The Devil Within, By Stephanie Merritt
Sunday 10 May 2009
"I've got to have something to hold on to," writes Anne Sexton in a poem forming the epigraph to this haunting memoir in which the turbulent world of emotion is described with admirable stylistic control. With a skilled touch, Merritt subtly unravels depression's "knot of contradictions", blending informative research with an insightful personal account in the vein of William Styron, Andrew Solomon, Lewis Wolpert and Elizabeth Wurtzel.
Demons have long been entangled with ideas of depression. Born into an evangelical family, Merritt one day finds godly souls quite literally trying to exorcise the devil they fear might be within her. Merritt feels initially too ashamed to seek help for the "malevolent thing... pressing its leathery hands around [her] temples and around [her] throat". Convinced it must be a character flaw, she is later diagnosed with "soft" bipolar disorder.
The thorny issue of causality and culpability is intelligently excavated in this darkly humorous account of the unruly humours governing human beings. Merritt movingly identifies external triggering factors: her "untethered status" as a bullied schoolchild who sought solace in books; a loss of religious faith and consequent intimation of absence. Symptoms are vividly evoked, from anorexia to a "wolfish hunger" for the road of excess, and the "familiar tug towards annihilation" which grips her one dark night on a train journey, feeling neither here nor there, but caught between two worlds.
Diagnosing depression is a minefield, since the word has been blunted by overuse, and the "loss of volition" at its core is here refreshingly depicted. Manic depression has many voices, from "unassailable hypomanic over-confidence" to the voice of despair. The writer has here found an eloquent voice with which to shed light onto dark matters.
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