WHERE ARE THE VOICES OF SUBJECTIVITY?
Throughout much of the historical descriptions of melancholia as a condition, I was struck by the absence of the voices of the individuals who suffered from melancholia themselves. A lot of emphasis was placed on bodily ailments, and when the focus was not physiological in nature, it was often spiritualized and blaming; people were seen as melancholic because they were lazy or because they were sinners or because they had been possessed by demons as punishment for their poor character. When discussing the person instead of its causes, there was a similar tone: melancholic individuals were believed to have lost their reason, they were concerned with trivialities, they were delusional, and they fixated on the negative aspects of life. The one positive quality noted in the literature is the acknowledgment of artistic and intellectual superiority in some who had a melancholic temperament, but even this had the potential to drive people or to predispose them to the very condition that would compromise their mind.
Throughout the historical literature, there is almost no mention of specific circumstances or subjective experience in a noninvalidating way. The atmosphere of “otherizing” that characterizes the history of depression precluded firsthand accounts. They made their way into literature through fiction, but they were not taken seriously as a means of learning about the condition or how to treat it. Freud (1917) was one of the first people to write about depression in a way that invited exploration of the mind rather than condemnation. He too had his limitations, but his conceptualization of melancholia as a form of mourning that has surpassed the normal limits acknowledged, perhaps for the first time, that the individual might have just cause for feeling the way that he or she did, instead of attributing it to irrationality or mere delusion. The fact that for so many centuries depression, mania, and other forms of psychosis were lumped together probably did not help in this regard, but none of these had been previously studied in a nonpathologizing manner. In many respects, Freud opened the door for a different type of therapeutic work and for other theorists to begin exploring the intra- and interpersonal world of individuals suffering from psychological distress. This invited the individual into the process of his or her own treatment by valuing the subjective experience.