15 June 2012

Depression: J.R. Ewing Edition

When we first see J.R. Ewing in the new Dallas, he's in a nearly catatonic state attributed to depression. He doesn't speak or even have a demonstrable reaction at all to anything said to him until later when John Ross tells him about finding oil on Southfork. That's enough to rouse him back into action. What I want to do in this post is take a look at the depiction of depression in the case of J.R. and what insights you, Dear Reader, might glean from the crafty oil baron.

We must go back to the original series to get a sense of J.R.'s history with depression. This is a guy whose whole life was dedicated to measuring up to is idealization of his father, Jock. Jock reinforced J.R.'s ambitions every step of the way, but it's difficult to say to what extent there may have been actual love between them. I refer to Robert Morgan, writing in Boone: A Biography (which I reviewed here):
"There is no more important milestone in a man's life than the death of his father. The death of the father may bring its own cloud of grief or regret, a sense of unfinished business, of questions that will forever go unanswered. A son feels alone in a particular way when his father dies. Suddenly he is on his own, and there may be a new sense of freedom, that whatever has to be done is up to him now. The rest of life opens before the son, and there is no one he has to answer to but himself and the future. And the future is all too short, though it is a sweeping vista of obligation. The death of a father is a time for reaching out, for stretching, moving ahead." - pp. 81-82
If we look back on Dallas, we see a growing schism between J.R. and everyone else in his life after Jock's death. He even comes to be at odds with the kindly Miss Ellie, trying even her patience and willingness to forgive at times. His quest for dominance as an oil man became his obsession, his only means of defining himself in a context where he could receive external validation and where he knew he was competitive enough to win it.

I've noted it previously, but it bears repeating. Depression doesn't burden you with all the things that are miserable in your life. It doesn't need to; you're already aware those things suck. No, depression is far more insidious than that. It takes the good things in your life and twists them in your mind so that they become bitter. This, I believe, is why J.R. fought with Sue Ellen (then later, Callie - not that anyone ever remembers their marriage) and everyone else who wanted to be around him. What J.R.'s depression thrived on most was the unshakable devotion of his brother, Bobby. Their rivalry has always been understood as having originated with Bobby not sharing J.R.'s ambitions but that's not it. Depression knows that J.R. will always have the acceptance and love of Bobby, no matter how much he does wrong, and depression doesn't want J.R. to take any comfort in that.

A healthy person would be grateful to have the kind of loyalty from their sibling Bobby offers J.R. A depressed person, however, becomes resentful. They feel inadequate and undeserving of that love. The depressed person will withdraw from it, trying to make it harder to be reached and shown that affection. The depressed person will become defensive, actively seeking to discourage that love and, at times, the depressed person will even try to hurt the other person in an attempt to make it stop.

Eventually, the other person has to decide whether to give up trying to reach their depressed love one. If they do, then it validates depression's insistence that the love could not have been trusted. If they don't, then it comes down to whether the depression can be reined in and properly managed. If so, then a healthy relationship can be resumed. Otherwise, it can become as destructive for the healthy loved one as it is for the depressed person. Most people don't have it in them to outlast that kind of emotional attrition.

When we think of J.R. Ewing, one of the first things that comes to mind is the time when all of America wanted to know "Who Shot J.R.?" Often forgotten, however, is the series' finale. J.R. had alienated everyone in his life from business partners to family. Alone at Southfork, he's approached by a man in his mirror offering him a sort of It's a Wonderful Life-style look at how differently the lives of others would have been without J.R. ever existing. Here's the final three minutes of the original series. Watch how J.R. is fixated not even on oil, but on being alone.

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For years, we were left to speculate whether J.R. had committed suicide. It would certainly have been in keeping with his battle with depression. After all, it's one thing to feel left out; it's another to actually be shown that everyone you love has actually had a worse life because you even existed. That's a tremendous amount of negative reinforcement, and it's more than enough to put someone over the top. In the TV movie, Dallas: J.R. Returns, we're told what happened when Bobby reached the top of the stairs. Note if you will the emphasis J.R. places on presenting himself as mentally stable again while still clinging to defining himself as Jock's heir.

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As we look to the current series, we see J.R. reemerge from his catatonic state of withdrawal at the promise of getting back into the oil game. It's not that J.R. was "bored" being out of the game, or that all he needed was something constructive to do or anything so trite. It's that this one arena is where his strengths have historically been allowed to shine, where he could find the external validation he needed to help offset his sense of inadequacy. I experienced that myself at Our Lady of Peace, when I rediscovered my own talent for speaking to, and for, other people and being helpful - useful - in that way.

J.R.'s application of his talents can actually be attributed to his depression, if we accept last year's findings by Clarkson University Psychology Professor Andreas K. Wilke. The study "suggests that people suffering with major depression may be more successful at persisting in and completing complex assignments that involve analytical thinking." The depressed mind is, by nature, sensitive to all matter of minutiae. If harnessed and directed to a purpose, it can be quite formidable. It's difficult to do, however, because depression is not interested in solving problems or contributing to society. Depression cares about isolating the patient and urging him or her to withdraw from anything positive.

Lastly, I don't think it's a coincidence that both J.R. Ewing and Tony Soprano - by far, the greatest characters of their ilk - both suffer from depression. Depression affects people of all walks of life, from poor people like me to One Percenters like J.R. Depression found easier prey in me, aided this most recent time by the duplicity of my own Crohn's infested body. For characters like J.R. and Tony, though, depression is more of a double-edge sword. It is their impetus, what drives them to conquer the world in a fruitless attempt to gain the approval they cannot give themselves. It is also what prevents them from ever being satisfied or happy, to the point they cannot truly enjoy any of their victories.

"What does he have to be depressed about?"

That's a commonly posed question, and to that I restate what I wrote in my original post, "On Depression" last year:

Depression is an internal problem, and it doesn't give a damn about your circumstances.
When you're depressed, there is no right job to have, no right lover to share a bed with, no right car to drive, no right home to live in, no right clothes to wear.  Whatever it is that it's in your life, it's insufficient to make a difference in how you feel about yourself or your life.  People who are happy assume that you just need to make some kind of exterior change, and happiness will follow.  It doesn't work that way.  You can change jobs, seek a new lover, trade in your car, move and change your entire wardrobe and still be just as depressed as you were before you altered a thing.  Plenty of rich people have talked about depression; money didn't help, and we're talking about people with the kind of money to change everything else about their lives on a whim.

I didn't write this post to further anyone's understanding of J.R. Ewing's psychological makeup. That's a matter for the writers of Dallas. Rather, I hope that by exploring what we have seen on screen of J.R. that perhaps this helps you, Dear Reader, get a different look at some of the ways that depression can affect people. TV commercials for anti-depressants would have you believe that everyone with depression sequesters themselves onto a couch in a dimly lit room and holds onto their legs. Not so. Sometimes, depressed people can not only continue to seemingly function but even "succeed" in life. This does not invalidate their innate sense of inadequacy, because depression will accept no accomplishments. What J.R. has seen - even if he hasn't allowed himself to understand it - is that, time and again, no victory ever fulfilled him. There was never enough money or prestige to allow him the kind of peace that Bobby has, because Bobby isn't depressed.