Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hemingway: How courage and depression go together

This article is well-intended, but egregiously judgmental and woefully ignorant:

If it weren't for the inane babble puzzling over why Hemingway lived so intensely, this line would be the Winner of The Most Fatuous Statement award: 
" January 1961 he told his wife, Mary, that he could no longer write a single good sentence. And Hemingway would only settle for great ones."

It wasn't a question of settling for less than great, it was a question of how important it is to fulfill your purpose and dig some meaning out of life, even amid the unbearable. That purpose and meaning was taken from him, under the mistaken guise of treatment. 

Hemingway got electroshock therapy for his depression; a common side effect is to knock out your language abilities and cognition, sometimes for months and sometimes forever. The one thing that made his life endurable -- writing like himself -- was taken from him. 

Depressed people have more courage and determination than their non-depressed cohorts. Studies are finally being funded that verify this (which I'll dig up later. Feel free to nudge me with a comment.) 

Think about that next time you curl your lip over suicide. It's not about courage. It's about unbearable pain and a degree of mental crippling that puts a valid life out of reach. 

Waiting and working at it until things improve is a reasonable thing to do: Hemingway waited and worked at it for  40 years, though with so little real hope for treatment. Talk about courage! It's unthinkable how much courage he brought to bear on his life. His intensity and wild behavior were directly related to making his life bearable -- and his work more compelling. Check his quoted remarks on that subject. What's between the lines is breathtaking. 

The article's remark about suicidal lineage is true, but poorly understood. A suicide in the family has the powerful effect of making suicide less unthinkable. There is often a genetic tweak associated with it, but that's not all there is. The thing to know now is, we are not our predecessors; we can do more. Far more. 

Hemingway died before we developed SSRIs, SNRIs, and a tremendously improved understanding of neurochemistry, behavior, nutrition and psychodynamics. We have more options now. Lots more. Waiting and working at it is a real success path now. 

Be good to your depressed friends. You probably have no idea what they're capable of, when they can be well again. Help them persist. 

It's the most important thing to do: persist. A valid and bearable life is a reasonable thing to hold out for. Only death bars the door to healing. Things will change. 


  1. I, too was irked by the NPR story, as someone who has struggled with depression for 30 years. It is so easy for people to agree with the intellectual notion of "it's a disease, like MS". But when faced with the reality of the disease, (my house is filthy, my bills are unpaid, my hair is a mess and I don't want to meet you for coffee), they revert to judging me differently than MS Lady. I am weak. I have no pride. No self-control.

    Your words about language are so moving to me. My med "cocktail" allows me to live my life, but it messes with my cognition, especially around language. When I hit that weird "word wall" and I know it's the meds, I am suddenly so aware of how my brain is ill that I feel more alone than on my worst unmedicated days.

    I am so grateful for my supportive friends, who don't seem to see me any differently, sick or well. I know they see just one person, usually more clearly than I do.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. "Word wall" -- can I use that? It's a perfect descriptive phrase.

    I'm still recovering from being overmedicated into incapacity, and can't always tell what's the trailing edge of recovery and what's the baseline CRPS damage -- which, ironically, is treated with antidepressants. I like having a phrase like "word wall" to use. Probably classier than "Swiss-cheese hole in my brain," which awkwardly conveys that sense of running suddenly into empty space, mid-thought.

  3. I was reminded that Hemingway wasn't clinically depressed until relatively late in his life. That could well be true and I'm embarrassed at my mistake, but I find it impossible to read his characters without seeing it as the work of someone who was, at least, predisposed.


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