By now, the cultural awareness of mental health issues, if not their universal acceptance, has reached something of a critical mass. Countless books on mental illness and memoirs of those having dealt with it personally or through a loved one have come out in the last several decades, so much so that, short of a deeply personalized account, very little on the subject remains untouched. But because it is such a personal issue, these firsthand accounts generally prove the most affecting, giving readers a chance to glimpse the crushingly inescapable irrational combination of fear, loneliness, self-loathing and a whole host of other self-deprecatory feelings and emotions that accompany those dealing with depression.

Unless you’ve experienced this type of depression personally, it can be nearly impossible to understand the crippling nature of these mental deficiencies. Regardless of reality, your perception will forever be enshrouded in a dark cloud as the oppressive weight of countless, seemingly insignificant details begin to accumulate and overtake your mind, draining away all trace of happiness in favor of a profound emptiness. For many, this is simply life. Given the age of anxiety in which we now exist, it’s little surprise that public acknowledgement of instances of depression have seen an increase in profile. While everybody gets sad from time to time, there are those of us who suffer something much deeper, more emptying and incapacitating than a minor dip in mood.

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, the new memoir from Daphne Merkin, addresses just this in all of its blackened hopelessness. Writing as though in midst of a major depressive episode, Merkin’s bleak world view and overall outlook on life becomes claustrophobic as she examines the futility of her continued existence, the stunting of any sort of emotional growth at the hands of her withholding mother and her own inability to reckon with her own demons. So much so that much of This Close to Happy becomes something of slog to get through, Merkin’s alternating anger at her mother and incapacitating depression making her an alternately infuriating and frustrating narrator. But as it is her story, told from the depths of her struggle with depression, she takes full control and leads the reader down an increasingly narrowing, desolate tunnel, the end of which never comes fully into view.

But because of her unflinching honesty and matter-of-fact tone with regard to thoughts of suicide, repressed childhood memories that proved to have been far more affecting than originally suspected and a family that exists in name alone, one can’t help but feel for Merkin and all that she has been through. It’s a tough read, and one that requires much of the reader in the process as Merkin embarks on extended ruminations on her own failures, those of her wealthy family (the passages about her childhood at the neglect she and her brother faced despite their family’s affluence are particularly troubling), and her time spent in and out of hospitals.

With the title hinting at the inherent frustration of those suffering from depression, Merkin’s own conclusion that the opposite of depression is not, as one might suspect, the titular happiness, but rather a state of “all-right-ness.” This is key to understanding both Merkin’s challenges and those of us trying to make their way through the constantly looming threat of mental isolation: it is not happiness that we seek, but rather a state of normalcy that allows for an otherwise healthy individual to function within society. This Close to Happy shines a harsh light on one women’s very personal experiences with mental illness, adding to the collective narrative that is our fascination with and exploration of mental health. As difficult as it may be for some to read, This Close to Happy affords a candid look into what life is like for those afforded what can only be seen as an unpredictable emotional skill set with which to go through life.

THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY: A RECKONING WITH DEPRESSION by Daphne Merkin | Book Trailer from Simon Mendes on Vimeo.

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