They told me that I was “depressed.” The last four years spent in and out of therapists and pseudo-therapists’ (or social workers as they prefer to be called) offices brought nothing but more frustration than resolution. The heap of pages that compose my records list a misshapen string of “diagnoses” and insistences devolving from schizoid personality paired with an episode of depression into borderline excluding depression, and finally, into a simplistic episode of “severe depression.” But the explanation of what made me depressed was something that couldn’t be answered apart from a compiled checklist of clinical symptoms and personal health questionnaires. With years past and a number of unnecessarily prescribed medications and bumbling “professionals,” I pose the question “how do I feel” with respect to the definition of the contemporary term “depression” and its resolution.
In his book, The New Black, British psychoanalyst Darian Leader questions the very semantics of what the term means in the everyday sense, as well as a more traditional psychoanalytic view. He considers the contemporary notion of depression to concurrently to encapsulate far too much and far too little at the same time; it has become a vague term, describing a variety of states on how we feel – or how we fail to deal – with the losses that we incur simply by living. Leader contends that the contemporary description draws upon two trains of similar, yet incredibly different, thought: mourning and melancholia. The conditions of the two only sound similar on account of the interchangeability in words that has resulted in the contemporary discourse. This redundancy to synonyms has produced terms that simply (and thus problematically) define and encompass sadness.
To Leader, who draws upon the works of Freud, Klein, and Lacan, mourning involves the long and painful work to detach oneself from something that is lost. The process by which such is possible is categorized into four distinct processes: the introduction of a frame to mark out a symbolic and artificial space, the killing of the dead, the constitution of the object, and the giving up of the image of who we were for them (168). In addition to this systematic approach, Leader adds the consideration that mourning also requires other people, whether they help the mourner or grieve for their own losses. Melancholia, however, is harder to pin down in terms of processes and definition; Leader synthesizes that the melancholic merely internalizes the lost, which in turn leads to the redirection of anger and hatred for the object lost to oneself; by doing so, the melancholic is in two places at once – that of the lost object and that of the present. The process by which the melancholic finds himself cured, though, is something with which Leader finds issue. The need for articulation is made clear, though how one arrives at it is not necessarily so. To simplify, Leader presents a key distinction between the two in his conclusion: mourning involves the process of establishing the denial in a positive term – recognition of loss – and thereby accepting that a presence is no longer there. The melancholic, however, involves the affirmation of a negative term – the loss becomes a hole, upon which the he or she will never be able to fill (199).
With that said, it becomes clear that Leader cannot precisely nor can he firmly define melancholia despite attempts at retrieving solutions and examples. What is clear and consistent with the melancholic, however, is the internalizing of the object, which in turn takes one back to Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s essay, “Love, Guilt and Reparation” in the 1964 book Love, Hate and Reparation. Defining the depressive and the paranoid-schizoid positions as binaries, Klein speaks to the object in question as the mother’s breast. To elaborate, she defines the depressive position as a mode of acceptance of the mother as a whole object – encompassing both love and hatred – and the inhibition of the need to vehemently and outwardly attack. In contrast, the paranoid-schizoid position makes use of projective identification, inflicting pain and ridding oneself of the unwanted part by means of fantasy. Such actions of the paranoid-schizoid, however, raise the question that if mourning can be so violent, is the contemporary relation of depression to sadness too closely linked? In other words, have we as a society determined that mourning and depression are only linked to expressions of sadness and lethargy, and thus labeling all actions of violence as something separate? Leader cites instances that support the consideration of anger as a part of the mourning process, and self-help texts spout out advice that anger is part of the “grieving process;” however, the immediate reference is not there as we must be told that anger can be associated with “depression.”
