The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Bodies in the Basement’, by Russell Banks


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.

Novelist Russell Banks (Affliction, Sweet Hereafter: A Novel, Cloudsplitter: A Novel) writes a fascinating account of dealing with his wife’s depression, something that I imagine many partners of depressed people would so relate to. He is married to poet Chase Twichell, and she also has an essay in the book. The two pieces reside back to back in Unholy Ghost, and what an interesting look at a marriage, told from both sides of the fence. Chase has clinical depression, and knows that she will be on psychotropic drugs for the rest of her life. She keeps her eye on new studies, tries new cocktails, anyone who is depressed knows that there isn’t just one magic pill that will take it away. Depression is wily, it can build up resistance. Her essay is good, but I was really taken with Russell Banks’ take on things. It’s quite specific.

He opens the essay by saying that when people who have read his books meet him, they are often surprised that he is not depressed. It seems like a man who could write a book such as Affliction (the title alone!) or The Sweet Hereafter must have a depressed outlook on life. Banks analyzes this and analyzes the role of fiction and fiction writers. Having seen depression up close and personal throughout his marriage, he believes that he would never have been able to write the novels he had if he had been clinically depressed.

Beyond that, from my experience of depression, which derives mainly from my continuing happy marriage to the poet just mentioned, a woman who happens to be clinically depressed, scrupulously self-analytical, and supremely articulate, I have come to believe that the consciousness of a depressed person rarely supports an attitude (or fiction) like mine. A depressed fiction writer with an attitude filled to the brim with sadness and anger nourished, not like mine by a hierarchy of value, but by her malfunctioning limbic-diencephalic systems, would probably be suicidal. Unable to separate her consciousness from such an attitude, unable to withdraw from it as the comedian withdraws from his comedy, she would likely be destroyed by it.

He writes about his marriage with beautiful tenderness. They were made for one another. They are happy. But there is a third person in the marriage. He equates it to living in a family where there is an alcoholic and the alcoholism is another member of the family, a silent hovering presence, always felt, acting on everyone. His wife’s depression was that third person. Often, he had to deal with BOTH: his wife and her depression, and he had to try to separate out the two things, which, as you can imagine, was not always easy.

There is such a thing as “depression logic”, a concept I really like. The experience of depression, as opposed to regular sadness, is so harrowing that the person suffering it comes up with all these different ways to survive it. Virginia Heffernen, in her essay in the book, calls her survival rituals The Pillars: I will go to the gym, to church, to work, and as long as I respect The Pillars, I can bargain with my depression to stay back. Depression Logic can be ruthless and incomprehensible to loved ones who are trying to understand or help. Heffernen describes telling her friends about her life and her feelings about it, and many of them would say, “You’re sounding very abstract.” That’s Depression Logic. The trick, for loved ones (and there are many many books out there devoted to people who take care of/love depressed people, with helpful tips), is to speak to the Person inside the depression, NOT the depression itself. Treat the depression like a third person. Not to be ignored, but to be put into perspective. In the chaotic experience of depression, the depressed person erects different survival techniques and explanations. If the depression has gone on for years, if the person has been depressed since she was a child, then these survival techniques will be well-honed, sophisticated, and, to some degree, impenetrable. Psychiatrists and therapists (the good ones) do not engage with Depression Logic. They recognize it for what it is, and call it out to the person (“That’s your Depression Logic talking.”), and continue to engage with the real individual. They recognize the disease at work. This is so so difficult to do if you are not a trained professional and if, like Russell Banks, you are married to someone who is depressed.

You become a caretaker. You become an adjunct psychotherapist. And yet you are not trained in the topic, and you are also more entangled with the person emotionally than a psychotherapist ever is. What is the difference between sympathy and enabling? How do you separate it out?

That’s what Russell Banks’ beautifully compassionate and honest essay is about.

