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Virginia Woolf’s father went in for mountaineering and public groaning, mine for gardening and a kind of tuneless humming; he also liked to walk with his dog Anna by the river Deben in Suffolk. My mother sought relief in pre-Prozac pills called Tofranil, and in novels.
I take long walks and do jigsaws.
We claim we talk much more openly now about depression than we used to, and it is true that many confessional memoirs dealing with it have been published in recent years, some good (William Styron’s Darkness Visible, Gwyneth Lewis’s Sunbathing in the Rain), some bad, and some exploitative, but it’s hardly a new topic. Melancholia has been with us for centuries, and Hamlet was not the first to have suffered from it. Tennyson feared what he called “the black blood of the Tennysons”, an inheritance of mental and physical disability and drug addiction, and exorcised his demons in the intense, hypnotic and enervating melancholia of his verse. Some can harness it to their own purposes, and ride the waves. Sylvia Plath rode bravely and fearlessly for a while, yet in the end went under.
We all tackle it in our own ways. I have long been a believer in the therapeutic powers of nature, and had faith that a good, long walk outdoors would always do me good. It might not cure me, but it would do me good. I agreed with the poet Robert Southey, who in his old age mildly remarked that “I am less sensible of the want of spirits when engaged in walking than at any other time and therefore spend more time out of doors than I might otherwise do.” This reasonable statement conceals a depth of stoic suffering. When he wrote it, his wife was suffering from dementia in the Retreat in York, and he was experiencing incipient memory loss and a growing inability to escape into his richly furnished inner life of reading and writing. Like the romantic man of the Lakes that he was, he went outdoors, and kept on walking. His friend Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy were great walkers in their youth. Wordsworth went on walking, but poor Dorothy ended up with dementia in a wheelchair.
These are gloomy reflections, fitting for one in her 70th year, an age at which we are obliged to work out survival strategies. Not long ago, it struck me with horror that the walking cure might not always be available to me. My left foot has felt odd for years now. I walk on it, of course, relentlessly, but what if it eventually decides to pack up? What will I do if this harmless, cheap, healthy form of therapy becomes physically unavailable?
I used to criticise my mother for her inertia, her agoraphobia, her unwillingness to walk down the street. She’d feel better, I told her, if she got out and about more. In her last years she lived in a large, detached house in Suffolk without ever visiting the village shop. I didn’t know where the shop was, and had assumed it must be out of range, but on one of my visits, curiosity and restlessness compelled me to seek it out. I discovered that it was only 10 minutes’ walk away.
Her sister, my aunt Phyllis, who is the central character in my forth-coming semi-memoir, walked every day through her Midland village with her little dog. She had taught in the village school since 1947, and when she retired she kept walking, greeting dogs and neighbours and ex-pupils and the grandchildren of pupils as she went, until at the age of 90 she moved reluctantly into a care home.
She was not what I would call athletic, being, like my mother, stout, short, and fond of her food, but she kept on the move. I do not think she suffered from the black blood of the Bloors. She was not of an exceptionally cheerful disposition and could be quite grumpy and graceless, but she was not melancholic. She had not inherited the depressive gene.
This gene remains a mystery. It attacks where it will, and, while we can attempt to rationalise its sources and chart its progress, it is hard to say why it strikes one sister and spares another, hits one son and not another. I went through periods of intense depression as a small child, at one time convincing myself that I had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, a horrifying period of my life which I have never been able satisfactorily to explain.
My parents certainly did not intentionally inculcate in us a sense of sin, as my mother was for years a Shavian socialist-atheist and my father a compassionate semi-Christian (he eventually became a Quaker, finding himself unable to continue to say the Creed). And I didn’t even know what or who the Holy Ghost was. I must have read somewhere that this sin was “the worst thing you can do”, and therefore convinced myself that I had done it.
But what was it? Was it masturbation? Possibly. I was pre-pubertal at the time, and as ignorant about sex as most children in those days were—though my mother, unlike many mothers, was always willing to speak openly on sexual issues, and to answer questions frankly. (I remember to this day her reply when I asked her what a phallic symbol was.) I was not one of those girls who mistook the first spots of blood at the age of 13 as shameful symptoms of a deadly disease. So what can I have been worrying about? Was it a distant inheritance of a generic sense of guilt from the Methodists of South Yorkshire? Or was it just a genetic fluke?
