It has been nearly ninety years since the publication of one of Virginia Woolf’s most well-known and poignant masterpieces, Mrs. Dalloway. Set in the shadowy aftermath of the First World War, the book deals with everything from the pain of isolation and depression to what was then termed “shell shock” and what we today recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or PTSD. Woolf herself suffered from depression which profoundly (and tragically) impacted both her work and life; as such, her work provides a first-hand account of both the pain of depression as well as the various do’s and don’ts when it comes to coping with it.
While it should go without saying, it is worth mentioning that depression is a real, recognized medical condition, and there is a tangible difference between real clinical depression and “just feeling down.” As such, if you are friends with someone who is suffering from depression, as well-meaning as you might be, you’re going to want to refrain from telling them to “just cheer up” or “get over it”—you’ll be doing more harm than good, and doing nothing to provide effective pain management or emotional support.
Here, then, are a few symptoms to look out for if you suspect yourself or a friend from suffering from the pain of depression through the lens of Woolf’s masterpiece:
- Feelings of guilt: One of the most common pains and complaints those with depression face is guilt, which itself commonly manifests in anything from a feeling of worthlessness to helplessness. Various women throughout the novel struggle with the former, while Mrs. Dalloway herself struggles with both. A common response to this is overcompensation. Mrs. Dalloway ties her self-worth to the parties she throws. The activity of planning parties is a response to her feelings of worthlessness. By contrast, Septimus Smith, the soldier suffering from PTSD, likewise suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” and feels helpless, something further exacerbated by the isolation which was common practice for treating depression at the time. However, while giving someone their space can be an effective pain relief measure with regards to depression, it is not advised to simply “isolate” them as is done with Septimus—as in his case, this can lead to those feelings of guilt, despair, helplessness and hopelessness simply feeding back on one another without any mediating, positive forces to combat them. While properly-prescribed anti-depressants can have a positive effect on someone suffering depression, emotional support—rather than isolation—is absolutely crucial.
- Insomnia or unrest: These symptoms can occur as the result of many things, and so should be considered additional rather than primary symptoms of depression. That said, unrest in particular can point to an anxiousness which may itself stem from a psychological condition.
- Apathy towards former activities, including sex: Studies have shown that one’s sex drive can become noticeably diminished as a result of depression. While it is not necessarily his sex drive per se that suffers, Septimus’ ability to love his wife dips dramatically as he continues to struggle with the pain of depression.
- Thoughts of suicide: One of the most famous sequences of Woolf’s work juxtaposes Mrs. Dalloway arguably contemplating suicide and Septimus actually committing it. If you find yourself struggling with thoughts of suicide or feel your pain is too great to bear, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline immediately at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Persistent headaches and pains: If you have been suffering from persistent headaches and pains which have not subsided, even with treatment, and you find yourself suffering from some of the above conditions, you may want to consider seeing a counselor or psychiatrist to see if depression or another psychological issue is at the heart of the matter.