The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Poodle Bed’, by Darcey Steinke


On the essays shelf:

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey.

Another essay from Unholy Ghost, a collection with different writers writing about their experience with depression.

Darcey Steinke is a novelist. She wrote Suicide Blonde, among other things, but that book was a hit, translated into seven languages. In this essay, ‘Poodle Bed’, she writes eloquently and very very specifically about a bout of depression she experienced, following her parents’ breakup and a breakup with her boyfriend.

Since she was a child, she used to take her favorite blanket and create what her brother called a “poodle bed” in her closet, where she would curl up when she felt sad, or needed comfort. She still does this as an adult.

One of the reasons this is such an effective essay is that she stays personal and subjective. She is not trying to discuss Depression as a whole. She describes, blow by blow, what her experience was, and what she felt, and thought. This is the stuff that is so hard to get at. Depression dulls the edges of experience, things flatten out, and it is very hard to describe in a way that actually gets the experience across. One of the best evocations of depression (and psychosis, really) in literature is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now Raskolnikov is obviously a Travis Bickle-type, and so shouldn’t be lumped in with Depressives, per se – however, Dostoevsky’s description of what life feels like to Raskolnikov, its obsessions, its worries, and its flatness, his inability to connect, his isolation, is one of the greatest achievements in literature. That’s the thing about Travis Bickle: his behavior is often incomprehensible and even monstrous. But the genius of it (the writing, and the performance) is that we empathize. I wrote about that here: especially in terms of the painful scene with Peter Boyle. The destabilizing effect of Taxi Driver is that we are never allowed to separate ourselves from Travis’ outlook. It is a great work of compassion, when looked at in that context. Crime and Punishment works in the same way. Life for Raskolnikov is a bell jar of pain. He has no escape. And neither do we, when reading the book.

The way Dostoevsky does that is by staying specific. What Raskolnikov sees, thinks, feels, smells. The only way to approach a universal truth is by staying in the specifics. We see this time and time again in art. There is a fine line between being specific and being self-indulgent or exhibitionistic. Sometimes I read a personal essay about depression, and the person is unable to achieve that transcendent universalism: they don’t have the gift of transcendence. I wrote about that a little bit here, comparing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay about his Crack Up and the recent Elizabeth Wurtzel piece which got everyone talking. If I had to analyze the difference, I would say that Wurtzel lacks the distance required to really describe her own crack-up. She is still IN it. She’s also not as talented a writer as Fitzgerald, so there’s that, although I am still glad that she wrote the piece. I think she was doing her best to get at the truth of her situation. But there’s a strain of self-righteousness in the work that I think people were pissed off by, and also a lack of self-awareness. It is true that depression can dull your perceptions: you cannot see the forest for the trees. That’s part of the agony of it. You cannot think your way out of it.

Darcey Steinke, here, does not make Wurtzel’s mistakes. She has some distance from the crack-up, and can re-enter the experience through sensory details, which really resonate and last. You know she is saying, “This is what happened. This is how I felt. This is what I saw.” It is the opposite of self-indulgent (an accusation often thrown at depressed people trying to describe their depression, and believe me, it does not HELP.) I think trying to describe Melancholy, an affliction that has been with us since man was conscious, is one of the most important things a writer can attempt. Maybe YOUR life is all pretty ponies and happy endings, and you have a positive perspective that helps you weather the storms, but that is not true for a vast number of us, and it is great when a writer can actually crack open those seams and let us see what it was like.

It’s different for everyone. The human mind is wily, strange, and elusive. But I know I read Darcey Steinke’s piece about her poodle bed, and her baffled family, and her unbearable sadness, and although the particulars are different, I related. She is getting at some Big Truth here. I appreciate it very much.

Here’s an excerpt.

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey: ‘Poodle Bed’, by Darcey Steinke

I sent the red-haired boyfriend away that night, folded my futon in half, wedged it into a corner, wrapped the blue comforter around me, and sobbed. The identity I’d cobbled together was coming apart like tissue paper in water. I felt as if I had to hold on to the edges of the futon. My body began to feel as dull and dead as the bookshelf or the hardwood floor. At three in the morning I called my mother, who got so upset over my sobbing that she called my little brother, who was also living in the area. He dutifully came over in the middle of the night and slept on the floor beside my poodle bed.