An example from my own life of Depression Logic. In 2009, one of my Crack Up Years, I met my good friend Rachel for a beer. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months, and so she was quietly shocked at the change in me. I knew how bad I was, I’m not crazy – or, less triggering word, insensible: I was aware of the dire-ness of my situation and I was aware of my “affect”, so to speak, but by that point I was on the spiral down, and there was nothing that could stop it. This is how these things go. I was telling her what was happening. Because I was mid Crack Up, I can see now that I was hauling Depression Logic at her feet. “Here is how it is for me. Here is how it IS. This is how life is.” Depressed people will often defend their Logic, too, and ferociously: It can feel like it is the only thing between you and the abyss. Rachel didn’t say anything, just listened, asked questions. She’s a good friend. She listened, as I monologued about the truth about what was going on. She didn’t argue, she didn’t try to poke holes in my argument. I would have resisted that. Finally, I stopped talking. She thought for a long while about what I had said. And then she said (and it’s a comment that changed my life), and she said it in the gentlest and yet firmest way possible, it was Love, the way she said it: “You do realize, Sheila, that everything you just said is not true.” It was like she had poured a bucket of water over my head. And it was the WAY she said it. If she had said it in a scoffing or dismissive way, I would have been cut to the core. (But I don’t have friends like that. I am very fortunate.) The way she said it got through to me. I was startled. I have many good friends, all who had been helpful to me during that bad time, but nobody had said something like that in quite that way. For whatever reason, she cracked through the edifice of Depression Logic, with its austere purity and terrifying symmetry. I looked at her, devastated and startled, and said, “It’s not?” She shook her head, with the most beautiful look of sympathy. I took it in, I thought about it, and said, “Rachel, it FEELS so true to me.” She nodded. “I know.”

I have never forgotten that. In that moment, Rachel spoke to the Sheila underneath, the real me, not the sadness that had become my entire personality in 2009. Her gentle yet firm words, her refusal to accept my Truth from me, her insistence that what I was saying about myself was not true, and also her understanding that it felt SO TRUE to me, changed me. The episode was far from over, but her words resonated, echoed, and I still think of them.

There are times when I feel myself talking to myself about myself (how’s that for a bad sentence): If you’ve read me for a while, you know my thoughts on Narrative. How we create narratives for ourselves. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is so true. But what narrative? What if we choose the wrong one? People choose hurtful narratives for themselves all the time: “I’m a loser. Of course bad things happen.” “I am just a person who doesn’t deserve Love.” “I’m just not built to be successful.” “I’m selfish, mean, worthless.” Whatever. And so these narratives act on the confirmation bias. A bad thing happens, and instead of being able to put it into perspective (“sometimes bad things happen”), it is looped into your overall narrative for your life, it has confirmed your assumptions about yourself. “Of course bad things happen to me. This is exactly how I understand the world to work, and so of course I just keep getting slammed.” Nobody said depression didn’t manifest in selfish or self-involved ways. It is one of the most annoying things about it.

So the narratives persist. Here’s a post with some thoughts on narrative, and you can see some Depression Logic at work there (I had a desire to delete all of my 2009 posts in between April and October, but I’m leaving them up.) Here’s another big post about narrative, particularly when it comes to being an essay writer, a memoirist. Narrative changes then. It becomes even more conscious, it is something you sculpt, massage, work on.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often very helpful (as opposed to regular talk therapy) because it gets at the behavior, not just the causes (ie: bad childhood, bad puberty, traumatic event, whatever). You may understand the causes, but the behavior persists. The narratives we have for ourselves, especially those of us who struggle with mental illness to some degree, CAN be changed. You can’t change your childhood (although I have always loved that line from Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”), but you can certainly change your Narrative of it. And when the narrative has changed, when you tell yourself the stories of your own life in a different way, miracles in outlook-shifting can occur. Trust me. What Rachel was doing, in her gentle yet very firm way (she was NOT going to accept my version of the truth, because she recognized that she was dealing with the Logic of my Depression, not my real self) was saying: “The narratives you have chosen for yourself, the parameters of interpretation you have set, are not true.”

