A couple of years ago, it came to my attention that Mental Health Week in Victoria occurred at the same time as did the Melbourne Festival. Even though it seemed that this phenomenon of timing could hardly be conincidental, it is becoming more apparent by the day that you don’t exactly have to be Vaslav Nijinsky to be out of your mind. I’m finding that I can hardly keep up with the number of individuals who, as the years march on, are coming out of the closet regarding depression, be it Andrew Robb, or pretty much everyone on Excess Baggage. What’s more, it truly saddens me that there is a strong possibility that the people on Baggage of whom I speak may now be more depressed than ever.
Certainly, it has been my experience that many people who work in book publishing suffer from some kind of depressive disorder. I have always just put this phenomenon down to, aside from the industry’s lowly pay, the prevalent culture that if while on your watch a mistake appears in a printed work, you should, in all decency, go and commit harakiri; and the highly-likely-to-be-realised threat of labouring on at least one title, and probably several simultaneously, that you truly hate. For me, huge illustrated guides to gardening, tai chi or feng shui were unquestionably the most sapping-of-any-enthusiasm-for-continuing-to-live works to which I could be assigned because, not only did they bore me, I couldn’t understand them. I should point out, though, that my lack of comprehension was in no way confined to non-fiction. I once worked on a literary novel about which I understood not a single thing until I read the synopsis of it in the marketing material.
However, it’s come to my attention that at, for example, law firms, there are, judging by the amount of information around the traps on the topic of who you should contact if you are feeling strangely drawn to a snifter of hemlock, seemingly as many of the working wounded in the hallways as there are at publishing companies, even though most lawyers are at least raking in the cash. What is especially interesting to me about it is that, if you put to one side the fact that, statistically, any given lawyer under, and sometimes over, the age of thirty, secretly wants either to be a novelist or a stand-up comedian, lawyers don’t generally fill the bill of being nutty-nut creative types. Yet, there is, if you care to consult it, plenty of literature available packed with scarifying numbers along the lines of how one point five out of every two lawyers will one day start going all ‘Bell Jar’. Therefore, I am entirely in favour of ‘You’re a Terrific Person, Even If You Did Forget to File That Court Document!’-themed get-togethers and educational videos, and passionately hope that their existence means there is a reasonable chance that if some junior lawyer really ballses something up, they will, indeed, avoid having a senior lawyer tear their heart out and feed it to a dog.
Of course, it’s not uncommon to read articles bewailing the fact that mental illness now appears to have become fashionable. That, these days, rather than mental illness carrying its traditional stigma, anyone who’s anyone is depressed and that Stephen Fry has, almost single-handedly, made it à la mode to be bipolar. Now, I would agree that a person claiming that they suffer from depression can function as a shortcut to making it clear that they are a far more complex, sensitive individual than anyone has hitherto realised. I recall reluctantly thinking that there must be a great deal more to Kylie Minogue than meets the eye after reading that she’d, even back in the Stock Aitken Waterman days of yore, had periods when she got a little Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass. I am certainly not one of those who would carp that it’s now modish to be depressed, and that anyone who claims that they are is either a whiner or a phoney, because I think that depression is a very serious matter. But then, the serious question I have is: how do you know that you’re actually properly depressed?
When I was at university, I, purely in order to do fewer proper written assignments, took part in a study for the Psychology department, in which I had to talk about myself and my feelings to a video camera. When, after a couple of sessions, I told the person in charge that I was abandoning the institution and so could not continue with his study, it was clear from the devastation on his face that he’d been banking an entire PhD thesis on my outpourings. Now, my point in giving this autobiographical detail isn’t that I’m a fascinatingly deranged individual along the lines of Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories or Sigrid Thornton in The Young Doctors. Rather, my point is that I’m not, times a million, looking at this issue from the perspective of someone who’s categorically sane and can’t understand what all these ‘so-called depressives’ are complaining about. The thing is, though, that I have, due to the possibility of my having been depressed, periodically been directed off to therapists since, what feels like, Reg Grundy was a boy, and I’m still not entirely sure when you cross the line into Girl, Interrupted territory.
What’s more, and perhaps I’m flattering myself when I say this, in my time I’ve been acquainted with what feels like the full gamut of depressives. I’ve known people who have been so afflicted by the illness that they’ve genuinely been incapable of making a phone call, and also people who seem able to function efficiently on a day-to-day basis but give every appearance of their ‘condition’ mainly being an excuse for them not to do anything they don’t happen to feel like doing and to be rude to everybody.
My ‘depressive’ periods have announced themselves by, for example, the fact that, back in 1999, I would come home from work and weep and wail through Party of Five, regardless of what was actually even taking place in the episodes. The thing is, though, that even when I’m not carrying on in this manner, I’m almost always either worried about something, or filled with weary distress at the prospect of having to perform some task related to earning my living, or of having to carry out some uninteresting chore, and generally fretting about whether my existence is, in fact, pointless. So, does this mean that I have been chronically depressed for as long as I can remember, or that I am merely a spoiled brat with a bad personality? Given all the above, I would simply like to know how happy I am, or anyone else is, supposed to be on a daily basis in order to qualify as mentally healthy.
In my opinion, so many celebrities and, increasingly, non-celebrities outing themselves as being depressive isn’t a matter of them jumping on some drearily hued bandwagon. Rather, it’s just that if you have any level of self-awareness and are old enough to go to preschool, you are probably going to find that you feel quite awful about a whole lot of things. Now, I have no real inclination ever again to see a mental health professional, but was at one time lucky enough to borrow season one of HBO’s In Treatment and so score myself, gratis, some insights direct from the therapist’s couch. Yes, in one way the insights aren’t about me personally but, if I just use my head, they certainly could be.
This piece appeared in a different form on The Scrivener’s Fancy. I’ve resurrected and reworked it because this topic has been much on my mind.