Something has been wrong. For the past three weeks, I've been lying on my couch unable to move. I can't remember the last time I showered or brushed my teeth. Meals consist of cigarettes. Phone calls go unanswered. Bills go unpaid.
The other day, after hours spent on the phone lost in the diabolical labyrinth of the mental health insurance industry, I was finally able to get approval to make an appointment with a shrink.
Today, I sat in his office and he asked me questions. "Are you suicidal?" "No, I just can't get off my couch." "Do you want to hurt anyone?" "No, I'm just sad all the time." "Can you count backwards from 100 by sevens?" "Huh, what? "Can you count backwards from 100 by sevens?"
I got to 93, though I tried to explain to the shrink that I wouldn't be able to get any further than 93 even in the best of circumstances. Math was never my strong suit.
"This is ordinary depression," the shrink told me, giving me a funny look. "I suggest you quit drinking, quit smoking, take your meds and get on with it."
I've returned home, lit a cigarette and am staring at the couch.
However, I am NOT going to return to it. Instead I've decided upon a plan of action, one filled with Old World glory. My self-diagnosis, you see, is that I am not suffering from ordinary depression. I'd been depressed for years. That's my natural state. And I've always been functional. But this particular year I've experienced a number of real, life-altering problems. The world is too much with me. This is something grander. Something noble. A family heritage. This is melancholia.
And I am taking to my bed.
I shall purchase several pairs of new pajamas. I will put down new sheets. I will pull the shades low enough so that just a peep of sunlight seeps in.
Family and friends will have to take their chances. I suggest they make an appointment well in advance if they wish to visit. Even then, upon their arrival, they may find that I am that day indisposed and cannot take their visitation.
"What is wrong with him?" they might ask. "Melancholia," it will be whispered. (The children will wonder how watermelon makes one sick enough to not be able to get out of bed.) Of course, it's called depression now, always accompanied by a cocktail prescription of antidepressants and a kick in the butt to get on with it.
But, in the olden days, melancholia was taken very seriously, with a sense of heroic grandeur. People died from it. Or, rather, just wasted away. It's very romantic. Edgar Allen Poe died from melancholia, arguably. Elizabeth Barrett Browning probably died from melancholia. Emily Dickinson …Robert E. Lee. All those sad cats.
But, if you're going to go that way, you've got to do it right. In style. You've got to take to your bed first. And that's exactly what I'm going to do.
There is precedence for this in my family. In the Southern wing. In the U.S., melancholia and taking to one's bed is a provenance of the South. Growing up in the '60s, my family would venture once a year below the Mason-Dixon line to visit our Southern relatives. These kinfolk weren't Uncle Jed, Granny, Jethro and Ellie May, but true sons and daughters of the South living in grand old homes, whose ancestors all seemed to have come over on the Mayflower and fought in the American Revolution. And, of course, in the War Between the States … on the losing side. All of them "tippled" just a bit.
Of these relatives, the one who is most influential in my taking to my bed is Aunt Sitie. I'm not actually sure how I was related to her. Or even if I was by blood. I learned as a kid on my visits to the South that everyone was some sort of cousin or auntie or great-granny of mine.
Each trip down South, it was mandatory that I and my three sisters call upon Aunt Sitie. It was both exciting and frightening. Mom would drive up the long private road leading to the home—a mansion, really. Dressed in our very best, we would be served freshly squeezed lemonade and cookies. Then, one by one, we would individually be led into the inner chamber, Aunt Sitie's bedroom. The light was always dim. Propped up on pillows in her nightdress was an ancient figure with a sweet and gentle smile. There would be a little push from behind. Who it was that did the pushing, I can't remember. But at that moment, we were to kiss papery white skin that never saw the light of day.
Aunt Sitie had taken to her bed years and years before. No one could say exactly why, except that the world was too much for her. But, it was also another, more gracious time. No one ever gave her a kick in the butt and told her to get over it or get on with it. Everyone understood. It happens.
So today I, too, am taking to my bed. I am 61 years old. I recently lost my job of 26 years, and haven't been able to find another one. My daughter is living in another country. I am getting divorced. I am soon to be broke. I like to tipple. I am retrieving my Southern heritage. I shall forever forward be whispered about. "Melancholia."
Pull down the shades. And kiss my papery white skin.