Being Okay with Being Unhappy

Book review: This Close to Happy, by Daphne Merkin

Writer and literary critic Daphne Merkin, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, has suffered lifelong depression. She’s been trying to write a memoir about her illness and attempts to cure, or at least contain, it for more than a decade. It was finally published in February. A not unimpressive accomplishment, which becomes obvious as the narrative sifts through her memories.

It’s a memoir, but feels more like a collection of carefully-paced, reflective, connected essays, jumping between her past and present with some analysis of depression and its treatment. Merkin zeroes in on her difficult childhood and troubled family life, especially an intense relationship with her now-deceased mother. She clearly identifies this area of her life as the source of much of her depression and suicidal feelings, and details incidents and episodes from her life related to her immediate family that have caused her much mental trouble and anguish.

It’s not an easy book to read, as well it shouldn’t be considering the topic. Like with Kat Kinsman’s Hi, AnxietyI wasn’t sure I could or even should manage, and that’s a decision everyone should consider with a book detailing someone else’s mental illness – you have to know there will be raw, painful, or triggering elements.

“You are too worn down to even pretend to know why you should put one foot after the other: it is life that seems too long, endless. A clock ticks somewhere in the silence of your apartment, empty second after empty second, reminding you that time hangs heavy when you have lost your way, like a vise around your neck.”

I loved Susanna Kaysen’s heartfelt Girl, Interrupted and Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind (both of which are referenced here) and this sounded from the description almost like a combination of the two. And in some sense it is, but her stories of a cold childhood with unloving but adored parents, plus her adulthood attempts at treatment via medications, hospitalizations and various therapies felt repetitive without much remark. She presents a nature vs. nurture argument for depression, whether it’s solely caused by chemical imbalance in the brain, or more heavily influenced by environmental events, specifically those occurring in childhood.

This kind of story is always interesting to me, from a psychological standpoint, and because like Merkin mentions her interest in emotions, I’m interested in other people’s. Some of her anecdotes comes across uncomfortably, particularly the fixation on her mother and their relationship, which from a reader’s standpoint doesn’t make a lot of sense, since at least the depiction of her mother here doesn’t paint her in any kind of positive light. The childhood and family recollections aspect felt almost like they should be a different book, a descriptive memoir and less tied into her lifetime’s experience, as obviously connected as they may be.

But her basic breakdown of what a sufferer goes through, and how it feels, and how sometimes none of the conventional platitudes or methodology can even touch the mess one finds oneself in, were excellent. This is a hard thing to put into words, especially with any clarity, but she did it and managed to do it beautifully to boot.

Like when she explains that even feeling better isn’t without its drawbacks, as she describes a moment when the darkness lifted: “…I floundered, wondering how I would recognize my life without that telltale darkness.” She succinctly describes an almost Stockholm Syndrome element of the illness.

Merkin is well-read (she’s a literary critic, after all) and her literature knowledge shines through her writing, making for some beautiful prose amidst a gloomy subject. And that’s what this book feels like – gloomy, with shining moments. And it should be that, clinical depression is a devastating illness that doesn’t just lift like a bad mood. We need accounts like this. This twining of literary references into her experiences was something quietly beautiful to read.

It’s calming to think that as tough as depression may be, many others have endured it, written about it, made art about it that can be used as a balm, to whatever degree of personal effectiveness. One quoted line particularly struck me, from author Jean Rhys’s autobiography Smile, Please: “Oh God, I’m only twenty and I’ll have to go on living and living and living.” It’s sad, sure, but it struck a chord.

Merkin frequently mentions the “allure” of suicide – “No more rage at the circumstances that have brought you down. No more dread. No more going from day to day in a state of suspended animation, feeling tired around the eyes – behind them, too – and making conversation, hoping no one can tell what’s going on inside.”

Those kind of observations will certainly rub some people the wrong way, those who have never found themselves without a lust for life. And for anyone else, this is a book of many similar moments of understanding, and Merkin’s quiet, clear distillation of these is its strongest aspect.

Disappointingly, as an ending, it seemed like there must have been a publisher’s demand  to spin something uplifting into what was a consistently, understandably gloomy story. It doesn’t read as believable, and in fact, it made me sadder. She’s a gifted writer, and as she points out, mental illness is still taboo, so an honest memoir is important for moving beyond stigma. It seemed disingenuous to make a quick attempt at the sun breaking through when the cloud cover she’d spent a book describing was clearly not going to dissipate so quickly.

More helpful than being “close to happy” is the everyday management of a condition. I found many of her observations comforting, like that maybe we’re overestimating what a normal state of happy is for everyone else, aiming too high.

And her account offers the acceptance that sometimes things aren’t completely fixable, sometimes a person is sick and stays sick despite decades of treatment attempts in various forms. And that’s just how certain illnesses work. It’s a reckoning, after all.

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression
by Daphne Merkin

published February 2, 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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