In some ways, it could be said that Klein is outdated, or rather the notions presented with regards to mourning are so. The paranoid-schizoid position, for instance, is something that can still be observed in popular culture today, though it is not associated with what one could consider to be depression today. For instance, the exploited humour of the paranoid-schizoid can be found in the character of Stewie Griffin of FOX’s “Family Guy.” Throughout the television series, fantasies to kill his mother, Lois Griffin, are explicit in dream-like sequences or wishful thinking. The violence is often subdued, however, by the presentation of the breast, which resolves the conflict of rage felt by the child as he quickly calms down and puts the fantasy to rest. But by no means would anyone in today’s society consider Stewie to be mourning anything upon first impressions; instead, what is extrapolated is that the child is merely “disturbed.” Though, it has been mentioned in the aforementioned paragraph that mourning is not necessarily associated with anger, it would be more appropriate to say that the contemporary notion of depression, which envelopes the terms mourning and melancholia, discards anger and solely encompasses sadness, on account of the other concocted diagnoses that have been coined so as to “better organize” mental illnesses.
In effect, one comes back to Leader who does not specify the object as either the mother’s breast or as the death of a loved one (although, there are times in which he refers to it, only to chime in thereafter that such is not the only possible lost object). Where Klein focuses on the mother and her breast as the object, it ought to be said that such does not seem to be in the purview of today’s society, per se. To create a balance of sorts, it appears that where the scope of what constitutes as “feelings of mourning and melancholia” narrows, the criteria for objects to be lost widens. And with possibilities of objects lost extending beyond death, substitutions, such as medication, for the grieving process arise.
Perhaps the consideration and the implication of the scientific is what poses the most trouble in being able to properly define depression today. The flux between the understanding of trauma and loss in opposition to the very physical nature of biology creates a strong undercurrent of dialogue. Instead of discerning what is mourning and “shall pass,” and what is instead a state of internalization and tearing of the inhabited object, is replaced with the question of temporality. Instead of questioning the positioning of the object, medication has shifted into the conversation to the duration of distress, which comes as no surprise. After all, the values of time are constantly emphasized in today’s society. Although Leader has managed to articulate a series of processes for the mourning process, he is unable to offer a timeline, as no particular institution is able to govern the time necessary to detach oneself from an object. With that said, it becomes evident that melancholia stands more poised and ready for medication as the object in question has been internalized and unrecognizable. In which case, medication’s intrinsic (i.e. biological and scientific) qualities of resolution offer some sort of counter to the unexplainable.
Considering the place of mourning in contemporary depression, it becomes clear that the association with sadness and structure is a key component. However, what about melancholia? Coming back to the personal, the question that arises in this conversation is what exactly constituted as that “severe depression” with which I had been diagnosed several years ago? The best words that I have come up with to summarize the experiences have been “inexplicable sadness.” There was no particular onset or trigger by a loss that precipitated my “depression,” and descriptions of self-berating and dual living ring true. Unable to provide answers that therapists wanted to hear, I could be viewed as more of a point of frustration than an easy remedial case. With merely a label affixed to me, the only identifiable loss was that of the self in terms of time and space.
The question that seems to be asked almost upon first step into the office is “how long have you felt like this?” The question in itself presents issues as “this” is vague and left up to the patient to articulate the direction of the “depression.” Of course, I would assume that “this” referred to my inhabiting of two spaces and constant need to berate oneself, though the explication of what it was exactly that I considered to be “this” was never interrogated. Only through asking me how long had I been experiencing such “symptoms,” and a reply of x amount of years would lead the therapist to consider something apart from mourning. Seemingly, mourning becomes the very “go-to depression” due to it having some sort of system built around it – in terms of processes of grieving and strategies employed (i.e. CBT, DBT, etc.).
With that said about mourning, it almost strikes me immediately that the title of “severe depression” is the melancholic in its very essence, although I find it to be a leap of sorts that relies too much on the personal. It is to say that the very notion of “severe depression” encapsulates as many layers as the generic title of “depression.” The pathways that exist between the melancholic and the mournful are still apparent, though those in mourning find themselves progressing and working through the processes, whereas the melancholic finds himself or herself in a deep and stagnant pond. With that consideration, why am I so adamant on defining myself as the melancholic? The internalization of the object and retention of memories becomes the very key into splitting the actual placement of my “sadness.”
