Update: I wrote this essay two years ago. It's full of "place"--places I've lived, places I've felt depressed, places I've felt better. What I've learned is that "where" doesn't matter--depression is an illness that doesn't really care about geography. Right now I'm back in New England--the first photo shows a favorite bench, where I looked over the Atlantic Ocean and thought about this p.s. to the original piece and the reasons I wrote it. Here goes:
I'd felt my readers missed me--I had stopped blogging and posting on social media, but I sometimes read the messages, and I felt people's love and concern. So I wrote about what was going on, briefly published the essay here on my website, and then took it down. During the short time it was up, I received a lot of mail from people: some expressed worry about me, and others confided that they too had suffered depression. I was humbled to receive such outpourings from people I knew and loved and from total strangers.
Here is one thing I want you to know: I am better. Much better. The depression has lifted--maybe not forever, I've had it long enough to know that it stays around, often at a low level--but time has passed since I've felt the worst darkness. My first young adult novel was just published by Scholastic, and I'm having fun meeting young readers and introducing my long-time readers to YA. I still miss Maggie and Mae-Mae. Maisie is now 17, she's as feisty as ever, and she enjoys being with Emelina and Tim--especially Tim.
Another thing I want you to know: if you feel depressed, it's real. It's not a decision you make--"Oh, I think I'll just stay in bed today because I can't seem to move and my limbs seem full of sand and my eyes keep leaking tears." It's an illness, like diabetes, and it affects people of all ages, from all walks of life. I hope you can get help, as I have. Help is out there. Please look for it, ask for it. I want you to get better.
WHERE I’VE BEEN
I was someone who blogged every day, who embraced Facebook quickly and whole-heartedly, but I've been quiet in those online places lately, and I thought I'd tell you a little about where I've been. I got depressed. Isn't that a strange sentence? "I got depressed," just the way someone would say, "I got seasick." Or "I got dressed." An illness, a state of affairs, a gigantic event came to me, landed on my head, squashed me. That was the effect, but at the time it was neither stark nor sudden.
It happened over time.
I can't even say, for certain, the precise moment it began. I know I was in California, in my pretty house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had moved there, after a lifetime on the East Coast, for reasons having to do with work, inspiration, nature, and the desire, at this stage of my life, to have an adventure. I saw myself learning to surf. I would definitely hike. I would write nonfiction along with my novels.
My cats and I headed west and moved in. The girls—Maggie, Mae-Mae, and Maisie—were sixteen, fifteen, and twelve. We had been together through everything from the death of my mother to the world's worst divorce, numerous book publications, the heartbreaking end to a long relationship with a wonderful publishing house, and a sea change of my outward life.
Maybe those big losses had caused me to seek even greater solitude, developing a strange aversion to being out after dark, to getting together with friends, so that I was hurting people's feelings by declining all invitations, so that I was most comfortable living at my desk, in the world of my characters. My cats were my family. They sat on my desk, made me laugh, soothed my tears.
We loved New York, had lived there, in Chelsea, for a long time. New York may be the perfect place for a particular kind of recluse—one who needs solitude to write and think, but who requires human connection that doesn't demand, necessitate, or even expect any commitment in return. Hello to the doorman, good morning to the super next door, black coffee thank you to the waiter at the diner, an hour with my beloved therapist, who knows me better than anyone and has since I was in my twenties. Then back home, upstairs to the apartment, to the cats and the characters.
The move to California came after several years of trips to Santa Monica. I had month-long stays in a favorite hotel without the cats, visits with great friends, one particular friendship so deep it felt like family. There was all that sunshine, the ocean, hikes in the canyons, and bougainvillea everywhere.
Nature, more than anything, pulled me. I am a person of more contradictions than consistencies, and one of them is that nothing sustains me more than nature, yet I have been an urban dweller for my entire adult life. When I was in California, I felt if not precisely happy, a different level of okay. I began to think this could be possible: a change, a big one.
I'd dealt with depression for a long time. It started in grade school where I would regularly miss over half of the school year's 180 days. We didn't know what to call it, but I know I was constantly on the edge of crying, and it gave me a sore throat. My father drank and sometimes didn't come home at night, and I'd kneel at the window as a sort of penance--I'm not sure for what--my bare knees hurting on the oak floor. When you're seven, or nine, or thirteen, and your prayers never come true, depression seems to find easy ways in.
