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‘This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression’ by Daphne Merkin ****

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression is, says its blurb, Daphne Merkin’s ‘rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression.’  This Close to Happy is Merkin’s fourth book, following two works of non-fiction and a novel.  Memoirs and illness narratives such as this have been rather popular in recent years, and are, I feel, incredibly important tools for helping those who do not suffer with depression or linked mental illnesses to empathise with those who do.  I am in the former camp in this respect, but know a lot of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with various forms of depression and anxiety, and want to ensure that I can be as well informed as to what others are going through every day as is possible.

There is still a stigma and a taboo about mental illnesses such as depression, and Merkin sees the importance of being as transparent as she can in her account, in order to show that one cannot simply ‘man up’ or ‘pull oneself together’; depression is as serious and life-threatening a condition as a lot of physical ailments.  Of this, she writes: ‘In spite of our everything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure…  We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority…’.

9780374140366Merkin has been hospitalised numerous times, most poignantly in grade school for childhood depression, for the postpartum depression which she suffered when she had her daughter Zoe, and following the death of her mother, when she suffered with ‘obsessive suicidal thinking’.  From the very beginning, Merkin is as honest as she can possibly be about the tumultuous thoughts which tumble around in her mind on a daily basis, and the effects which this has upon her life.

Merkin continually compares herself, at least at first, to others, and how her mindset stops her from being able to cope in the world.  In her introduction, she writes the following, which gives one an insight into how she sees herself, and her place within society: ‘Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school.  You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together, nothing adds up and all you can think about is the new nerve of pain that your mind has become…’.

In the first chapter, Merkin writes of “Everywoman”, describing certain scenarios and obvious reactions to them.  After her creative and insightful passages which are written in this way, she posits herself, ‘of course’, as the person within the example which she gives, and then says, ‘but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it.’  She goes on to say that the solidarity one finds when discovering that the “Everywoman” exists is comforting to her, as ‘there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.’

Merkin discusses the difficulties of diagnosing mental illnesses, honing in on her own experiences with depression when she writes the following: ‘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 as a presence.’  She also talks quite candidly about her experience of writing such an account, and the length of time which it took – fifteen years in all – from a publisher first asking her to put down her own actuality onto paper, following an article which she wrote for the New York Times.  Her depression acted as a block in this process.  ‘The slaying of ghosts,’ writes Merkin, ‘is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, reminding me to keep my head down and my saga to myself.’

I read This Close to Happy directly after finishing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which deals with the death of her daughter.  It proved a marvellous continuation in many ways; whilst Merkin and Didion have approached the topic of mental illness differently, and their prose styles are quite unlike one another’s, the continuation of themes certainly brought some cohesion to my reading.  In her introduction, as in Didion’s, Merkin discusses colour and its influence upon her moods, which was one of the most striking discussions within the book for me: ‘They come on, such suicidally colored periods, at times like this – I am writing this in the winter, at my desk in New York City – when the days are short, evening starts early, the sky lacks light, and you have ceased admiring your own efforts to keep going.  Although they can also come on when the day is long and the light never-ending, in early spring or ripest summer.’

Merkin demonstrates, through a series of memories and reflections upon her moods, that she can never be free of her depression, despite peaks in her life, and that she can be struck by symptoms at any point, without the slightest warning.  She examines her past to see whether being the child of Jewish-German immigrants of the Second World War generation altered her character, or whether she would have exhibited such feelings regardless.

This Close to Happy is not the easiest of books to read at times due to its content, but it is a determined and brave memoir, and one which I found very insightful.  To conclude, I admired the way in which Merkin includes rather startling facts about depression, which she prefaces some of her own experiences with.  For instance, 350 million people suffer with depression worldwide, and that, to me, is why books like this should be read by wide audiences; we all need to make an effort to understand one another in our chaotic world.

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‘The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness’ by Lori Schiller ****

The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller, which was first published in 1994, was February’s choice for my Mad Woman’s Book Club.  It sounded incredibly intriguing to me, and created quite a lot of buzz with other members.  Schiller’s account of her schizo-affective disorder, which contains elements of both schizophrenia and manic depression, has been written with the guidance of Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street journalist.

