Elizabeth Wurtzel’s depression began when she was about eleven years old. Within only a few months, she went from an ordinary kid from an embattled home (her parents divorced when she was very young) to a child drowning in her own misery. For about a decade, she dressed in black, lay in bed, cried oceans of tears, and tried to get help. She drank and took drugs as a way to dull the chronic pain, sought therapy, and found small oases of reprieve that allowed her to become a writer and to go to college. But the tendency of her disease was to go farther and farther downhill until finally she was hospitalized, medicated to the gills, unable to see past the next hour, unwilling to live. At that lowest point, in 1987, she was one of the first patients to be given fluoxetine, known to most of us as Prozac, and the black misery began to lift.
Prozac Nation was fascinating to read for me, partly because I had such a mixed reaction to it. I profoundly sympathize with depression. I’ve been there, and many people I love have, too. Wurtzel was good at evoking the peculiar quality of depressive pain, and the way it grinds away at your personality until you fear there’s no you left to be sad, only the sadness. I sympathized with Wurtzel, even when she screamed and ranted and wailed and threw tantrums in public places. People who are depressed are awful and irritating. That’s part of the disease. It robs you of your ability to pull yourself out of your own morass of unhappiness long enough to see other people’s needs. There is nothing but greyscale, nothing but bleak fog. You can’t ever escape from yourself.
But on another level, I felt Wurtzel was a rather unreliable narrator of her own life. She spends a lot of time insisting on the commonness of her situation, making sure the reader is aware that she is aware that she was nothing special, if you see what I mean. Yet from time to time she comes out with observations that are breathtaking in their absolute certainty that she is the only person who has ever suffered this way. At Harvard (and how did she get to Harvard, if she spent all her high school years skipping classes and crying in bed?), she talks about her friends: “Harvard was full of nut cases, and we’d all managed to find each other, as if by centrifugal force. Still, no one’s desperation came close to matching mine.” After one episode when she misses a family birthday dinner her mother spent all day cooking for her, because she’s been drinking too heavily to come home, her observation is this: “It was always this way though: I spent most of my life trying to please my mother, and instead I just disappointed her.” The total lack of self-awareness or even irony in these statements made me wonder about the rest of her narrative.
Still, even in the welter of emotion and pain and blame (parents, boyfriends, bad therapists, teachers, and friends all come in for some share of it), Wurtzel has some good insights. She points out, for instance, that Tolstoy’s observation that happy families are all alike but that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way is completely backward: when you’re happy, there’s so much you can do and try and be, but when you’re sad, all you can do is be miserable. She also notes, near the end of her narrative, when she’s beginning to recover, that she had gradually become addicted to her depression, afraid of who she might be (or not be) without it. This, I think, is very helpful to think about. Every resurrection goes through death first.
Despite Wurtzel’s self-centeredness, despite her certainty that she earned the relief of Prozac while today’s depressives have taken a frivolous short cut, this is a worthwhile read. Depression is a trip into hell for more people than I care to think about, and if this can prevent even one of them from taking a decade to get well, it will serve its purpose.