David Foster Wallace Wrote the Best and Worst Thing About Depression

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I probably read David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Depressed Person” for the first time in 2008 or 2009, if memory serves. The story roughed me up in various ways, and when I was done processing what I had just experienced, I was left with two thoughts:

— That was maybe the best thing I have ever read about mental health.

— I never want to read that ever again.

Luckily, I have never experienced major depression firsthand. But it has affected people close to me, and Wallace’s story took me so brutally, unflinchingly inside the illness, and so effectively transported me into a severely depressed person’s brain, that I felt knocked out afterward. Plus, I have some pretty bad stuck-in-my-own-head tendencies, and that’s partly what “The Depressed Person” — and, well, depression itself — is about.

All of which is why I quickly decided not to read “The Depressed Person” again, and I didn’t. Not until today, when the anniversary of Wallace’s 2008 death by suicide snuck up on me and I decided it was time. You should read it too, right here. It’s hard but it’s worth it. (I’m about to spoil some stuff in the story, to the extent a story like this can be spoiled.)

“The Depressed Person” isn’t exactly the equivalent of a literary deep cut. The story ran in Harper’s, after all, back in 1998, and most Wallace aficionados are familiar with it. It follows, well, a depressed person who remains nameless throughout. The first sentence gives you a pretty good idea of the whole thing’s tone: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”

Wallace is going to do the best he can to communicate that pain and horror, of course, and he does so by taking the reader deep — much, much too deep — into the depressed person’s psyche, drubbing him or her with detail after detail about the innermost contours of the depressed person’s existence over the course of just eight pages (including the Wallace-obligatory footnotes, of course). The reader quickly learns that the depressed person views her childhood as a parade of humiliating traumas connected to her parents’ divorce, that she’s in therapy, that she has a “Support System” of a “half-dozen friends … who now lived in all manner of different cities and whom the depressed person often had not laid eyes on in years and years, and whom she called late in the evening, long distance” to talk about how much pain she was in. These aren’t, in actuality, close friends — they’re just the only people, other than her therapist, she feels she can call, and she does so constantly.

“The Depressed Person” works because it locks the reader in the same cell as the depressed person. She is someone who is buried so deeply under her own sadness and anxiety that nothing that happens to her can have any meaning except in the context of her illness. Even simple exchanges risk sending her into a tailspin:

The former acquaintances and classmates who composed her Support System often told the depressed person that they just wished she could be a little less hard on herself, to which the depressed person responded by bursting involuntarily into tears and telling them that she knew all too well that she was one of those dreaded types of everyone’s grim acquaintance who call at inconvenient times and just go on and on about themselves.

The story also works because it is rather frank about the effects mentally ill people can have on their, well, support networks. It quickly becomes clear that Wallace’s depressed person is an almost impossible person to have a normal conversation with; it’s hard not to wince imagining her former friends — if they ever were really her friends — hearing the phone ring after dinner and knowing what they’re in for. She’s a black hole: She’s incapable of discussing or thinking about anything but her own sadness and wants and needs.

And she knows this, too: The depressed person realizes that she has basically lost the capacity to empathize with or even have a regular friendship with other human beings, so consumed is she by her own suffering. After her therapist dies of what appears (at least to the depressed person herself) to be a suicide, the depressed person is terrified by her reaction to the tragedy: “[A]lthough the depressed person had had agonizing feelings aplenty since the therapist’s suicide, these feelings appeared to be all and only for herself, i.e., for her loss, her abandonment, her grief, her trauma and pain and primal affective survival.” She is a shell and she realizes it.

Okay, deep breath: This is a rather extreme portrayal of major depression, and one which isn’t by any means representative. Wallace’s point isn’t, of course, that every depressed person is as difficult to deal with as his titular character, or that they experience as horrific a level of pain: His point is to attempt, as impossible a task as it may be, to capture a fraction of the agony of what it’s like to have depression in its worst, most ravenous and bottomless forms. The visceral reaction I had to “The Depressed Person” — and which I bet you’ll have too, if you read it — suggests he pulled it off. That shouldn’t be surprising, given Wallace’s virtuosity and his own terrible struggles.