The Raw Nerve of Pain

Yes, I think of her as a victim of her time. You’re OK,” there’s a way in which I agree with you. As it was, she did become a teacher. I would say my daughter is complicated and moody, the word my mother used about me, but not particularly depressed, I’m happy to say. It isn’t easy to cover it up in the end. Daphne Merkin: I went through different stages writing it. I move in fairly, if you want to call them that, sophisticated circles. We do talk. I wouldn’t watch TV. The last time I was enormously depressed frankly wasn’t so, so long ago. When I was very, very depressed, it was referred to as a vegetative depression. Right. When she was very young, I would leave. She knows little bits and pieces of the book, but she hasn’t read the whole book at all. It will taper off and then recur when it recurs. Right. Writing the book, I became more aware that depressions don’t last. They stop, and they recur. I think the real issue for me is depression is unbelievably isolating. That was my hope. And writing not ingratiatingly but seductively, compellingly so that you’d want to read about it. I sensed that with your book, but you also talk about her drinking and things like that. She couldn’t finish school. Yes, I have. I know that I wanted to write a readable, hopefully not too depressing book about depression, and in that way make it a seductive book in spite of the subject. I’m going on about Trump because I’ve been thinking about him a lot today. The thing about candid autobiographical writing is you never know what the writer didn’t say. Certainly more up front. Have you ever talked to her up front recently about the mistakes that your mother made and whether she feels that you’re making them? One thing you can do is coax yourself along in a form of self-talk. They talk about AA, but depression has another connotation. With rare cases, it completely remits, and people are never depressed again. I mean, people’s experiences matter to them, and it doesn’t always help to say, “Think of the starving in India or China,” to a child who doesn’t want to finish her food. I mean, there are things I don’t write. I think about the experience that my parents went through, because my mother used it strangely. It’s hard to function, hard to focus. It’s not you fighting yourself. I go nuts when people say he’s narcissistic like that’s the whole answer. The opposite of depression is feeling moderately content. … I think she had a lot of ambition. I think the kind of severe depression I was trying to describe in the book comes with a lot of stuff. I think she takes all this with an enormous grain of salt. I don’t keep many secrets. The use of it is too out of whack. You don’t eat. Maybe that has its own drawbacks, to not spare her enough. I think the people who do best altogether in this whole period are people who take it in and then put it aside. Some people said to me they didn’t realize I was depressed, and I guess they read it with a degree of dismay that they didn’t realize this. There’s being made depressed by Donald Trump, as I expect many people are. However, I will say that I think the fact of leaving Germany, particularly for my mother, having very close relatives on both my parents’ sides who perished in the Holocaust, my mother was enormously marked by it. You can’t say about everything, “Well, it’s not Auschwitz,” and therefore it’s tolerable to a child. He seems unhappy but not depressed. That’s undoubtedly what leads to suicide: the idea that you’re going to be stuck in this painful, in a way noisily painful yet also silent, illness forever. There were periods where I was depressed and didn’t write. I don’t know that many people who are inclined to depression who don’t also have a certain empathic mode. The British mandate took over their house. This is again going to maybe sound reductive, but when you’re really, really depressed, you’re sort of embattled in yourself. I think most people who have been in one would say that. I think of writing as yet another way in which I threw my wits and my charm, ostensible charm, at this subject of depression. Even though I said you can’t say to a child, “You’re not dying. … “My mother was only nice to me when I was sick,” Merkin writes, in one of many passages that take on added meaning as the book unfolds. Another thing I’ve thought about is that depression, or a degree of it, is humanizing. I think one of the hardest things about being in a severe depression is that you don’t think it will end. Bringing up an extreme, drastic, historical event of genocide didn’t make me feel any better when I was homesick in sleepaway camp. There were times when I was significantly not depressed. I didn’t read. You have biological predisposition, but then you need triggers in your life. She probably would have pursued some form of fuller career. They had very little money. Isaac Chotiner: What, if anything, about the act of writing the book changed the way you think about either your own depression or depression more generally? My guess would be that you are also pretty upset about what’s happening in the world. I think one thing that helps even in these times is to try and focus on meaningful work—that it’s not all for naught because there’s a mad king in the White House. When I wrote this first piece about being hospitalized for depression when I was at the New Yorker, it wasn’t the kind of thing people talked about even if they were depressed. It happened to have been when I tried going off medication last summer. I suppose though one difference would be that you’re able to talk to her in a more up-front way than your mother was able to talk to you about certain things, right? People say, “Oh, I read the newspaper today, and I got depressed,” which makes it seem more ordinary. I was thinking to myself, “OK, Trump is here, but we’re not living in siege mentality in truth.”
