Anyone who has ever had any form of depression will be able to tell you it makes you question yourself in all sorts of picky and painful ways. To add insult to injury, sometimes there is the added question of whether you’re doing depression the right way or not. You get all the right feelings, but short of shoving a copy of The Sylvia Plath Omnibus in people’s faces, it is hard to get people to take it seriously. I personally find this an issue (because issues are something I didn’t have enough of). Because I can’t afford to see a therapist or sustain a heavy drinking problem, everyone assumes my problems aren’t real. I get nauseous if I smoke, so I can’t go outside and weep and dramatically wave around a cigarette. I can’t afford drugs, I have never felt a real need to cut myself because I’m still too sensible, and I have an urge to throw things at the screen when I see people doing depressing, attention seeking updates on social networking sites, so that’s out. Sometimes the idea that I can’t even do depression right is the most depressing thought of all.
For a practically uncountable number of years, the image of the depressed artist has been glamourised and plastered all over our pages and screens and canvases. A writer barely has any credibility with the average self-proclaimed bohemian university student unless they ended their own lives in some gruesome way, leaving behind a tome of tragically chic torture. As twee and popular as her work may be, Jane Austen will always be considered in a completely different stratosphere to the Woolfs and the Plaths. While Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet is certainly considered to be somewhat relatable for independent women that are ahead of their time, other than her witty quips against social boundaries, we have to admit her life was irrefutably boring.
There’s only so much wandering from room to room and from field to field one can do, only so much getting one’s hem dirty in the mud one can do, without wanting to casually stab one’s own eyes out. And where is all the mental illness that is so chic nowadays?! All that is not to say that a mundane life is the reason for the lack of support from the edgily upset Plath fan-girls. Esther Greenwood, of the much dog-eared, bedside-tabled The Bell Jar, is very much a victim of her own mind-numbing life. The key difference between the boring lives of Bennet and Greenwood is that the latter is considerably more dissatisfied with it. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the protagonist’s life, as long as they are totally melancholy with it, so that the reader can feel justified about being completely unhappy with their own lives. And if it comes from a place so real within the author that they topped themselves a short time later, all the better!
I can’t pretend to be immune to this sort of disposition. When I was 16 I picked up a copy of The Complete Dorothy Parker and felt as though I had found a printed and bound soul-mate. Her musings about the fact that girls with glasses get ignored by males, girls with brains get ignored by males, and girls in general will get taken advantage of and then ignored by males spoke volumes to me. Her views on the world were so bitter and tainted by her own unhappiness that I couldn’t help but feel a little bit justified. Not only was I allowed to feel the way I felt, but I could make a glamorous career out of it and be remembered and admired for years after my death. It was the happiest mentality I had come across in a long time! It was the same when I finally bought a copy of The Bell Jar. I devoured it in a day or two, lapping up each staggeringly sad line like some sort of gloom-addict, and afterwards feeling more and more okay about the fact that I was not at all okay.
It led almost entirely back to the fact that I was very much a creatively minded person, filled much more with fancy words and drawings than logic or numbers. This was a common thread in one side of my family; for generations there has been a steady flow of musicians, artists and writers who have a bit of trouble living in the real world. Ask them to learn an instrument or paint a picture or design something incredible and there would be no real hesitation, but unfortunately asking some of them to put down the bottle or have faith in their own ability proved too much. I am my grandfather’s grand-daughter, and the idea of turning my mental instability into a wine-fuelled art form will never really lose its appeal.
Sufferers of depression are glamorous drunks! They are the high-as-a-kite artist down the road, or the heroin addict on the posters on the backs of toilet doors. The creative depressed hang out together, and spend a day cutting down everyone they know with witty quips while merrily filling their pockets with stones and striding into lakes. They are some girl in the sixties with Winona Ryder’s face and a sneer to match the middle finger they raise to society. They are not some middle class shy girl with good manners and a penchant for floral dresses. They are not someone with a perfectly lovely family and friends and a life that really isn’t very difficult at all, technically speaking.
This is where one of the problems with proving myself to myself lies. Sitting on the bus, I’ll remember that I have some writing I need to do when I get home. I picture what I’ll do: I’ll sit on my armchair, writing in a notebook the fascinating yet well structured scribblings of a genius. Sipping red wine, my troubled thoughts will tumble out of me in snappy lines. For some inexplicable reason I always picture this in some sort of candle-lit half-light, even though it takes approximately 98 brain cells to tell you that that is terrible for your eyes. I may as well wear a felt cloche and wave around a cigarette holder, because in my mind the only way I can be one of the great writers is to be depressed and old-fashioned. In reality, the whole scenario seems very stark in comparison. I’ll get home, and immediately realise that I have absolutely no wine, and can not really afford to go and buy more. I find it more convenient to type on a computer, and any mood lighting will be completely sapped of mood by the migraine-inducing light of the screen.
I could sit outside on the back stairs, a cigarette dangling daintily from my shaking hand as I write my poems in a tear-stained Moleskine. However, smoking, I discovered a few years ago, makes me vomit every single time without fail, and I am of the personal belief that Moleskines are far too overpriced for my starving student’s budget. Anyway, the image would certainly be somewhat ruined if I stopped my tragic limericks every few minutes to vomit daintily over the side of the balcony.
