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National Depression Day

I tried to observe the newest holiday correctly, but things just kept going right.

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I'm not, generally speaking, an adherent of depression. But on National Depression Day, I felt compelled to attend services.

Perhaps I felt guilty, having contributed so little to the national bad mood. Instead of the usual arduous hike back from the unconscious, I had woken up profoundly rested. In place of the ticking time bomb pillowside, I'd discovered a steaming cup of Verona, half-and-halfed. Clearly, it was not my holiday.

Nonetheless, I tried to do my part. I dressed in black. In a foolproof scowl-inducing move I opened mail: not a single bill. I tore into an ominously officious envelope. It was the feds returning my promissory note--signed in girlish innocence 15 years ago--clearing me of all student debt. The phone rang, dangling the possibility of catastrophe: An untimely death? An assignment in Flossmoor? It was merely an invitation to dinner. UPS delivered shoes. No day that involves buying shoes can be all bad.

Outside, National Depression Day was radiant. I slipped on sunglasses and drove to Northwestern Hospital, where depressive observances were scheduled. A commodious parking spot awaited smack in front of the door. The meter was fully nourished.

In the lobby a slick sign resting on an easel announced in glossy block letters: "This test could save your life. Free screening for depression at 1 and 5." Inside the depression room old ladies in faux leopard hats, hospital staffers in baggy green scrubs, and moms toting tots were taking their places at classroom desks. A canister of finely honed number-two pencils and a stack of "self-inventory" forms stood ready to alert a team of mental health professionals to the emotional state of all comers. The depression-curious bent over their multiple-choice quizzes in rapt concentration. I checked off the boxes swiftly.

Dr. Daniel Yohanna, director of outpatient psychiatry at Northwestern, directed our attention to his slide projector. Depression, we learned, is a disease. Its symptoms are often physical: restlessness, weight loss, fatigue. Depression does go away. The afflicted just have to suffer in the meantime. It's treatable by talk or drugs or electroshock. Depression, we were reminded, is an illness not a weakness. The motto was repeated on laminated brooches and preprinted pamphlets arrayed at the back of the room alongside fliers on flu-shot free-for-alls, foot-health symposia, and other social events for the hypochondriacally inclined.

Dr. Yohanna took questions that ranged from the painfully personal (Can losing a parent continue to affect a person for 50 years?) to the universal (Why is Prozac so popular?).

Then it was on to the main attraction, the individual meetings with those doctors standing by. I imagined them as game-show contestants, each sealed in an isolation booth, ready to stun viewers with their on-the-spot shrink savvy. For those awaiting audience, there was a film. It started with a shot of a gigantic bell forged from melted leg restraints, which was supposed to symbolize freedom for mentally ill people. It went on to a choppy montage of disturbingly close close-ups and testimonials about the torment of depression and the joys of medication. It was depressing.

I watched it three times, sinking lower into my form-fitting seat with each repetition. Finally, my number was called. I got Dr. Yohanna himself, who, after speed-scoring my test, informed me I had passed: certifiably not depressed. Still, I hadn't ranked perfectly serene either. Which annoyed me. True, in the spirit of the day, I had been trying for a certain modesty, a restraint of my joie de vivre. I mean, "I feel that I am useful and needed," sure, but wouldn't it verge on the flamboyantly self-involved to check "most or all of the time"? I had settled for "a good part of the time," which must be where they nabbed me. I also figured "Morning is when I feel the best" rated at least a "some of the time." After the bedside coffee routine, I didn't want to play the ingrate. But did that edge me toward the prescription threshold?

That's when I finally got it. The test, the film, and much of the literature had all been billed as "public services" from Eli Lilly, manufacturer of Prozac. Dr. Yohanna wrapped up our five minutes by handing me a referral form, just in case I needed a Northwestern Memorial Hospital Stone Institute of Psychiatry professional to discuss things with. I guess National Depression Day is just one more Hallmark holiday, designed to move product. Depressing.

I fled back to my car. Though I'd overshot the meter by an hour, my windshield had been spared an orange-envelope ambush. Things looked good.

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