Spending Your Entire Life Wanting to Die
New York writer Daphne Merkin discusses her new memoir, written after six decades of enduring the unyielding hell of depression.
Illustration by Aparna Sarkur
Daphne Merkin opens This Close to Happy (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), her new memoir about living with depression and its tangled causes and effects, with a suicide fantasy. What would it be like to announce, with finality, that you are done with trying—after trying very hard—to be a person?
"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," Merkin writes. "No more anguish, that roaring pain inside your head feels physical but has no somatic correlation that can be addressed and treated with a Band-Aid or ointment or cast. Most of all, no more disguise, no more need to wear a mask..."
Read more: Why People Smoke Weed to Treat Depression
Merkin, who grew up privileged, in a money sense, on Park Avenue, and became a successful New York writer, thinks of suicide often—more as a way to comfort herself than as an actual plan. She has, at times, been deeply suicidal, but she has kept herself from going through with it, almost to her dismay. (I have promised myself suicide the way other people promise themselves a new car, gleaming and spiffy," she writes. "It's something I think I deserve...")
She's now in her 60s, and her new book traces back the ostensible roots of her persistent despair to her Orthodox Jewish childhood under the "fascist regime" (her brother's words) of her wealthy but abusive parents, not from a safe distance, but inside of it. This Close to Happy is neither overtly helpful nor reassuring to any depressed reader hoping to see that It Gets Better.
But, I assume, if most depressed readers of depressing books are like me, that's not really what we're in it for. I'm not even sure we would dare to hope for that much. Seeing the way the mental illness is roundly doubted, illuminated, endured by others is enough. (Merkin herself quotes many depressed writers throughout her memoir whose words have done the same for her, from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys, and relates to Joan Didion's Maria Wyeth.)
For those who have not experienced a deep personal abyss, Merkin's writing is instructive: She pulls you into the exhaustion of constantly turning over your history—jumping from formative scene to formative scene—for clues into your present pathologies, sexual and otherwise; the pain of constructing meaning from the scraps of a life seemingly bereft of one; the chore of managing your mood with pills and therapists, never quite sure if either are working; and the strain of having to engage with other people outside of your own horrid mind on top of it all.
It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression's claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn't look crazy.
The latter is made the more difficult, Merkin writes, by the fact that depression is a boring topic of conversation. Relaying that you have laid in bed for days and felt vaguely bad is hardly a story at all, unlike the destructive yet entertaining episodes that can be recounted by a drug addict. I have no proof of this, but the largest market for books about depression is probably other depressed people.
"There is something about the state that is both shameful and self-implicating in a way that other illnesses aren't. It does not, for example, fit neatly in with the literature of addiction and recovery, and it offers the reader no vicarious thrills, mostly because its symptoms are rarely florid enough to alienate or even titillate people. If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence—of appetite, energy, sociability—rather than presence..." she writes. "It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression's claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn't look crazy." Indeed, debilitating depressions, from the outside, tend to just look like periods of intense laziness, which Americans have little sympathy for.
Thus Merkin's memoir proceeds with caution: She self-deprecatingly calls herself a "poor little rich girl" before you can, and she certainly does not assert she has any answers, not even to the questions that her own past brings up.
Merkin is still depressed, after all years—but she is also still alive, and has raised a daughter to adulthood along the way, which means a lot. When I call her for an interview she describes her current state as "muted." Over the phone, it is apparent that she is a New Yorker. She also sounds tired and a bit grumpy, though I can't tell if it's related to her being born and raised in a city that tends to cultivate that affect in even the most sane person over the years, or if it's because she's not feeling well.
But at this point in her life she has restored herself enough to avoid being hospitalized, for eight years and counting. Her first experience of being taken to a psychiatric unit happened she was anxious and young, when her parents unceremoniously dropped her off at the Columbian Presbyterian's Babies' Hospital and didn't bother to explain why. That's just the way her parents were, she says: cold, self-absorbed, authoritarian, and abusive. They mostly left her in the care of the family nanny, Jane, who Merkin describes as an "agent of her mother" and was also abusive. (Merkin recounts an incident where Jane repeatedly banged her head against a bathroom wall.)
She spends a lot of time in the book reflecting on her mother—the parental figure typically associated with solace and care, but who for her provided neither with consistency. Her father was distant and seemingly beyond reach and effort. The main problem for Merkin was that she loved her mom and held out hope that she would be loved back properly, strung along by "rare hugs." Merkin blames her mother issues for the rest of her issues, including her day-to-day disfunctioning and her relationships and sex life. She writes that she often felt like she "wasn't cut out for heterosexuality," but really she couldn't find anyone she liked more than she liked being alone.
Her mother grew up fairly well off herself, until she had to flee Hitler's Germany in 1936 and immigrate to Palestine. Merkin has memories of her mom's fascination with the Nazis and how her mother would "casually draw tiny swastikas on the inside of my arm with a ball-point pen, starting when I was eleven or twelve." And although her mom married a wealthy Wall Street investor, she enforced a strict austerity on the house: Merkin says there was never any food to eat, despite the presence of hired cooks. "I think of my childhood as a kind of slavery—certainly an imprisonment of sorts—but am not sure, even after all these decades later, I have ever escaped, ever reached anything but the most transitory sort of freedom," she writes.