Yet, Daphne, yet. With Donald Trump, it is disturbing and depressing, but not in so personal a way. I didn’t mean that she was a major alcoholic. It’s also, in milder forms, something that everyone goes through. It usually does come with a degree of empathy. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become—and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.”
I spoke to Merkin, who has contributed to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine for many years, last week. Cumulatively, it gave me some kind of perspective on depression and its landscape. You haven’t been bombed by napalm. You withdraw. Yeah. No, I do worry. How would you compare your moments of bad depression internally versus what you feel now about the world? It remains somewhat more stigmatized partly because it’s elusive. I am not asking you to quantify—
You can’t. It hasn’t stopped. It’s essentially enervating. I feel she was burdened with witnessing some of my depression at its most severe. Even in a sophisticated place of employment like the New Yorker, it wasn’t like people talked about this kind of thing. You don’t talk much. Last time I happened to watch The Deer Hunter, I was watching those horrendous Viet Cong scenes. I still don’t think functioning people talk about depression much. What does your daughter think of the book? If Donald Trump suffered from depression at all, as opposed to a variety of sociopathology including but certainly not limited to narcissism, he’d be a different man. It had horrendous results. Anyway, I couldn’t cover up when I was very depressed. In one passage, you write, “I have hurled all the charm and wits I have at my disposal against my proclivity to depression, such that it would be difficult for even close friends of mine to detect how low I am at any given time.” Was the act of writing the book, ironically, a conscious example of trying to throw your wits and charm at your depression? You can’t say these are its symptoms, this is what it looks like. Correct. You never worry that writing will make it difficult for her? I agree. I don’t want to sound too glib or self-helpy, but are there any coping mechanisms that you would recommend for people who are dealing with situational depression right now? (She also details the way in which her parents, who escaped Nazi Germany, ignored her and her siblings and allowed a nursemaid to abuse them.)
The book recounts her hospitalizations and the complex relationship she has with her own daughter, now 27. I wrote a piece some years ago for the Times called “Is Depression Inherited?” attempting to clear up that depression is at best 50 percent genetic. I think things would have gone very differently for her had that not happened. Yes, and that’s also what makes it problematic in its more severe forms. Her father was an upper-middle-class lawyer, and they went to what was then Palestine. Yes. That’s reactive depression, which the whole world suffers from, getting depressed in response to depressing circumstances, versus depression from within. She saw me very, very depressed. But usually it does have a life of its own, and it is not all that predictable. They talk about rehab. Do you know what I mean? During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her attempts to parent differently than her own mother, how writing the book changed her outlook on her own life, and what lessons she has for those who feel despondent about Donald Trump. She also wrote. This is my last reference to Trump for this conversation. With or without medication, they have a lifespan. I read her that scene actually because I was worried she wouldn’t like it. Depression, she writes, causes someone to lose “the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Daphne Merkin’s new book, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression, is at once an exploration of her own mental health and a memoir of her experiences growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family with a complicated, domineering mother. At 16, she had to leave Frankfurt, which she very much loved. My daughter is a deeply, deeply independent-minded soul. Her life dramatically changed. I don’t think they suddenly abate. I do feel I wish I could have protected her against that. What has been the response to the book from people you are close to? Let me hasten to say that my daughter makes it a habit to not read most of what I write, I think self-protectively. I think I quoted Diane Keaton saying, “Everyone’s a little depressed.” The word depressed is thrown around a lot, as you just said. I was going to add “yet” myself. It both partakes of a serious illness and doesn’t look like a serious illness. That part I read to her. You say very clearly that you don’t want to make the same mistakes with your daughter and that you hope that your daughter doesn’t struggle with depression. How did writing the book change the way you thought about your mother? I mean, there’s a much wider range, if you ask me. I think at the very end of the book I said the opposite of depression isn’t some state of great, extraordinary happiness. The one perverse thing that makes me feel weirdly better is that I sometimes say to myself, “ We could be living through the Khmer Rouge or the Holocaust or whatever.” And this in fact connects to your book. But I don’t act like she can’t know things. They don’t walk around with this pervasive “the world has become Trumpified.” I don’t know.