Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

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Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

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From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

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2011A-rainbow.jpg

Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.

Memoir & the lyrical narrative

I have decided to devote two class periods to exploring the lyrical narrative with my students. The reason evolved from, not exactly a revelation, but a dawning awareness that this particular mode of poetry connects more easily with students than other modes.

Popular music, of course, sets the contextual stage here. American country music fills the nation’s highways and airwaves with lyrical narratives and modern-day ballads. The story-song appears in a wide range of musical genres from rock to rap, born from simple blues narratives and Appalachian ballads and from John Henry and Casey Jones to glam-rock “epic rock ballads,” new wave, Motown, British invasion (think “A Day in the Life”) and quirky indie lyrics–not to mention huge hits like “Lying Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or oft-played 70s narrative songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” These tunes are all before my students’ time, but they have their own lyrical narrative popular songs; they “get it.”

Bruce Springsteen: lyricsThunder Road

Bruce Springsteen: lyrics
Thunder Road

Narrative lyrical poems hook readers who might not otherwise spend much time closely reading a poem because of those critically important pronouns “I” and “you” and because there’s a human impulse to stick with a story. We want to know how it ends; and we want to figure it out in our own subjective ways, to put the speaker/writer’s experience into our own (or vice versa) and interpret the narrative on our own terms. We also like to be a little surprised.

Why?

I’ve touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the lyrical narrative poem–I want to offer an excerpt from Oliver Sacks. In an excerpt from Speak, Memory, Sacks writes:

“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves… Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable. We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.”

How can we honestly interpret a poem without acknowledging immediately that our brains are highly subjective processing organs that inherently interpret and experience input differently? Our personal narratives, our memories and recollections, limit, expand upon, and influence our interpretations. That is why I insist that my students accept all “expert interpretations” of famous works with a grain of salt. Every human brain re-creates based upon subjective, unique processing; the fact need not keep us from admitting of rational thinking, but it must affect human interpretations of phenomena. Especially subjective phenomena such as art.

This is also the reason I warn my students not to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself. Poets invent, and they can invent personas. Furthermore, in their efforts to write truths–emotional truths, lasting truths–they may alter physical, actual, memory-based “truth.” In other words, maybe the story happened just that way. Or didn’t. Though “for the most part our memories are relatively stable and solid,” the paradox of art is that altering the facts can lead to deeper truths. Sometimes the facts seem altered from one perspective but not from another. Other times…well, I confess, I myself have changed some facts in poems in order to make the poem better. In such cases, craft supersedes the need for stony factuality. I guarantee I am not the only writer who employs this strategy.

Whose life is it anyway? And whose art? Sacks reminds us of the loosey-goosey aspects of recollection: “The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as ‘creating,’ and remembering as ‘recreating’ or ‘recategorizing.’” Thus, the lyrical narrative is a form of memoir, created through individual perception and recreated through the process of memory itself. Which, all of us being human and therefore fallible or otherwise liable to err, and subconsciously quite able to lie to ourselves, means that the lyrical narrative could end up as mythical as the stories of Mount Olympus.

And just as compelling to generations of human listeners or readers.

A voyeur’s fascination that the reader may be witness to the human-talking-to-human in the framework of a storyline is a significant part of what engages audiences. This poem might be memoir! It may be true. It may be genuine experience, something to which I can relate. There’s emotional frisson, or thrilling curiosity, or the dread of knowing it will all end badly. But I must know; and I want to believe it might be true. Tell me sweet lies, oh troubadour!

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*Note: the image above is not Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. He prints. An example of his actual lyric drafts is here.

Poems that help us to endure

I’ve recently completed reading Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind. What has struck me about the memoir is, in particular, Ginzburg’s reliance on poetry as a means to enduring prison, deprivation, oppression.

In several selections, she reiterates how reciting or recalling poetry–Pushkin, Pasternak, Blok, Mandelstam, and lesser-known (to us Westerners) poets such as Tyutchev, Chorny & Nekrasov–gave her hope or encouraged her to keep on in the face of awful situations, or just to remind her that others have endured harsh and terrible conditions and found the means to express themselves despite it all.

I believe poems–and art of all varieties–help us to endure. Some poets who have helped me to endure include Anna Akhmatova, Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, Gregory Orr, John Donne, Yehudi Amichai, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Marie Ponsot, and others. Too many to name.

Who has helped you to endure? Whose art, whose poetry, whose stories, whose music?

When we reflect on these creations, perhaps we can learn more about ourselves.