300 years of storms: The evolution of the language of depression

Has language failed to capture the true nature of the disease?

dust-storm-texas-1935

Writers describing depression have compared it to a "full-blown blizzard" or a "storm."

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1713, British poet Anne Finch published one of the first descriptions of clinical depression in modern English. The poem is entitled “The Spleen,” a common 18th-century term for the disease. Finch addresses her poem to a personified version of depression. “What art thou, Spleen,” she begins. 

I first read Finch’s poem in class this semester, and I was startled to find how similar it is to the modern descriptions of depression that I’ve encountered. The set of metaphors that writers use to describe the disease has remained remarkably consistent in the three centuries since Finch worked. Recently, an anonymous Facebook post went viral, comparing depression to a snowstorm. The post describes the disease as both a “full-blown blizzard” and a “long, slow winter.” Finch, too, uses extreme weather to capture the unpredictability and unmanageable force of the disease. “Now a Dead Sea thou’lt represent … Then, dashing on the Rocks wilt rage into a Storm.” 

Finch also writes about how depression makes her feel trapped, a common thread in descriptions of the disease through the years. The disease “clog[s] the Active Soul,” she writes. In the poem’s final lines, she writes that she is a “Pris’ner” and a “Slave” to the spleen, held immobile by the disease’s “Chain” and pulled “to a lamented Grave.” Depression saps mobility and agency from it’s sufferers. Many informal, contemporary descriptions of depression use similar imagery. 

In 2014, the Huffington Post asked 50 people living with depression to succinctly describe the disease to someone who has never had it. Their descriptions echoed Finch’s. “[Depression is] like being stuck in a box that you can't get out of,” one contributor wrote. Another compared the disease to being in a tunnel, and two others explicitly used the word “trapped.”

I do not have depression. I am not an expert on this subject, and it’s precisely because I’m not an expert that I’m so interested in the language people use to describe the disease. Like anyone who has never been affected by depression, I can only understand it through language. Depression often doesn’t manifest outwardly visible physical symptoms. A person with a broken leg doesn’t have to explain that they have a broken leg. A person with depression does have to describe their depression. 

Language and depression have a close yet fraught relationship. I desperately want to understand the disease as completely as I can. I have dear friends fighting depression, and I hope to provide the best support possible. The stakes are high — if we can’t describe depression properly, we have no hope of helping those who struggle with it.

As a reader and writer, I’m always interested to see where language fails. The first time I read Finch’s poem, I thought it represented a failure of language. It’s been 300 years since Finch wrote “The Spleen,” and we’re still writing about storms and feeling trapped. Our language has consistently failed to capture the nature of this disease with sufficient urgency, just when the stakes are at their very highest, I thought.

So I read more contemporary, less colloquial accounts of depression from people who’ve struggled with it. I read a long essay by Andrew Solomon in the New Yorker called “Anatomy of Melancholy.” Solomon won the 2001 National Book Award for “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” a memoir chronicling his struggle with the disease. I also read a Vanity Fair essay called “Darkness Visible” by William Styron, a writer who has been called the “Great God of Depression” in the New York Times for his work on the subject. 

The imagery in these personal accounts mirrors the imagery in Finch’s poem. Styron specifically uses a storm as a metaphor. “A veritable howling tempest in the brain … is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else,” he writes. Styron wishes that “brainstorm” had not already been taken, because it’s a more accurate descriptor of the disease than “depression,” a more understated, less dramatic name. Solomon reports the same immobility as Finch, echoing her line about chains when he writes that depression makes it feel like his nerves are “wrapped in lead.”

I can’t understate the power of Styron and Solomon’s writing. These pieces are breathtaking agents of empathy, stirring descriptions of a disease that is notoriously difficult to describe. These accounts make the disease as visceral and terrifying for readers as it was for the writers themselves. The language is similar to Finch’s, but that doesn’t mean these pieces don’t work. 

The accounts struck me for another reason, too. Not only do Solomon and Styron describe the disease’s symptoms the same way that Finch did, but the modern writers also describe the same cultural misconceptions and stigmas about the disease that Finch struggled with all those years ago. 

Both Solomon and Styron note that depression can affect people who seem outwardly happy. We are often reminded of this after it’s too late — the deaths of people like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Robin Williams shock us every time. Finch, though, observed that depression can affect the outwardly successful all the way back in 1713. “Sometimes, thou dost presume / Into the ablest Heads to come,” she writes, adding that “Men of Thoughts refin’d” can be susceptible to the disease just as easily as anyone else. 

Finch writes about how doctors and friends alike don’t understand the gravity of the disease. Her doctors are more concerned with profiting off the disease than curing it — their “growing Wealth” is “Daily encreas’d by Ladies Fees” — and her friends offer only “false Suggestions” to try to make her feel better. Finch writes about how depression can drive a wedge between husband and wife. 

Styron reports the same difficulties, writing that his doctor “offers consolation if not much hope” and that “[the doctor’s] platitudes were not Christian but, almost as ineffective.” Solomon shows how inadequate the public’s understanding of the disease remains. He writes, “‘Depression these days is curable,’ people told me. ‘You take antidepressants the way you take aspirin for a headache.’” Modern people with depression still struggle against the same misconceptions about the disease that Finch struggled with in 1713.  

The power of these accounts, combined with the cultural observations they contain, flip my assumption about the failure of language on its head. Language hasn’t failed — in fact, just the opposite has happened. People with depression have known how to describe the disease for 300 years. People with depression have always understood the disease’s idiosyncrasies. The problem is that not enough people have been listening.

These accounts very nearly manage to verbally impart the same sense of urgency as the sight of splintered bone. No metaphor will ever be able to fully capture the invisible violence of the disease, but these writers have come as close as possible, and it’s now the audience’s job to respond. We can’t just throw up our hands and say we’ll never understand the disease — we have to work with what we have. Our empathy has to transcend the limitations of our language.

Both Solomon’s and Styron’s essays left me an emotional wreck, and Finch’s poem can, too, if you can work through the archaic language. Her poem doesn’t represent three centuries of failed writers. It represents three centuries of failed listeners. The figurative language hasn’t evolved because it’s already just about as clear as it could be. Depression is a brutal, sneaky disease, and clear, strong language is necessary to help those who fight it every day. But language can’t help people if the listeners don’t believe what they hear.

Ben Hitchcock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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