Rainy again this morning — the Great Dane digging holes around the garden, unearthing a small Greek origanum bush of which I am very fond, barking loudly and aimlessly at the back wall. He’s bored, ignores me when I call to him.
A friend calls from the city to say she is surfacing from seasonal depression now that winter is nearly over, a mild enough winter on the balmy bay lined with palm trees, not balmy enough for her though. What causes depression? Is there any explanation that really fits across the centuries and cultures? I’m reading a Rumpus history of depression and wondering what novel explanations might appear next month, next year –
The next great theory of depression belonged to Freud. To him, depression (he used the Greek term, melancholia) wasn’t an aesthetic mode but a state of feeling, an emotional reaction caused by loss. The loss could be of anything: a relationship, a possession, even a long-held hope or cherished belief. Often the loss wasn’t conscious, but the feeling was. Melancholia felt like grief, with the addition of bitter feelings of anger, guilt, and reproach heaped upon the self.
Freud didn’t think that melancholic reactions were healthy, per se, but he did believe that they were widespread. Vulnerability to depression was one of the hazards of loving and connecting, and particularly of over-identifying with the things one loves. Anybody could fall into melancholia from time to time, but particularly at risk were those who find their self-worth in attachments and achievements rather than inside, and of eager-to-please individuals who keep their aggressive feelings pent up inside. In an increasingly individualistic society, Freud gave us a vision of grief whose roots were interesting and personal, springing from the bonds and experiences that make us who we are.
And as with theories of alcoholism, the discrepancies, similarities, contrasts go on in their own mysterious way. Sometimes medication helps, but we don’t know why. Some of those in recovery find anti-craving medications work like a charm; for others the urges go underground, switch focus or simply persist. Might the answer lie in a theory of chemical imbalance, like seasonal affect disorder, something external, not originating within at all? We simply don’t know.
Yet despite the promise of definitive, modern understanding conveyed by the chemical imbalance account, the biological reality of depression still floats away from our grasp. Twenty-five years later, scientists still haven’t achieved a satisfying explanation of just how or why antidepressants work. No benchmark for a normal level of brain serotonin has been established, nor have depressed people been shown to have less serotonin in their brains than the non-depressed. Antidepressants are effective for many, especially in cases of moderate to severe depression, and we understand the brain better every year, though an unfathomable amount still remains to be learned. But on close inspection, “depression is a chemical imbalance” turns out to be is every bit as much a model, a metaphor, a story, as “depression is an excess of black bile.”
Outside the dog jumps up and down, barking himself hoarse. I must get up from the keyboard and go and play with him. It is too rainy for a walk and his small dog companions are fast asleep. Is he developing a bad habit? Or just, like all of us, prone to irritability and grumbles on Monday mornings? Perhaps the cat from next door is teasing him again, perhaps he hears something I can’t hear with my dim human hearing. Is he suffering the pangs of delayed spring?
The stories we tell ourselves, the stories that change over time. Snow fell on the mountains above the village last night and is powdery light- blue, a child’s paintbox colour. Loss moves back and forth inside my mind like the passing of winter, but I do not suffer from depression. I’m lucky. Elsewhere the snow is still falling, black clouds gathering in the valleys.