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Depression has always been with us, writes first-time author Jeffery Smith in Where the Roots Reach for Water. It is the way the illness has been perceived and treated that has changed. In Renaissance Europe, for example, depressed people were viewed as deep-thinking souls. They were the ones who really understood what was happening in the world. Taking that into their hearts made them feel depressed while those of more shallow persuasion were content with things as they were. Some people, Smith writes, even went so far as to pretend to be depressed in order to appear thoughtful and interesting.
Such romanticization of depression continues today. Go to any corner coffee shop and you will find disheveled twenty year olds writing in journals, sipping coffee and chain-smoking. Raking their creaseless hands through greasy hair, they are the ones who believe that deep means tortured. Is it that they've read too many artists' biographies? Fraught with suicide, drink and darkness it would seem that there truly is a link between creativity and depression.
Or are those seemingly-mad journalers the product of faulty brain chemistry? Were they born under the wrong sign - Saturn perhaps? Did they have cruel, loveless upbringings? Smith touches on all of these topics and several more as he describes his search for a way out of his own depression. He was living in Missoula Montana, eight years into his work as a psychiatric case manager, when it started. First work became a challenge, too much human interaction. He began to leave early. But what was he to do in his apartment? He couldn't sleep, he wasn't hungry it was hard to concentrate. When he did go out he felt like an alien, even among people he'd known for years. Worst of all was "Mr. Shoulder," the constant voice Smith heard in his head.
"Over and over again he told me: You are haunted. You are hollow. You are beyond forgiveness and beyond hope. There is no point vowing to change."
Smith tried several antidepressant medications but none worked for any length of time. Some offered more relief than others, at first. But that brief relief gave way to frustrating false hope when he repeatedly went from depressed guy to life-of-the-party guy and back again.
In his suffering, he considers suicide by drowning. Finally, a combination of medications sends Smith to the hospital with some kind of paralysis. He decides to quit meds altogether and try something else. Homeopathy helps a bit. He visits a psychologist for a time. All the while, he is researching his illness. Much of the book is the product of his research. Some of the details are interesting but most are well known to anyone who has studied the subject at all. At times, the plethora of wonky theories and quotations from medical journals and other sources bog down what is otherwise a very compelling personal narrative.
Smith devotes many pages to putting down treatments that involve medications in favor of more "natural" therapies. Medications didn't work for him, he argues. And they don't work for a lot of people. But more importantly, even when they do work, medications only alleviate symptoms by altering brain chemistry in such a way as to allow a depressed person to function in our intolerant fast-paced world.
This is a well-known debate and, of course, there is no easy answer. Keeping those chemicals in balance means the crippling ups and downs of depression don't come. If they do, they are not nearly as bad as they used to be. But who has the medicated person become? Smith wonders at one point in the book whether people like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway would have been artists at all had they not been allowed to dip down into their own private hells from time to time.
Which brings us back to the romance and mystery perspective on mental illness. Smith repeatedly returns to this place because he seems to feel most comfortable here. He is a reader, a writer and a thinker. But he also has a genuine love for people, which comes through in the way he describes the "clients" he visited while working in mental health. Smith finally comes to embrace his illness as a natural part of himself. He is able to make some progress. At that point he meets Lisa Werner, a clerk at a local music store, who is also a talented musician. She has grappled with depression herself.
Things are much more positive from here on out. Real romantic loves takes on the job previously held by theories. But even as Smith says he loves Werner, he admits that he is not really "happy." He concedes that he might not be capable of experiencing happiness. Still socially isolated for the most part, he says it is unlikely that he will ever return to full-time work. He says he is all right with that.
In the book's epilogue Smith writes of Werner, now his wife: "The dedication of this book does not begin to express my gratitude to Lisa Werner. Without her it simply could never have been. Spiritually, emotionally, materially she has given and given to this book and its author. I will, I hope, spend the rest of my life trying to repay her." Smith says he is now "rooted." Werner seems to be the water. What will happen if the well runs dry?
Meleah Maynard recently left the mental health field to pursue her first love, writing short stories and book reviews. For the past seven years she has worked as a day treatment counselor in Minneapolis, teaching people living with schizophrenia how to write creatively, cook a well-balanced meal and scrutinize the next bunch of candidates who hope to be our next President.
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