Leonard Cohen’s List Of Pharmaceuticals Joke & His Not At All Funny Depression

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The Leonard Cohen 2008-2009 World Tour Official Script

Those who have attended a Leonard Cohen Concert over the past year, checked out videos of those concerts, or read Heck Of A Guy posts referring to Cohen’s just a kid with a crazy dream … cheerfulness kept breaking through monologue may recall the portion of Cohen’s spiel that goes something like this:

I was 60 years old—just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Ritalin, … I’ve also studied the religions and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.

The opening moments of this video from the July 17, 2008 London concert is representative:

It appears, from my reading, that feature stories about Leonard Cohen in newspapers and blogs published during the World Tour have almost universally covered his Zen Buddhist experience and his Jewish background; consequently, most audience members readily grasp the references to religions and philosophies.

The significance of the list of pharmaceuticals, however, may be less apparent because that part of Cohen’s history seems, with notable exceptions,  less frequently mentioned in those recent articles.

Clearly, someone should do something. But who and how?

That’s right – this calls for a  Heck Of A Guy public service announcement.

Leonard Cohen, Depression, Medications, and Noncompliance

By the 1950s, Cohen, then in his late teens, was experiencing signs and symptoms of depression,1  a disorder from  which his mother  also suffered.2

Cohen describes his despondency in A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott:3

“My depression, so bleak and anguished, was just crucial, and I couldn’t shake it; it wouldn’t go away,” he says, looking back at that time from his suite in the Vogue. “I didn’t know what it was. I was ashamed of it, because it would be there even when things were good, and I would be saying to myself, ‘Really, what have you got to complain about?’ But for people who suffer from acute clinical depression, it is quite irrelevant what the circumstances of your life are.”

He provides more details in a 1997 radio interview:4

Well, for me personally, depression has been an issue with me for the whole of my life and I’ve tried, like everybody else, various ways of dealing with that depression. You know, drugs, women, art, religion… you try everything … . Well, you know, there’s depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I’ve a hangover for the weekend… the girl didn’t show up or something like that, it isn’t that. I’m trying to describe clinically like an acute depression. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit.”

Like many who have suffered from severe depression, Cohen has been critical of the too common error of re-labeling transient unhappiness as clinical depression:

The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that a catastrophe has occurred in the psychic landscape.5

I should note that one reason for my interest in Cohen’s medical treatment for his depression and his reaction to that therapy is my professional interest in treatment adherence, especially for psychiatric disorders.  I posted Leonard Cohen and Noncompliance With Antidepressants on AlignMap, my professional blog, two years ago.

In this interview,6 he discusses, with his characteristic candor and dark humor, his course of treatment and his decision to unilaterally discontinue these medications:
[Leonard Cohen] “… I was taking things like Prozac for depression, but none of those antidepressants worked.”

[Interviewer] “Which have you tried?”

[Leonard Cohen] “Oh, let’s see. I was involved in early medication, like Desipramine. And the MAOs [monoamine oxidase inhibitors], and the new generation — Paxil, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin. I even tried experimental anti-seizure drugs, ones that had some small successes in treating depression. I was told they all give you a ‘bottom,’ a floor beneath which you are not expected to plunge.”

[Interviewer] “And?”

[Leonard Cohen] “I plunged. And all were disagreeable, in subtly different ways.”

[Interviewer] “How?”

[Leonard Cohen] “Well, on Prozac, I thought I had attained some kind of higher plateau because my interest in women had dissolved.” He laughs. “Then I realized it was just a side effect. That stuff crushes your libido.”

[Leonard Cohen] “… So one day, a few years ago, I was in a car, on my way to the airport. I was really, really low, on many medications, and pulled over, I reached behind to my valise, took out the pills, and threw out all the drugs I had. I said, ‘These things really don’t even begin to confront my predicament.” I figured, If I am going to go down I would rather go down with my eyes wide open.”

Leonard Cohen’s Depression Ends

Cohen’s depression lifted spontaneously in the 1999. This description of the dissipation of his clinical syndrome from  a 2001 Observer interview with Nick Paton Walsh7  is compelling and also congruent with reports I’ve received from many patients whose depressions have subsided:

But two years ago [1999], for no apparent reason, the veil of depression lifted. For the first time in his life, Cohen sighed, looked out on the world and felt at peace with it.

