Daphne Merkin’s new book, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression, is at once an exploration of her own mental health and a memoir of her experiences growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family with a complicated, domineering mother. “My mother was only nice to me when I was sick,” Merkin writes, in one of many passages that take on added meaning as the book unfolds. (She also details the way in which her parents, who escaped Nazi Germany, ignored her and her siblings and allowed a nursemaid to abuse them.)
The book recounts her hospitalizations and the complex relationship she has with her own daughter, now 27. Depression, she writes, causes someone to lose “the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become—and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.”
I spoke to Merkin, who has contributed to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine for many years, last week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her attempts to parent differently than her own mother, how writing the book changed her outlook on her own life, and what lessons she has for those who feel despondent about Donald Trump.
Isaac Chotiner: What, if anything, about the act of writing the book changed the way you think about either your own depression or depression more generally?
Daphne Merkin: I went through different stages writing it. There were periods where I was depressed and didn’t write. Cumulatively, it gave me some kind of perspective on depression and its landscape. With rare cases, it completely remits, and people are never depressed again. But usually it does have a life of its own, and it is not all that predictable. It will taper off and then recur when it recurs.
I think one of the hardest things about being in a severe depression is that you don’t think it will end. I think most people who have been in one would say that. That’s undoubtedly what leads to suicide: the idea that you’re going to be stuck in this painful, in a way noisily painful yet also silent, illness forever. Writing the book, I became more aware that depressions don’t last. With or without medication, they have a lifespan. I don’t think they suddenly abate. They stop, and they recur. There were times when I was significantly not depressed. I think at the very end of the book I said the opposite of depression isn’t some state of great, extraordinary happiness. The opposite of depression is feeling moderately content.
In one passage, you write, “I have hurled all the charm and wits I have at my disposal against my proclivity to depression, such that it would be difficult for even close friends of mine to detect how low I am at any given time.” Was the act of writing the book, ironically, a conscious example of trying to throw your wits and charm at your depression?
I know that I wanted to write a readable, hopefully not too depressing book about depression, and in that way make it a seductive book in spite of the subject. That was my hope. I think of writing as yet another way in which I threw my wits and my charm, ostensible charm, at this subject of depression. And writing not ingratiatingly but seductively, compellingly so that you’d want to read about it. I think the real issue for me is depression is unbelievably isolating. I move in fairly, if you want to call them that, sophisticated circles. When I wrote this first piece about being hospitalized for depression when I was at the New Yorker, it wasn’t the kind of thing people talked about even if they were depressed.
What has been the response to the book from people you are close to?
Some people said to me they didn’t realize I was depressed, and I guess they read it with a degree of dismay that they didn’t realize this. Even in a sophisticated place of employment like the New Yorker, it wasn’t like people talked about this kind of thing. I still don’t think functioning people talk about depression much. They talk about rehab. They talk about AA, but depression has another connotation. It remains somewhat more stigmatized partly because it’s elusive. You can’t say these are its symptoms, this is what it looks like. It both partakes of a serious illness and doesn’t look like a serious illness.
It’s also, in milder forms, something that everyone goes through. People say, “Oh, I read the newspaper today, and I got depressed,” which makes it seem more ordinary.
Yes, and that’s also what makes it problematic in its more severe forms. I think I quoted Diane Keaton saying, “Everyone’s a little depressed.” The word depressed is thrown around a lot, as you just said. There’s being made depressed by Donald Trump, as I expect many people are. That’s reactive depression, which the whole world suffers from, getting depressed in response to depressing circumstances, versus depression from within.
My guess would be that you are also pretty upset about what’s happening in the world.
How would you compare your moments of bad depression internally versus what you feel now about the world? I am not asking you to quantify—
You can’t. I think the kind of severe depression I was trying to describe in the book comes with a lot of stuff. It’s essentially enervating. It’s hard to function, hard to focus. You don’t eat. You don’t talk much. You withdraw.
When I was very, very depressed, it was referred to as a vegetative depression. I didn’t read. I wouldn’t watch TV. With Donald Trump, it is disturbing and depressing, but not in so personal a way. It’s not you fighting yourself.
I don’t want to sound too glib or self-helpy, but are there any coping mechanisms that you would recommend for people who are dealing with situational depression right now?
