A close-up struggle through decades of depression eventually arrives at “nearly happy” in Daphne Merkin’s personal story of her troubling and complicated life journey.
It’s a sigh of relief actually, to get to the end of the book, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression. In the last chapter, Merkin says, “And yet, this is where you’ll find me, come summer, despite my intermittent suicidal longings…I’m lying on my back in the swimming pool in the garden behind the small but inviting house I have rented on Long Island, very much alive.”
After decades of dark times, several hospitalizations, extensive therapy and many adjustments of medication, Merkin comes to feel a certain warmth and sense of hope with family and friends. Her outlook finally tilts upward: “Tomorrow presents itself as a glimpse of sun and water, hours to read, shared meals and wandering conversations…Whoever thought I’d be this close to happy?”
The ending of the book, published in 2017, offers promise for all who struggle with depression themselves or have loved ones who are in that dark place at times. But most of Merkin’s story is a magnifying glass revealing the daily personal challenges and the depths of despair she experienced.
“If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence,” she says.
“I try to think of my experience of depression as ‘the dark season,’ in part as a gesture of hope that it will depart just as it has arrived…What I want to know is how I will ever get out from under, and whether there is really any other kind of season. You see, down here, where life hangs heavy like a suffocating cloak, I can’t remember that I’ve felt any other way. I need to be reminded that there are reasons in the world to hold on, even if I have forgotten them.”
Merkin looks back and tries to figure out how early she began to feel isolated and then depressed. Photos of her at ages three and four show, “…an impish quality…my eyes sparkle and my smile is wide. I was, in fact, more extroverted than my two sisters and considered charming by many of the adults I came in contact with at my parents’ gatherings…”
She reflects on the influence of her mother, to whom she was deeply attached, although her mother was distant. Merkin details a rather stern, even at times a downright mean nanny, who did most of the child-rearing. Merkin wonders if the nanny was hired purposely, so the children didn’t get attached to her.
While her father was a well-respected presence in business and the community, her attempts at connecting with him failed.
“The almost complete lack of fatherly attention didn’t help my confidence either, from a man who saw me in passing every day of my childhood but never seemed to take me in,” recalls Merkin. “Even today, observing a father being tender with a daughter on a playground or in the supermarket can put me in an off mood for hours, reminding me of an absence that will never be filled.”
Merkin considers the possibility of depression being mostly inherited, but determines that her family is no more or less a likely candidate for depression than any others.
She marries and divorces, but from that union comes a child who is, naturally, a lifelong inspiration for Merkin to keep going.
Merkin looks back on her childhood, wondering, “…who knows but that I was already adopting the mask of all-rightness that every depressed person learns to wear in order to navigate the world.”
Her story offers a window into what may seem quite a successful life from the outside. She was raised in a well-to-do family and educated in good schools. She developed a rather stellar career as a writer, including working at McCall’s, being on the staff of The New Yorker, and having her work published in The New York Times and Vogue. In addition, she’s the author of several books.
Reading about Merkin’s lifelong mental health challenges allows a view into her grueling daily efforts to be productive and positive enough to achieve these noteworthy accomplishments.
Along the way, Merkin puts her trust in psychiatrists and therapists who help her zero in on issues and provide medication. She is hospitalized at times when she feels she needs a secure environment. She also understands that she must deal with the world on its own terms.
One day in the hospital, she says, “I remember picking up a glossy magazine and paging through its breathless coverage of anyone with a claim on the spotlight. It seemed inconceivable that I, not so long ago, had written for such magazines myself, had been courted over expensive lunches by editors eager for my work. In the end, I left the unit late one morning. I had stayed about three weeks, and although I didn’t think I was in dramatically better shape at the end of them, I do know that I felt a growing aversion to being in the hospital, and that the psychiatrist who had initially urged me to check in was now urging me to go home.”
Merkin’s book is an honest and deeply personal account of a life in which depression has been a constant companion. But by arriving at a place of some hope and comfort, a degree of optimism and some sense of control, she discovers, to her own surprise, that she is “this close to happy.”
Merkin, Daphne, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017.