Coming To Terms With Depression In 'This Close To Happy' | WYPR

Coming To Terms With Depression In 'This Close To Happy'

Feb 4, 2017
Originally published on February 4, 2017 3:47 pm

Daphne Merkin is a productive and admired professional, a writer and critic for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, a novelist and essayist. But all of her life, she's struggled with melancholy, the blues, the black dog, the blue devils — depression, by any other name.

In her new memoir, This Close to Happy, she writes about how she's made her way through life, not despite, but with depression. She tells NPR's Scott Simon that sometimes she just has to push herself through bad days. "At really bad times, I will admit I don't get up," she says. "I sort of languish, or sleep. But mostly I try and combat it by assertions of will. Which is not the same as saying, 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' though ... there's a point at which these assertions of will don't help. But otherwise I think there's a way of negotiating depression, like, talking to it. Saying, 'you can do this, you'll be OK, try going outside, try sitting at your desk.' You know, kind of coaxing oneself."


Interview Highlights

On not finding a "magic pill" for depression

To my own surprise, I remain enormously ambivalent toward medication. Which isn't to say that I don't take it. But there isn't a lot of hard and fast knowledge about medication. It remains, as I have said — and I'm not the only one to say it — it remains a form of guesswork, however informed. But I have found that whenever I've tried to go off, which I have tried as recently as last summer, my mood plummeted, and I was just feeling suicidal. I scurried back on.

On her parents

Both of them were refugees, basically, from Germany ... and I think it's easy to underrate what that kind of being forcibly ejected from your homeland does, and the whole process of resettling ... and I think that whole process, and the reality of the Holocaust marked both of them. They both lost close relatives, and I think my mother particularly was very focused — not obsessed, is the wrong word — but it remained an enormous part of her sensibility.

On whether her professional success affected her mood

To be very honest, I would say not enough. I don't know if I took it in, really. I mean, I took it in in the sense that one of my ways out of myself is to get very absorbed, either in what I'm writing, or when I was in book publishing, writers I was acquiring and editing. So the absorption was a wonderful part. And there were moments I felt the pleasure of it — but it didn't go very deep.

On whether motherhood made a difference

When [daugher Zoe] was very young, I was still often very very depressed, so I think in her very early years — although I was certainly there — there was also this sense of sort of bleakness about my own past. I think I also wanted my parents to come through as grandparents, which they just didn't. But as my daughter got older, it's done an immense amount for me to be a mother. I mean, it has a degree of reparativeness.

On not wanting to stay in therapy forever

I don't think I want to clamber into the grave having just come out of a therapy session. And I am beginning to see — which I can't say this was so true years ago — I'm beginning to see where it might end, a natural end. Not that I'm fixed, but that some of the issues have been as resolved as they're going to be.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Daphne Merkin is a productive and admired professional, a writer and critic for The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine, a novelist and essayist. But all of her life, she struggled with - well, what do you call it? - melancholy, the blues, the black dog, the blue devils - depression by any other name. She's written about how she's made her way through life not despite but with depression. Her new memoir is called "This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression." Daphne Merkin joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAPHNE MERKIN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you have to do to sometimes just get through the day?

MERKIN: Push myself. I mean, at really bad times, I will admit I don't get up. I sort of languish or sleep. But mostly, I try and combat it by sort of assertions of will, which isn't the same as saying pull yourself up by your bootstraps, though. I mean, there's a certain point, I think, if one has a tendency to get seriously depressed as I did and still on occasion do, there's a point at which these assertions of will don't help. But otherwise, I think there's a way of sort of negotiating depression, like, talking to it, saying you can do this, you'll be OK, try going outside, try sitting at your desk - you know, kind of coaxing one's self.

SIMON: You've been on a lot of medications, but you haven't discovered that there's any kind of magic pill, have you?

MERKIN: No. In fact, to my own - I don't know it's my own surprise. I remain enormously ambivalent about medication, which isn't to say that I don't take it. But there isn't a lot of hard-and-fast knowledge about medication. It remains, as I have said and I'm not the only one to say, it remains a form of guesswork, however informed. But I have found that when I've tried to go off, which I have tried as recently as last summer, my mood plummeted and I was just feeling suicidal. Now I'm so - I scurried back on.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to talk about your parents. You talk about your parents...

MERKIN: Yes.

SIMON: ...In this book certainly.

MERKIN: I do.

SIMON: They wound up rich and famous, but they got tough starts in life, didn't they?

MERKIN: Yes. I mean, both of them were refugees, basically, from Germany. Both of them were - came from orthodox Jewish families and had to leave. My mother's family left Germany for what was then called Palestine before the state of Israel had come into being in 1936 when she was 16 and I think in some way never got over it. She had a lot of love for her hometown of Frankfurt and was very nostalgic. And my father, somewhat later, had to leave Leipzig. I forget exactly what he did, but it was 1939. And I think it's easy to underrate what that kind of being sort of forcibly ejected from your homeland does and the whole process of resettling.

And in my mother's case, she emigrated again from Palestine after her father died. She came to New York for what was supposed to be a year's stay and ended up meeting my father and remaining in New York. And I think that whole process - I think the reality of the Holocaust marked both of them. They both lost close relatives. And I think my mother, particularly, was very focused, not - obsessed is the wrong word, but it remained an enormous part of her sensibility.

SIMON: We'll note your father became a famous financier and philanthropist. I wrote down some words to describe your parents.

MERKIN: Right.

SIMON: Gifted, loving, not always caring, rich and stingy.

MERKIN: Very true.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MERKIN: Very good list.

SIMON: Astonishingly stingy, particularly given the fact that they were...

MERKIN: That there was money.

SIMON: Yeah.

MERKIN: Yeah. I think that had a lot to do with my mother's guilt that she left Israel and her family, her siblings and her mother, who did not live particularly well, that she came to New York, stayed, married at an affluent man. I think she played it out on us, on her children, certainly not on my father, but she was sort of strangely withholding.

SIMON: You had such extraordinary success in publishing. Did that make a difference to your frame of mind?

MERKIN: To be very honest, I would say not enough.

SIMON: Yeah.

MERKIN: I don't know if I took it in really. I mean, I took it in the sense that one of my ways out of myself is to get very absorbed either in what I'm writing or, when I was in book publishing, writers I was acquiring and editing. So the absorption was a wonderful part, and there were moments I felt the pleasure of it but didn't go very deep.

SIMON: And I got to ask, you've - palpably love your daughter Zoe.

MERKIN: Yes.

SIMON: But what difference did motherhood make, or did it?

MERKIN: It did. When she was very young, I was still often very, very depressed. So I think in her very early years - although I was certainly there - there was also this sense of sort of bleakness about my own past. I think I also wanted my - I wanted my parents to come through as grandparents, which they just didn't. But as my daughter got older, it's done an immense amount for me to be a mother. I mean, it has a degree of reparativeness.

SIMON: What else helps now? I mean, therapy, drugs, friends?

MERKIN: Yes. I am still - I hope not forever - in therapy with an excellent therapist. Friends have become more important to me rather than less. Medication does help. Work. And then the usual things, movies, culture, art, those kind of things.

SIMON: Why do you say you hope not forever when it comes to therapy?

MERKIN: Because I don't think I want to clamber into the grave having just come out of a therapy session.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MERKIN: And I am beginning to see - which I can't say this was so true years ago - I'm beginning to see where it might end, a natural end, not that I'm fixed but that some of the issues have been as resolved as they're going to be.

SIMON: Daphne Merkin - her new book - "This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression." Thanks so much for being with us.

MERKIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.