Friday, January 19, 2007

Art Buchwald & Me: Please Understand Us

Melancholia by Albrecht Durer

For as long as I can remember, which means well back into my childhood, I have suffered from melancholia. I much prefer that word to clinical term depression. Melancholia seems to best suggest what it is for me: always present, although immobilizing to various and altering degrees. Clinically it’s called dysthymia (or clinical depression) and involves long-term, chronic symptoms that do not completely disable, but keep one from functioning well. There have also been periods of major depression: it feels to me as if I have been in one of those for most of the past ten years!

I realize that everyone is depressed or melancholy at some time. What most people do not understand about dysthymia is that it is with one (me) all of the time. So when people ask, “What is making you depressed?” they do not understand my answer: “Nothing.” I learned in grad school that the depression most people experience is a transient situational disorder: transient because as it came it will also go away; situational because it is related to specific circumstances—divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc.; disorder because malady can be defined. But for those tormented by dysthymia—constant melancholia—the sad feelings and actual physical pain never go away; there is no specific circumstance to grieve; the problem remains undefined.

I have been attempting to blog about melancholia/dysthymia for a long time. However, I have never been to put into words—even these words I am now writing—what it is I am trying to say, what I want you, the reader, to understand. It is difficult because, as someone once wrote:

Depression is not like anything. Words are symbols we use to communicate things, but their meaning is only distantly related to reality. Nothing is like anything. Everything is. Depression is knowing that. (Unknown)

The death two days ago of Art Buchwald encouraged me to finally write and post this blog. Buchwald suffered from depression all of his life. He was able to function in spite of it (and two major bouts of severe major depression), he said, by making people laugh:

Mike Wallace and Bill and I all had serious depressions at the same time. We helped each other get through them. When we finally came out of it, we called ourselves the "Blues Brothers" and went around talking to groups that were interested in mental health issues… Our mantra was, "Don't commit suicide because you might change your mind two weeks later."

We had a lot of fun, strangely enough, talking about depression. We argued about who had the worst depression. Styron claimed his was a 9 on the Richter scale. He said mine was just a rainy day at Disneyland. Art Buchwald

Like Buchwald, I learned early in life that the way to deal with my almost constant feelings of sadness and emptiness was to reach out to and serve others. It wasn’t always to make people laugh; usually it was to help folks, individuals are well as communities, who were in need, oppressed, down trodden, or themselves depressed. That altruistic need of mine to serve others, even at my own loss, has been the primary driver for just about every decision I have every made. It is even reflected in my Myers-Briggs profile as an INFJ (Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging): "The Protector" (or Counselor-Idealist, or The Mystic depending upon whose description of my personality type you choose to read).

And that, for me, is the rub. As the melancholia that has been for ever a part of my life differs from the transient situational depression most people experience, so my personality type differs from 99% on the Myers-Briggs universe:

The small number of this type (1 percent) is regrettable, since INFJs have unusually strong drive to contribute to the welfare of others and genuinely enjoy helping their fellow men. This type has great depth of personality; they are themselves complicated, and can understand and deal with complex issues and people.

Thus, I have attempted to write this post for years! Not as an apology or explanation of who I am, but simply in the hope that, as Keirsey entitled his book, someone might understand me.


Mom is settled in the nursing home in central Kentucky near where my sister lives. Yesterday she had a most disturbing day: she found it impossible to stand on one leg (both of her knees are artificial) and her neighbor, Harriet, who lived across the street from her for the past 40+ years, died. However, when I spoke with Mom today, she was much better, physically and emotionally, and even spoke of hoping to be able to soon return to her home.

There is nothing new regarding my circumstances: my thanks to all for your kind words and emails.


  1. I'm glad you wrote this, Nick. I hope you'll write more, as you need or want to, on the topic. I met Art Buchwald...gosh, 25 years ago. A warm, charming man.
    Asking a dysthymic person what they are depressed "about" is like asking a diabetic what they are diabetic "about." It is what it is. I was dysthymic for much of my life, with incidents of major depression thrown in just to keep things interesting. I'm not dysthymic, I don't think, now. Which amazes me, given current circumstances. Of course, it ain't over til it's over.
    The best any of us can do is take the hand we've been dealt and try to play it in the best way we can, for ourselves, for others, for God. I think you've done, and are doing that.

