Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Slough of Despond - and the Hell Beyond

According to his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chiefest of Sinners (Oh, what the hell: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0140432809/qid=1092263728/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books), the Puritan author John Bunyan describes a period of extended spiritual crisis in his life, in which he was consumed by the notion that, due to a moment of frustration and anger at/with God, he was most certainly going to Hell. Quaint though this belief may sound to us, Bunyan's despair rings true to this reader--his descriptions of his psychological torment--a torment that lasted several years--are harrowing. He analogized this period of his life in his more famous book, The Pilgrim's Progress (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0140430040/qid=1092264085/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books --you get the feeling I'm trying to encourage you to read?), as the Slough of Despond--the marshy swamp in which Christian, the Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, becomes trapped. As I say: Quaint. Sunday School Christianity. And also an unnervingly accurate self-portrait of clinical depression.

That's my conviction about Bunyan--that what he describes--what he experienced as a spiritual crisis was, in fact, a lengthy bout of that ugly disease. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive, I suppose.)

OK, so, here we go again: In The Interests of Full Disclosure. I suffer from clinical depression. It's cyclical, both psychological and biochemical in nature/origin, controllable but not curable, and a serious, serious drag. Drugs (including Paxil, to which I am now, for all intents and purposes, addicted--don't start on the stuff if you can help it) are able to minimize its effects. Psychotherapy has helped contain severe outbreaks, given me coping habits. But, off and on, I've had it for roughly the past four years, after serious episodes in my late teens (suicidal, that first outbreak) and mid-twenties, and I get the sense that this time it's here to stay. But then, bleak hopelessness--the pessimism that says that this suffering will never end, that all life is, is suffering--that's the nature of depression--so who knows?

In his agonizingly perceptive book of his own struggle with depression, Darkness Visible (last time, I swear, but this one really is worth owning/reading: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0679736395/qid=1092264917/sr=8-1/ref=pd_ka_1/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 ), William Styron argues that the disease and its victims are plagued by its completely inadequate name. "Depression" sounds mild--compare "depression" to "hole" to "ditch" to "trench" to "chasm"--of all the terms denoting the sensation of plunging that this disease unleashes on you, "depression" seems cruelly calculated to make non-sufferers think of those with the disease as, quite literally, "just a little down." Nothing serious--just an "off" spell--something that'll pass. We all have those days. And so sufferers become victimized by leaving vocabulary decisions to scientists. (Hey, we don't tell you what to do with numbers--don't tell the rest of us what to do with letters, m'kay?)

The title of Styron's book, by the way, comes from Paradise Lost, Book I, 59-69, and it comes a heck of a lot closer to describing the experience of the disease than the term "Depression"--Satan arises from his prostration in Hell:

At once as far as Angel's ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

Not too shabby, Milton. And however much Satan may have suffered, he at least had one small bit of consolation--he knew why he suffered--he knew that he'd earned this suffering. Mess with the bull, you get the horns--mess with the omnipotent, you get the worst thing God can mete out: Despair. Witness Dante, too--the nature of Hell is defined by Despair--what's the sign over the Fiery Gates read?

Per me, si va nella citta dolente
Per me, si va nel eterno dolore
Per me, si va tra la perduto gente


And, for those of who didn't take Italian in college because all the sections you wanted to take of Spanish were already full and you had to fulfill your language requirement that year:

Through me, the way to the City of Sorrow
Through me, the way to a Grief Eternal
Through me, the way of those forever lost.


Hell is despair. And so is "depression."

Just seems to me we need to find a new word for it, is all.


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