The Dramas and Melodramas of Depression
'Depression' is an increasingly common experience, or set of
experiences, in our times. The therapist Lauren Slater estimates that it is
"suffered by one in ten Americans" at some point in his or her life. 1 Behind
this apparently unitary concept, however, lies a diverse collection of dramas
that are played out, as ways are found--or indeed not found--to weave the term
into the life narratives of its victims. While the circle of witnesses to these
events is usually limited to a small number of physicians, relatives, and
friends, a few cases have been made visible to wider audiences in the form of
published diaries and autobiographies. Fictional accounts of similar real or
imaginary proceedings have also appeared in print and on the movie screen (the
line between what is 'real' and what is 'imaginary' being particularly
indistinct for this genre). It is a selection of these personal testimonies that
I propose to examine in this paper with the aim of mapping some of the contours
of the signifying economy of the depressed subject. The themes that I intend to
discuss are: the onset of depression; decisions regarding forms of treatment;
the nature of relations between physicians and patients; and explanations that
are arrived at for the occurrence of experiences named as 'depression.'
The Onset of Depression: Autobiographical Narratives
(While conducting research for this paper, the author essayed Paxil,
nothing, Prozac, and Luvox to counter depression.)
The languages of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis have
permeated everyday life to the extent that people sometimes diagnose their own
problems of the mind prior to any consultation with a physician. In these
instances a decisive moment in the drama of accommodating the word 'depression'
in life narratives is initiated without the intervention of a recognized
authority, that is of a professional in the field of treating problems of the
mind. For the author William Styron, for example, the loss of lucidity that he
was experiencing did not prevent him from reaching the conclusion that he "was
suffering from a serious depressive illness." 2 His
self-diagnosis followed the decision to "read a certain amount on the subject of
depression, both in books tailored for the layman and in the weightier
professional works including the psychiatrists' bible, DSM (The Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association)." 3 He
therefore produced and claimed his own authority to write depression into his
life narrative. This authority derives from identifying his dominant feeling as
"a sense of self-hatred--or, put less categorically, a failure of self-esteem"
that his reading informed him was "one of the most universally experienced
symptoms" of depression. 4
Nevertheless, Styron's criteria for depression are characteristically
imprecise since there is quite a difference between turning anger or hatred
against oneself and experiencing a decline in self-worth. If the latter were
taken as the main symptom of depression then the incidence of this problem of
the mind would surely be higher than one in ten. Uncertainty about the basic
parameters of the condition is a common phenomenon among people who claim the
title of depression for their experiences. As Styron observes: "Depression is a
disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes
known to the self--to the mediating intellect--as to verge close to being beyond
description." 5 The
difficulty of describing the descent into depression applies even to
professionals in the task of detecting and categorizing problems of the mind.
For the practising psychotherapist Martha Manning, diary entries over the course
of a few weeks refer to an unfocused state of feeling "foggy and disconnected"
6 and to a
gradually increasing resistance to social interaction. 7 An
enigmatic but revealing account appears two months after these early signs of
distress during a retreat at a Trappist monastery: "As I slow down, the frantic
activity and noise of my life is replaced by a quiet ache, an emptiness I can't
quite name. I suspect it's been following me for a while. I've just been able to
outrun it." 8 As with
Styron, therefore, an inaccessible alterity becomes a constant presence in day
to day experience. This otherness is at once too remote to put into words and
too pressing to ignore. It represents the subject's loss of a centre, but
perhaps also a radical attempt to compensate for decentring through the
substitution of an inner void.
