I am, or so competent authorities inform me, a chronic depressive.
I hope I can say that without being mistaken for a guest on some daytime talk show. No one should read this as a sob story because, really, even my worst spells aren’t that bad. I don’t have Churchill’s Black Dog, or whatever Lincoln called his dips into the abyss. I’ve never taken medication, never attempted suicide, never been hospitalized, and — God knows — have never lost my appetite.
No, my type of depression consists mainly in leaping to the gloomiest possible conclusion in any situation, whether objectively good or objectively bad. Actually, “leaping” is a terribly chosen word; it implies a dash I lack. It would be fairer to say I roll over onto these ideas. If, while camping, you’ve ever rolled over onto a rock or a packed mound of earth that pressed into your ribs even through your sleeping bag, you’ve got the general idea. Imagine spending the night in that position — either because you can’t find the resolve to roll back, or because you’re sure rolling back will bring you into into contact with a scorpion nest. Now we’re on the same page.
For a more concrete example, let’s say I’ve written something that’s gone modestly viral. I will immediately think, “Well, that’s my last good idea used up.” If the tone of the successful piece happens to be light and playful, I’ll conclude that from now on I’ll be pegged as a fluff merchant. Some day, I’ll end up at a conference of Catholic writers, where I’ll be introduced to some heavyweight like George Weigel, who will say something dismissive, which will make me fluster and throw a punch, which he’ll slip and counter. John Allen, Jr. will write about it.
If it happens to be serious, I’ll imagine myself pigeonholed into writing nothing but polemics, which will bring me into a professional and social circle made up exclusively of polemicists. I won’t end up in any brawls, but everyone will make terrible company. We’ll have no choice but to hang around together, because no one else will want to hang around us.
I bother to bring this up now because of some advice Elizabeth offers in today’s First Things column: She exhorts Catholics to “…take some of one’s suffering and—rather than popping a pill—endure it for a bit; live with it and in it, and do something with it; make it worthwhile instead of meaningless.”
In all seriousness, this is a terrific idea. It reads like a solution to a spiritual energy crisis, a practical use for some abundant, easily overlooked natural resource — solar power for the soul, if you will. The problem is, to a high-functioning depressive, depression doesn’t look like suffering. It looks like a personality trait, or at worst, like one of those slightly-behind-the-curve spots into which accidents of birth plant everyone. Offering up a depressive reaction of the type I describe above would feel just about as whiny and self-dramatizing as offering up one’s hopelessness at long division.
There is, I think, among social conservatives, a general uneasiness regarding the use of clinical language to describe any personality quirk less grave than a persistent and earnest claim to be Napoleon. Unlike Michael Savage, few commentators would go so far as to predict that diagnoses of autism would drop by 99% if only more fathers invoked the Yiddish word for penis. Nevertheless, I contend their thinking follows that general drift: to speak clinically is to absolve morally. Or, as the catty mob wife in Goodfellas observed, “Depressed? Jeannie’s drunk! The woman spends her life in a nightgown!”
I am not expert enough on the subject to have formed an intelligent opinion. But where my own moods are concerned, my gut pulls me toward a vague sympathy with Signora Carbone (I think her name was), if not with Savage. Ihe fact that none of my depressive moods took me down before I became Catholic suggests none of them are worth offering now that I am Catholic. The idea of everyone’s joining his or her suffering to Christ sounds like a kind of potluck, and I’d prefer to show up with something more substantial than a small bag of Doritos.
On the other hand, it happens to be all I have at the moment. It certainly wouldn’t do to be stingy. To wait until I’d come down with leprosy would involve the same kind of grandiosity that made that nutty monk in Da Vinci Code wear his cilice about five notches too right. No, I might as well offer up what I’ve got. And feel silly over it. And offer that up, too.
Sometimes God hands you a cup, sometimes he hands you a shot glass.
– Max Lindenman