The Fell of Dark

May 10, 2009 § 4 Comments


(I took this photo of myself a few years ago. It sets a mood, I think.)


Daphne Merkin’s written a new piece on depression in The New York Times magazine. It’s not bad, if you’ve never read anything about the subject of depression or about Daphne. The point she’s making, I guess, is the chronic nature of it: the deeply boring manner in which it returns over and over, knocking your life off track with the same indifferent paw.

What I find interesting about all the articles and books published in the last several years (The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon is the best) is that depression is described so often as a kind of emptiness, a dark futility that has no particular cause.  Mine has only felt like that once.

I was in my late 30’s, and had been in therapy several years.  I loved therapy, loved my pretty Virginia and how carefully she listened, but talking and writing in my diary for hours about pain made things worse, though I did learn a great deal. I learned things I don’t want to give back, but they were excessively costly.

Virginia didn’t encourage me to write in my diary obsessively. On the contrary, she told me to get out, have fun, save the psychic delvings for our sessions. I didn’t listen. I wanted to get it over with. I thought it was like squeezing a blackhead.

Instead, it was strengthening connections in my brain, enhancing all the associations to the dark side. Soon, I was walking the streets seeing everyone, including children in strollers, as the pre-dead. It was as if we were in a waiting room for death, leafing through magazines, sitting on uncomfortable chairs, and the exit to the street had never existed. Only the door to nothingness. All our names were on the list.

Which is accurate as far as it goes, but it’s not a helpful way to look at things.

After a few weeks of that, I caved in and took drugs, something I’d been resisting for years. The psychopharm put me on Zoloft. At first it made me semi-psychotic, but I lowered the dose until I was merely cradled in cotton wool, docile and admiring of all the pretty colors. I remember looking at snow, the first day the drug really worked: I felt like I was stoned, but more gently. White against the green, against the gray. And the blue and rose shimmering off the stone of the houses on 9th street.

But before things got so bad, and after they got better, depression was always around. It doesn’t feel empty. It’s full to bursting with grief. Grief over something or someone that’s missing—even (or especially) if what’s missing is my courage. I’m so used to grief. I sniff it out relentlessly, and yet I didn’t invent it; in the beginning it came and found me.

It’s hard to fight something so seamlessly integrated with my life, with memory, hope and beauty. I don’t think sorrow is the shadow that brings out the light, necessarily: I have no idea what consciousness is like for the constitutionally cheerful. But for me it’s like the rise and fall of waves and when I try to take control, to negate the troughs, I begin to feel unreal, isolated from myself, as if I’m approaching that country Merkin talks about.

My grief is not healthy, but maybe it’s healthier. Philip said to me recently, “I just realized your father’s death was much harder on you than your brother’s.”

“Of course,” I said. “Jimmy’s death was clean. I felt terrible grief, but it was pure. I knew who I was; I knew that more deeply than ever before. When my father died, I shut down. My feelings about him were so conflicted anyway, and then his choice to suicide…I had a stone wall an inch behind my eyes. I couldn’t find myself. By the time the stone disappeared, I was a teenager. A different person.”

Therapy showed me the door back to the pure grief. I don’t always take it. But when I do, love swarms in and my mood settles. Not happy, but not suicidal. Not crazy.

Age has made things better and worse. I’m less pained by my inadequacies and I trust my strengths. But I also know that I’m stuck with depression, and that it’s a serious disability. I’m almost convinced that nothing will turn out well. I try anyway, and get some solace from trying until the next rejection (real or imagined). Then the maxim “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t try,” seems like something invented as a torture device for depressives, probably during the Enlightenment.

I can’t ever forget that the world is beautiful. That’s why Merkin’s descriptions seem foreign to me. Even when I walked through the valley of the pre-dead, I saw an awful beauty there. And I was angry that I was dead. I wanted life, that torn-up illusion.

There’s always something I want. I want it, I want to get it; I want to do what needs to be done. But if I push too hard, I reach the knot, the voice that says: If you go forward, you’ll reach death sooner.

Can somebody explain to this idiot inside me that it doesn’t work like that? Believe me, I’ve tried. Somebody who knows his knots made her.

 Another poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

   With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

It cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.


I am gall. I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

   Selfyeast of spirit, a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.


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§ 4 Responses to The Fell of Dark

  • Litlove says:

    This post should be handed out in clinics, I think, as you say so much here that is valuable and true. I would recommend Sally Brampton’s memoir of her own severe depression ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’. I thought it was the best assessment of what it is like to try to recover from the bad place that I’ve recently read.

  • Emily says:

    i think a lot of us have that fear of death and obsession with the beauty of life. but depression, from what i have seen with my husband, takes whatever one is feeling and makes it much larger than it needs to be. so, while i think about death a lot, it is manageable, but for you, it was overpowering.

  • haplessromantic says:

    although sad, this post is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.

  • Margaret Diehl says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. They make it worth writing about this, even though the subject upsets some people who know me and read the blog.

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