Yeah. This is again going to maybe sound reductive, but when you’re really, really depressed, you’re sort of embattled in yourself. One thing you can do is coax yourself along in a form of self-talk. I think one thing that helps even in these times is to try and focus on meaningful work—that it’s not all for naught because there’s a mad king in the White House. I think the people who do best altogether in this whole period are people who take it in and then put it aside. They don’t walk around with this pervasive “the world has become Trumpified.” I don’t know. I’m going on about Trump because I’ve been thinking about him a lot today.
The one perverse thing that makes me feel weirdly better is that I sometimes say to myself, “ We could be living through the Khmer Rouge or the Holocaust or whatever.” And this in fact connects to your book.
I think about the experience that my parents went through, because my mother used it strangely. You can’t say about everything, “Well, it’s not Auschwitz,” and therefore it’s tolerable to a child. I mean, people’s experiences matter to them, and it doesn’t always help to say, “Think of the starving in India or China,” to a child who doesn’t want to finish her food. Bringing up an extreme, drastic, historical event of genocide didn’t make me feel any better when I was homesick in sleepaway camp. The use of it is too out of whack.
However, I will say that I think the fact of leaving Germany, particularly for my mother, having very close relatives on both my parents’ sides who perished in the Holocaust, my mother was enormously marked by it. Even though I said you can’t say to a child, “You’re not dying. You haven’t been bombed by napalm. You’re OK,” there’s a way in which I agree with you. Last time I happened to watch The Deer Hunter, I was watching those horrendous Viet Cong scenes. I was thinking to myself, “OK, Trump is here, but we’re not living in siege mentality in truth.”
Yet, Daphne, yet.
I agree. I was going to add “yet” myself. Another thing I’ve thought about is that depression, or a degree of it, is humanizing. This is my last reference to Trump for this conversation. If Donald Trump suffered from depression at all, as opposed to a variety of sociopathology including but certainly not limited to narcissism, he’d be a different man. It usually does come with a degree of empathy. I go nuts when people say he’s narcissistic like that’s the whole answer. I don’t know that many people who are inclined to depression who don’t also have a certain empathic mode. I mean, there’s a much wider range, if you ask me.
He seems unhappy but not depressed.
How did writing the book change the way you thought about your mother?
Yes, I think of her as a victim of her time. At 16, she had to leave Frankfurt, which she very much loved. Her father was an upper-middle-class lawyer, and they went to what was then Palestine. Her life dramatically changed. They had very little money. The British mandate took over their house. She couldn’t finish school. I think things would have gone very differently for her had that not happened. She probably would have pursued some form of fuller career. As it was, she did become a teacher. … I think she had a lot of ambition. She also wrote.
You say very clearly that you don’t want to make the same mistakes with your daughter and that you hope that your daughter doesn’t struggle with depression. What does your daughter think of the book?
Let me hasten to say that my daughter makes it a habit to not read most of what I write, I think self-protectively. She knows little bits and pieces of the book, but she hasn’t read the whole book at all. I wrote a piece some years ago for the Times called “Is Depression Inherited?” attempting to clear up that depression is at best 50 percent genetic. You have biological predisposition, but then you need triggers in your life. I would say my daughter is complicated and moody, the word my mother used about me, but not particularly depressed, I’m happy to say.
You never worry that writing will make it difficult for her?
No, I do worry. It hasn’t stopped. ... I mean, there are things I don’t write. The thing about candid autobiographical writing is you never know what the writer didn’t say. Do you know what I mean?
I sensed that with your book, but you also talk about her drinking and things like that.
That part I read to her. I didn’t mean that she was a major alcoholic. I read her that scene actually because I was worried she wouldn’t like it. My daughter is a deeply, deeply independent-minded soul. I think she takes all this with an enormous grain of salt.
Have you ever talked to her up front recently about the mistakes that your mother made and whether she feels that you’re making them?
Yes, I have. We do talk. I feel she was burdened with witnessing some of my depression at its most severe. When she was very young, I would leave. The last time I was enormously depressed frankly wasn’t so, so long ago. It happened to have been when I tried going off medication last summer. It had horrendous results. She saw me very, very depressed. I do feel I wish I could have protected her against that.
I suppose though one difference would be that you’re able to talk to her in a more up-front way than your mother was able to talk to you about certain things, right?
Right. Right. Certainly more up front. I don’t keep many secrets. Maybe that has its own drawbacks, to not spare her enough. But I don’t act like she can’t know things. Anyway, I couldn’t cover up when I was very depressed. It isn’t easy to cover it up in the end.