This is clearly a lifelong process. I go back to the Joan Didion quote. Telling ourselves stories is not just about writing a novel, or a poem, or a blog-post, or whatever. It happens in our own minds. How do we interpret world events? How would you describe the Vietnam War? You’ll tell it from your own perspective, and you have a Narrative about it, based on your understanding of history, politics, whatever. Telling ourselves stories is the human condition. For the Depressed person, if you can get at the stories you tell yourself, you often get to the root of the problem. Not so much the events itself (traumatic event, bad childhood, violent parents, whatever the issue is): but how you tell yourself the stories of these things.

I have traveled far from Russell Banks’ essay. Let’s get back on point. He writes about his love for his wife, and his feeling of helplessness when he would watch her go down into the trough. Also, fascinatingly, he writes about how he started to develop symptoms of depression himself, basically in solidarity. This is quite common. Depressives can be very Bossy, they can dominate a room. Banks felt that he needed to be open to the possibilities of his own sadness, as a way to understand his wife, but also because he wasn’t sure of his place in all of this: his marriage, his relationship to her. It seemed a requirement that he take on her view of the world. How do you separate out the Depression from the person? This is codependency speaking, something alcoholic families know well. But depression can operate in the same way. Russell Banks breaks down how that happened in his own marriage. It is very hard to understand depression if you have not experienced it personally. You say to yourself, “I’ve been sad sometimes”, “I’ve had low periods, I get it” … but depression is another animal entirely.

I imagine his honesty here has helped a lot of people, partners to depressed people, who just want to help, relieve, aid their loved one. It’s a great act of generosity to put yourself out there like this. The honesty in his revelation of being a “custodial male” with the body of a “failed father buried beneath” the “basement floor” … This is why he is a great novelist. You must be able to tell the truth on yourself, like that. Even in fiction. You must not shrink from such truths.

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey: ‘Bodies in the Basement’, by Russell Banks

The phobias first, for they appeared first and were the tip-off. For years, certainly since her adolescence, my wife had suffered from what we half-jokingly called “urbophobia”, fear of cities, especially New York City, an urb I rather loved, had visited all my life, and had resided in – from 1982 until 1988 (the year my wife and I set up housekeeping together in Princeton, New Jersey, where I was then teaching). Since my adolescence, I had responded to Gotham pretty much the way small-town American intellectuals have reacted since Whitman’s time, romanticizing its history like Thomas Wolfe, glamorizing its funky bohemianism like Kerouac, and embracing its varieties of humanity like a social scientist on speed. Everything about the city excited me and nourished my mind; nothing repelled or scared me (although, naturally, I avoided danger with the same rational care that I took when crossing streets against the lights – I always looked both ways).

Until, having failed to displace my wife’s phobias with my enthusiasm for the city, I began to see it with her eyes, instead of my own. The city hadn’t changed; I had. Now it seemed physically and psychically threatening to me, noisy and invasive, chaotic and cruel; for the first time, I found myself judging my numerous friends who continued to love the city as I once had, viewing them as somehow more parochial than I and sentimental and self-deluded. None of this, of course, was my wife’s doing; none of it was her desire – quite the opposite. She felt embarrassed by her fear of the city, handicapped by it, and the last thing she wanted was to share that fear with me. Yet there it was: in looking out for her, I had begun to look out with her. Failing to protect her from a thing she feared, I had come to fear it myself.

It was the same with all but a few of her other symptoms of depression. Although I had never suffered from migraines, I now worried that perhaps I would, or should. And although I had never slipped into the slough of near-suicidal despond that she sometimes endured, I began to magnify my own occasional dips and slips into morbidity and to rely less on humor to get me back on track and more on anxiety and agitated will, which, predictably, got focused on issues of control: the more I felt able to control matters both large and small, the less likely the fall into despondency. It was a middy effective solution, but the end result was a raised level of ongoing anxiety and the constant care and feeding of a fast-growing control freak.

My reaction to all this was to blame my wife – to be angry at her, first, for not having allowed me to cure her of her depression, and then for infecting me with it. Crude, I know, but not uncommon, I fear (especially among custodial males with the bodies of failed fathers buried beneath their basement floors). Happily, it didn’t take long for me to see that my wife was not responsible for my condition; I was. Physician, I told myself, cure thyself, and saw then that this self-inflicted “infection” was in fact a homeopathic cure, in which like cures like, and by means of which I was allowed to see the extreme and defining difference between my minor case of depression, contracted by my having confused empathy with sympathy, and my wife’s major case, which went, not with her choice of spouse or diet or job or residence, but with her brain chemistry. It went with her body. And bodies don’t have attitudes: they have consciousness.

