The first outburst was about my landlady; the outbursts are always about a woman. My landlady had sent me a text message with a couple of aggressive exclamation points and capitalizations referring to a misunderstanding over a National Grid bill, and I ended up enraged and screaming for roughly forty-five minutes. My partner was at the ocean on Fire Island, completely blissed out. He’d been swimming and laughing in the waves of the ocean, he later told me. Then I called. Our conversation:
“I just want you to agree with me that she’s a bitch,” I said.
“I am agreeing with you,” he replied.
“No, you’re appeasing me.”
This went on and escalated for fifteen minutes until:
“Jesus Christ, Chloe, what does your heart need?”
“I need you to agree with me.”
“I am agreeing with you. “
“No you aren’t, not wholeheartedly.”
It didn’t stop there. After we got off the phone I had to bring it back up over text, and I had to bring it up the day after that, too. I brought it up again and again, until I got my period, and began bleeding, and that’s when I could see the humor.
Consider the fidget spinner: endlessly whirring between the fingertips of “Generation Alpha,” annoying teachers, baffling parents. Originally marketed as a therapeutic device to chill out children with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, these colorful daisy-shaped gizmos have suddenly found an unlikely off-label use as an explosively popular toy, perhaps this generation’s Rubik’s Cube.
But the Cube was fundamentally a cerebral, calm pursuit, perfect for the latchkey children of the 1980s to while away their lonely, Xbox-free hours. The fidget spinner is nothing but nervous energy rendered in plastic and steel, a perfect metaphor for the overscheduled, over-stimulated children of today as they search for a way to unplug between jujitsu lessons, clarinet practice and Advanced Placement tutoring.
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)
The two touch on a variety of topics, from taking risks in your 20s, writing memoir vs. writing fiction (Phair herself is at work on a novel and a book of linked essays), music, motherhood, and the rise in sexism ostensibly ushered in with last year’s presidential election.
PHAIR: I think what we’re seeing politically is the result of people having developed atmospheres around them that make them untouchable, to the point where they don’t feel empathy for people who are in a more vulnerable state.
WURTZEL: I see sexism everywhere, and I think it has to do with that. I’ve begun to blame sexism for everything. I’ve become so overwhelmed by it that, even though I love Bob Dylan, I don’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, because I don’t want to listen to men anymore. I don’t care what men have to say about anything. I only want to pay attention to what women do. I only want to read women. I’ll tell you how intense my feelings about this are: You know The Handmaid’s Tale, the show, which is feminist in its nature? Because men are behind it, I don’t want to watch it. That is the extent to which I am so truly horrified by what is going on.
PHAIR: I have felt that same wave coming through. I’ll try to rent a movie, and every single title is for men, by men, about men, and I’m just like, “Where’s my world? Where’s my zone? Where has it gone?”
In the introduction to her story on deep-brain stimulation for Pacific Standard, Sarah Scoles tells the story of Liss Murphy, a woman with treatment-resistant depression—in her words, a “sepsis of the soul”—who saw deep-brain stimulation as her last opportunity to live a normal life. The moment doctors turned on the stimulating current was a life-changer. But then they had to turn it off.
The doctors installed the electrodes and turned them on.
For Murphy, the moment was astonishing. A warmth surged through her. Everything felt lighter, clearer. But then those sensations stopped. The doctors had cut the current so that they could finish wiring the circuit, close her cranium back up, and insert the permanent pulse generator into her chest
After the surgery, Murphy spent a few days in recovery, and then the doctors sent her home. She would need to heal for three weeks, they told her, before they could turn her device back on. Back at home, returned to the gray world of her depression, Murphy remembered that warm, light, clear feeling. I wish that could be forever, she thought.
Last year, I watched a young woman meander toward the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge every five steps. I asked her if she was enjoying her Christmas Eve—and did she see the seals below in the water?
She smiled. I was not sure it was a real smile. But she did not venture toward the edge again. I know this, because I followed her at a distance to the other side.
