspect of youth gave it an undeniable poignancy, a certain tattered charm; it was another thing entirely to be depressed in middle age, when you were supposed to have come to terms with life’s failings, as well as your own.”

III. Linda Gask, The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression (2016)   

No longer in clinical practice, Gask does remain a psychiatry faculty member in the UK. In the following excerpt she questions the origins of her depressive condition:

Perhaps my depression coincided with the start of every academic year and the subsequent increase in my workload. Or maybe there was a more biological explanation linked to the fact that I, like many people with depressed mood, find the absence of light at these latitudes intolerable in the winter months. I didn’t know the answer – I still don’t. This is who I am. I cope most of the time; I am well for months, sometimes even for more than a year; but there are recurring periods in my life when the world seems a darker, more hostile and unforgiving place. I am a person who gets depressed.

An excerpt from Dr. Lilian Hickey‘s book review (Medical Humanities blog):

The professionals who make a difference to Gask are described candidly – the kind, the solid, the unreliable, the awkward and the wise. We are reminded that the right psychiatrist or therapist can be an astonishing lifeline on the edge of a mental abyss, and over the years her medical and psychotherapeutic relationships have been essential aspects of her own soul-rescuing in times of dread or confusion.

…There are different sorts of treatments and some have worked for Gask better than others. That things change – illness and the medical and psychological therapies which help, at different times in life – is a given.

Apr 12

“This Close to Happy”: 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.

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.”