Another notable effect of the diffusion of the languages of
psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, however, has been to bring suspicion
to bear on the authenticity of such experiences. Thus, the art critic, John
Bentley Mays confesses that
the forensic language I invoke springs from nothing in my own heart
or mind, is no more original than my routine complaining. Rather, it slides
down on the page out of clinical case histories and medical records, a
portrait of the nobody, nameless, extinguished, who is the topic of the
technical literature on depression. 9
Depressed subjectivity is surrounded by an aura of simulation arising
from a suspicion that its behavior amounts to no more than mimicry of previous
cases. Adopting a certain anonymity is a condition for validation as a depressed
subject, but also a basis for asking to what extent experiences are being
channelled along set paths, as Theodor Adorno has suggested:
Ready-made enlightenment turns not only spontaneous reflection but
also analytical insights- whose power equals the energy and suffering that it
cost to gain them- into mass-produced articles, and the painful secrets of the
individual history, which the orthodox method is already inclined to reduce to
formulae, into commonplace conventions. 10
It is certainly the case that the convenient language of psychology
often smothers the particularities of individual experience. Nevertheless,
Adorno's theory of the decline of problems of the mind into parodic forms tends,
at least in the case of depression, to exclude the possibility that the
alienation entailed in occupying a recognizable category can itself act as a
means of coping with these 'painful secrets.' A degree of simulation would
therefore constitute a defence mechanism against the acknowledgement of
particular memories, experiences, or desires. It could even be suggested that
familiarity with the 'commonplace conventions' of depressive subjectivity may
enable some individuals to avoid the loss of a sense of reality that is said to
distinguish 'psychosis' and 'schizophrenia' from 'depression.' For William
Styron, for example, reading about depression appears to have helped in
arresting his "thought processes" from "being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable
tide." 11 If the
periods when: "Rational thought was usually absent" 12 had
been witnessed by a psychiatrist, then they might well have been taken as
evidence of psychosis, had he not managed to stem their occurrence by means of a
strong identification with his self-diagnosis of depression. In discussing the
term 'depression,' Styron expresses a preference for the word 'melancholia' that
the former has come to replace, explaining that the latter "was usurped by a
noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used
indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true
wimp of a word for such a major illness." 13 One
attraction of his favoured diagnosis lies therefore in the construction of a
worthy enemy against which to be engaged in struggle. By articulating depression
or melancholia in this way, the depressive subject produces an internal fissure
between a side believed to be capable of recognizing and confronting depression
and a threatening other side.
Dramatic Interlude: Decisions Regarding Treatment
(After the onset of depression, we encounter a phase in which life,
art, and theory converge in the production of narratives.)
The dramatic interlude is over, but it may be only beginning. There
has been a pause in the writing, a break. The break is done. It is through.
Hence it could be a breakthrough. It might be the breakthrough to writing.
Who or what grants the authority to write about depression? This
debate has taken place many times. In more general terms it is the question of
locating an authorization to write. In the context of depression it can become a
question of assurance that certain lines of thought are permitted, because
depression is part of the same language as harsher words like psychosis and
schizophrenia. "It's a slippery slope," as they say about drugs. Take one and
you never know where it could lead you. From soft drugs to the hard stuff, the
dangerous substances that make people unpredictable.
The author is unauthorized. He is alone in front of a computer screen
in an apartment somewhere in a large city, continually mulling over the terms of
a decision. The decision recurs. It is the choice, the alternative faced by
people who have been recruited to the language of the softer words of depression
and melancholia as well as the harsher words that he would prefer not to reflect
Certain states control their populations through the administration of
drugs. Such a line of thought, however, borders on impermissible. Once spoken,
the lines of thought condense to form a sentence that prompts questions and
questioning. For there are agencies that are assigned the task of determining
the condition of anyone who thinks in those ways: their task is to locate
paranoia, for the paranoid mind is an unstable mind. Its unpredictability
renders it a potential threat to any body, even the one that bears it. The point
is whether the body that carries the mind can bear these lines of thought, or
whether it will slip into commanding, into becoming the author of acts that harm
a body, whether its own or that of another.
But where can we locate such a mind? After all, it is a mind that has
gone out of control in a body that can be said to be "out of its mind."
Consequently, the paranoid mind is nowhere and everywhere.