She attempts to come up with an explanation for her mother's behavior and muses that it could be survivor's guilt from the Holocaust. She also hypothesizes her mom could have just been a narcissist, or that she could have been struggling under the confines of being an Orthodox wife. The implicit assumption is that trauma, unidentified and unworked, repeats itself. And the obvious fact is that we will never know, exactly, why our parents are the way they are. Over the phone, I ask her if it helps to interrogate her past in this way.
"In some ways it helps," she says. "I wrote an autobiographical novel many years ago called Enchantment about my family, so if you think this was dragging up memories, you should read that. I think my way of trying to come to terms [with my childhood] is to deal with the memories and come to some sort of understanding through examination. I don't know if it totally works, but I do feel a little more removed, which is I think what I want to be from the effects."
When I ask her if she has forgiven her parents at all, she replies she wants to say yes but she can't. "I would say I feel a little tired of thinking about them, which is a plus," she says, instead.
She says parenting her own daughter has had a "degree" of reparativeness, though she was at first scared to even venture into the project of creating and influencing another life. Merkin says she suffered from postpartum depression, badly, but her worse fears never came true. "I was frightened because I thought I wasn't so well mothered—how would I mother? Would I be too depressed?" she explains. "In the hope that I haven't damaged my daughter—God knows what she'd say—I was certainly a different kind of mother, probably with my own enormous drawbacks, including that she saw me depressed. I wrote a piece for the Times once called 'Is Depression Inherited?' and in it I discuss my daughter's and my fears that she would model herself on me. Thank goodness she hasn't."
Many theories have been introduced to explain the origins of depression. Merkin primarily discusses the nature versus nurture debate: Some say the mental illness stems from a biological malfunction and others insist that it is the result of our parents' accumulated mistakes. Both explanations can offer relief to individual sufferers by providing a framework that reassures the depressed person that they are not to blame for their condition, and she arrives at the conclusion that a combination of the two theories is most likely right.
Confronting my depression as a specific illness was a crucial turning point for me; viewing it as a nebulous, innate inability to be moved or motivated by anything is maddening and defeating. The diagnosis shifts the blame elsewhere, but even those theories have an unsatisfactory end point. The reality of both—psychotherapy and various anti-depressants—often presents a lack that is noticeable in between the periods where it is not. There are days where all your carefully arrived-at treatments just feel like temporary, faulty fixes.
Merkin has yet to try electroconvulsive therapy, but she has been on medication combos that have inhibited her ability to pee on her own. She is currently on a handful of anti-depressants that are better in that regard, and sees a therapist. In her best moments these things help, but her worst moments still come, where "...nothing makes sense to me. Everything seems permeated with meaninglessness, from the people filling their grocery carts at Fairway to the magazines I get in the mail," she writes. She doesn't understand the things that "upper-middle class women do" to upkeep their lives, she continues later in the book. Even while she had a nice, solitary office in the New Yorker building, she hardly wanted to show up for work.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy asserts that that the key to happiness is simply replacing all your bad and unhelpful habits with good ones. I just started this treatment about a month ago, and every day since has been an exercise in trying to be better than the person that I am, or was raised to be. It's hard and exhausting. I make improvements; I have setbacks. The effect is that I feel like I am inching forward, but I am never sure. On my terrible days I let myself think that it's all pointless. The constant source of pain for the depressed person seems to be this nagging feeling that the whole world is not quite right, no matter how you adjust yourself to fit into it. This Close to Happy engages with this feeling at times, though Merkin doesn't quite take it seriously. (Indeed, it is somewhat dangerous for a depressed person to truly believe this.)
But there are therapeutic frameworks that suggest this could be more than a depressive's harmful thinking. Around the same time that Merkin's book arrived at my desk to review, I also found the work of the clinical psychologist David Smail, who died in 2014. His view of depression went a step beyond the flawed family unit as origin. "We need to begin to think about the kind of society in which people are located because that's where the damage is done," he explained in an interview for a British TV channel. Why are fathers distant? Why are mothers unkind? Why do some people feel despair even if they come from a happy home? "It's really a political question, which is a matter for everyone to address themselves to; to think about what kind of society you want, to think about what kinds of relationships between people do you want to encourage, and so on."
When I discuss this with Merkin during our call, we agree that life is bad. It's clear from her own case that money can't buy happiness—it can only buy the stints in psychiatry units, or therapy sessions, or however you take your self-care. Wanting to die while living among the rich and being one them, perhaps, makes the emptiness of our current setup and its values all the more pronounced.
"There's a lot that's terrible about life. I think some people have a guard up against it. They overlook it," she says. "I think that people who suffer from depression are sort of finely tuned to it. I write somewhere in my book that depression is the loss of necessary illusions. You need a certain amount of illusion to live." She adds, "Depression can be very humanizing. I've thought to myself, If [Donald] Trump suffered from some type of depression, he'd be a different person."
However, until we change the world, which might be more possible now than ever, we need to take care of ourselves and continue living. Merkin recognizes that life is all she has: "I think [suicide] affords a kind of—this is putting it strangely—a paradoxical relief to a very depressed person, to think there's one way out of it," she tells me over the phone. "I would somehow think if I commit suicide then I'll be happy, but where am I going to be happy?"
To that end, I ask Merkin where she finds meaning in her life. Since she abandoned Orthodox Judaism, she has been trying to find a new religion, a new illusion, ever since. Sometimes, she says, she finds it in her writing, and adds that she's attempting to start a new book. "Just getting caught up in the thinking and doing brings a sort of meaning," she says. "I have a Chinese fortune cookie scotch taped to my computer which says 'An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.'"