Anyone who has faced the personal demons of mental illness will likely see themselves reflected in Stephanie Merritt's haunting The Devil Within: A Memoir of Depression. The author paints an unflinching portrait of the devastating effects of this misunderstood disease which is often exacerbated by the added burden of social stigma which surrounds its sufferers.
From Merritt's earliest recollections of emotional turmoil and her first descent into depression at age seventeen, she traces the erratic upheavals of her life from the "low-level psychological bullying" during school days, a life-threatening bout with anorexia, and the repeated manic episodes of her young adult years. By the time she reaches the literal edge, hypnotized by the speedy passing rails of the commuter train track which offer a tempting escape from the anguish of severe post-partum depression, we who have faced those inner nightmares find ourselves empathizing, all while willing her to step back from the brink.
Merritt avoids those overwhelming suicidal thoughts, obviously, but only from the "practical pull of duty and obligation" to her parents and her newborn son, not from any sense of self-worth or desire to go on living. In this decision, she continues the double life she has laid out in painful detail. Merritt skillfully describes the public persona of everyday coping many depressives learn to project while inwardly dying emotionally. At age thirty-two, she finally seeks professional help and is diagnosed with a "non-psychotic form of bi-polar disorder, or manic depression," the possibility of which she denied for the previous fifteen years while believing "the root of all my problems was walking away from God."
At times heavy-handed and bordering on the melodramatic, Merritt nonetheless offers a compelling look at the disjointed path she navigates from pharmaceuticals to psychiatric counseling to Cognitive Behavior Therapy before finding sustainable relief in orthomolecular (nutritional) medicine. In her search for "the real me," she comes to grips with the gap between intellectually understanding the need to "separate my sense of self-worth from circumstances that are dependent on others" and slogging through the fog of depression to put that knowledge into practice. "It means learning to be kinder to ourselves, changing our notions of success and failure, reconciling ourselves to scaled down ambitions.... We need to learn to be proud of these small goals instead of measuring ourselves against the person we think we are supposed to be."
Merritt rounds out her personal story with a useful list of reading material, websites and resources which offer more information. Those who suffer from mental illness, and the families who love them, will find her survival encouraging.
This book may well be difficult reading for anyone who experiences depression. Merritt's depiction is so authentic, so realistic, that flashbacks should be expected. But she also offers hope, and a path to a better future. By sharing her personal journey, she paves the way for others to escape The Devil Within.
© 2010 Cynthia L. Pauwels
Cynthia L. Pauwels holds an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Humanities with a World Classics certification from Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She works as a freelance writer with numerous short fiction, non-fiction and technical writing credits.