While those suffering from it may feel like uttering a four-letter oath quite frequently, DEPRESSION is actually a ten-letter word and much more menacing.
Ironically, I discovered this while reading with my children. My daughters were gifted a bizarre picture book called 13 Words written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Those familiar with Lemony Snicket’s work for middle-grade readers, A Series of Unfortunate Events, know the author’s penchant for quirky characters and plot lines, where melancholy most certainly lurks around every corner. Devoted readers expect and love this. When it came to picture books, however, I thought of tender little hearts and impressionable minds and that Snicket might dial it down a bit. Not exactly. The language is more accessible for early readers, but the theme remains dark, with that dastardly depression hiding amidst the bright colors and whimsical illustrations.
The main character of the story is bird, which is also word number one. But while the story revolves around her, she is almost a secondary character. We meet her first, she leads us to word number two – despondent – because that’s how she herself feels, and she discovers the cake (word number three) under the table, which she eats in an effort to cheer herself up. But it is dog who suggests she eats it, it is he who suggests she get to work painting eleven ladders, it is goat who drives dog to the haberdashery to buy a hat to cheer bird up when the cake doesn’t work. It is the dog, the goat, and the mezzo-soprano who throw the party at the end of the day – all in the name of good fun and good cheer – with no regard whatsoever to the bird’s still despondent state.
Is this not what it’s like to live with depression?
We are at the center of this achingly vibrant world that spins dizzily around us. We can touch and taste it. It can take parts of us, and we, parts of it. But are we ever fully engaged in it? We can sit at the table with our friends and family, but do our taste buds register the smooth sweetness of the cake the way theirs do? Those close to us can suggest salves to ease our pain and may even try them with us, like the dog who buys his own hat to wear alongside the bird. But in the end, the dog simply has a new hat and an added dash of “panache” while the bird has another failed attempt at bandaging the wound. We go about our business, we “keep [our] mind[s] on painting”, we socialize and move about our days. Our friends see us and know us, but don’t hear the ten-letter curse that runs like reverb through our heads.
I can’t explain to my daughters why the bird is “still a little despondent” at the end of the book, no more than I can elucidate the meaning of depression to those who don’t suffer from it. For now, they’re young enough that they accept the story at face value. They can’t see the underlying melancholy meaning. I pray that they never will. But I still wonder why Lemony Snicket wrote this existentially sophisticated story as a picture book. Is it to reach people at any age on a simplified level to help destymie depression? Or is it to raise a new generation of people empathetic to our plight?
No small task for any number of letters or words.
It’s a manic world.