Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart of the Matter

Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart of the Matter

Article excerpt

I MALIGNANT SADNESS: THE ANATOMY OF DEPRESSION by Lewis Wolpert Faber, 9.99, pp. 196

Heather's illness crept up on us in New York. I'd taken her there to show off my favourite places - the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, the Old King Cole Bar at the St Regis - but instead of rising to the occasion and relishing the pace and energy of Manhattan, she shrank into herself and felt insignificant, overpowered and superfluous. She'd fall silent and rock gently to and fro, like a mad person in a film; she'd curl up in bed all day and look blank and morose. She slipped away from me, and eventually from life itself. The months following our return to Britain were terrifying; it was as if an irresistible force were dragging her down into the grave. She'd alternate crazy high spirits and irritability with complete despair; her depression intensified and ate away at everything like a rat. She hanged herself in November 1997, aged 29.

My own misery, which turned much of last year into a blur, has thus a very clear cause. That nothing seemed worthwhile; that existence had lost its point and purpose; that the slightest task was too much effort: though these are classic symptoms of depression, they are also the effects of bereavement, the shock of which is meant to wear off. Pure clinical depression, by contrast, has nebulous origins and tends to hang about for ever, like a grey cloud on the horizon; the world becomes (as for Hamlet) 'a stale promontory'. All that's ambitious or ascendant in the human character is denied, to be replaced by a bitter, sick rage, by a loss of stamina and animation.

That's how Heather suffered, certainly; she was a poor little frightened girl. Yet it is also the identical experience of Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London, a CBE and Fellow of the Royal Society a distinguished man in anybody's estimation. His account of being a victim of depression is vividly described in Malignant Sadness, a book which will rank with Stuart Sutherland's Breakdown and A. Alvarez's discussion of suicide, The Savage God, in the annals of medical detective stories. There's nothing quite so engaging as an element of personal quest - what happened to me? How did it happen to me? and Wolpert tops and tails his analytic survey of the chronic glums with a gripping account of what it's like being a complete mess, convulsed with panic, insomniacal, uncontrollably twitching and bonkers generally. `It was the worst experience of my life. More terrible even than watching my wife die of cancer,' he states with wonderful candour. Well, it was the worst (or most deeply affecting) experience of my life, watching Heather's sadness get out of control, so I read this book with a mixture of horror and fascination.

Depression tends to be banned under communist regimes as 'a bourgeois construct', and I do wonder if they have a point. It is a supremely selfish ailment the patient locked in with his own thoughts, unreachable by other people. Wolpert was successful and fulfilled. Perhaps he was afflicted by cosmic boredom? Or as a busy man, was he suddenly unable to overlook the fact that it's useless pursuits and conversations that absorb much of our time and strength? If you've achieved your promise, where's the impetus to keep going? As Kenneth Williams wrote in his final journal entry, `Oh, what's the bloody point?'

It is as if, for some people, there's never enough - not enough love or security or reassurance or acclaim; or if there is, then they don't believe in it, because they don't believe in themselves. …

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