‘There was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street. I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, “Gee, that’s pretty.”

‘I said to myself, “Wow, this must be like everybody feels.” Life became not easier but simpler. The backdrop of self-analysis I had lived with disappeared. It’s like that joke: “When you’re hitting your head against a brick wall, it feels good when it stops”.’

It was a remarkably late epiphany. Cohen had spent the past 50 years ploughing his way through drugs, drink, countless women and several religions in an attempt to find release from this ‘backdrop’ of self-doubt. But the cure was more simple – he learned to ignore himself.

‘When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. It happened to me by imperceptible degrees and I could not really believe it; I could not really claim it for some time. I thought there must be something wrong. It’s like taking a drink of cold water when you are thirsty. Every tastebud on your tongue, every molecule in your body says thank you.’

50 Years Of Depression – 10 Years Of Common Unhappiness8

So, that’s the story – Leonard Cohen endured  a devastating clinical depression that persisted 40-50 years, proving resistant to a wide variety of appropriate medications, and that spontaneously remitted 10 years ago.

I suppose, on considering that history, that he’s earned the right to tell that I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Ritalin, … joke as often as he likes.

  1. Other sources argue, less convincingly, that Cohen’s depression was in evidence since age nine, apparently confusing a possible contributing cause of depression, the death of Cohen’s father that year, with the onset of the disorder itself. []
  2. Nadel, Ira Bruce.  Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2007. p 48 []
  3. A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott Saturday Night, Canada. September 15, 2001 []
  4. Synergie With Jean-Luc Esse And Leonard Cohen, France- Inter, October 6, 1997.  Translated From French By Nick Halliwell, UK []
  5. International Herald Tribune. Paris, 4 November 1968 []
  6. A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott, Saturday Night, Canada. September 15, 2001 []
  7. I Never Discuss My Mistresses Or My Tailors by Nick Paton Walsh. The Observer, October 14, 2001 []
  8. OK, I slipped in a psychiatric reference; Freud saw  the replacement of “neurotic suffering” by “common unhappiness” as the sign of a successful psychoanalytic treatment []

0 Responses to Leonard Cohen’s List Of Pharmaceuticals Joke & His Not At All Funny Depression

  1. Puddingdale

    You really should consider becoming LC’s biographer. I mean it.

  2. Puddingdale

    Why colloquial? (hehe) ;) Send him over and I will advise him personally that you would surely do a better job than anyone has so far. And that lots of people would want a copy (you got quite a fanbase :)). I can be very convincing and manipulative (teacher, you know *rofl*).
    Anyway, why not give it a go if you are interested? Aren’t you?

    • Shucks, you’ll make me blush. Alas, if you check the Tower of Song, you’ll find a long line of supplicants for the biographer position, many of whom have the unfair advantage of possessing qualifications for the job. I suspect that, malcontent that I am, I will continue to labor in the vineyards of the Cohen, making do with the sporadic glimpse of the estate holder. (To be fair, I don’t know that I could make a case for myself – without smirking – as biographer based, for example, on my revelation that the frozen love imagery in “Who loved you with his frozen love./His second hand physique” evolved from his fondness for Popsicles, photographic evidence notwithstanding.) You are, nonetheless, an altogether swell fellow for daring to voice (keyboard just doesn’t scan there , does it?) such a notion.

  3. Puddingdale

    Sure it is a honourable position many a bug in his vineyard would like to have. Being a mere tramp stealing grapes there myself, I will probably not even be worth any further glimpse of the estate holder ever and thus am not in the position to suggest anything ;)
    Yet, I can assure you your somewhat unusual revelations (Popsicles etc.) would only go well with the master’s own good humour and could surely be included in your second book: “The Alternative Biography of LC. True or false? – Make up your own mind.” ;)
    Anyway, get in line with the supplicants, good doctor. What have you got to lose? After all, Leonard had no qualifications for his job as singer either, did he?
    *munching grapes*