When I was younger, I thought the average memoirist must have it easy. After all, her only duty was to report what had already happened, and how hard could that be? I certainly didn’t imagine that writing my own life story would put me into such intimate contact with the ghosts of my past that I’d shrink from the sunlight each day, haunted by memories I couldn’t control.
My memoir, “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom,” recounts the development (and subsequent successful treatment) of my panic disorder, agoraphobia and depression. I still dealt with these issues after the crisis point of my early twenties, but I learned to manage the situation with medication and therapy, and my mental illness flared up less and less as I got older. Eventually, I began to talk about it.
I had a lot of stories to tell—like the time in high school when a panic attack landed me in an emergency room in Sicily, or the time in college when my mother extracted me from my filthy apartment and brought me home to heal. I started writing my stories down and talking about them on stage (I’m also a stand-up comedian). And eventually, with the help of a sorcerer-like agent, I got a book deal.
I was happy. I felt great! I felt so great, in fact, that I decided to stop taking medication. After all, if I’d reached the point where I could write about my experiences with mental illness nearly a decade prior, I must be cured, right? I hadn’t suffered from much anxiety or depression for many years. I’d even convinced someone to pay me to tell my story. That must mean I wasn’t crazy anymore.
Then it was time to write the damn thing.
That’s when the crying began—well, it began fairly close to when I first started excavating all the dark stuff that ended up in my final manuscript. I’m not talking about wee trickles of tears once in a while. I’m talking about great gushing floods of emotion welling up from unfamiliar places. I started sobbing at work in the bathroom, and then at my desk. I began to withdraw into myself and avoid the company of friends. And then the suicidal thoughts started up again, after nearly ten years of hibernation. That’s when I knew it was time to go home to my family.
In a way, I felt as if I were reliving my memoir. Once again, I was back at home with my parents and brother. Once again, my mom took me to regular therapy visits. Once again, I got used to taking medication. Once again, I missed out on time with friends. But this time, I was neck-deep in final edits to my manuscript.
As they had ten years prior, the suicidal thoughts recurred again and again without warning in otherwise lovely circumstances—out on a country drive, hiking near a river, watching TV with my family. I found that they were worse in the morning and generally subsided by evening. But the medication didn’t wash them or the depression away quickly, and so I spent two months living with my family, doing my best to go about the daily business of being a human—and a writer—without succumbing to a very dark temptation.
I suppose there are some advantages to going through a suicidal depression while writing about a suicidal depression—it lends the work a ring of authenticity, and brushes away the cobwebs of memory to put you squarely back in the place of your depressed main character (yourself).
But it also tends to eliminate all your illusions about the glamour and sex appeal of being a writer. There’s nothing remotely romantic about the real work of writing. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s often horribly dull. If you’re writing while depressed, chances are you’re either overeating and getting fat or under-eating and getting ugly-skinny—pale and bony and wraithlike. Not to mention the fact that you’re developing a hunchback from leaning over a computer all day, and you’ve probably taken to wearing the same pair of sweatpants over and over. I wasn’t exactly Emily Dickinson mooning about the estate in charming white frocks.
By the time I felt steady enough in my mental health to move back to my own apartment, I had finished the book. I wasn’t happy, exactly, and I certainly wasn’t cured, but the medication had kicked in and therapy had reminded me of a few cardinal rules of living with depression: 1.) Eat properly. 2.) Sleep properly. 3.) Take your pills properly. 4.) Repeat as necessary (which means daily, for the rest of your life.)
And now, as I prepare for the book to come out on Valentine’s Day, I find myself far more subdued than I would’ve anticipated. Oh, I’m excited about it, and proud. It’s work that I think will resonate with folks who’ve experienced depression and with folks who have friends who’ve gone through it. And it’s funny, too. But since last summer, when I stared back into that old familiar abyss, I haven’t been as inclined to go off on flights of joy for fear that they’ll result in their inverse, those steep drops into darkness. I move more carefully now.
So I wait, and I breathe slowly, and I delight in writing a second book, my first novel. It’s full of characters who have nothing to do with my past, and I can make them suffer or rejoice as I please. It’s wonderful! I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I actually look forward to the rest of the process.
And this time? I’m staying on the damn medication.