Pausing only for fish--brain food, so they say--the author tries to
pin down, to track down the decision. His finger-pecking on the keyboard
nevertheless permits a style once called "stream-of-consciousness." Any style
can stand in as an authorizer. Whether through conforming to the Chicago manual,
or borrowing a style said to belong to Virginia Woolf or to Friedrich Nietzsche,
the 'chosen' style has a recognized and recognizable form. In this way the
author is able to escape anyone who questions his authority to think, or to
write in this way.
In what way? The author's writing is not theoretical: it does not
carry the stamp of authority from theory. For what is theory? This question
calls for a theory of theory, and thus threatens an infinite regress. Theory
sounds as if it should be universal: can there not be a theory of everything, a
theory for everything, a theory that goes along with everything (and anything)?
Theory is neutral to the extent that it gains universality. Is it not the case,
however, that theory always falls short of being neutral? Theory cannot avoid
showing its colours. We have come to know, or at least think that we have come
to know, that to the extent that theory can be pinned down or situated, theory
The question of the universal and the particular tells us that we are
in the realm of philosophy. We could also call it the question of the local and
the global. Authorization has generally been sought in the larger of these
alternative terms, in the global or the universal. Why? Perhaps because they
appear to be harder to reach, and so propose themselves as sources from which to
draw the authority to create, to be creative.
In his early work, Jacques Derrida went off at a tangent from
philosophy, daring not to claim its authority for his words. He wrote in
solitude after speaking against his master, Michel Foucault, and described the
period of writing as one of intense loneliness. Does the author have the nerve
to suggest the proximity of that experience/experiment to depression?
With a burst, three dramatic texts arrived on the scene of theory.
They questioned the premise that authority is to be found in the moment of
speech, or in the moment of the mind reflecting to itself, upon itself. Rather
than according privilege to writing, the point was to find in writing the
permission to write. Permission comes from somewhere between, from the double of
speech and writing, and from neither term. Did permission come from the
performance itself? That is, from the dramatic interlude in which Derrida
suffered alone, or from the experience of depression? Is deconstruction merely
'depression' writing? The answer is no, of course, for then depression would be
serving as that which is held not to exist, or rather not to be available, the
transcendental signified. Depression would attain the status of another god,
beyond reach, the ultimate authority for all actions and performances.
Rodolph Gasche has suggested the term 'quasi-transcendentals' for the
interrelated words that Derrida will not allow us to use for authorization, for
the purpose of authorizing our words. Deconstruction was one of those words, but
rapidly became an authority of its own, a place from which to gain permission to
think or write freely. Gasche's work, The Tain of the Mirror, was, in
spite of its brilliance, a betrayal to the extent that re-inserting Derrida into
a history (sic) of philosophy provided another mode of authority from a
In "Otobiographies" 'Derrida' returned. The essay, a transcribed
oration, asks where authority lies in Nietzsche's works, if indeed it does
indeed fall within the works of this 'known madman.' The suggestion is that
authorization for the madman's life and works comes only from his future
readers, from the readers he awaits. His gamble, therefore, was that his life
and work would be shown to have been of value. A terrible gamble: enough to
drive anyone mad?
The author is gambling on his sanity. He can turn to the rebels, to
the people who resist the language he fears, to provide him with support and
reassurance. Perhaps he called one of them this very morning. Or he can remain
in the fold, "staying onside," as commentators would say during a game. Staying
onside means taking a certain set of drugs. Authorized, permitted, legal drugs.
Drugs that tame the mind, that prevent it from becoming an unstable mind. But
what would happen if the mind of any other bolted its stable? That would prove
only its unpredictability, its capacity to perform any act it saw fit. In other
words, that would prove only its capacity for performance.
It seems highly unlikely that the author of this performance could
find a way for these kinds of words to appear in print. Yet what are they doing
in front of his eyes if not appearing in print? The author lacks a recognized
name. And what does any body have aside from its name as its sole possession,
almost as its soul? Symbolic interactionists would call the name an "ascribed
identity." Claiming to side with agency rather than structure, structures
reappear to perform the ascription. There is no solution to the question of
agency and structure. Except to believe in secret agents and secret structures.
