[Note: This post contains a spoiler for the film Melancholia in the last paragraph.]
Sometimes it sidles up to you, out of the corner of your eye. You catch a glimpse and turn your head: Was that it? Nah. Like a mouse scurrying around that we don’t accept as an actual rodent until the fifth or sixth time we glimpse its tail flicker under the sofa, these initial glimmers of depression convince by accrual.
And then there’s the other kind of arrival: Wham! Out of nowhere, front and center, on you like a dropped lead weight.
The movie Melancholia features a blue planet called Melancholia on a crash collision with Earth. The characters in the movie see it coming and react as humans will react. With disbelief, horror, willful insistence that everything will be fine, and—in the case of Justine, the main character—stoic acceptance.
As the icy blue orb gradually dominates the horizon beyond the grand estate that is the movie’s setting, the brother-in-law excitedly consults his telescope and secretly stockpiles emergency supplies, supplies that will be of no help in planetary collision.
Sister Claire’s jittery eyes and Patti Smith hair recall the family’s horses skittish in their stalls, as she consults websites, dashes around frantically, and tries to outrun disaster.
And then there’s Justine, who awaits the inevitable with stoicism, resignation, and even—for her nephew Leo’s sake—whimsy. I don’t agree with Justine’s conclusion that earth is evil and, as such, the last word, but I can see how she got there—and I found her acceptance of the end a kind of triumph over her own dark side. Of all three adults, she meets reality head-on. This posture seems both counterpoint and complement to earlier scenes of her utter helplessness before the black dogs.
I’ve suffered from depression, but watching Melancholia didn’t depress me, even the scenes of a limp Justine being lifted into the bath by her sister or crying because her favorite meatloaf tastes like ashes. Instead, these scenes—thanks to Kirsten Dunst’s unsentimental acting—confirmed what I know, in a way that felt both accurate and oddly uplifting.
When I was depressed, I couldn’t remember feeling normal. I had no sensory awareness or recollection of happiness, calm, desire, satiation. Oh, I could recall that I’d once taken pleasure in a good laugh or a tasty meal or the simple ease of a day in which I got out up bed and went about my life.
But feel any of it? Nope. I was like the psalmist (and Justine with her meatloaf), my mouth dry as a pot-sherd.
And when I got better, the inverse was true. I could recall the fact of my stomach in knots, of my hands clenching, of the skin on my face heavy and slack, of walking with a constant slight hunch, but I no longer felt those sensations in my body. If I had, I would have still been depressed.
This tugged at me: how could something so vivid, so pungent, so palpable, be suddenly unavailable? I didn’t want to remember how awful it was, but at times I wondered how the division in my awareness between the two experiences could be so complete.
Thesis, antithesis; where was the synthesis? I feared a kind of yo-yo-ing between extremes; was any kind of integration possible? After all, just because the blue planet was out of sight, didn’t mean it wasn’t there, hiding behind the sun.
When I saw it again, full-horizon, bearing down, I was asleep. For years, every six months or so, I’ve had the same general nightmare of being stuck again in despair and torpor so heavy that I wake from sheer terror—oh, God, it’s back. Then, as the corners of my ceiling appear, a soothing rush of relief. Thank God. Just a dream.
A few days ago, I woke with a low-level despondency, a lack of interest in getting up. It wasn’t anywhere near time to stock up on batteries and canned food. But the sensation, which I gave into for an hour or so until I did get up (and yes, felt better), was familiar enough to show me that whatever name I give it—the planet, the black dogs, the pit—depression is in me, body and soul.
Two months ago, I made a solemn vow. I acknowledged that, in the symbol of a gold band, I was giving Craig “all that I am and all that I have.” He knows my history; I know his; we’ve both suffered from the Big D. Indeed, hearing each other’s stories is one of the things that first drew us together. We won’t leave, or judge, the other if one of us goes into a sinker.
But I recognize the care with which we both tread, at times, refusing to speak dishonestly but not wanting to scare the other. How you doing? Oh, okay. Okay? And the relief when we can say it—I feel kind of low—and not read into it the end of the world.
The blues have moved on. No collision. I breathe with relief; I savor my morning oatmeal; we celebrate our anniversary with flowers and good food.
When I think now of Melancholia, the movie, I remember the final image—an explosion; Justine’s sister screaming.
But just before that? Hands, human hands—Justine’s and Claire’s and Leo’s, holding one another.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.