Recommend writing about depression
July 2, 2010 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Looking for writing or works about depression and the experience of depression. Bonus points if they're from people who are not only known for being depressed. Pre-blog works (like from Churchill, Lincoln, etc) preferred.

I have heard the term "black dog," I have heard Lincoln was depressed, I've heard of various allusions to writers/authors/people in history being depressed, but I haven't been able to find much dedicated writing by the sufferers themselves about depression. I'm not looking for a blog-type accounting or a self-help guide, as I would like pieces that are a little more intimate and not written so much for an audience as for oneself. Do you have any recommendations for works that you've found particularly elegant or apt?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The quintessential piece is William Styron's Darkness Visible.
posted by decathecting at 11:13 AM on July 2, 2010

Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is a biography of depression as well as an exploration of the experience of depression from tons of different angles. Beautifully written and intellectually engaging.
posted by Tin Man at 11:14 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Kay Jamison is a writer and clinical psychologist. She also is bi-polar and has written extensively about both her manic and depressive episodes. An Unquiet Mind is very good. Although she tends to swing more to the maniac side of the disorder, she also had significant depressive episodes.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:15 AM on July 2, 2010

Also, although it wasn't written by him, the Rolling Stone article published after David Foster Wallace's death by suicide is one of the most heart-breaking accounts of severe depression that I've ever read. It contains a lot of DFW's own writing about his experiences. Unfortunately, I can't find it online right now but I'm sure it's out there.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:19 AM on July 2, 2010

I was going to recommend The Noonsday Demon too. I haven't read it, but I've heard great things about it from loved ones who have.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:21 AM on July 2, 2010

Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, famously the only book that got Samuel Johnson 'out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise'.
posted by permafrost at 11:22 AM on July 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Um, Sylvia Plath sure as hell was known for it, but when I was at a low point, getting treated in hospital and all that, a friend gave me a copy of her poem "Tulips." It came at a good time. The part I remember most was the following.

Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free -
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.

posted by ifjuly at 11:23 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best thing by David Foster Wallace about depression -- more or less the only thing explicitly about it, actually -- is his short story "The Depressed Person."
posted by escabeche at 11:27 AM on July 2, 2010

the Rolling Stone article published after David Foster Wallace's death by suicide

Seconding this. If you can find it, it's absolutely incredible. I read it like four or five times over a few months, and each time it changed the way I thought about depression and suicide.
posted by sallybrown at 11:30 AM on July 2, 2010

It looks like Rolling Stone doesn't have the article online anymore, because it was expanded into a book by David Lipsky that just came out.
posted by Tin Man at 11:36 AM on July 2, 2010

This is an anthology of writers writing about depression, there are some really good bits in there. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression.
posted by capnsue at 11:43 AM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: When I say "known for it" I guess I was trying to avoid Web 2.0 experiences of depression, where a writer becomes famous specifically for writing about their depression and such writing is subsequently influenced by the readers reading the blog at any moment. I guess I'm looking for personal, not so much "meta" experiences of it.
posted by Anonymous at 11:52 AM on July 2, 2010

Seconding Andrew Solomon. Haunting and exquisitely written.
posted by TrarNoir at 11:54 AM on July 2, 2010

Lincoln's Melancholy contains some of his own writing about the feelings that modern readers interpret as depression. The book is not exclusively written by Lincoln, but rather an examination of his life & presidency through the lens of depression. Some of the author's conclusions are weak, but I found it fascinating to read an account of depression from an era before it was considered a genuine disorder, and that's what made reading the book worthwhile.

"The Depressed Person" is definitely worth finding. It's incredibly powerful if you have experienced depression or been close to someone who has. It can be a painful read, though, especially considering that Wallace was unable to overcome his illness in the end.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 11:56 AM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: FYI, David Foster Wallace's story "The Depressed Person" is available online in an archive of his work Harper's Magazine maintains.
posted by davemack at 12:05 PM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's companion, suffered from "dark moods" all the time and wrote some poems and a few pieces. There's no specific topic about depression, but read some of her letters in the complete version of "The Story of My Life" and her biography by Nella Braddy, and it shows up throughout. She had an awful childhood (among other things her father beat her and then committed suicide; she was then put in a poorhouse as a 10-year-old), as well as an "Irish" temper, and fought those demons her entire life.
posted by Melismata at 12:07 PM on July 2, 2010

Woops, that wasn't clear. Her father beat her (he was an alcoholic), but because he couldn't take care of her she was put in a poorhouse. He then committed suicide later, a fact she didn't find out until many years later.
posted by Melismata at 12:09 PM on July 2, 2010

