The other day it occurred to me that if celebrity chef Rachael Ray ever had occasion to address that mental state characterized by ingrained melancholy, she’d invent a chirpy name for it, like depresh. Ray has her own language, as many of you know, replete with made-up terms: EVOO, sammies, and Yum-O. Then there’s her pet food, Nutrish.
Depresh: mental illness, now with extra whimsy.
In that vein, today is Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday, and I read on Twitter that he once sent the following in a letter:
“I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders. I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am
Darwin, it is commonly known, suffered from depresh. Various theories concerning the source of his mental illness include everything from chronic lactose intolerance to parasitic tropical diseases. (I’m inclined to favor the lactose intolerance theory, though, since he once wrote to a doctor about his uncontrollable nightly farting.)
But causes be damned, I love that paragraph. It sounds almost like something you’d read on Twitter today, if you just swapped out Victorian words like “poorly” and “farewell.” There’s even the obligatory punctuation-deprived sentence that tries to cram in a description of his misery and then completely disown it: “I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind I am ever yours, Darwin.”
I love that paragraph because I get where it’s coming from on a gut level. You want desperately to convey your own frustration with your mental state, but then you don’t really want people freaking out too much, and you’re really not comfortable being attended to and hovered over, so you tack on “farewell and in a sweet frame of mind.” And you don’t use punctuation, because that gives the reader too much time to escape complete confusion.
I get it. I’m a chronic lighten-upper myself, and would probably joke with my own murderer just to lift the mood a little. But glaring from that paragraph like a diamond is the ages-old shame at one’s depressed mental state. No one really wants to embrace depresh.
I’ve come to suspect that much of what makes depression feel so terrible is not just that it actually feels terrible — though it absolutely does — but that feeling bad about feeling bad just makes things worse. In Darwin’s day, weakness and misery was a character issue, and today, it’s barely changed. Our culture seems to impose a moral imperative to be constantly chipper. Women particularly are admonished, usually via memes on Facebook, to eschew “negativity” and are warned that they alone are responsible for their emotional state, and that they’d always better be prepared to choose joy. (To avoid having to explain this later, because someone will inevitably take me to task for it – no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “choosing joy.” But it ought not to be an obligation, and it ought not to be assumed that it’s within everyone’s power to do so.)
No one likes a constant sad sack, but I have a lingering suspicion that there is some daylight between being a constant Debbie Downer, and yet casting a jaundiced eye at all the lectures about how “we choose how we feel.” Do we, really? Has anyone met their brain? I mean really, people, those things have minds of their own.
And anyway, what if depression is adaptable? What if depression is normal in certain circumstances? What if, goddamn it, depression is called for? And what if trying to climb the slippery walls of the depression well just makes you even more tired, and gets you nowhere?
As you can imagine, these questions about depression were particularly piercing for Charles Darwin. Having formulated the concept of survival of the fittest, he was then obliged to ask himself whether he was among those fit to survive. But maybe his depression served a purpose. There’s reason to think it did.
Above all, depression is about mental cud-chewing. Some brain geeks think depression is connected with an over-achieving default mode network, that portion of the brain that kicks in when our minds are at rest, when we are daydreaming, or otherwise mind-wandering. (It’s also called the task-negative network.) The default mode network is also active when one is thinking about themselves, or others, or the past. To my uneducated eye, the default mode network seems to house an awful lot of our selves. There is some suggestion that during depression, the DMN is just very, very busy, going round and round and round again. And this neural cud-chewing, while sometimes pointless, harmful, and chronic, can sometimes bring things front and center that need to be processed – problems that need to be solved, or feelings that need to be resolved. Or in Darwin’s case, uncontrollable gas and the theory of evolution.
In my case, two years of people I love dying, a career transition and all the terror that went with it, and making close acquaintance with my own mortality.
Depression may indeed be called for, sometimes. And that’s why I wish we had more tolerance for it when it is. In my ideal world, there would be room for the default mode network to light up like a Christmas tree, and have the space to work. Situational depression wouldn’t be something that threatened to derail a life, but rather a sacred task designed to advance it. No one likes being in pain. But to have the space to do it, for awhile, to let the gears turn and not have one’s pain exacerbated by shame or the consequences of the inevitable inertia, would be a better way to do things.
No, I have no idea how that would work. But maybe someday the anthropologists of my dream society would write dissertations on the rituals of depresh.