Friday, March 15, 2024

Writing "The Blues"

First page of Lizzie Jackson's letterLizzie Jackson, in this letter from February 1853, paints an accurate depiction of someone suffering from depression.  Interestingly, though, she never names her affliction as depression. She calls it “the blues”--even putting it in quotes. Still, she describes the slower perception of time in a way that those who have experienced depression will understand all too well:

“The days appear like weeks to me, and Sunday, I thought night never would come. I have wished a few times that I was with my dear Nat, I have thought of nothing since you left but you, I would give any thing that is have to be with you to night.”

She also describes her low energy level and unwillingness to do certain activities: “I would write more if I could interest you but I know I could not do that when I have the ‘blues’.”

In the 19th century, the “blues” originated with an English phrase “the blue devils,” referring to the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. Soon after, the phrase was shortened to “the blues” and associated with sadness and the state of depression and feeling upset, which is the way that Lizzie uses it. A century later, a musical genre would come to be called “the blues” because of the melancholic songs at its heart.

In the 1850s, though, there was an extreme stigma around “the blues” and mental illness. Mental illness was viewed as untreatable and more of a spiritual problem, a perception that was reinforced by the devilish history of the phrase. Society at the time would place people in asylums or call people possessed. With that sort of social stigma, would you want to admit if you were feeling depressed? Lizzie certainly feels the need to hide her depressive state and expresses this need for secrecy, ending her letter with a strict command: “Come home soon. Give my love to Pa, Ma, and all of the family. Let no one see this.” She then goes so far as to not fully sign her name, instead using only the first letter of her first and last name, “L— J—”, to provide her with some anonymity.

While the stigma around depression and mental health has decreased significantly, the need to hide how one truly feels still pervades our culture. According to the most recent data from the World Health Organization, about 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Lizzie writes to her husband because she needs support during this time. Let’s do what we can to support those around us, and reach out to those who are close to us when we need help.

To see this letter, ask for MS-1106, Box 1, Folder 3.