In years past, I would have looked the other way. I would have thought it was not my business. In years past, I was that young girl. But my aunt kept me in her line of sight. She didn’t tell me to keep walking, I just did. And I knew she was behind me the entire time.
“…during our call, we agree that life is bad. It’s clear from her own case that money can’t buy happiness—it can only buy the stints in psychiatry units, or therapy sessions, or however you take your self-care. Wanting to die while living among the rich and being one them, perhaps, makes the emptiness of our current setup and its values all the more pronounced.
“There’s a lot that’s terrible about life. I think some people have a guard up against it. They overlook it,” she says. “I think that people who suffer from depression are sort of finely tuned to it. I write somewhere in my book that depression is the loss of necessary illusions. You need a certain amount of illusion to live.” She adds, “Depression can be very humanizing. I’ve thought to myself, If [Donald] Trump suffered from some type of depression, he’d be a different person.”
However, until we change the world, which might be more possible now than ever, we need to take care of ourselves and continue living. Merkin recognizes that life is all she has: “I think [suicide] affords a kind of—this is putting it strangely—a paradoxical relief to a very depressed person, to think there’s one way out of it,” she tells me over the phone. “I would somehow think if I commit suicide then I’ll be happy, but where am I going to be happy?”
The theater and lit worlds suffered a great loss this week with the passing, Tuesday, of Elizabeth Swados, 64, a prolific writer and composer of groundbreaking, socially conscious musicals like “Runaways” and a collaboration with Garry Trudeau on a production of “Doonesbury.” She was the author several novels, memoirs and children’s books.
But long before she wrote about her own mental illness, Swados wrote about her brother’s. In an excerpt from her memoir, The Four of Us: The Story of a Family, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in August 1991, she told the story of her brother, Lincoln, who suffered from schizophrenia, and died homeless in New York City in the late eighties.
Several months before my brother’s housing crisis reached its peak, I was walking down Broadway on my way to a Korean deli. I saw two derelicts seated in the middle of the sidewalk. They were dressed in layers of rags and having a heated argument about Jesus Christ. One of them had paraphernalia spread around him in a semicircle, as if to sell his wares. But none of his rags or rusty pieces of metal or torn papers was a recognizable item. He wore a jaunty cap pulled to one side, and there was tinsel in his filthy hair. His face was smeared black. A few steps farther along, I realized the “derelict” was my brother. I leaned down next to him, softly said his name and waited. He stared at me for several moments and didn’t recognize me at first. When he finally saw that it was me, he let out a cry like a man who’d had a stroke and couldn’t express his joyous thoughts. We embraced for a long, long time. His smell meant nothing to me.
Zoos contact Virga when animals develop difficulties that vets and keepers cannot address, and he is expected to produce tangible, observable results. Often, the animals suffer from afflictions that haven’t been documented in the wild and appear uncomfortably close to our own: He has treated severely depressed snow leopards, brown bears with obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobic zebras. “Scientists often say that we don’t know what animals feel because they can’t speak to us and can’t report their inner states,” Virga told me. “But the thing is, they are reporting their inner states. We’re just not listening.” …
Virga believed that BaHee, an 11-year-old gibbon, was clinically depressed. The cause was grief, which is the reason Virga didn’t pursue an aggressive course of treatment for the gibbon’s symptoms, instead prescribing “concern, patience and understanding” and advising BaHee’s keepers to not overreact. The worst of the depression lasted three or four months, a span similar to the acute phase of human grief after the sudden death of a family member. By the summer of the next year, BaHee’s symptoms had mostly disappeared. When I asked Kim Warren, another of his keepers, about the episode, she said: “BaHee was grieving. You could see it on his face.” Then she reconsidered. “I shouldn’t say that,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “because that’s anthropomorphism. I should say instead that BaHee was displaying withdrawal behaviors.”
Alan Shapiro published two books in January 2012: Broadway Baby, a novel, from Algonquin Books, and Night of the Republic, poetry, from Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt. This essay first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review (subscribe here). Our thanks to Shapiro for allowing us to reprint it here, and for sharing an update on Nat’s life (see the postscript below).