  2. Nick, all I can say is thank you. A week ago today I wrote a post on my blog about my struggles with depression and so many people have reached out to me and made me start feeling better, I hope your blog helps you out as much as it did for me.

  3. It must take a certain amount of courage to write a post about this. There are so many misconceptions about depression.

    I wonder if the world is just too harsh for INFJs. Maybe that's why there is only 1%. I'm an ENFP so my mood is usually more up than down. But I have many freinds and loved ones who have, at some time, suffered from depression.

    Thanks for the update on Art Buchwald, too. I've always loved his writing. I knew he was very sick, but didn't realized he had just died.

    We can learn a lot from people who rise above their personal pain to help others.

    Bless you, Nick.

  4. I would never have guessed that you suffered from depression of any kind. Your posts are so upbeat and fun.

    It took a great deal of courage to write this, strength I doubt I would have had.

  5. SUSIE: Thank you. I may use your words to introduce my next post.

    SILVER NEUTROTIC: You’re most welcome. Depression in its many forms is so misunderstood. If have opened the eyes of just one person, then I have met my goal.

    SQUIRL: Courageous or foolishness? My mother and my ex-wife told me over and over that I am too honest, open, and willing to rush in where fools fear to tread. Maybe that’s the problem as they see it: I don’t have enough fear.

    The world may be too harsh for INFJs. We’re idealist, seeing good where some others see veil; potential where others see stagnation. That may be also why my ex-wife claimed the James Kavanaugh poem, There are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves, was me:

    There are men too gentle to live among wolves
    Who prey upon them with IBM eyes
    And sell their hearts and guts for martinis at noon.
    There are men too gentle for a savage world
    Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
    And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.

    There are men too gentle to live among wolves
    Who anoint them for burial with greedy claws
    And murder them for a merchant's profit and gain.
    There are men too gentle for a corporate world
    Who dream instead of candied apples and ferris wheels
    And pause to hear the distant whistle of a train.

    There are men too gentle to live among wolves
    Who devour them with eager appetite and search
    For other men to prey upon and suck their childhood dry.
    There are men too gentle for an accountant's world
    Who dream instead of Easter eggs and fragrant grass
    And search for beauty in the mystery of the sky.

    There are men too gentle to live among wolves
    Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.
    Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant's world,
    Unless they have a gentle one to love.

    LAURIE: Thank you for your words. Depression really doesn’t prevent one from being upbeat or humorous. Clinical depression is simply a chemical imbalance that is inherited (for me, from my mother and her side of the family). Yes, there is pain, physical as well as emotional, but one can live beyond it! I found that I can if I reach out to others in love and compassion rather than dwelling on my own pain. Heck, just look at the humor of Art Buchwald: in his life with Dysthymic Disorder he’s made millions, if not billions, of people laugh!

  6. Hi Nick. I haven't read here on a sufficiently regular basis to have realize you experience dysthymia. I imagine it as a prolonged variation of the blues, and think it must be a most challenging companion. It speaks volumes about your character, not merely your personality, that you turn to service as an expression of your own difficulty. Beauty shows up in the most unexpected ways, sometimes.

  7. Hi Nick ~~ I am so sorry you have had to deal with this all your life, but
    congratulations for having the courage to share your story with us. I liked the story of too gentle to live with wolves, but then who wants to live with wolves?
    Thanks for your visit, glad you like the True Love story and the jokes.
    I would appreciate it if you did ask your Indian friend to do a rain dance for us.
    I wish you well Nick and I guess you are quite used to your life as it is
    but may you find peace and comfort for the telling. Take care, Merle.

  8. Nick, I would never have guessed that you suffer from depression. I am very impressed with what you have written ... it takes a brave person to put down in words how they feel like this. Thank you for trusting us all enough to share.
    Take care, hugs, Meow

  9. Abraham Lincoln suffered from "persistent melancholia," and treated it with the miracle cure of the day- mercury.

    I read one time that he wouldn't have lived long, even if he hadn't been shot at Ford's theater- mercury accumulates, and he was close to a lethal dose.