As a secret agent one can never be found out, and one can never find out even if
one has agency. For there may indeed be secret structures, unknown, unseen.
Fortunately no one believes in secret agents and secret structures.
The author fills time between drug doses. His supply of the drug that
keeps the lid on, the drug that dispels 'unwanted thoughts,' that makes
Descartes's dream of clear thinking a reality, runs out today. Yet he will
return to the fold by staying on the drugs, and will avoid illicit drugs at all
costs, knowing the latter to be a gamble not worth taking. The decision
regarding his sanity is made by himself as well as by others in every moment. It
is then unmade and remade.
In the meantime, thinking, writing, and performing--while the body
adjusts, trying to be seated comfortably--are sufficient drugs to remain
None of this ever happened, of course, because the author has never
and will never write fiction.
Back to the main plot, therefore. "Are you seated comfortably? Then
Melodramatic Interlude: Relations between Physicians and Patients
(The finest of lines passes between depression and its other, as
between drama and melodrama.)
May 1st, 1998
Dear Drs. X, Y, Z,
In hospital there were nights when my fear knew no bounds. Before this
hospital stay--just as during the last stay--I would go to bed not knowing if I
would live to see another day. There were many fears, different in shape and
size. It seemed as if there was no combination of medications that could induce
sleep. Even with all my will and imagination directed towards helping the drugs
to take effect, the fear could leap a step by threatening to block creativity in
the pursuit of sleep. Were my body and mind together too strong, too stubborn,
too wilful to sleep? Would they find ways of resisting medication and refuse the
deep rest of sleep that they seemed to crave? Usually we make ourselves tired
through activity, by wearing ourselves out. If thoughts still crowd in, then we
concentrate on gradually dispelling the anxieties and fears. Or we can welcome
the drift of ideas--positive and negative--so that thinking goes wherever it
wants until sleep arrives.
What would you recommend when these activities and inactivities,
practiced in different orders and disorders, do not bring what is most desired?
What happens when sleep is most desirable, but body and mind hold out for
something greater, so that sleep does not come? I eventually learned to relax,
and to trust that although they were not quite sleep, stillness and calm would
be enough to allow body and mind to live another day. In the most desperate
moments when trust waned, I would imagine begging for one of you to put me to
sleep permanently, as one might do with a sick animal alone in a room, a room
not of my own, almost the last place I wanted to be, struggling with these
fears. And yet the struggle to overcome such fears appeared to be successful.
There were visitors who arrived unannounced: friends and relatives at
any time of day, nurses and security guards checking the rooms through the
night. I know better than to name such visits as 'trials,' for trials are a sure
sign of paranoia, and so of the need to detain the person longer in hospital.
In a Christian or post-Christian culture the term 'trial' suggests at
once ethical, legal, and corporeal events, while also recalling the life of a
certain martyred rebel who died a little less than two millennia ago. To speak
of 'trials' is still thought by you to demonstrate confusion, and despite the
waxing and waning of Christianity in our world this confusion is named as
'delusional.' To confuse oneself in this way is to be 'confused': no form of
identification with a god, or with a man thought by many to be the son of a
single god, will be tolerated. In your hospitals many of your male patients say
through their words or actions that they are that man, or that they are a god,
or the god. You take their words or actions as the very basis for a diagnosis of
psychosis, and of schizophrenia if the articulations persist.
