Book Club: Unholy Ghost, #2

I’m back, and as promised, I’m starting with the first essay in the book: “A Delicious Placebo” by Virginia Heffernan.

Heffernan was not always depressed; she went through a difficult breakup and found herself in the clutches of depression afterwards. I was interested in her description of her descent into despair and of the changes occuring within her and around her. For me, as for some others, depression and despair came at birth, or at least, so early that we have no true concepts of “normal” or “healthy.” Depression is like breathing for us: it is simply a part of life, and existence without it is nearly impossible to imagine.

Even though Heffernan’s path and mine are different, they led us to a few similar places and feelings. For example, she found that explanations for why things happened in a particular way seemed more reliable if they found fault with her. (Such as: ‘Jimmy and I fought at the party because I am impossible to get along with or to like,’ being more plausible than ‘Jimmy and I both hold strong views regarding the environment and industry. Unless we both become more willing to listen to other views, it may be wisest to avoid a similar conversation in the future.’)

Another aspect of her experience that I understand is energy rationing: as depression squeezes its victim more tightly, that person wakes up with less and less energy in the morning, so they need to decide which one or two activities to accomplish that day. At her lowest point, Heffernan only had energy for 1 hour worth of life per day. At my darkest point, I slept for 20 hours per day and barely did more than eat and use the bathroom when I was awake. I couldn’t handle any more because the despair and agony of being awake was smothering. It’s awful.

Heffernan interpreted her depression through a personal philosophy and code of conduct, developing several “pillars” to build her daily life around. Essentially, they are activities that she decided were healthy or beneficial for her, so she completed them each day through sheer willpower. She looked for sad friends to relate with and non-medical treatments for a while, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, she filled a prescription for antidepressants and went to a spa with her mother. Regarding this transitional time in her life, she wrote:

I could not find in myself a trace of love-of-life or even self-preservation. But a small readiness to be somewhere new- I found that. I envisioned a place that was not pining and not terrified, a view drained of the color saturation of bruised hearts. (18)

I liked this quote because of its honesty: life changes aren’t always motivated by things that make sense to healthy people. Love-of-life and self-preservation are much more important to happy people than they are to people who are miserable, or falling into delusion, or so sleep-deprived that they can’t process things, or so anxious that tiny changes from the norm causes panic or… 

Well, you understand.

So I appreciate that Heffernan was able to believe that things could be different, even if that existence had to be defined by what it was not, rather than what it was. (‘Not dangerous’ is different than ‘safe,’ because the concept of danger is more salient, more real, than the concept of safety is for the speaker.

In the end, she finds a different existence for herself, but the shadow of depression and the whispers of her pillars remain at the edges. This is true for me as well. I have moved past the worst part of my depression (I think) and into a healthier stage of life, but there are still remnants of my past littered around me. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll ever manage to forget it all or to move so far past my body’s frailty that I won’t be affected by depression or anxiety at all. Instead, I just want to be functional, even with the burdens that are welded onto my body and the weaknesses seared into my mind.


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