In the intervening years, much has changed, and all for the better, partly because of my growing comprehension of the nature and etiology of my wife’ condition, but mostly because of the rapid development and deployment of antidepressants. In the meantime, I have learned a great moral lesson and have tried to apply it to as many aspects of my life with my wife and others as possible. I have learned to feel for my wife and to avoid feeling with her. To sympathize and not empathize.

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11 Responses to The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Bodies in the Basement’, by Russell Banks

  1. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I went to UNC with Russell Banks, and knew him then, and have read many of his books and been very happy for his terrific career. Thanks for putting this piece up! I shared one remarkable evening with Russell (and others) back in the day–the day in ’66 when Jack Kerouac came to town. If I can find my essay on that interesting 24 hours, I’ll send it to you, or repost it on my blog or something. Re depression, it is indeed rather like a dark cloud. I once suffered from two days of real depression as a side-effect of some sort of pain medication an oral surgeon had given me (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what caused it). When it “lifted” I was very aware that it had been there. During it’s stay things were just very very sad and dark, and that overall perception was as real as rain on the roof this morning. During that 48 or so hours, my life seemed an utter ruin, a pointless waste. Then on the 3rd day my usual attitude returned. It was remarkable.

    • sheila says:

      FB – wow, I would love to hear your reminiscences about Russell Banks if you can find them! It sounds fantastic!!

      Thanks for the comment, and your description of depression is right on. I think medication/surgery is often a trigger – Larry McMurtry’s essay in the book is all about that: no history of depression, but he fell into a trough of it after his heart surgery. Scary stuff.

  2. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I found the essay, did a little revision, and posted it:

    Thank you for your work!

  3. sheila says:

    FB – My God, I have goosebumps all over my freakin’ body reading that piece. Thank you so much. I will now read it again. I wish my father were alive – he would have absolutely loved hearing that story. Amazing.

    • sheila says:

      I was not alive during that time – but this was my parents’ generation – so I grew up surrounded by similar stories: the influence of Kerouac (my father loved the Beats), and the craziness of the time (brothers going off to war, draft numbers, the whole bit).

      You really capture the feeling of that time. How exciting that Kerouac would want to hang out – although it doesn’t surprise me. It was probably a relief.

      Beautiful piece.

  4. Sean says:

    Good piece. I’m going to go read the original work. Erecting pillars to give life form when it is formless. Such a sensible idea but such a task to implement when one is drifting in the foul gray fog. Next to impossible from the black pit.

    Melancholy not whiskey was invented to keep the Irish from ruling the world.

    • sheila says:

      Sean – yeah, the whole Pillars concept was one I recognized. The whole collection is good, lots of good pieces.

      // Melancholy not whiskey was invented to keep the Irish from ruling the world. //



      • sheila says:

        // Such a sensible idea but such a task to implement when one is drifting in the foul gray fog. Next to impossible from the black pit. //

        Sean: 100% cosign. So difficult to describe. Foul grey fog is very accurate.

  5. Melissa Sutherland says:

    This has been a go-to book for me since it came out. Sometimes when I feel as if I am the only person in the world who feels exactly “this” way, I reread parts of it and somehow manage to survive another day. I don’t think anyone can really describe depression, but these guys do a pretty damn good job. Thanks.

    • sheila says:

      I’m so glad to hear you love this book, too. I agree: there are so many different voices and perspectives, but it is greatly validating to hear people express something you are going through, so perfectly.

      Depression is somewhat nameless: how can you describe it??

      Have you read Inglorious? It’s a novel. A first novel by a British author. It is the best description of depression – from the inside – I’ve ever read. It’s not an easy read, it’s so accurate. But I am very grateful to the author for the book because it’s so right on.

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