In 1917 Freud wrote his influential “Mourning and Melancholia” essay in which he compares the process of mourning a loved one versus the persistent sadness involved in depression. When a loved one dies the mourner feels an incredible sense of loss, but after a reasonable amount of time he realizes the person is gone and can’t be reclaimed. As the energy attached to the deceased withdraws the mourner moves on to other libido investments.
The depressed patient differs from the mourner in two important ways. First, he is unable to let go of the loved one or desired object. His connection to the person/object was so strong, and his willingness to release the energy surrounding it so weak, that he mistakes the object for part of his ego. Second, he develops what Freud calls “a delusional expectation of punishment.” Guilt weighs heavily upon him, even when he’s not in error or deserving of blame.
Freud concludes that depression is a result of “narcissistic identification with the object.” The depressed patient takes pleasure in punishing himself, often by announcing publicly (today perhaps on a blog) how awful he is. Actually he finds someone else “awful” (usually a loved one living in close proximity) but renders judgment on himself. In the midst of depression his behavior “proceeds from a mental constellation of revolt.” Hence the idea that depression is anger turned inward.
Of course psychiatry has advanced light years beyond Freudian theories. With little data in hand Freud assumes that depressed people have a “pathological disposition” that leaves them vulnerable to melancholia. What if the patient’s excessive guilt is a symptom of his illness rather than existing prior to it? I get the sense that Freud sees depressed people as self-obsessed attention hounds looking to blame others for their misery. This approach sends the wrong message to folks already in a lot of pain.
But I appreciate Freud’s attempts to understand this devastating disease. It makes me wonder: What have I been mourning all these years? What part of me is missing? Against whom am I revolting and how many of my wounds are self-inflicted?