Winter afternoons —
That oppresses . . .
— Emily Dickinson, 1830-1883
And I find that I’m repeating myself. When I opened this file and wanted to verify Emily Dickinson’s actual lineation and punctuation for her famous “slant of light” reference I had the feeling I’d done it quite recently. Sure enough, just three days before Christmas I used the same epigraph when I wrote about having “another beak under the wing” day. The first one had been the day after my party, when I thought I was just slowing down to recover from all the extroversion.
I started this day with a list of things to accomplish. I conveniently ignored the fact that they were all left from yesterday’s list except the mailing of a birthday card. That is, apparently, all I did yesterday, although the task was complete before eight in the morning. The rest of the day I spent doing parts of things — putting away part of the Christmas decorations in one room, updating part of my address list for my holiday letter (new addresses for reunion attendees but not the friends from the Bread Loaf experience).
I seemed to be moving in slow motion. At noon I got dressed to go out to the copy shop to duplicate my letter. I chose clean clothes not from my holiday outfits because I’m tired of the sparkly stuff, put on my makeup, put in earrings, tied my shoes, and then sat down on the bed in tears. Then I crawled under the covers and put my beak under my wing for two hours, at the end of which I felt really no better. That’s when I came out of denial and acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Melanie is here.
Melanie is the name I give to the embodiment of my depression. When I first wrote about her in this space I called her The Witch of November because that’s when she’d shown up that year. I have what mental health professionals call dysthymia, a kind of generalized chronic depression thought to have genetic origin. I have suffered two periods of major depression, both triggered by life crises, not uncommon in dysthymics. I also have from time to time periods of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition not yet accepted as a separate diagnosis by psychologists but called a “seasonal pattern specifier” in people like me.
Some years, as in 2000, Melanie arrives with gong clangs and siren howls (an image from William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure,” possibly my favorite poem of all time, even over anything by Emily Dickinson). Other years she’s very quiet, not coming until February and then sneaking in only for a brief stay.
Standing up and saying hello to her really helps. And that’s what I did this afternoon. I ate some fruit, took a shower, and got dressed all over again. Then I completed my errands and arrived at the Red Robin at 6:15 to have dinner with Lynn and our friend Erin, a young woman who was among my eleventh graders back in 1997. Afterward we went to her house, a funky farmhouse cottage down a long dirt road, and “hung out” (as Lynn calls it) until just past 9:30.
Some people, including some mental health professionals, disparage the whole idea of depression and SAD. They claim that mental illness is a myth. I first became aware of this stance when a follower of Thomas Szasz, the leading proponent of the philosophy, joined an Emily Dickinson discussion list I was part of to decry the fine work that Dr. John McDermott had done on the possibility that the poet had the condition. As a result, Dr. McDermott and I entered into an occasional correspondence and he joined both the discussion list where his work was being attacked and the one I run.
Mood disorders, I’ve come to understand, exist on a continuum. Some people exhibit no tendencies at all, others have some of this and some of that and respond to differing strategies to manage their symptoms (including just plain ignoring them) and some people are so paralyzed by the conditions that they cannot function.
I am blessed with the resources to use many strategies to live with Melanie. For tonight, I’m choosing to greet her, make her comfortable, and ask her what she wants rather than ignore her. In my experience, it’s just attention that she wants, and she’s satisfied with very little.
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