Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness*
- a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.
In February of 2010 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next 2 and half years, she suffered through 2 very invasive surgeries, 5 surgical procedures, 8 rounds of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation, and 2 long stays in the hospital for infection and pneumonia. While happily she has been cancer free for over 5 years now, this was a traumatic time for her, and to a lesser extent as her caregiver, for me. My wife is the poster child for “Beating Cancer”; she never let it slow her down and always looked forward to a complete recovery. I’m sorry to say that it was emotionally draining for me. As she was getting her treatment, I made sure to always be upbeat around her, but internally I struggled to watch her having to suffer through all the adverse effects. The running joke around our house is that she got all the physical scars of her cancer treatment and I got all the emotional ones.
In November of 2014 my father died from injuries sustained in a car accident. As a soldier, he was not around a lot when I was growing up and I would probably describe our adult relationship as “distant”. Nonetheless, I always had a great amount of admiration, respect and pride for the things he accomplished in his life. For someone who was always very active well into his 80s, it was crushing for me to see him lying paralyzed in the hospital bed for the two weeks between his accident and when his shattered body finally said, “enough”. I thought that Old Man would live forever. At least I had hoped so.
I don’t mention these things to elicit any sympathy or pity. Most of us have suffered the pain from loss of a family member or have dealt with the serious illness of a loved one at some point in our lives. In fact, I have always recognized how extremely lucky I was that I didn’t have to deal with these things at a younger age. But these two events were the first of their kind for my life. I had never dealt with a life-threatening illness OR lost a member of my immediate family before then. But I believe they ended up being primary catalysts (along with a couple of other things that occurred in that same time frame) that has left me with a persistent melancholy that I continue to deal with to this day.
What is Melancholy?
There are many who define melancholy as a form of depression and for the medical profession that appears to be the prevailing thought. Nonetheless, melancholy seems to represent a lower rung on the ladder of depression for most people. Author Susan Sontag once described it this way, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms…”
The symptoms of melancholy vary by subject, but generally one suffers from a consistent general sadness, has no desire to socialize, and finds it difficult to derive pleasure in life or be cheered up. There might also be a general lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and changes in the sleep/wake cycle. People with melancholy tend to wake up early in the morning, but may also report improvement in mood and energy as the day progresses. Episodes commonly emerge “out of the blue”.
These symptoms describe my personal situation almost completely. For me, there is a steady “veil” of sadness in my everyday life. However it differs from depression because I don’t feel it incapacitates me in any meaningful way. I get up (early these days!), go to work, interact as needed, come home, eat dinner and hang out with my wife and my dogs. At night I eat, drink, read and occasionally write. I do all the things I did in the past, it is just that my threshold for enjoying these things is just a little lower. And as an introvert I have always struggled with socializing, but now I have a hard time even interacting with family and close friends. My one exception is that my mood is usually good in the morning; afternoons and evenings are when I personally struggle the most.
So What Now?
We all have issues in our lives, and I am no different. For me, this situation is like being overweight or dealing with high blood pressure. It can affect my life but it doesn’t consume it. There are many famous people who lived and achieved great things while dealing with similar problems. Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States, saved the Union and abolished slavery. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens became two of the world’s most beloved writers. Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, Albert Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity and Audrey Hepburn became one of the most iconic movie stars of all time. And the one thing that connects all these famous people is that they all suffered from some form of melancholy or similar type of depression at some point in their lives. Obviously, my life’s achievements fall far short of what these people have accomplished, but it is encouraging to me to know that I am still capable of being successful and creative. So, I’ll continue to strive for these things in my life. I can live with that.
*With apologies to the Smashing Pumpkins…
Originally published at ameanderingmind.com on July 16, 2017.