Literary Depression

In my last post, I talked a bit about Matt Haig’s literature-heavy antidote to depression, and mentioned that his own book had helped me immensely during some of my most despairing moments. That was true.

I also said that reading a book tipped me into the first quasi-depressive episode I ever experienced. That was true, as well.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that contradiction, lately. I think that Haig is right when he says that reading is a pathway out of ourselves, and out of minds that are turning on us. But I also think that that outward journey can have devastating effects when we crash back into ourselves too suddenly.

I was sixteen the first time I felt truly, intensely miserable, and it was all because I had just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not being a big Sirius Black fan, though, I wasn’t miserable for the reason you might expect (um, spoiler alert?). I was miserable because reading about Harry’s misery had brought home to me the fact that my own unhappiness was categorically different than his, and—I thought—much worse.

It’s odd, because I don’t remember feeling particularly depressed in the months before I read the book. But my teenage years were rocky, on the whole; I developed problems with anxiety and self-image, I had a very strained relationship with my father, and—outside of a small circle of friends—I tended to feel out of place. Those aren’t particularly unusual adolescent experiences, of course, but they did conspire to make me somewhat less than happy—if not consciously miserable—for a good chunk of the time.

And then I read a book where there was rhyme and reason to the main character’s suffering, and I just couldn’t stand it. As bleak as things looked at the end of that book, there was never really any doubt that the series would end in victory. And (even more to the point) there was never any doubt that every bad experience Harry had had would ultimately be turned to good, in the sense that it would prove meaningful—narratively, cosmically, you name it. I remember, for instance, feeling intensely jealous of the kind of grief Harry could experience; certainly it was sad that Sirius had died, but then, this was a story with ghosts and talking portraits—was there really any question that he would reappear, somehow?

This probably sounds like a spiritual crisis, and I’m sure in some ways it was, but I now realize that it was also a wake-up call. I said earlier that reading the book caused my depression, but in point of fact, I must have been mildly depressed before I ever started it. Because the really excruciating part of the experience was the realization that everything both around and in me felt meaningless, and had for some time.

Everything—but particularly my own unhappiness.

(Feelings of meaninglessness are, of course, a sign of depression. At the time, though, it would never have occurred to me that there was anything unusual about the way I felt, both because it seemed so patently obvious that everything was meaningless, and because I associated pathological, depressive feelings of meaninglessness with apathy. What I felt, though, was the opposite of apathy; the color had been leeched out of everything around me, and no longer being able to see that color was agony—a constant ache for something I wanted but couldn’t have.)

Long story short, I spent the next couple of months in a state of newly-awakened misery, unable to find pleasure or value in much of anything and feeling the absence of value as a personal betrayal (One reason I so adore Les Misérables? These lines: “I love him / But when the night is over / He is gone / The river’s just a river”). When I pulled out of the depression, it wasn’t because anything had changed—change was not what had pushed me into depression in the first place. Maybe my body and brain had simply worn themselves out maintaining such fever-pitch levels of desperation. All I know is, every depressive episode I’ve experienced has (mercifully) lifted regardless of my own actions.

What’s interesting, though, is that those other episodes of depression have also been punctuated by literature (as well as music and film). And unlike Haig, I can’t say that’s always been a good thing. When my emotional state is precarious, it’s often a book that tips me over the edge, and it usually happens because the fall from a world full of meaning to one that feels increasingly and pointlessly bleak is too abrupt, too painful. In other words, it’s not the “depressing” works that devastate me, but the hopeful ones; on the whole, it’s probably safer for me to watch, say, Long Day’s Journey Into Night than The Lord of the Rings.

This is unfortunate, because my tastes typically tend more toward idealism. I have to admit, though, that tallying up the number of times that literature has been the catalyst for an episode of depression has made me even more aware of the power of books—for good and for bad. I once said—only somewhat flippantly—that I wasn’t sure I’d ever loved an actual boyfriend as much as I love Sydney Carton, and for the most part, I’m okay with that; I love reading because it’s an intensely emotional experience. What I’m starting to realize, though, is that that intensity cuts both ways; I’ve bounced back from real-life trauma (e.g. medical emergency and surgery) faster than I have from reading some books.

A day in the life of an English major, I guess.

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Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

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