Depression as Performance



Shabby Doll House.

⇒The first thing I noticed were the imperatives. In this fascinating, complex prose piece about depression, imperative sentences work as a sort of “refrain,” adding a great rhythm to the piece.

Have… Eat… Lie there… Consume… Consume… Consume… 

This piece works, and works extremely well, because of the imperative constructions we see throughout, the second person that basically takes the “protagonist”-subject and turns that person into an object, a thing. As someone who has experienced depression on and off for many years, I identify more with an object than a subject when depressed, as if I’ve become a depression-feeling thing whose one and only role is to continually lose hope. But I digress.

I once read a great article by Stephen Graham Jones about the second person voice, which separated the stylistic approach into two separate camps: descriptive and prescriptive. The descriptive tells the reader what the subject is doing, while the prescriptive tells the reader what the character will do. To wit: You lie in a fetal position is descriptive, while You will lie in a fetal position is prescriptive, stealing away the character’s agency by telling her what it is she will/must do. The problem with the prescriptive kind of 2nd person is that it opens up the character to an inevitable future, which doesn’t work in a piece like this because that extra verb (will) takes away the immediacy of crushing depression: there is only this Awful Now.

Ms. Gonzalez has opted to use the second person-descriptive, for the most part, but manages to subjugate the depressed character (the You) anyway by relying on the imperative mood: You must, you must, you must.

The thing about depression is the depression sufferer has no choice in the matter. (This is not open to debate; there is a special place in hell reserved for those non-depressed people who tell their depressed friends that they’re only depressed because they choose to be.)

Depression is instinctive, transcending reason and choice. That’s why I’m not a believer in the behavioral-cognitive approach to depression therapy, which argues you can “reason” depression away; depression is far deeper than language and logic, a sort of preconscious swamp of dread that drives a person to eat too many carbs and stay in the dark.

What’s really effective about Gonzalez’s “How to Stay Depressed” is that it’s structured as a sort of laundry list or itinerary. The piece is a set of (tongue-in-cheek) “instructions,” a user’s manual for clinical depression. This is what you must do to maintain your depression, the piece tells us: eat, have impersonal and apathetic sex, isolate, watch TV in bed, isolate from your family, avoid conflict and protracted social interactions of any kind, etc. Of course, these are the things depressed people do anyway, through sheer impulse. The fact that these depressed drives are expressed through language is really fascinating, since depression is deeper than language (though it manifests itself through language–you’re a failure, you’re fat, you’re stupid, ugly, unlovable, etc.).

The “speaker” in this piece seems to be depression personified–which is to say, the depressed person herself–so this is a poem/story in which a depressed person talks to herself. But what makes this piece so powerful is not that it’s a bunch of interior, depressed self-talk, but rather a blueprint for some actual exterior behaviors: eating, casual sex, isolation, people-pleasing, and other things that other people can see. Depression isn’t simply an internal narrative, this piece suggests, but an external performance. Depression is a role we assume (again, not deliberately), and the sick/fucked-up part about that is that once we’ve adopted this role, we tell ourselves we’re not even doing that “right” (as Gonzalez explains).

This piece is really fascinating, really insightful, and it opens up a lot of questions. We need more writing like this, writing that takes on the depression epidemic (and I truly believe it’s an epidemic, and a potentially life-threatening condition if left untreated). Sure, this might now be the most upbeat subject, but it’s absolutely essential, and in the right hands–as we see in Gonzalez’s piece–can be handled quite beautifully.

That’s all for today. Time to go take my Zoloft.

Read the piece over at Shabby Doll House.

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