What Is Depression? A Loss of Identity, Feeling of Being Trapped

It’s more than the weather, the August doldrums: A dark mood seems to have descended on the city. You can actually see a sort of robotic anomie on the faces of people on the streets and in the subways, where New Yorkers have learned to take the psychic temperature of their neighbors. A guy in my building told me that his friend, a restaurant owner, was selling his business and leaving the city. He’d begun to notice that night after night his restaurant was jammed with rich people not having any fun. In which case, you can be sure that the poor are having even less fun. The two homeless twin brothers who frequent my neighborhood seem ever so slightly more volatile than they did in the spring.

I’ve always loved summer in New York, ever since I was a child. I like the steam-bath intimacy, the bared expanses of strangers’ flesh, the tattoos blooming everywhere like exotic hothouse flowers. Some mildly thrill-seeking part of me even likes idly wondering if I’m going to pass out from heat exhaustion and crumple to the platform among my fellow martyrs being slowly roasted alive in the roaring furnace of the Union Square station.

But this summer feels different, somehow. I leave the city the minute I can, streaming toward the George Washington Bridge along with all the other drivers telegraphing the Darwinian panic of escapees fleeing the alien-occupied metropolis in a science-fiction film. Though now, it seems, the aliens are us.

If these are the so-called dog days, they’re the dog days on steroids, with the Newfoundlands and St. Bernards panting and suffering with furry, mournful canine forbearance. But New York doesn’t do forbearance. Tempers are notably short, motorists are heavy on their horns, and last week alone I witnessed two unpleasant altercations between pedestrians accidentally colliding as they competed for their little bubbles of sidewalk breathing room.

The London bombings haven’t helped. But New Yorkers aren’t idiots, so it’s not as if we’ve only just this summer realized that the other shoe is going to drop not far from where the first one did—that is to say, on us. In my observation, people don’t seem particularly nervous about the specter of terrorists on public transportation—although, as always, the sight of machine guns in the hands of adolescent reservists in full camouflage drag inevitably makes the heart beat a little faster. In fact, there’s something oddly reassuring about the fact that New York’s Finest have begun to practice a quirky new brand of racial profiling, a triage based on the assumption that the backpacks and bags most likely to contain incendiary devices belong to young, blond white girls with big breasts and low-cut T-shirts.

If there were such a thing as an urban psychotherapist, the good doctor might diagnose our malaise as a citywide case of chronic, low-level depression. Sadness? The faces you see on an average day on the A train look as if they’re auditioning for cameos in a Walker Evans photo. Free-floating angst and rage? I’d bet that if the average household were bugged (which they very well may be, before too long, in the interests of national security), you’d hear a startling number of New Yorkers yelling at their unresponsive TV screens as the network anchormen intone the evening news.

Those nightly wig-outs may turn out to be the key to our diagnosis. Because my guess is that we’re not all simultaneously being flattened, through some miracle of synchronicity, by the recovered memories of our unhappy childhoods. It hardly requires a board-certified psychoanalyst to read the signs and manifestations and to conclude that our malaise is not about past history, but rather about the present historical moment.

Early in the summer, I had breakfast with a close friend, a well-known African-American activist and teacher who’s also the widow of an iconic Black Panther. Her son, in his early 30’s, has converted to Islam and is currently leading a quiet, religious and utterly apolitical life in Qatar. But lately, my friend has just learned, F.B.I. agents have begun contacting the families of her son’s expatriate buddies to inform them that their offspring have been consorting with a young man who, the agents claim, is “just like his father” and whom they have reason to suspect of having ties with Al Qaeda.

As we ate our blini in the pleasant East Village restaurant garden dappled by June sunshine, we discussed my friend’s serious and not at all unreasonable fear that her son could be “rendered” off the streets of his adopted home and wind up in some Egyptian jail or as a prisoner in Guantánamo. We talked about it calmly, though we noted with amazement how strange it was to be contemplating the very real possibility that an American citizen could be kidnapped, interrogated and imprisoned without anyone mentioning those precious but increasingly obsolete two words: due process. And perhaps it was the restaurant’s Eastern European cuisine that made me think that this is what it might have been like to have breakfast with Anna Ahkmatova in the anxious days before her son vanished into one of Stalin’s prisons.