These childhood depressions were followed by adolescent and adult depressions that were easier to explain though not always easier to endure.
But I learned my strategies: the walking cure, the talking cure, the Samaritans in emergencies, the bouts of inept gardening, the bottle of whisky, the long hours of lonely work, the bold decision to throw a party—and, of late, the comforting jigsaw puzzle, which has been my friend through the past few years. But never the pills. I think my mother’s dependence on pills put me off this means of survival. They really didn’t seem to me to do her much good. A walk to the shop would have been better for her, in my ignorant view.
My mother’s pills were prescribed to her in Northumberland in the 1950s, by a then distinguished physician who did not approve of psychotherapy, and I think she stayed with the same dose until she died in 1984. Maybe something more sophisticated could have been found for her in later life, but her last GP does not seem to have been very attentive. I often wonder whether my mother might have responded well to psychotherapy. I don’t think it was ever offered. People of her class in this country didn’t do that in those days. She did enjoy talking about herself and she might have taken to it, but she never tried.
I’ve just been reading novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird, a gripping account of the life of her mother who, after an adventurous life as a beautiful, film-star-addicted, divorced, cigarette-smoking, prolific, pioneering woman in Lebanon, discovered Prozac in San Diego when visiting her family there in old age. Isolated like my mother, but for different reasons—she did not speak English and remained illiterate in all languages—she took the little round capsules, which she defended to her censorious children on the grounds that “the effort of the many people who had produced each pill could only mean that they were greatly beneficial ...” And who are we daughters to criticise? Doris Lessing, in Alfred and Emily, her late novel about her mother (whom she confesses she “hated”), offers her an alternative life, free of the frustration and inertia and depression that history had inflicted upon her. Let our mothers go free.
I write at least in part to investigate, to ward off, to understand these recurrent dark periods. Maybe depression fulfils a useful function, maybe it has an evolutionary benefit. In the year of Darwin, this is a question that I haven’t yet seen posed. How early in pre-history, how many millennia before Hamlet, did man and woman begin to suffer in the mind as well as in the body, and what good did it do the human race?
Many other writers have prophylactic motivations similar to mine, and some admit to them, though others strongly deny any connection between writing and self-therapy, just as they tend to deny links between alcoholism and workaholism. (I’ve met only one writer who frankly admits that if it hadn’t been for the drink, he’d have committed suicide long ago. Nobody would publish his book on alcohol as life-saver, because everyone is keen to toe the safer party line that it’s really a depressant. As, in Styron’s case, it clearly was.)
I was intrigued to discover, from Hermione Lee’s life of Edith Wharton, that Wharton, a woman of the world, was as a child plagued by the idea of a punitive and vengeful God, “a being who had little in common with her parents’ mild, conventional strain of Episcopalianism”.
Where did this dreadful God come from? Was he the same as the Holy Ghost who terrorised me? Was he a version of Wharton’s mother, who sent out mixed messages about truthfulness, politeness and naughtiness, or did he inhabit the memory of the tribe? Wharton and her friend Henry James were both workaholics, in flight from some unnamed fear. So was Harriet Martineau (1802-76), feminist, activist, secular rationalist, and immensely prolific as a writer. In her autobiography, written when she (mistakenly) thought she was dying, she gives an astonishingly vivid account of her earliest memories and her childhood terrors—her nightmares, her fear that the starlit sky would descend and crush her, her irrational horror at meeting certain neighbours in the street, her alarm when shown a magic lantern on Christmas Day, her dreams of suicide, and her sense of “a haunting, wretched, useless remorse”. Being a highly intelligent child with a fine, analytic mind, she began to question the source of these fears when she was still very young, and astutely connected them with a form of melancholy Calvinism encountered at the age of three. There is a very funny account of a progressive Unitarian minister trying to dismiss the existence of the Holy Ghost by displaying three wine glasses in a row, and asking how they could ever be one. It didn’t convince her intellectually, but it intrigued her. She sensed that religion lay behind her misery, but she of course may have been wrong. It makes me sad to think of small children tormented by the nonexistent Holy Ghost, but maybe it’s much the same as being tormented by hobgoblins or sabre-toothed tigers.
We are tormented by the Holy Ghost and by the absence of God. I can’t really make sense of it, or see why we should suffer so. I shall return for comfort from these unsatisfactory thoughts to my current jigsaw, which shows the Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, by Michelangelo. At least I can put those pieces back together again, if I’m patient.—
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