These things may sound inconsequential or seem unnecessary to be depressed properly, but it is more so about getting justification from the outside world that my feelings are real. As a general statement, people I know, even people I live with, would not call me a depressed person. They wouldn’t even call me a sad person, and they would highly doubt that I am capable of feeling strong anger or debilitating unhappiness. I’ve heard people talk about mutual friends in hushed tones, about how they are worried about those people or how this person is clearly sad and that person needs help. This is where I wonder if I’m not doing it right. Do people need to get the concerned nod from other people to confirm that they are legitimately depressed?
I am not one to throw around the key words in my sentences, or pepper my conversation with hints at how I feel. However, it is different when I walk down the street, however. I seem to be unable to predict what sort of vibe I am giving off, and am often surprised by what I see in the reflection of shop windows or the expressions on passing peoples’ faces. Growing up, the number of times I’ve had people ask if I was okay reached an almost preposterously high amount. The thing was, these questions almost always came when I was perfectly happy and was in fact having quite an alright day, thank you very much. On the other hand, sometimes I will walk down the street feeling as though if there is not already a black cloud following me overhead, it is only a matter of time before my mood magically produces one of its own. These particular days I will catch my face in a panel of glass or a sunglasses stand and be surprised to find I probably look, at worst, a bit bored. I will enter shops and cafes and be served by people who will remain completely oblivious as to how awful I am feeling, and often it is the sympathetic glance of a stranger that is exactly what I am craving at those points.
I don’t know why it is that I crave the attention of strangers and peripheral contacts, but hide from the sympathy of the people I see regularly. The best I can come up with is that it is some sort of defence mechanism, or perhaps the need to keep some weird sense of mystery about me. There is also a fear of being seen not as someone with legitimate problems, but as a cliché, or a stereotype. You only have to go on to a website like Tumblr to find a sea of people flinging around terms taken straight from The Introduction to Psychology. There has always been a link between the creative, the young and the unhappy. As far back as the time when Aristotle was doing what he did best, creativity and melancholia have been seen as coming hand-in-hand. In the past thirty years however, and even more predominantly with the introduction and accessibility of the internet, there definitely seems to be a bit of a depression-chic trend.
Literature, movies and popular music have all had a part in this. Movies like Heathers made jokes about the popularity and contagion of suicide, Girl, Interrupted gave the angsty young female a pretty face, and sad music has become the domain of the most hip. People don’t just listen to Joy Division alone in their rooms or cry to the lyrics of The Smiths, these days they ensure the melancholia is a thing to be shared and bragged about. Books like The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides or Plath’s The Bell Jar put those who have lost their fight with the big black dog up on a pedestal. Woody Allen’s line from the film Annie Hall sums it up quite well; “Sylvia Plath; interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” It is this mockery of a mentality that I am afraid of, and probably because I may be as much of a guilty part of it as anyone.
While I know how I am feeling, it does fit an increasingly common mould quite well. I am young, quiet, a writer. I enjoy the works of Dorothy Parker, Susanna Kaysen, Sylvia Plath and John Kennedy Toole. I like sad music, sad films, sad books, sad art. There is a strangely addictive and delicious side to the darkness that comes with the downs, but if you admit that you probably cheapen your own condition in the eyes of others. In some ridiculous twist one of the most appealing things, one of the only good sides to this whole condition is the sense of uniqueness that comes with it – the sense of uniqueness that every single one of the many, many people who have the same issues feels. I don’t know if I’m doing it the right way or not, but without a doubt, the mould fits me like a glove.
On top of everything, there is a fear felt by some, including myself, that by fixing the problem you risk removing the thing that makes you do your best work. It is the cynicism and the stabbing words of anger and sadness that produce the biggest response from an audience. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a prime example of this. He wrote Tender is the Night in 1934, in the deepest abyss of his depression, and in turn produced one of the most complex novels of his whole career. David Foster Wallace wrote the widely acclaimed Infinite Jest while in the grips of clinical depression. While these geniuses were undoubtedly not happy with their condition, the honest truth is that it has inspired some of the best works of literature, art and creativity that the world has ever experienced. It’s the bittersweet up to the horrific down.
Even Wallace and Fitzgerald had their own unique ways of dealing with their depression. Wallace told very few of the people who knew him about the condition that he was crippled with. Apart from close friends and family, it was only through his work that people may have gathered that something was less than cheerful in his mind. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald spent his years partying wildly with his wife (and fellow closet-depressive) Zelda, and convincing their friends that not only was nothing wrong, but that things couldn’t be much more right. If two of the most admired troubled authors of recent history don’t even do depression by the book, you’ve got to wonder who wrote the book in the first place, and why you felt as though you had to read it.
This all may sound a little circular, and that’s simply because depression is. It starts with a splinter of discontent, and that should be it. Instead, however, it is followed with questions. No one else notices, so does that mean I don’t actually have a problem? To make them notice I would have to tick some stereotypical boxes, and if I have to force myself to do that, shouldn’t that make me question the seriousness of the whole condition? Is it impossible to have depression if Sylvia Plath’s poetry bores me to tears?
The reality is that sitting in front of a glary laptop writing articles that really only have undertones of the moody, rather than some overwhelming woe-is-me, hand-to-forehead poetry seems significantly less atmospheric than some tobacco and gin infused night at the Algonquin’s round table. But that’s how it is these days. People do much less drawing of moody sketches, instead posting photos of themselves looking tragically away from the camera on Facebook. They aren’t any less legitimate in their conditions, and I think it is safe to say that if the depressed creatives of the 50s and 60s had a webcam they too would look into the middle-distance and add a caption with a few question-rising, attention-seeking ellipses at the end. I’m not doing depression wrong, I’m doing it my way, and I couldn’t be happier about it.