One hallmark of the severely dysfunctional family, a symptom likely to inflict long-term damage on its members, is the insidious way in which the profoundly bizarre comes to seem not only routine but positively normal. Which, I’d suggest, describes the current state of affairs. What would we have concluded if, a mere five years ago, someone had told us that our society would demonstrate only passing outrage and no lasting curiosity about the fact that our soldiers had tortured prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba? How would we have greeted the suggestion that we might lose confidence in the electoral process, in the integrity and courage of our press, or in our own right to express our political opinions without being accused of treason? What would we have thought of the suggestion that the Constitution would be so widely ignored and devalued that a large percentage of the population believes that the separation of church and state is the nutty whim of a gang of godless liberals conspiring to subvert moral values? How would we have responded to hearing that we might find ourselves embroiled in a bloody, costly war waged for reasons that time has shown to be based on complete fabrications? Five years ago, we would have thought—naïvely—that none of these scenarios were likely, or even possible.

If we ask ourselves questions, they only lead to other questions. How did this happen so quickly? Weren’t we paying attention? And what can we do about it now? We e-mail each other and analyze the situation as if we were all on a plane going down with a cabin full of aeronautic engineers noting the succession of alarming engine noises. We preach to the converted and try to make our opinions heard. A few weeks ago, encouraged by a friend, I called my Senators to suggest that they might want to stay focused on getting to the bottom of Karl Rove’s involvement in the outing of Valerie Plame. Whoever answered the phone at Senator Charles Schumer’s office politely, if somewhat coolly, took down my name and district and thanked me for calling. Senator Hillary Clinton’s people sounded considerably less interested than they might have if I’d called to complain about a dab of bird shit on the statue of Gandhi in Union Square Park.

The chicken-and-egg question of depression—which are causes and which are symptoms?—tends to revolve around an overwhelming sense of powerlessness accompanied by the absence of hope. And who can blame us for feeling powerless about a seemingly endless war that’s simultaneously bankrupting our country and making us enemies all over the world? Any sentient person would start to feel a little disheartened after being told, day after day, that A plus B does not equal C, but rather X or Y; that the London bombings—as Donald Rumsfeld recently stated—had nothing to do with the war in Iraq? And who wouldn’t be moved to yell at the news broadcast that features the fresh, young faces of newly dead American soldiers and tolls the numbers of their dead without bothering to keep a running count of Iraqi civilian casualties?

Meanwhile, the weather makes us think about what we’d rather not consider at all—that is, the disastrous long-term effects of the government’s environmental policy.

Even here, in tough, resilient New York, we feel the heat, so to speak. And, increasingly marginalized on what Spalding Gray called our little island off the coast of America, we try to think of a way to affect what’s happening on the mainland. Or we try not to think at all; we just try to get through it and enjoy the consoling pleasures that our city still has to offer. In fact, if the ship of state is sinking, I’d just as soon go down here: let’s say on Delancey Street, with salsa music pumping, the whole sidewalk thumping from the bass of a passing car playing hip-hop, a Chinese guy selling animals woven of straw, a group of black-clad Hasidic boys scurrying past like a flock of wild turkeys—and all of it on one block, which is what I love best about this city.

In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon’s “atlas of depression,” a researcher is quoted as saying that the circumstances that most often trigger the illness “typically involve loss—of a valued person, of a role, of an idea about yourself—and are at their worst when they involve humiliation or a sense of being trapped.” I can’t think of a more painfully accurate description of the way we live now, and of the reason why New York feels, as any victim of depression might, so “unlike itself.” The problem, this summer, is neither the heat nor the humidity. It’s the humiliation of finding ourselves despised by so much of the world for something so far out of our control.

Francine Prose’s new novel is A Changed Man (HarperCollins).

What Is Depression? A Loss of Identity, Feeling of Being Trapped