Depression is a terrible illness not so much because it renders people sad, with feelings of emptiness and worthlessness to the point of being suicidal. What is so bad about depression is the lethargy of the mind that blocks the sufferer from taking affirmative action to deal with the condition. You can fight diseases or cancers, you can defy chronic illnesses and battle to live life on your terms. But melancholy is entropic drawing away energy, order and purpose. It prospers by eroding the will. It is amazing how many sufferers manage to rouse themselves for long enough to end it all by taking their lives.
Taking your life is, after all, an action, and a very final one. It demands a firm commitment to a purpose. The pain of depression must be phenomenal to rouse the sufferer to such certain closure.
Sylvia Plath was one such, who wrested with the blackness of the mind. In her poem, Kindness, she speaks of the two things that kept her alive, her children (two roses) and the Blood Jet of Poetry.
Children and depression go hand in hand for many new mothers. Imagine the utter sense of being out of your depth that is experienced by any new parent being combined with post-partum depression. And yet, as Plath attests, often in her work, babies give you a purpose, a powerful impetus to survive and grant them care and protection. Babies are natures anti-depressants.
And so to the Eskimo Days, when we grow old, and toothless, and can no longer chew raw seal. Depression in the aged is a cruel taskmaster. Old people live more in the past, as the weight of their accumulated memories overbalances any future potential. Depression strips them of their ability to store up new memories, and makes it harder and harder to hold onto the old ones.
When a baby cries because it has dirtied itself we are driven by our natural inclinations to protect the poor cute helpless thing and clean it and look after it. When an aged crone cries with discomfort it takes people with a very special degree of compassion to empathise with them. Besides, a smack of a crutch can bring up a nasty welt.
So depression wraps a particularly icy talon round the hearts of the aged. Those claws cut deep.
Candles; by Sylvia Plath
They are the last romantics, these candles:
Upside-down hearts of light tipping wax fingers,
And the fingers, taken in by their own haloes,
Grown milky, almost clear, like the bodies of saints.
It is touching, the way they’ll ignore
A whole family of prominent objects
Simply to plumb the deeps of an eye
In its hollow of shadows, its fringe of reeds,
And the owner past thirty, no beauty at all.
Daylight would be more judicious,
Giving everybody a fair hearing.
They should have gone out with the balloon flights and the stereopticon.
This is no time for the private point of view.
When I light them, my nostrils prickle.
Their pale, tentative yellows
Drag up false, Edwardian sentiments,
And I remember my maternal grandmother from Vienna.
As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef.
The burghers sweated and wept. The children wore white.
And my grandfather moped in the Tyrol,
Imagining himself a headwaiter in America,
Floating in a high-church hush
Among ice buckets, frosty napkins.
These little globes of light are sweet as pears.
Kindly with invalids and mawkish women,
They mollify the bald moon.
Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry.
The eyes of the child I nurse are scarcely open.
In twenty years I shall be retrograde
As these drafty ephemerids.
I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls.
How shall I tell anything at all
To this infant still in a birth-drowse?
Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her,
The shadows stoop over the guests at a christening.