Capturing the quality of suffering during depression is a task that presents challenges to authors, especially in regards to communicating with readers who have never lived through a depressive episode. I use the word quality because there is a sensation to the experience of depression that is about as easy to explain to people as a taste they’ve never encountered before. In searching for a book to capture how I felt for years as a young woman that I could share with other people as an example of my experiences, there was the sense that the books I was reading had characters that were too melodramatic.
In truth, the characters were accurate to how depression affects some people and in many of them I saw myself and the ways I was out of control myself those years ago. But there’s a certain conceit to these characters, an expectation that the reader understands how depression influences not only thoughts but the body holistically. Unfortunately, I felt if I pointed to these novels, people would respond with a comment I’ve heard said among friends, “Why don’t they just do something about it?” turning depression into a concept of control (it is, of course, a concept of control, but not in the way that they think. In depression, one finds control in giving up trying to control).
For them, as I’m sure it was for people in my own life, the melodrama seems insincere, exaggerated, perhaps even intentional.
In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, author Yiyun Li wrote a book that is partially a memoir, partially essays on her personal relationship to literature, and more essentially, ruminations on the experience of depression.
By picking and peeling at all the facets of her feelings, Yiyun Li unwinds the tangled and brambled knots of depression. Reading musings that are eloquent on the contradictions present in depression was eerie in that the thoughts were as intimate as my own.
“But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger?”
Yiyun Li addresses the melodrama of depression, of how one is both aware of how helpless one is being and yet is also unable to be anything but. Inherent in this is the doubt, “Am I being melodramatic?” that doesn’t diminish the reality of suffering.
Captured here is the self-scorn that one has during depression as one holds in their mind the view of themselves and their depression as both an observer and the agent of action. I’ve always found that difficult to express—how it often felt as though I was watching myself and berating myself like a part of my mind had remained healthy and isolated while the rest of my mind induced my body into behavior I neither wanted nor could stop.
The contradictions of depression are examined as well, with a tender hand because Yiyun Li is not judgmental of suffering or scornful of it, but the opposite. Suffering is explored with a gentle intimacy and a respect. She is able to express how integral depression becomes with identity—invaluable and tyrannical.
“All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing…It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”
It would be a mistake to assume that this treatment of the subject romanticizes depression. Instead, a merciful acceptance permeates the work. The feelings that others labeled in her younger self that others labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ the older Yiyun Li requires no justification for.
This isn’t a book, necessarily, about overcoming depression and moving on triumphantly. Nor is it a book where Yiyun Li is seeking understanding, though that seems counter to the purpose of writing a memoir about depression. From the beginning of the book I was given the impression that the author didn’t care of the response of the reader and wouldn’t pander to their understanding. No excuses are presented, no explanations offered for why she was depressed beyond recognizing some of the origins of her feelings. Depression is personal, intimate, and this prose feels like the intended audience was none other than the author herself—the younger self that she can’t truly reach but is addressing.
The title encapsulates this distance and also the tone of Yuyan Li’s approach. Her depressed self isn’t an enemy but a friend she cares for. This is why there is no conquering, no triumph. One does not triumph over one’s friends or seek to conquer them, they attempt to understand. This is what appeals to me most about Dear Friend, that emerging from depression isn’t an activity that implies an award be handed over at the end.
Dear Friend is dense, circular, as tangential and meandering as exploring one’s own mind. It is through this format that Yiyun Li is able to capture the immense breadth of depression, the waves and tides of it, the way it affects relationships with strangers and intimate friends, the contradictory nature of how it provides control and also takes it away, the way one wants to cling to depression like a life boat and to shuck it as easily as changing clothes, and the stillness, the lethargy, the sense of non-being.
Dear Friend begs to be read and examined as carefully as Yiyun Li annotated the letters of authors she read. It’s stunning, heart-rending, frustrating, and difficult to parse. Yiyun Li admits she’s always been enamored with authors that elude understanding, a stance she’s tried to emulate her whole life. Though Dear Friend is confessional, this sense remains—it is deeply personal, simultaneously detached.
There’s an honesty to Yiyun Li’s thoughts and a lack of condemnation that I think some people would struggle with. But I also read it as an outline of tolerance, respect, and validation. It’s a book I will come back to in my own life as a way to articulate and understand my feelings and one that I will reference when others have misconceptions or questions about the experience of depression.