Melancholia Blues

September 13, 2016

 

 

I’ve been feeling cheered up, paradoxically, by the news that in his new memoir Bruce Springsteen writes at length about his bouts of depression. In the book, titled (what else?) Born to Run, Springsteen talks specifically about a span of years in his early sixties (he’s about to turn 67), when he felt "crushed"—all this despite almost unimaginable artistic and financial success. He acknowledges that his depression is probably genetic, and goes into depth about his father’s erratic behavior—a short-fused alcoholic whom he describes as “a bit of a Bukowski character” (referring to the American writer whom Time once called a "laureate of American lowlife").

 

Although I’ve never been especially enthusiastic about Bruce’s music, I'll admit that he seems to be having fun. And the fact that someone who seems so replete with boundless energy and whose life appears so full and satisfying could suffer from depression shows how the condition can be an equal opportunity harasser.

 

Presumably my own melancholia, then, isn't tied to career crises or the kinds of health issues that unexpectedly crop up in middle age, but was passed on genetically, as recent studies have shown. “It just underscores that depression really is a brain disease,” said Roy Perlis, the co-author of the research from Massachusetts General Hospital. “Depression is about biology and I think that will be helpful for some people in reducing stigma and changing how we think about depression.” It's not clear if that applies to traits that are less clinically defined, like low self-esteem. Or what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style,” meaning a tendency to interpret events in a way that always reflects the worst on yourself (Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, 2006). Whether we call it depression or learned pessimism, I believe it runs in my family, at least on my father's side. (My mother and her siblings, including my Uncle Joe, who hand-built high-end cabinetry and taught me how to fish, seemed to be safe from it.) 

 

 

Unlike Springsteen's dad, my father was the farthest thing from a Charles Bukowski-type roustabout I could imagine. A straight-edged family man who got up every morning before 6 to start a long commute to work via the Long Island Railroad and the F Train to Church Street, not far from where the Twin Towers used to stand, he was what you would call a good provider. He worked as a claims examiner for New York State’s Workman’s Comp (now the Workers’ Compensation Board), a job that required a surprising range of legal and medical knowledge, for which he was continually studying and taking state-administered exams, which he invariably aced. But Dad was also a rageaholic who could turn on you at the drop of a hat. One time it was actually a can of peaches that dropped. I had taken an open can out of the refrigerator and was holding it up by way of asking to have some. But the can slipped out of my eight-year-old hand and by the time it had splattered onto the kitchen linoleum, he was already bolting out of his chair to deliver a beating that was fueled by, what? His implacable irritability? Or let's say it was his rage against the life he had locked himself into when he abandoned his dream of becoming an engineer. He had been studying at Brooklyn Tech, then as now a highly regarded high school that offered two years of technical and engineering studies followed by two years of a college-style major. But when he met and married a young Italian girl who had been born just a couple of hundred miles from where he had been born in Southern Italy (they both came over on the boat when they were young children), he was forced—or forced himself—to knuckle under to the demands of family life.

 

Dad wasn’t always miserable. As a teenager I discovered in a pile of my mother’s keepsakes a recorded disc he had sent her during the war, the kind GIs could make and send through V-mail (short for Victory Mail)—not unlike the “flexidiscs” that showed up in the 1970s, sometimes in rock music magazines as special one-offs, like Adam and the Ants performing “A.N.T.S.” to the tune of “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. On this disc, my father sounded so buoyant that I was almost stunned at his cheeriness. He began a bit tongue-tied, blurting that he didn’t know what to say and aware that he had only a minute or two of recording time, but he was clearly in high spirits and ended by telling her, “Kiss the baby for me. And then [running out of words, and time] kiss him again!” (The baby would have been my brother, Frank, born three years before me and not long before my father was drafted into the infantry. I would be born a year after he was sent home with a Purple Heart, at the front end of the baby boom.)

