Coda: Remembering the Right Man

My most recent post on remembering Joel Smith had a particular perspective that, on reflection, seems woefully one-sided, and needs a coda. It’s naturally all about my memories and experience of the man and the illness that befell him midway through his life, and that’s fine as far as it goes. But it’s not far enough. What’s missing is a recognition of the second half of his life and, more importantly, of how he¬†would want to be remembered, which would be, I’m certain, very different from how I remember him.

I can only infer the elements of this other remembrance, which is itself a problem; few things irritated Joel more, especially once he became ill, than for someone to presume to understand him and the conditions under which he lived. But as he often forgave my presumptions, I’ll presume again.

First and foremost, I think he would have us remember him as a sufferer of chronic depression. I used the word “victim” in that earlier post, but I suspect he would object to that, as it is insufficiently clinical, implying something imposed from without, rather than the disease it is, usurping from within. I don’t believe there are appropriately sensitive, politically correct terms to apply here, like “depressed person,” or “mood-challenged person,” but if there were I’m fairly sure he would have disdained them. We are not talking here about lower-case depression, the transient melancholy that is familiar to everyone who lives in the world and thinks about it. This is chronic, clinical depression, with its own fearsome constellation of symptoms, foremost among them being the loss, to varying degrees, of the ability to appreciate living itself, of the capacity to see anything but a world drained of color and purpose. Psychiatrists call its principal symptom “anhedonia” — the inability to feel pleasure. Note the categorical flavor of that description: not diminished capacity; inability. An artisan of words like Joel might call it malignant sadness — like cancer, except it attacks the soul. William Styron, another depressed person of literary bent, called it “darkness visible.” Of this much I’m sure: we, the well, can only know it by analogy, by these pale metaphors.

Which is why many of us too readily attach a moral valence to mental illness in general, and to depression in particular. Because we think we have experienced something like it, we presume to judge those who can’t seem to shake it, who are drawn in by it to a place we have never been. My most shameful reactions to Joel’s depression included my early belief that the supreme competence he had exhibited for the first half of this life could surely be applied to cure himself, and my disappointment when he couldn’t. I might as well have urged someone with leukemia to pull himself together and get over it.

The other important fact is that depression is often as lethal as the most malignant cancer, since one human response to living a life without light is to end it.

So I believe Joel would want to be remembered as a man who lived with a pernicious, incurable disease for over forty years, and at least survived it for that long. He would, I think, want it to be seen as a life of struggle, yes, but also a life of intermittent victories, and almost unimaginable perseverance. A life — though he would never admit this — of enormous courage.

He would want to be remembered as someone who tried to make the rest of us see depression for what it is, and wrote beautifully and movingly to that end. Read, please, what he wrote for the Stanford alumni magazine, link below. I’ll wait.

Just before I learned that Joel had died, I attended a dinner for the benefit of the psychiatric unit of a great university hospital. I took the opportunity to draw aside the head of the unit, and asked him what advances had been made in the last, say, thirty years in treating clinical depression, explaining that I knew someone who had it. He looked at me frankly and said, in so many words: almost none. Mood elevating drugs are still prescribed, electroshock is still administered “because it works” at least temporarily, talking therapies, generally recognized as palliatives, are pursued. It’s not too much to say that none of it is reliably effective, and the reason some of it is intermittently effective isn’t really understood. There simply is no “cure.” This is a shame and a failure in clinical research that desperately needs to be addressed, especially since a shockingly high percentage of our population suffers from some form of clinical depression, and it is so often fatal.

I simply was not there for Joel in the second half of his life, partly because it was too difficult, and partly because that seemed to be his wish. What haunts me most in the wake of his death is the possibility that I may have gotten that last part wrong. But I believe, still, that I only reminded him of the man he had ceased to be, the times he could never recover, and that was just too painful for him.

But there were many others who were there with him through all or parts of that long journey, people I only heard about or can only imagine: the doctors, the caretakers, his fellow depressives, companions in suffering, constant and empathetic in a way that we amateurs, we worried well, could never be. He would want to be remembered by them most of all. They could speak of him honestly, and with the kind of love that only actual understanding and acceptance can confer. The rest of us, who think first only of his halcyon days, the days of early, easy triumph, of the man in his prime — the rest of us, frankly, need not apply.

Joel apparently made it clear that he wanted no memorial service after his death, and I think I know why. Too many people like me would have shown up, saying too many things like what I said in that earlier post. That would have pained him no end, since the man most of us would have been eulogizing effectively ceased to exist thirty-plus years ago, and we didn’t really know the man who took his place; we would have been mourning the wrong guy. Better to shut up about it, better to go visit someone like the man he became, difficult and reclusive and maybe hard to sit in a room with; better to be certain that someone you suspect may be depressed gets help; better to make a contribution to an appropriate research organization. But no flowers, please, no pretty speeches.

He would want us to remember the right man.

5 thoughts on “Coda: Remembering the Right Man

  1. “Wow” to all of it Keith. Your ability to reconsider, reflect and articulate those thoughts are moving. The description/s of clinical depression from both you and Joel are so right on and moved me to tears. A sometimes torturous illness that is sadly untreatable for some. Love you. – mb

  2. Moving and lovely meditation, Keith. Much deeper than my experience of Joel, but I feel the truth of what you write.

  3. Wow is right. I am so grateful that you shared these lovely pieces and hope to have the opportunity to chat with you about them and about your friend. I was move not just by your reflections on your friend’s suffering, but also by your ability to evoke our collective brokeness. My condolences.

  4. Keith – I, too, had communication with Joel over the years since you and I graduated in ’71. I’d be interested in communicating with you privately. See my email address below – Ralph Lindeman

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