What ‘Anna Karenina’ Taught Me About Living With Depression

I’d read past the point where Anna had walked away from everything — her stiff husband, her position in society, even her beloved young son — to move in with her lover, Count Vronsky. Anna’s brother and sister-in-law remain loyal to her, but her old friends shun her as a “fallen” woman. She becomes increasingly isolated. In her psychological confinement, she can’t help taunting herself with the idea that Vronsky has grown tired of her and now loves someone else.

Though I had no husband or lover, I understood how Anna felt; I felt that the world had grown tired of me. But I could also follow Tolstoy as he took me into Vronsky’s mind, where I saw that Vronsky was a man of real if unconventional principle; the count remains committed to Anna, respectful of all she’s given up for him, and determined to care for her — even as her jealousy strains his love.

Maybe reading on wouldn’t hurt.

So I poured myself a glass of ice water and picked up “Anna Karenina” again.

I turned the pages and found Anna collapsing under the weight of her anxiety. She sends a messenger to Vronsky with an urgent request, Come at once. Vronsky never gets her note. But Anna doesn’t realize that. She takes his nonresponse as proof their love is dead. Feeling that all is lost, she heads for a railway station. I knew Anna would kill herself by kneeling before a train, so I urged her to stop and turn around: You poor fool! Look at all you have. Look at all the people you’ll hurt.

In saying that to her, I said something similar to myself: I’m not utterly alone. I have a devoted sister and a choir of supportive friends; even a “fairy godmother,” the exquisitely compassionate mother of one of my closest friends who often talks me through my dark spells. I have more options than other people with major depression who are homeless, addicted or imprisoned. I still have plenty of life left.

In other words, Tolstoy wasn’t riling up in me a voice that mirrored Anna’s. Rather, he was rallying me, calling on me to talk back to Anna, and to the Anna in myself.

Of course, nothing I said would change the mind of a fictional character. Anna descends to the tracks. In her final seconds, she has an overwhelming insight: “Suddenly the darkness that covered everything for her broke and life rose up before her momentarily with all its bright past joys. … She was horrified at what she was doing.” Horrified — but too late. The locomotive is on her. Her life is over — and in destroying herself, she also lays waste to Vronsky with the guilt and grief she leaves behind.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/well/mind/what-anna-karenina-taught-me-about-living-with-depression.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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