Schiller’s diagnosis was not reached until she was twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts.  Prior to this, she is in an almost constant state of turmoil; she wakes up hearing voices whilst at a summer camp when she is seventeen, and they remain with her.  To her strength, she does not let anything interfere with her education, but soon after she has finished her degree and is looking at beginning a career in a shared apartment in New York City that she is immersed within the mental care system.  ‘Along the way,’ writes Schiller, ‘I have lost many things: the career I might have pursued, the husband I might have married, the children I might have had.  During the years when my friends were marrying, having their babies and moving into the houses I once dreamed of living in, I have been behind locked doors, battling the Voices who took over my life without even asking my permission.’  Schiller’s description of these voices is often chilling.9780446671330

We are given Schiller’s opinion of events throughout, as well as those of her parents, brothers, friends, and psychiatrist – pretty much everyone who experienced the worst of it with her.  This use of multiple perspectives helps to fill those memory gaps which Schiller has about some of her darkest points, and gives a fuller picture of the disease and its effects.  The position of retrospect which Schiller, of course, has to take, is fascinating to draw out here.  It comes in a sort of double dose, I suppose; the book was written with several years of distance, but reading it in the 21st century allows one to see just how much things have altered with regard to  treatments being tailored to individuals rather than the mass.  The same can be said for the diagnostic process.  Those I know who have suffered with mental illness suggest that diagnoses are not made in such a trial-and-error manner as they appear to have been in Schiller’s case.

At the beginning of The Quiet Room, I felt quite distanced and wasn’t overly engaged with it.  It changed dramatically at around the fifty page point for me though, after which I could barely put it down.  Schiller’s case is harrowing; it takes an awfully long time for a diagnosis to be reached, and many treatments fail to work for her, either exacerbating her symptoms or making her withdraw further into herself.  One feels an awful lot of empathy for her.

The Quiet Room presents enlightening and scary details about firsthand drug use, which Schiller turns to when the more traditional treatments fail to work for her.  It is certainly a no-holds-barred memoir.  Throughout her ordeal, Schiller shows great bravery; when released after one of her earliest hospitalisations, she applies for a job in a psychiatric hospital.  The reading process involved here is intense, and rather draining at times.  It is difficult to really enjoy a book of this sort, but it is not difficult to admire the writer and her courage in making such a horrific story publicly available.  The Quiet Room is honest and powerful, and a must-read if you are at all interested in mental illness and its effects.

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An Update: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

At the end of 2016, I reread Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; I thought it would be an interesting idea to present my previous review, which probably dates from around 2013, along with my current thoughts.

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released. 9781860497926

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes <i>Girl, Interrupted</i> a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

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Update:

I reread Girl, Interrupted for my Goodreads book group in December 2016.  The work was far more fragmented than I remembered, and at times, Kaysen’s own condition and diagnosis felt a little overshadowed by those she was living in close confinement with.  This approach, and her choice to use others in her own journey of mental illness, was fascinating.  The scenes which she presents are almost disjointed on the face of it, but one soon gets the impression that the piece has been well structured.  The introspective sections which discussed Kaysen’s own health, and her place within the world, were those which I found of the most interest.

The historical and social context which Kaysen presents, from the Vietnam War to Kennedy’s assassination, firmly anchors the whole within the mid- to late-1960s.  What is surprising about the piece is both how different treatment appears to be in the twenty-first century, and the similarities which we can still recognise within our own societal treatment of the mentally unwell.  Scotland, for instance, still uses electroshock therapy, which sounds old-fashioned even in Kaysen’s account.  The smoke and mirrors which often surrounded which treatments were being given was surprising to me; there appears to be very little honesty with the patients, and little understanding of their own conditions at times.  The gender distinctions here are fascinating – for instance, musings of experiences which have occurred to Kaysen within the workplace – particularly from a standpoint almost fifty years in the future; again, similarities can be recognised within our own global society.  Upon my second reading, the camaraderie of those around Kaysen surprised me too; rather than being separated, the patients are encouraged to be together, from their leisure time down to their rooming.

Kaysen’s telling of her story is brave and heartfelt, and the insight which she gives into the institution of McLean and its treatments is fascinating.  She is essentially laying herself bare for the world to see.  I was left wondering whether any of the information which she relays has been partially or fully fictionalised, and whether the names of patients and nurses were changed due to anonymity.  This does not matter on the whole, I suppose – we must remember that I absolutely adored James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the furore surrounding its fictionalised scenes didn’t bother me at all – but I do like to think of Girl, Interrupted as a brutally honest account.  It has been highly well-styled, and intelligently written.  The advantage of hindsight, and her discovery of her patient notes detailing her Borderline Personality Disorder twenty-five years after she was released, are startling, and demonstrate how much treatments had moved on just in that relatively short space of time.  Kaysen’s ability to talk in a relatively removed and understanding way about her experience was a fantastic asset to the whole, and definitely one of the strengths of the whole piece for me.

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‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen (Virago)

I am probably one of the few not to have seen the film version of Girl, Interrupted, and was drawn to it instead by the quote which compares it favourably to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the back page.  I have coveted this book for years, and finally managed to find a copy in Fopp on my most recent trip to London.

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released.

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes Girl, Interrupted a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

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