In the morning he helped me pack up my stuff and drag the furniture to the street corner. In the late afternoon we took the bus up to Bernal Heights to his girlfriend’s apartment. My mother bought me an emergency plane ticket home even though I already had a bus ticket to Virginia; she understood I couldn’t handle the droning three-day ride. My brother ordered Chinese food and we ate silently while I cried. He was afraid to touch me, and when I clung to his neck, he patted my back, his palm flat and awkward. I knew my brother loved me but his gesture embarrassed me. His girlfriend was more comfortable with my endless crying. She made me a kind of poodle bed on their couch with a woven Mexican blanket and a tapestry pillow stuffed into a white case. They slept on the other side of the French doors and the form of their bodies under the blanket, spooned together, made me feel like a disembodied spirit. They were vital people with an apartment and a singular, loving relationship. I had killed myself and was only a ghost now come back to lurk around and mooch off their young lives.

When a strip of light appeared on the horizon, I got up to shower. I remember the spray of water, the way the first light fell into the liquid strains and made it look metallic, and how the water seemed to scald my body. I glanced out the little bathroom window. The scene was like a miniature medieval painting, with slanted roofs spread over a pinkish mountain, and again I had the painful sensation that I was dead, or worse, had never been born. Time zigzagged sideways. I didn’t exist, so I could take no pleasure in the material world. In fact, I held a grudge against everything that contained mass, from the bar of soap in the dish to the navy shower curtain with the overly cheerful and red dashes of color.

My brother rode with me on the airport shuttle bus. I remember the faces of the people coming out of their homes, and how each time a new person with an anxious expression stepped inside and sat down on the vinyl seats, I felt sadder. Everything seemed to increase my misery, the changes in the morning light, the blue mailboxes on the occasional street corner, the fact that a whole year of my life had been wasted. I felt like I’d been found incompetent and fired from my own life.

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4 Responses to The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Poodle Bed’, by Darcey Steinke

  1. Jennchez says:

    I have been reading these excerpts you have been posting and it never fails to amaze me how this soul sucking disease effects so many different lives.
    I find it incredibly brave that you talk so openly about you own struggles, that in itself makes others feel they are not so alone. Sadly you also open yourself up to the nutballs. In my experience though they are the ones that have the hardest time coping.
    My husband calls my depression “The Tsunami”. I will be going about my day, birds are singing, and BAM The Tsunami of depression crashes over me and the undertow drags all those whom I love and love me in return under with it. More often than not it a long, painful tiring swim back for all. No warning no nothing. Then the long time of feeling of what we call “no nothing”.
    Thank you Sheila for helping those of us with this disease not to feel so alone.

    • sheila says:

      Jennchez – comments like yours mean so much. There have been more nutballs than usual, although not commenting on these posts – so I’m not sure if there is a connection. A lot of undifferentiated rage out there. Anyone who writes openly and vulnerably takes the risk of being attacked. But that’s okay: I’d rather be me than them any day of the week!

      Ugh – the tsunami. It does feel like an outside force, does it not. I am sorry to hear of your struggles, and glad to hear you have a support system (or, at least your husband) who understand and can help you out.

      Hang in there!! :)

  2. Paul says:

    I’ve been.. not liking.. appreciating these essays more than I expected. I’ve gone through some dark times and these days usually avoid thoughts in that direction. You know the bit about the ‘abyss looking back at you’. However there is something unexpectedly comforting or grounding about reading these excerpts – I’ll have to think about reading the book.

    One thing you might or might not find funny: on reading the first essay I mistook that the book was editted by ‘Neal Cassady’. Now that would be some bizarre collection of writings..

    • sheila says:

      Paul – I hear you on the abyss!! Carrie Fisher has a great line in Wishful Drinking, where she says to even speak about her bipolar is to “summon” it (or at least the fear that it will be summoned). I very much relate.

      Neal Cassady – hahahaha. Yes, that would be a very interesting collection indeed!

      Thank you for commenting. I am glad to hear from others who struggle.

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