Disbelief and righteous anger would greet the act of declaring a cure
for schizophrenia. There are ways of living with schizophrenia, nevertheless,
that are learned, even if they are also unlearned. There is no reason to fear a
name, so I teach myself to live without fear, and to accept that it may become
one of my names. I declare a theoretical solution to schizophrenia in spite of
the apparent incompatibility of theory with such a name. The application of the
relational concepts that comprise discourse analysis to the discursive formation
that contains names like depression, paranoia, anxiety, psychosis, and
schizophrenia demonstrates that each of these names is no more than, but also no
less than, an effect of language. If one can live with the phenomenon of
communication, and of non-communication as another form of communication, then
one can live with schizophrenia. Only in this way is it possible to live with a
disease that is held to be incurable. This theory may or may not extend to
conditions named by other discourses, for no one knows where the discursive ends
and the non-discursive begins.
There are times when I feel like a god to have experienced such
thoughts! Thankfully I am not a god: I was born and I will die. To imagine how a
god might feel, however, is an aid to dispelling sadness, loneliness, and tears.
Would a god not be content at arriving at a solution to the riddle of how to
order the universe, that is by allowing the universe to repeat infinitely in
infinite variations so that every form of life can eventually experience every
single possibility? The universe would begin, expand, and contract; ending so as
to begin one more time, to enable all other permutations and combinations of
life to occur. Perhaps the being that thinks such a thought is the universe
itself, a zero which grows to infinity and returns to zero. Would it not be
content at having solved the ultimate puzzle?
Dr. X (neurologist) notes: Excessive mental activity showing signs of
electrical overload in the brain. Recommended action: E.E.G. test (brain wave
Dr. Y (psychiatrist) notes: Persistent irritability in the face of
psychiatric treatment forms part of a pattern of fairly standard mood disorder.
Recommended action: Continue current medication, adding a mood stabilizer.
Monitor the patient closely, however, for signs of loss of unbalanced behavior.
A diagnosis of psychosis cannot be ruled out if present trends in the patient's
Dr. Z (psychiatrist) notes: The patient can safely live outside of
hospital under the close supervision of a community care team. His progress
following the seizure that brought him to hospital makes him an 'atypical'
(In informal discussions with colleagues, Dr. Z observed grimly that
'atypical' could mean perfectly normal or perfectly mad in this case, and that
only time would tell.)
Explanations of Depression: Towards a Micro-Discourse Analysis of
(A response to Slavoj Zizek's question "Why should a dialectician
learn to count to four?" 14 Beyond
writing in triplicate!)
- 'Micro-Discourse Analysis' is a name for a discourse that is coming
into formation, a name for something that is acquiring a temporary coherence,
a name for a conjuncture. It is a theory of events, of forces of attraction
that assemble elements from near and far into what is understood as an
'event,' or a time-and-place, and of forces of repulsion that disperse
elements to form other events. It can also be a name, therefore, for the
operations of memory, whether of the 'individual' body or of the 'collective'
body. Whereas Laclau and Mouffe's macro-discourse analysis looks down, from
the social down to the local, micro-discourse analysis gazes up, from the
personal up to the political.
- The discourses of 'colonialism' have been divided into colonialist,
anti-colonialist, and post-colonialist phases, and have encouraged speculation
on whether 'our times' can be named with any one of these terms. The phrase
'our times,' however, is merely a stand-in for the questions "who are we?" and
"what is our time?" These have been the questions of the twentieth century, as
laid out in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. As the year 2000
approaches, the question of subjectivity weighs heavily on all beings. It is a
way of posing the question of the universal and the particular, the question
of whether 'we' are one or many. Put differently, it is a way of asking
whether globalism is the ultimate millenarian movement. We are in the time of
"Troubled Being and Being Troubled."
- In the discourses of 'psych' (that is, of psychiatry,
psychoanalysis, and psychology), a similar tripartite division has its uses:
we can speak of psych, anti-psych, and post-psych phases. The early work of
Michel Foucault and the work of Thomas Szasz belong to the moment of
anti-psych, while Persimmon Blackbridge's novel Prozac Highway marks
the advent of post-psych. The analogy with 'colonialism' is more than
fortuitous since psych discourses are precisely concerned with the
colonization of the mind.
