Excerpt of Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer
(Page 5 of 5)
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Interacting with colleagues, submitting to interviews, treating
I became increasingly aware of a gap between two aspects of
what it is,
insofar as we can put together recent research findings,
what it is to us,
depression as we approach it informally. Our habits
of mind lag. They have roots in traditions that take depression,
distant cousin melancholy, as a sign of heightened awareness,
moral insight, and creative genius.
I grew up in that tradition. In my college years, traits that
(and sometimes just are) symptoms of mood disorder were in
alienation especially. I read widely in the literature that
takes a journey
through the slough of despond to be a prerequisite for full
saw bravery in the melancholic postures of my classmates,
self-destructive young men and women who wore their depression
panache. Even now, in my years of close contact with depression,
not immune to being charmedexcept that when I caught myself in
this attitude, it seemed utterly mistaken.
When I spoke in public, I began to challenge audiences about our
double-mindedness. I used a test question: We say that
depression is a
disease. Does that mean that we want to eradicate it as we have
smallpox, so that no human being need ever suffer depression
In posing this challenge, I tried to make it clear that mere
was not at issue. Take major depression, however you define it.
content to be rid of that condition?
It did not matter whether I was addressing physicians or
researchers or relatives of patients gravely affected by mental
illnessall proponents of the "medical model of depression."
the response was hedged. Just what do we mean by depression?
What level of severity? Are we speaking about changing human
I took those protective worries as expressions of what
to us. Asked whether we are content to eradicate arthritis, no
well, the end-stage deformation, yes, but let's hang on to
housemaid's knee, and the early stages of rheumatoid disease.
sclerosis, high blood pressure, acne, schizophrenia, psoriasis,
malariathere is no other disease we consider preserving. But
depression calls out the caveats.
To oppose depression too directly or completely is to be coarse
reductionisticto miss the inherent tragedy of the human
And here it is not only the minor variantsthe psychiatric
of tennis elbowthat bear protecting. Asked about eliminating
an audience member may answer with reference to a novel
that ends in suicide. Or it may be an artist who is held forth,
a self destructive
poet. To be depressedeven quite gravelyis to be in
touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity,
and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to adopt the posture of
and social critic. Depression is to our culture what
eighty or a hundred years ago: an illness that signifies
depression can be characterized as more than illness, or lessa
with spiritual overtones, or a necessary phase of a quest whose
aspects are incidental.
I retained sympathy with these claims, but in decreasing degree.
took only a year or two of immersion for me to discover that I
moved a fair distance toward philistinism.
Excerpted from Against Depressionby Peter Kramer. Copyright 2005 by Peter Kramer. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.