By Carl Blumenthal
A Memoir of Depression and Recovery by the Book
“Depression is a double whammy. Negative thoughts and feelings flood in. The positive dissolves in a sea of self-doubt.” During my depression from 2006 through 2011, including two suicide attempts, two hospitalizations, and two years in day treatment, I tried to cope by withdrawing from the world: quitting my job as a peer counselor, ceasing hobbies and volunteer work, avoiding friends, and limiting contact with family, except my wife, Susan.
Most painful of all, I suspended my part-time career as an arts critic. Penning hundreds of articles about writers, painters, dancers, musicians, photographers, and film-makers, I earned respect because unlike most critics I didn’t suck the life out of my subjects. Now writer’s block prevented me from living—vicariously.
My world shrank to the living room couch where lying down was the most comfortable and comforting position, both during the day while I listened to the radio and at night when I retreated farther—into sleep and dreams. It was like clinging to a raft of calm on an ocean of bad thoughts and feelings.
I maintained this fetal-like pose by avoiding as much stress as possible because undertaking the simplest task made me feel as if I suffered from a permanent case of indecision. Thus hygiene went down the drain even though I didn’t shower. Determining what to eat and how to prepare it required an appetite I lacked. And household chores seemed like opportunities to malfunction.
If my living room couch resembled a raft in a storm, I also tried to batten down all hatches to the outside world. I only left our apartment to get the mail before other tenants arose in the morning. Then I would throw away most letters from family and friends. I dreaded checking my email and browsing the Internet for fear I would have to respond to demands on my attention.
I let Susan answer the phone so she could say I wasn’t available. She shopped, cleaned the apartment, washed our clothes, did the banking, paid bills, and generally interceded on my behalf whenever the world seemed too oppressive. She took everything in stride just as she had raised her younger sister and brothers when their parents weren’t around.
If the psychologist at day treatment hadn’t been a book lover, I might never have started reading again. With the lending of a novel to me she overcame my resistance to the written word. Fiction proved too real, too raw, but non-fiction books on nature and history represented safe ground at first and room for growth later.
I also consumed a heavy dose of biographies about such heroes as the existential novelist Albert Camus; the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange; Beat poet Allen Ginsburg; radical folksinger Woody Guthrie; Thomas Paine, pamphleteer of the American Revolution; and the Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson.
In March of 2011, I was inspired by Jane Campion’s film, “An Angel at My Table.” It is based on the autobiography of Janet Frame, who survived years at mental institutions in the 1950s, enduring more than 200 electroshock treatments (ECT). She became New Zealand’s most acclaimed author of the 20th century.
My outpatient social worker challenged me to write about the movie. Despite my low expectations, I returned to her the following week with 40 pages of an incomplete essay, “Saved by Imagination.”
How I got carried away was as much of a miracle as Janet Frame’s recovery. Even when not pinned to a stretcher for ECT, Frame, like me, spent most of her time prone to despair. Cowering in bed on the verge of being carted away for a lobotomy, she is greeted by the asylum’s director with the news of her release because she has won a literary prize. As if escaping a firing squad she’s bundled into a taxi for the ride home.
Thanks to Janet Frame’s example, I had cracked a five-year writer’s block. She was the medium for the message to me that “recovery is possible.” With this weight lifted, I returned to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the newspaper for which I covered the arts. Since then I’ve been able to round out my life by doing the following:
relying on writing and other passions as if my life depended on them;
seeking help from peers who understand my struggles;
finding love in the advice of family and friends;
accepting that how well I do at work isn’t a criterion for manhood;
engaging in politics as a form of community responsibility;
volunteering as a way of counting my blessings; and generally
putting one step in front of the other as Elizabeth Swados recommends in My Depression: A Picture Book.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay to appear in the book Coming Out Proud published by the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, Chicago, 2015.