Nthing "The Depressed Person." It was harrowing even before DFW's suicide lent it such awful context.
posted by Skot at 12:29 PM on July 2, 2010

I'd reccomend Good Old Neon over The Depressed Person. It's in his collection "oblivion".
posted by phrontist at 12:46 PM on July 2, 2010

I also came in here to recommend Andrew Solomon. I first came across him when I read his Anatomy of Melancholy (archived) in the New Yorker over ten years ago. The article affected me greatly and has stayed with me all these years.
posted by triggerfinger at 12:50 PM on July 2, 2010

Malignant Sadness by Lewis Wolpert; The Scent of Dried Roses by Tim Lott.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 12:56 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kay Jamison, referenced above, has also written a superb study of the link between creativity and (manic) depressive illness. She explores this theme by investigating the writings, biographies and family trees of famous (historical) writers and poets, such as Edna St Vincent Millay, Lord Bryron etc, for evidence of depressive illness. She provides many excerpts from their creative work, letters and diaries to show their experience of mood disorders.

The book is called Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and Artistic Temperament.
posted by Ladysin at 1:34 PM on July 2, 2010

I was trying to avoid Web 2.0 experiences of depression, where a writer becomes famous specifically for writing about their depression

This one may be an edge case for you, but Heather Anderson of Dooce didn't become famous for her depression. Sure, she blogs about depression, but you might be able to find something interesting in her book on her experiences with post-partum depression.
posted by thisjax at 1:56 PM on July 2, 2010

To expand on ifjuly's comment, I wholeheartedly recommend Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She writes beautifully about exactly what you're looking for.
posted by MidsizeBlowfish at 2:24 PM on July 2, 2010

Elizabeth Wurtzel sort of became famous for being depressed, but Prozac Nation is still quite, if sometimes maddening (although perhaps it is good in part because it is maddening).

Prozac Diary (the drug was sure popular in book titles in the 1990s) by Lauren Slater is also good. Jeffrey Smith's Where the Roots Reach for Water is a very different take on the treatment of depression, but it's a good portrayal of what it's like.

In certain respects, a good bit of Joan Didion's The White Album is about depression, and some of Jane Kenyon's poetry (some of which is in the aforementioned Unholy Ghost) deals with being depressed.

Oh, and I love Martha Manning's Undercurrents.

About ten years ago I was working on an annotated bibilography of books by or about people with mental illnesses aimed at medical students, but then I got depressed and never finished it. Feel free to memail me and I can try to look it up and find some more titles, if you're interested.
posted by newrambler at 2:30 PM on July 2, 2010

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (excerpt).
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:57 PM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sunbathing in the rain by Gwyneth Lewis
posted by sianifach at 3:10 PM on July 2, 2010

I found I Had a Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone a good book to discuss depression with family members who really had no understanding of the illness.
posted by arcticseal at 4:08 PM on July 2, 2010

Most people will give you the usual suspects, so let me add my personal favorite: Notes From The Underground. I know I've written about it elsewhere, but it's a profound work of psychological insight.

While not exactly about depression, it's fairly obvious he is depressed. But more importantly, the reason for his depression is an inability to connect with any other people. He sees them, he has remarkably precise observations about their character, but he completely misses/misinterprets their connections to him. He can only process reality in one direction, inwards: what it does to him, how it makes him feel, the impact of it on himself. Everyone else in the world is relevant only in the way they affect him.

Because of this perspective, he cannot help but be depressed; and, from my own experience, that narcissism is by far a more significant factor in today's "clinical depression" than anything else.

Pre-empting some caps lock emails: I'm not saying narcissism (which is NOT grandiosity) is why they're depressed (though I'm not not saying it); I am saying that unless that narcissism is addressed first, the possibility for "remission of symptoms," let alone anything resembling happiness (and not a blah sense of a lack of unhappiness) is impossible.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Late to this, but Fitzgerald's 'The Crack-Up' needs to go on the list: it's fantastic that Esquire, the original venue for its three-part publication, has put it online.

There are interesting works on melancholy from the eighteenth century: passages in Boswell's journals, short essays by Samuel Johnson, a lot of poetry. There's a vast array of American poetry from the middle decades of the 20th century -- Robert Lowell's 'tranquilized fifties' -- but as Jamison and Anthony Storr have written, art happens when you come out on the other side.
posted by holgate at 8:01 PM on August 9, 2010

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