I left my body when bad things happened or when I got too sad. Time would pass and I wouldn't remember what I did, what happened. I'd be wide awake, but then I'd wake up, as if I'd been asleep, as if life was a dream. I thought of it as "going away," and sometimes when I went away I became Blue or Leda, different names for the other girls inside me, the ones better able to cope with the pain, the sadness. Blue could fly and read other people's minds. Leda was feral and protective and wouldn't let anyone hurt me or get too close.
I had bad episodes of depression in college. I couldn't make myself go to classes, and I dropped out two years in a row. I never did graduate. When my father was dying I walked to the top of the Newport Bridge, planning to jump off, but a police car picked me up and dropped me at the base of the bridge, and the officer told me it wasn't safe to walk on it at night. He seemed to have no idea he'd stopped a suicide. Maybe the tears on my face hadn't been enough of a clue. All I know was I hadn't had the strength to walk up again--so he did save my life.
More recent depressions and a bad spell of dissociation landed me on Proctor 2, a trauma unit at McLean Hospital, in Belmont Massachusetts. The hospital is a haven, the staff are angels. They listened to me and nurtured me and made me strong enough to face life again.
But this particular depression, at least in the beginning, was different--it was more like sadness. Not incapacitating like the others, not filling me with the feeling that to end my life would be the best solution, just an ongoing heaviness in my heart, and I thought maybe California, a place that was very far from the pain, could take it away.
And for a while it did. After moving into my new house I worked on a novel. Writing has always been everything to me—a self-contained world at the desk, a life of words and dreams. I distinguish between writing and publishing. What happens after the work is handed in is another thing entirely; I know I have been very lucky.
California was three thousand miles from my sister and nieces, with whom I am very close. I wrote, of course, because that is what I do. One thing very different from New York City was that seeing people took effort. I had to get into my car for everything; it was more self-contained. Encounters felt more pointed, not just the casual hellos to the doorman and gallery owners and strangers on the street.
I saw my friends, but things were different now that I lived there. Perhaps a visit to California was safer in its closed-endedness. Residing there meant we could get together anytime, so our meetings were not so charged, special, imbued with the sense that I'd be leaving soon. We didn't make the same effort to see each other.
Craving solitude is a familiar state for me. I need to be alone like I need air. Waking up, I have a talismanic need not to speak out loud before writing. The Internet has required careful navigation: is email a conversation? If so, I can't do it before I write. I hold on to my dreams of the night before and let them carry me into the day's fiction. Whether I remember the details or not, just the feeling, the mood, the images of the dreams take me where I need to go. People get in the way of that. Cats don't. But being alone too much works against writing; a feeling of loneliness must be balanced, carefully, so it doesn't start to chip away, doesn't start to carve me up into someone who doesn't matter to others. Doesn't matter to myself. Doesn't matter at all.
Some northeasterners think there are no seasons in Southern California, but are. They are subtle, however. Over my two years there I watched the canyon turn golden in September, green in March. I heard the tree frogs start up in January. I saw the California gray whales migrate south in November, north—with calves—starting in February. I saw the bougainvillea in my yard bloom, then die. And the lemon trees bore flowers, then fruit. The cycle repeated.
The cats had always lived indoors. I never wanted them to get lost or hunted, and I didn't want them to kill birds. In California we had a garden, but small enough so I could see all four corners at once. I began to let the girls—my cats were all female—outside, one at a time.
Maggie was ancient and slow. We would sit on the enormous settee on the deck overlooking the canyon and ocean. It was covered with canvas the color of the ocean, and I called it "the blue thing." I would read, and she would sit still beside me and follow hawks and butterflies with her hunter's turquoise eyes. I never wanted to say one cat was my favorite, but she was mine. When she was a kitten she used to sleep on my chest; I would stay awake as long as I could, waiting to hear her purr. But she was feral, and she never learned that skill.
One day she began to die. She had lymphoma—the same disease that both my parents died from. I wanted to hold on to her forever. Knowing that that was impossible, understanding that all things must pass, that life is a circle, had no bearing on my emotions—I may have ascribed to those truths consciously, but inside I was about to start breaking apart. Maggie's death left me unhinged.