  10. ECLECTIC: Thank you. Much of my early life (late teens and college years) was spent trying to figure out what’s “normal.” By the time I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, I realized that what I was experiencing on a daily basis wasn’t normal. It was then that I consulted the first of many mental health professionals. I never have learned what is “normal”; however, I have learned ways of coping with what is more than the “blues.” As one of the TV commercials for an Rx antidepressant reminds me, the screw up of serotonin and norepinephrine causes much more than feelings of sadness: anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, inability to sleep and/or stay awake, weight loss or weight gain, plus actual physical pain. Thankfully, the serotonin/norepinephrine imbalance can be treated with medications, while psychotherapy can help with many of the symptoms. Hey! Why else would I have gone into the mental health field? As a group therapy leader once responded to the question “What does one do after one graduates from group therapy?”, “Most group therapy grads become group therapists.”

    MERLE: Thank you. Overall, I have enjoyed my life. If there is anything that has really bothered me, it has been that I have given away so much of myself to help others that now, in my 60s, I lack the resources to care for myself. I don’t really resent what I have given; I do wonder about my judgment when I have invested so much in folks who are alcoholics or drug addicts and who never changed.

    MEOW: Thank you. As I commented above, I am unsure whether I am brave or foolish. However, having been born into an alcoholic family where the rule was “Don’t tell anyone” and been married to a victim of incest whose family rule was “Don’t tell anyone” I find openness much preferable to secrecy. As I learned in seminary, one of a theologian’s primary tasks is to name the evil, after which the evil has much less power over one.

    THOMAS: Thanks for reminding me of another Kentuckian, ole Abe Lincoln. I wonder if there is something in the air or water than maneuvers us who were born in Kentucky and later lived in Indiana and Illinois into melancholia?

  11. Yo, Saint Nick! What you write in the comments is as fine as or better than what you write in the blog! Thanks!

  12. I, too, have spent my life living with chemically imbalanced depression. I have 7 episodes of major depression that keep me sleeping for weeks at a time. I could never share my story. I thank you for sharing yours and for asking people to “please understand.”

  13. Hi, Nick. INTJ here, though the T doesn't outscore the F by very much. I know what it's like to be a little different. INTJs are also a mere 1% of the population. I also know what it's like to carry something around that just won't go away.

    I haven't been getting around to all of my favorite blogs lately. I came by when I saw your comment at Tania Pink's place. I came by to tell you that you are beautiful and that I love you. The world would be a much better place if more than 1% of its inhabitants could share more aspects of your unique brand of beauty. You took my breath away at Tania's. You made ME feel understood. That just doesn't happen much. Thank you, Nick. I needed that so much.

  14. I am very fortunate never to have suffered any form of depression. I can't imagine what you must go through, but i am so glad you did post about it as someone else mentioned, it is a widely misunderstood disease and by speaking out you are able to educate many :o)

  15. Thanks so much for this post, Nick.

    What slightly frightens me, however, is I'm not a professional anything (don't even have a B.A.), but I've been to so much therapy that I understand the difference between depression and dysthymia (I've been dysthymic since childhood is what one psychiatrist told me). Now, I am in a bout of major depression (which is loads of fun in addition to my physical probs), but Mr. Wonderful, intelligent person he is, understands that having depression is like having arthritis (or diabetes, as in Susie's example). You have it. You get treatment.

    And like Art Buchwald, I often try to make people laugh. May he rest in peace now, free from melancholia and any form of depression.

  16. I think the photos are on the other posting - they are wonderful, btw...

    Sorry you've had to suffer with this cross for so long, Nick - but you have carried it well with your service to others - including those of us who love your writings!

    Hugs! &
    God bless you,

  17. Thanks, Nick for this post.

    IFNP here. Up and down but not long term melancholia.

    Yes, service is always a good perspective enhancer. Which brings me back to the question - how else can we help you serve?

    I like the idea of an online ministry. What about somewhere like the rehab center where your mom is. Even if they couldn't pay much, they'd certainly be able to be convinced of paying transport and gratuities for an occasional visit from a pastor/social worker, no?

    Just a thought. But please do let me know how I can help you serve...

  18. ...oh and I agree with the blogger who says it speaks to your character that you use the melancholy to turn to service.

    you live up to your name, dear Saintly

  19. Nick, hang in there. I sent you a small donation via certified mail. It isn't much. I hope it helps you.

  20. Thank you. I have been depressed all of my life and felt so very ashamed.

  21. I liked the quote from Art Buchwald. I'm sure it helped him very much to have some people to share his depression with, and making light of it, when possible, had to help, as well.

    I'm glad your mom is feeling better. My husband just had a double knee replacement in December, and is just getting around where he doesn't need any walking devices. Amazing, isn't it?