 

 

 

If a twenty-first-century psychologist had to pick a condition from the therapist's bible known as the DSM-5, he might have chosen cyclothymic, indicating moderate swings from depression to excited moments of energy and bright good humor. He occasionally told elaborate jokes that he had picked up from his Jewish coworkers at Workman’s Comp, complete with a credible approximation of a Yiddish accent. I tried to savor those rare moments of conviviality—although the jokes were often tortuous stories whose punch lines were invariably underwhelming. But such outbursts of spontaneous fun were interlarded with many ponderous, dark moments. One Saturday morning I came down to the kitchen to find him nursing a cup of coffee and cigarette. My father smoked continually, and one of my more unpleasant sensory memories is of the acrid stink of the bathroom in the morning, after he had smoked his way through shaving. This morning he was stone silent, the only sound the tapping of his Raleigh on the glass ashtray. He smoked Raleighs because he loved collecting the coupons that came with each pack (plus an extra four or five with every carton). He kept them neatly rubber-banded and stacked inside his night table until he redeemed them for a pair of grass clippers or some other treasure. (Mad magazine once did a throwaway sight gag of some guy holding up a chest X-ray and saying something to the effect of, “Look what else I got with my Raleigh coupons. Lung cancer!”) I sensed his gloom and wished to alleviate it somehow, but in my child’s mind I could only shape the question, “Daddy, what are you doing?”

 

He looked at me as if I had broken some unspoken rule of etiquette. “Counting your sins,” he said.

 

In recent years I’ve read the memoirs about alcoholic fathers who whipped their children and wives with belts and worse, and mothers who threatened to burn down the house and then did, partly to get the insurance money and partly out of sheer clinical insanity. I know now that I got off easy in some ways. When his temper consumed him, he used his open hands instead of his fists. He never was abusive to my mother, even verbally, but I can’t say the same for how he treated my younger sister, Lisa, adopted from an Italian orphanage at the age of four and brought into what must have been a mystifying new environment even not counting Dad. (The night we drove her from Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn, she looked stunned, almost catatonic following a long plane flight and two-hour car ride, nearly dwarfed by the life-size Patti Playpal doll we had just given her. Lisa was unable to eat the dinner my mother put in front of her, and Dad’s response was to yell that she would sit there until her food got cold. Which it did, as she dissolved in tears and was mercifully sent to her room.)

 

My father probably inherited his melancholia from his father, a man so self-effacing that when he opened the door to the family's Brooklyn brownstone when we visited, he would stand behind it so it looked like nobody was there. Still, Dad was able to support a family and take pleasure in his vegetable garden until his smoking caught up with him. When we lived in a ranch house in Mineola with a small backyard of just a few hundred square feet, he filled much of it with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, radishes, strignbeans  carrots, watermelons, and an assortment of flowers. If not for his smoking, he would have lived longer—his own father survived into his eighties—and maybe enjoyed his retirement. 

      

Growing things was probably my father’s most successful form of therapy, verging on obsession. We scoured the nearby woods and lots for the black soil called humus. He could spot it from the car and off we’d trudge with spades and bushel baskets. When I asked if it was legal for us to dig up this rich, fragrant soil, he always replied that it was on public property, and we were the public.

 

Springsteen told Vanity Fair that touring is his “trustiest form of self-medication.” You’d think that with the endorphin rush behind playing three or four hours of rock and roll for thousands of people, then taking a day off to prepare for the next show, he wouldn’t have much time to feel bad. But that’s the tenacious nature of depression, and what makes it so insidious. 

 Playing live rock for millions isn’t a prescription available to most people to overcome feelings of depression or low self-esteem. In this regard, I like the Dalai Lama’s advice. He may be on to the best form of self-treatment available to the general public:

 

 

“[T]he moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole mind narrows, and because of this narrow focus uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your mind widens. Within that wider angle, your own problems appear to be of no significance, and this makes a big difference. If you have a sense of caring for others, you will manifest a kind of inner strength in spite of your own difficult situations and problems. With this strength, your problems will seem less significant and bothersome. By going beyond your own problems and taking care of others, you gain inner strength, self-confidence, courage, and a greater sense of calm. This is a clear example of how one's way of thinking can really make a difference.”    

(Training the Mind: Verse 1)

 

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