- In the discourses of 'academia,' a tripartite division of the
pre-modern, the modern, and the post-modern again seems to be exhaustive as
the twentieth century comes to a close. We may speak of an academic anxiety in
these last two years of the millennium due to the apparent closure of the
discourses of the 'modern.' We may also speak of a growing boredom articulated
most eloquently in the work of Jean Baudrillard that is inseparable from
manic/panic writing that seeks a way out of these tripartite closures.
- A micro-discourse analysis of psych discourses takes its lead from
the discourse analysis of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe that synthesized
the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. Laclau and
Mouffe reflect on the persistence of a division between the discursive and the
non-discursive in the work of Michel Foucault, and express a preference for
Derrida's view in the essay "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the
Human Sciences" that the field of discursivity is exhaustive. 15
Micro-discourse analysis also follows Judith Butler's return to these
questions in Bodies that Matter, where it is asked whether there is any
component of sex and/or gender that is non- or extra-discursive. 16
- Micro-discourse analysis asks whether there is any component of
disease and/or illness that is non- or extra-discursive. If there are
candidates for a 'something outside of the text,' then surely disease,
illness, and death would be among them? Yet this question is not as obvious as
it first appears: is disease not simply dis-ease, or a lack of ease? Is
illness not simply the absence of health? Do ventures such as cloning and the
Human Genome Project not signal the achievement of a form of human
immortality? In short, is Friedrich Nietzsche's 'overman' not on the brink of
- Micro-discourse analysis is applied to problems of the mind because
the question of the dualism of mind and body, and of the relations between
mind and body, are the very questions of the West, and of its colonization of
- Psych discourses are constructed around such floating signifiers as
depression, mania, psychosis, anxiety, neurosis, schizophrenia. There are no
explanations for any of these 'conditions' because, like all other discourses,
there is a play of substitution and exchange among the chain(s) of signifiers.
Once it is asked whether there is any difference between floating signifiers
and empty signifiers, 'humans' are in fact asking whether a Baudrillardean
implosion of psych discourses is occurring. I/we/they are asking whether there
is an end to the project(s) of the West, and whether it will arrive before or
after the new millennium.
- Micro-discourse analysis is at once sociological and political. It
begins with the negative floating signifiers of psych discourses (which can be
summarized as 'troubled being' and/or 'being troubled'), and the positive
floating signifiers of health discourses (e.g., well-being, ease, happiness,
joy, wisdom). It observes that the signifiers of psych discourses can name
social conditions as well as personal conditions. The politics of
micro-discourse analysis are those of a 'new humanism' that opposes cloning in
order to prevent the absolute coincidence of identity and difference.
(The author remains on pills for 'clear thinking'--long live Rene
Descartes or Socrates. His personal computer appears to be on the verge of a
breakdown--long live Marshall McLuhan.)
Lauren Slater, Welcome to my Country: A Therapist's Memoir of Madness.
(New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 114.
William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. (New York:
Vintage, 1992), p. 5.
ibid., p. 9.
ibid., p. 5.
ibid., p. 7.
Martha Manning, Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface. (San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 34.
ibid., p. 39.
ibid., p. 51.
John Bentley Mays, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression.
(Toronto: Penguin, 1995), pp. xiv-xv.
10. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia., trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (New
York: Verso, 1978), p. 65.
11. Styron, p. 16.
12. ibid., p. 17.
13. ibid., p. 37.
14. Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a
Political Factor. (London: Verso, 1991), p. 179.
15. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. (London: Verso, 1985), p.
16. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of
Sex. (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 6.
Richard Ingram is a PhD student in the Individual Interdisciplinary
Studies Graduate Program at the University of British Columbia, working on a
thesis entitled Troubled Being and Being Troubled: Subjectivity in the Light
of Problems of the Mind. He lives in Vancouver, BC. The final episode of the
X-Files was filmed at nearby Riverview (psychiatric) hospital as this
paper was being written.
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