March 16, 2012 9:03 pm

Fear of the dark

Understanding depression will always be difficult for sufferers – and the experts seem to know little better

Underneath the Lemon Tree: A Memoir of Depression and Recover, by Mark Rice-Oxley, Little, Brown, RRP£13.99, 320 pages

From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression, by Clark Lawlor, OUP, RRP£14.99, 265 pages

 

Mark Rice-Oxley was wearing a flower-power shirt and a Jimi Hendrix wig and singing the self-penned “‘How-did-I-end-up-forty?’ Blues” at his birthday bash when he realised that he really was feeling blue. He had hoped, he tells us in his bruised, bracing memoir, for this big day to have a kind of Woodstock vibe. But though his parents decked themselves out as Sonny and Cher, and his in-laws as John and Yoko, Rice-Oxley himself was in no mood for happy hippie antics. He spent the next few months tumbling down into what he calls “the most frightening time of my life ... having what they used to call a nervous breakdown”.

They have called it a lot of other things too – the vapours, the English malady, the black dog, the devil’s bath, nerves. Yet for all the joshing monikers, you don’t have to be too old to remember a time when it simply wasn’t done to talk about being unhappy. To do so was to risk being told to pull yourself together, or to shut up and put up, or – my favourite – that it’s all in your mind. I mean, where else would it be?

All over, actually, says Rice-Oxley in Underneath the Lemon Tree, whose depression kicked off with “a headache in the shape of a question mark [that] curled itself around my right eye”, and subsequently ran the somatic gamut from ringing ears to a racing heart, from legs that felt like molasses to guts so badly knotted that they might as well have been garters. Dr Johnson once said he would “have a limb amputated to recover my spirits”. Rice-Oxley never gets that desperate, but then he perhaps hopes that the “heavy chain mail duvet of exhaustion wrapped tight around me” will blunt any blade.

In reality, of course, it is only in gothic novels that depression is written on the body. Not the least of the sufferer’s problems is convincing anyone not similarly afflicted about the agonies they are going through. A successful journalist, Rice-Oxley comes from a happy home and has spent the past decade setting up another one with his wife and their three children.

But understanding as the various members of his family are about what he’s going through, they never really understand. How could they? It’s not as if the guys in white coats know any better. As Clark Lawlor makes plain in his dull but dogged cultural history of depression, From Melancholia to Prozac, the dope on feeling down is as confusing as it is confused. We can’t say what it is, much less what causes it, and less than that about its prevention.

 

All of which means that if, like me, you spend a goodly portion of your life telling an unhappy relative to take the pills that boost their serotonin levels, prepare to be shocked. “There is no evidence that there is anything wrong with the serotonin in people who are depressed,” the neuroscientist David Healy tells Rice-Oxley. Fair enough. Except that there’s also evidence that many people who take serotonin-boosters say their spirits have been lifted. And other patients have made similar claims while being treated with placebos.

Rice-Oxley comes over all Robert Ludlum when he starts talking about “the serotonin conjecture”. But you don’t have to be the hero of a conspiracy thriller to wonder whether the victims of depression might also be victims of Big Pharma boosterism.

Meanwhile, there’s the illness itself to cope with. At different times during his travails, Rice-Oxley tries to convince himself that he’s been brought low by the pressures of work, fatherhood and of being male in a culture that is forever calling masculinity into question. At one point he wonders if all that’s wrong with him is a bit of darkness-dreading seasonal affective disorder. At another he comes dangerously close to agreeing with André Gide’s fatuous suggestion that unhappiness is just another word for fatigue. Would that it were so simple.

Still, Lawlor, who teaches English literature, is surely right to conclude his book by arguing for an end to the biological reductionism of our scientistic age. Human beings may well be clusters of electrochemical impulses, but the fact that we go on asking questions about life and death and happiness and sadness suggests we might be something more than them, too.

“I am mentally ill,” Rice-Oxley confides toward the end of his book. “I broke a bit of my brain.” I hope for his sake that he’s right. But what if he didn’t break it? What if it was broken already? What if it wasn’t “only a matter of time before something snapped”? What if Rice-Oxley is one of those people who are programmed to see that the times are out of joint?

“Call no man happy till he is dead,” said Greek playwright Aeschylus. Two-and-a-half millennia on, who would deny that our world is still no place for the sensitive of soul?

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