That spring Mae-Mae died—also of lymphoma. I buried her in the garden next to Maggie. One Saturday at dawn I drove down to the desert and volunteered with a group that supplies water to save the lives of border crossers. Laura, one of the founders, showed me a cross marking the spot where a woman had died of thirst. She showed me the note an anonymous person had left at one of the water barrels: “This water saved my life. God Bless. Sincerely, Lost."
After five hours in 105-degree heat, in a brutal landscape that stretches with nothing but rocks and dirt as far as the eye can see, I passed out from heat stroke and, I think, the shock of seeing that cross and realizing how impossible it seemed that anyone could live through it.
Once I hit the road I realized I couldn't safely drive myself home. I was shocked and sick at the closeness of death in the desert, at that level of human suffering. I checked into a hotel near San Diego. I made it home the next day. After that, depression took hold. Not just feeling sad anymore, not simply feeling a little too lonely: this was the real thing, the same depression I'd had as a child and later and that had landed me in the hospital. It was sickness. I felt despair—those words don't even cover it, though. I tasted chemicals—they were so strong, running through my bloodstream, I felt them in my brain, in my fingertips. I felt them in my heart.
Life was too hard. Love remained, but the beings, the objects of my love, were gone. They were dead. Had the move west been too much for my old cats? Had it been too much for me? Had I brought all of this on? I began to feel I had killed my two oldest girls. People died in the desert, looking for a better life. People died of thirst. I went crazy.
I was raised Catholic but left that religion a long time ago. When the Dalai Lama comes to New York I attend his talks and listen to his wisdom about impermanence and letting go. Sharon Salzberg's work on mindfulness and compassion has been inspiring. But when depression hit, none of the teaching, none of the time I've spent sitting, breathing, watching my discursive thoughts, noticing my grasping thoughts, allowing them to pass through my mind like clouds across the blue sky, helped.
I began to think of suicide again. I was planning. I researched ways to get Nembutal; I found a link for a place to go to in Mexico where I could obtain the medication that is no longer available here. Living on the Pacific coast, I had plenty of places in mind where I could go after dark—take the drugs and just disappear into a canyon. What stopped me was thinking of who might have to find me. And what it would do to my family. Being stuck in that place, wanting the pain to end but being unable to act, tormented me.
My writing stopped. That's like saying my breathing stopped. I pulled back from everyone even more than I had before. No more posting photos of cats and my garden on Facebook, no more writing a daily blog.
My longtime therapist saved me--as she's done before. Together we made a plan for me and Maisie to come home to New York, to the apartment that has been refuge for so many years. It felt empty—no Maggie, no Mae-Mae. I found tufts of those old girls' fur snagged on bookcases; a blue yarn octopus toy; a catnip apple; and all their favorite cans of food—each cat liked different flavors.
I resisted medication. In college a psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, put me on high doses of amitriptyline. After one more recent hospitalization I was on a high-dose brew of Zoloft, Seroquel, Ativan, Remeron, and others. I have trouble sleeping, and those medications definitely put me to sleep. The thing was, they didn't stop depression. They might have dulled it, I'm not sure. I could feel it moving around like parasites under my skin. I felt encased—as if I was wearing pantyhose over my spirit. I hated the feeling, so I went off the meds cold turkey, without medical help, and went into the worst withdrawal imaginable. So I went back on some of them and stepped down, slowly. Eventually I found one that worked, and I still take it today.
I don't like to do things slowly, but sometimes I've had to. I want it all, all at once, forever and ever. Getting well has been like that. One step forward, one step back. Or is it two steps forward, one step back? I'm not sure. I just know I'm moving along, here in New York, writing and writing and writing. Writing came back right away. Sharing, being open, has been slower.
Some of my closest friends live states away. One, the writer Joe Monninger, tells me about his dog Laika. We talk about writing and life—mine in New York, his in New Hampshire. He is a fly fisherman, and loves nature the way I do. When he sees a flock of cedar waxwings on his crabapple tree, he lets me know. My sister Maureen calls me from Connecticut every night at six. Every night. I love her for that, and for everything.
My solitude is intact. It's not loneliness. Maisie is still with me. We have adopted two kittens, Tim and Emelina. It took a while for her to stop hissing and accept them, but they loved her from the beginning, and I can see that love has changed her. Later today I will take a break from writing and go downstairs to check the mail, and I'll step out for a coffee.
I'll look up at the blue sky. I can see it now, again.