No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 04, 2006

#57: Prozac Nation -- Elizabeth Wurtzel

What on earth makes a woman in her mid-twenties, thus far of no particularly outstanding accomplishment, have the audacity to write a three-hundred-page volume about her own life and nothing more, as if anyone else would actually give a shit?

More to the point, what stroke of luck got that book published?

Ten years after its first publication, Prozac Nation -- 'Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir' -- is still being reprinted: my copy has a new afterword by the author. Wurtzel says "I wanted to write like rock'n'roll," and she's captured a certain destructive quality that's there in stereotypical rock'n'roll behaviour: Wurtzel's depressive episodes very much the equivalent of smashing guitars, taking too many drugs, all those excesses that are already passing into legend. Perhaps she was born too late: perhaps she should have been a child of the sixties or seventies. But then she probably wouldn't have lasted long enough to get Prozac: she started taking it in the late 80s and was one of the very first people to have it prescribed.

I can't deny, as a depressive, that it's heartening to find someone else describing with wit and bitter humour the broad outlines of what's been happening in my head. The black wave of depression? Tick. The way that depressive episodes have nothing at all to do with external events? Tick. And so on and so forth. It's not all the same, either in cause or effect, but there's enough there to reassure anyone who's been in that state: to reassure anyone who thinks it is just them, that there isn't any hope. Because Elizabeth Wurtzel felt like that, and she was wrong.

Wasn't she?

Wurtzel, clearly a veteran of many years of therapy, analyses her depression and attributes it to her parents' divorce and her father's subsequent refusal to have anything to do with her. And over and over again, her relationship with her mother triggers self-destructive behaviour. Wurtzel makes the very good point that there is nothing special about her: lots of people live through similar events and don't become depressed, don't have breakdowns, don't want to die. A lot of the book is about her learning to accept that, never mind the others, that's the way it is for her, and (reading between the lines) it's not because of anything she's done. (Interestingly, no one seems to ever tell her to take responsibility for her mental problems.)

Perhaps it's a cultural thing. Wurtzel seems to live her depression much more in the open than many English people I know. Not just in the book -- which, it seems to me, is therapy as well as memoir -- but in fact. If she's ashamed of her behaviour (which I'm certainly not saying she should be) there's no sign of it: a series of public breakdowns, overdoses, neediness, demands, screaming rages.

Wurtzel writes honestly about suicidal urges; about getting on with life despite the pain; about the distinction between chemical and emotional causes of depression, and her suspicion that if the emotional stuff persists for long enough it produces long-lasting chemical changes; about wanting tangible reasons to feel miserable; about depression being the only thing that defines a self; about going into overdrive to stop thinking; about growing up and not fitting in; about never being good enough; about wasted potential, and unrecognised potential; about the fragility of love, and the way it doesn't fix anything; about having the same therapist as Patti Smith. I don't always like the person she's writing about, and I don't see myself in her, but reading this book it's very easy to understand how close she came, not to suicide but to self-destruction.

As she says in her afterword, there are far worse problems in the world. But depression affects so very many people, blights so many lives, costs so much financially and emotionally ... and perhaps is triggered, more and more frequently, by the disintegration of the whole idea of family in modern America.

Worth reading if you are or have been or know someone who is depressed.

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