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John Mendelssohn on depression — and the pursuit
of happiness in spite of it

Goodbye, Group Therapy

Goodbye, Monday morning therapy group. Goodbye, witty, vivacious 45-year-old self-harmer with forearms polka-dotted with the scars of cigarette burns. You complained of an inability to manage your own finances. You spoke of hurrying out when your welfare payments arrive each month to buy yourself nice bottles of wine or novels you’ve been looking forward to reading. You spoke of never having had a job, or being able to sustain a romantic relationship for longer than a few weeks. At first I worried that you were going to remind me of that poor woman in my late-80s therapy group in San Francisco, Ms. Inappropriate Laughter, who’d recount some unspeakable horror, and then giggle gaily, in the nonsexual sense. Pity you didn’t turn up more often, 45-year-old self-harmer, as you were one of the two I liked. 

Goodbye, 64-year-old woman who attended only two of the sessions at which I was present, and barely spoke at either of them. We hardly knew ye, but what eloquent torment in your eyes.

Goodbye, poor 35-year-old depressive still living with your parents and unable to utter the simplest declarative sentence without swiping your hand nervously back through your hair and making strange faces, wincing, gaping, glancing suddenly up at the ceiling. It was painful to witness, and you were never audible, but when I gave you a lift home that one time, your core sweetness was unmistakable. I wish you relief, bro. 

Goodbye, babyfaced young chef with thumb rings and many fetishy bracelets. The friendliest of the lot, and the most inconsolably, palpably miserable, you spoke at one session of how your depression had driven all your mates away, and of how there was no one to whom you could turn when the blackness became unbearable. When I said you could always phone me, the psychotherapist actually woke up for a moment, pointing out that communication outside the group was against the rules. 

You’d been brutalised in childhood by your dad, and Mum didn’t defend you. In young adulthood, the woman with whom you were in love left you because she knew she was dying, and then did indeed die, if you’ll forgive the alliteration. You were set upon by a pride of skinheads outside a pub in Kingston, and suffered injuries that precluded your ever regaining your earlier form in the kitchen. You didn’t necessarily want to commit suicide, but often could just barely endure being alive, a feeling I know too well.  I told you what’s been working so well for me the past couple of months — call it denial! — and in so doing pissed off the hideous 50-year-old Gothic self-harmer.

We’d already had a bit of a moment, she and I, at a session you didn’t attend.  She talked about how, when there was an angel whispering into one of her ears and a demon in the other, it was invariably the demon’s excoriations she took to heart. I asked why. She went into a convoluted anecdote about her childhood. I politely (it seemed to me) noted that she was getting off track. We repeated the whole process. The second time I interrupted her reverie to insist, “But why is it the demon you listen to?” she went into a frightful rage. Her eyes bulged. She trembled. “If I fucking knew why,” she demanded loudly enough to move the little travel alarm clock the psychotherapist keeps on the little table before her so she can stop us at exactly 10.30, “do you think I’d still do it?”

She apparently thought I was rebuking for not doing the more sensible thing. Not so. I was asking because I do the same – discount any praise I might receive (though I am surely the world’s most implacable praise junkie) and experience every faintest criticism as a knife in my throat.  It was the self-sidetracking to which I objected.

Fair enough. I very commonly get things very wrong, very commonly manage to say very stupid things even with my foot securely in my mouth. I often say that the reason I’m so good at apologising is that I have so much to apologise for. But no apology from our hideous Gothic self-harmer, who, in subsequent sessions, became more and more openly contemptuous of my practical cognitive-therapy-style suggestions to Young Chef, suggestions to get him through the day. I was trying to put a plaster (Band-Aid, you see) on life-threatening wounds, she accused.  I was being insufferably masculine and – let it be said! – American. 

Well, goodbye then, hideous 50-year-old self-harmer. Keep talking it out, gal. Keep imagining that the wealth of insights you might achieve in the course of psychotherapy is going to have the slightest effect on the way you actually feel. See what effect your intellectual breakthroughs have on your own ravaged forearms. And a pox on ye. 

Finally, goodbye, psychotherapist. I appreciate that detachment is necessary, but not since the Warren Beatty lookalike I consulted in my early 20s, at the height of my wealth ‘n’ fame, have I encountered one who exhibited so few signs of life, let alone compassion. I didn’t even find your insights very insightful 

A note on denial. Guilty as charged, madam, and for no reason other than that I find it works better than anything else I’ve tried. When I begin feeling glum and hopeless, I say to myself, “Yo, Johnny, this makes no sense in view of your being a happy person,”  or literally force myself to smile as hugely as my crumbling old features can manage. Either way, a neurological signal gets sent to my brain, which, if things are going well, then cancels, or at least postpones, its order for nearly unendurable despair, and Johnny survives another day, often even joyfully. 

The boy can function; it’s a meerkle!

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