Letter 32: Brief Interviews – “The Depressed Person”


Dear Dave,

You end “The Depressed Person” with two questions asked by the Depressed Person of the most trusted friend in her Support System.  She asks – she must know – what this close, trusted friend thinks of her; a bluntly honest assessment of her character.  Does she (i.e. the trusted member of the Support System) think that she (i.e. the Depressed Person) is a worthwhile human being, someone deserving of the long telephone calls late at night?  Or is she (i.e. the Depressed Person) merely a drain and a drag on all those around her?

Those questions are never answered, almost as if you (i.e. David Foster Wallace, the author of the story) are asking us (i.e. the readers of “The Depressed Person”) those very same questions.  After reading thirty-two pages describing the indescribable pain and suffering of the Depressed Person, how do we (i.e. the readers) truly feel about her (i.e. the Depressed Person)?

To be honest, my own feelings about this character (i.e. the Depressed Person) are rather ambivalent ones.  The first several pages of description felt so cold and almost clinical.  She (i.e. the Depressed Person) is never named.  The adjectives describing her (i.e. the Depressed Person) are very neutral, eliciting no real emotional response, neither positive nor negative in their connotations.  The story read almost like a case study or a therapist’s notes on the subject.  Such cold, emotionless descriptions conjured sympathy for the Depressed Person.  Who wouldn’t feel sorry for a young girl forced into the middle of her parents’ petty squabbles over things like who was to pay for her orthodontic care?

But as those first several pages went on to become thirty-two pages,[1] I (i.e. the reader) found myself burdened and overwhelmed by the depth of her emotional suffering, as I’m sure her therapist and members of her Support System did as well.[2] As I am sure members of the Support System must have felt every time their phone rang late at night, I too wanted to avoid reading on because of the emotional drain her (i.e. the Depressed Person’s) account put on me (i.e. the reader).  But alas, motivated by my stick-to-it-iveness and my dedication to this blog project (i.e. Letters to DFW), I (i.e. the reader) finished the story.

There are two things that stood out as I (i.e. the reader) read the story, the first being the role and influence of the therapist in the Depressed Person’s life.  What is meant to be nonjudgmental support and unconditional validation of the Depressed Person’s emotional needs appears more like harmful enablement.  The Depressed Person is never forced to confront her deep-seeded pain and resentment toward her parents[3] and therefore never deals with and moves on from her depression.  She (i.e. the Depressed Person) is left to wallow in her pain and suffering, becoming almost unbearable to herself and to members of her Support System.

But it is not this emotional enabling and coddling that caught my attention; it is the Depressed Person’s own admission that the therapist is the closest thing she (i.e. the Depressed Person) has to a true friend, and that she (i.e. the Depressed Person) agrees to pay her (i.e. the therapist) $90 an hour for the service of friendship.  I couldn’t help, after reading these paragraphs, but to make the connection between this paid service by the therapist and the paid services of other professionals who will, for what I am told is about the same hourly rate, pretend to be a friend or even a lover.[4] [5]

Aside from the whole therapist-prostitute connection brought about by reading this story, what else stood out to me were the opening sentences, which read:

The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.

Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain or expressing its utterness to those around her, the depressed person instead described circumstances, both past and ongoing, which were somehow related to the pain, to its etiology and cause, hoping at least to be able to express to others something of the pain’s context, its – as it were – shape and texture.

I’ve never truly been depressed,[6] but I have known a kind of pain and suffering on a plane similar to that of the Depressed Person.  I have suffered from migraines since my teenage years, and have for nearly a year now endured their pain on a much more frequent and intense basis, sometimes having two or three severe headaches in a week.  Though there is nothing physiologically or psychologically wrong with me – as far as the gamut of tests can tell – I am forced to endure sometimes excruciating pain; dizziness; nausea; sensitivity to light, sound, smells, and movement; and sometimes, while in the midst of an attack, a desire to die.   I have – for the most part – been able to manage the condition with a variety of medications, but it is a condition for which I am told there is no identifiable cause and no cure.  In other words, I’m just gonna have to live with it as best I can.

Now I realize that the symptoms, causes, and effects of migraine are drastically different from those of clinical depression.  However, what they do share is the unrelatability of the condition.  There is no way for those who suffer from migraine – or depression – to fully and accurately articulate to non-sufferers what they must endure on an often daily basis.  Equally impossible is for those who do not suffer from those conditions – or any other debilitating condition – to fully understand and appreciate what the sufferers go through.  You just don’t know – you can’t know – unless you’ve been there.[7] The sufferers will continue to wallow in the fact that no one understands what they go through, and the non-sufferers will continue to try to empathize.  But the gap between them will remain.

However, a beneficial byproduct of this gap of unrelatability is the way these conditions can bring together fellow sufferers into a sympathetic sense of community.  When one sufferer finds another, there is an instant bond that transcends age, gender, race, and socioeconomics.  There is a sense of “you know what it’s like.  You know what I’ve been through.”  And, like the Depressed Person, that is all we’re looking for, but have so much trouble finding: knowledge that someone else gets it.

[1] Including footnoted asides that sometimes went on for several pages.[back]

[2] About two-thirds of the way through the story – which by the way was about the longest thirty-two pages I think I’ve ever read – I began having flashbacks to Bill Murray’s character in What about Bob? I began to empathize even more with Richard Dreyfuss’s character as Bob’s therapist who is driven into a catatonic state by Bob’s neediness and obsession with his problems.[back]

[3] However, the therapist does encourage her (i.e. the Depressed Person) to attend an Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreat Weekend, during which time she (i.e. the Depressed Person) achieves “an important emotional breakthrough.  But unable to fully cope with the emotions that were broken through, she leaves the Retreat early and ends up suffering more of a set-back from the experience than anything.[back]

[4] Just to make it clear, I do not know this from personal experience.  I finished reading SuperFreakonomics last week, in which the authors go into great detail in the opening chapter about the services and price ranges of these professionals.[back]

[5] I am also very glad that I did not read this story before having ever gone through therapy myself (I have done a few short-term rounds with a professional counselor to help with stress management).  While I have great respect for the profession and even have a close friend in that profession, making that connection while reading this story will forever taint them – ever so slightly – in my opinion.[back]

[6] There were a few instances in high school during which I went through what would now be called an “emo” phase; I felt sad and listened to sad music and made sad attempts at writing poetry.  But I’m sure I failed to meet the DSM-V’s criteria for true depression.  I have also had occasions of overwhelming stress and anxiety, but nothing that some counseling by either my pastor or a recommended psychologist couldn’t help alleviate after a few weeks.[back]

[7] This must be a similar experience for war veterans.  No matter how many books are written, – be they memoirs of soldiers or fictional accounts – or how many movies are made, we – the civilians they protect – will never truly comprehend what goes on in the war zone.[back]

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3 thoughts on “Letter 32: Brief Interviews – “The Depressed Person”

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Letters to DFW

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