Chicken Soup For The (Depressive) Soul


When you’re really down, sometimes only a few things can cheer you up.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy people are unhappy in different ways, be it a holiday, a death, a breakup or a bad case of the clinicals. In other words, it’s hard to generalize. I came down with a case of clinical doldrums, clearly descended from the logubrious matrilineal willow, when I was 20, and in the years since have learned the things that can unfailingly perk me up – or at least, keep me grounded. Sure, meds aren’t incidental to my peace of mind, but managing everyday sadnesses is at least as important, to me as to most others. Valentine’s Day has never been my trigger, so to speak – I’m too fascinated by the holiday’s people-watching, and my mom is very good about sending me my only Valentine, anyway – but I can see how it could be, since the annual Bastille Day celebration in my neighborhood sends me into a deep funk. We all have something, as my grandmother might have said. So, I have an arsenal, at the ready, of the arbitrary, personal things that for one reason or another remind me of my happiest self.

What my mom calls “comfort reads” are central to a cheer-up, not least because a sad person often finds herself in bed. With this in mind, there are a few books I always keep handy. These vary for every person; my mother swears by the escapism of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. My grandfather read physics texts. For my part, I tend to want non-fiction in my bluest periods. Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking has a permanent spot on my bedside table: although I can recite the essays by heart, reading the familiar, funny, words about food and life is tremendously comforting. “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” is a special panacea. Under the Colwin is a little paperback called Castles in the Air, which I ordered on a whim from a British catalogue when I worked in publishing and didn’t pick up until a few years later. It’s the memoir of young couple restoring a crumbling Welsh castle on a shoestring, and something about the everyday challenges of their gentle crusade is affirming in a low moment. Misery loving company, I’ve been returning to the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell a lot…they both suffered from depression, and it’s good to not feel alone in these moments, and to see things said so much better than you ever could. You never know what will bring solace: recently a friend sent me a YA series called Poseur by Rachel Maude. She knew I’d like that the characters’ wardrobes are illustrated and exhaustively described at the beginning of each scene, since this was always a hilight of the few Babysitter’s Club novels I snuck behind my mom’s back. Well, these books proved to be exactly what I needed in a low moment: their manageable dramas, excellent clothes, and sweetly funny prose soothed and invigorated me in a way I couldn’t have expected. As you see, the sad soul requires a very different soup from the everyday one.

In terms of multimedia, well, there are a few movies in heavy rotation during my low points. Chief amongst these is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – namely, the barn-raising dance, which I have been known to watch on a loop. Working Girl is, of course, endlessly uplifting and entertaining. In the right kind of mood, the Werner Herzog documentary The White Diamond can engage me with the world; other times, it must be avoided at all costs. Here’s another peculiarity: while normally I avoid procedurals, a box set of Law & Order: Criminal Intent has proven a reliable godsend in moments of near-despair.

I can’t listen to a lot of music when I am low, but there are a couple of exceptions: “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela, select Bert Jansch, Morrissey’s “Suedehead” and Joe Dassin’s “Champs Elysees” are a few of the carefully-selected tracks that, for whatever obscure reason, fall under the playlist heading “Emergency” on my computer.

That these measures are personal goes without saying: they are a few things that, with trial and error, have managed to help me fight off something which needs to be kept carefully at bay through careful strategizing. I became consciously aware of this stuff when my problems took a medical turn, but it’s useful to face even the most quotidian of doldrums and challenges with a tried and true arsenal of what works for you. It’s not always the most impressive or intellectually stimulating; it is just what, for one reason or another, says “comfort” to you and reminds you a little of your innate joy in living.

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