Along this line of internalization, Leader ushers in the need of a “new” language for the melancholic to be able to explain and articulate the inhabiting of another place and subsequent “dual living” that occurs. This need for language necessitates the discussion of truth, which is divisible from “fact.” It would be apt to say that the new language is that of expulsion. The melancholic must be able to externalize the object by first recognizing, then realizing the traumas and objects outside of oneself. Of course, the question of how does one distinguish what is lost if it has been internalized comes into play.
The constant self-deprecating comments and inability to articulate what I felt to be facts became incredibly problematic as living between reality and “the internalized” grew to be overwhelming. The constant flux of inhabiting two spaces and inability to articulate that I was doing so created a sense of instability. Unable to determine what comprised the internalized loss was another problem as it was only recognizable that it was growing with the compounding of other traumas and losses that occurred.
Similarly to Leader’s case study in his book’s conclusion, the desire for a new language to express oneself was very much in existence. Medication, after all, merely added to the burden of the constant need to balance the travel between two spaces; granted, the pills functioned on a biological level to increase the uptake of serotonin and to reduce the anxiety felt, but on a neurotic level, it did next to nothing to aid in the negotiation of external and internal. The attempts at externalization found success with the written word in which I would take the internalized loss and traumas and recant them for the public through blogging. This mode of externalization found itself more extreme than others as I was not only extending myself from pen to paper by writing poetry, but rather extending what it was that I felt to have been truth to another void and unknown. To that effect, the shift in filling a void was displaced away from myself.
With that said, the consideration of the externalization process arrives at a seemingly great disconnect. It is to say that the writing that I produced presented a particular stoicism and inability to articulate emotion. Understanding that there was little inflection upon reading back on entries before posting another, it became clear that such style was deliberate. Where Leader calls facts to be subjective, as they can be constituted as what is believed to have veracity, the truth is more abstract and “more stifled than elaborated.” (202) Facts, after all, carry a particular backstory or necessary context in order for it to be realized. But also, the expulsion of traumas and loss becomes incredibly weighted as the shift between dimensions.
With mourning, the object is always placed outside of the body and the mourner merely revolves around it, providing an easier means of detachment than the melancholic. The tie between the mourner and object is clearly visible and can be separated with greater ease whereas the melancholic has integrated the object so much so that it has become a tangled mess. In turn, each word is weighed heavily before being typed across the screen so as to discern what belongs and what no longer has a place in the self. The stilted words reveal a sort of ongoing non-verbalized discourse between fact and truth with the deliverance being the byproduct of it all.
So what can be said about the melancholic and “recovery” process? Where I may have been critical of his lack of discussion of the melancholic in terms of processes and roots, I, too, find myself having arrived not that much further apart from realizing for the need of expulsion as the “needed language.” It is not to say that melancholia is a mystery, but rather, an integration of loss and self so intertwined that it becomes difficult to ascertain anything other than the larger picture on-hand. The resolution, though, as I have mentioned is one that catapults the loss into quite possibly another void, but one that is away from the self.
Although mourning finds itself extending beyond sadness, as seen with Klein’s paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, contemporary depression excludes anger and other emotions from its vernacular. To be “sad” is to be depressed in today’s consideration of depression. On a superficial level, it encompasses the oppositional binary to happiness. The division of temporality becomes what distinguishes the varying degrees of depression, as opposed to the location of the object. This superficiality and emphasis on time, however, is what creates and fuels the constant tearing of sheets from a prescription pad. Instead of understanding and resolution, depression becomes more of a balancing act, with a measure of sadness on one end and a pill bottle on the other. Subsequently then, the question for contemporary depression is not “how do you feel,” but rather “how long have you felt as such?”
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