In high school, I spent Saturday afternoons in the public library, because I was awesomely neurotic even then, and loved the smell of books that had been read and handled by other people. I came home with all sorts of things, but at the moment, the book I remember is Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer.
When my mother saw the book, she said, angrily, “This does not make you my psychiatrist.” I didn’t think that it did, but I thought that maybe it could have been mine, although after my mother’s comment, I couldn’t even look at the book.
The other day in the bookstore, I came across a copy of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. I must have seen it a hundred times before, but in the way books find you when it’s the right time to read them, there it was. I finished the book last night, and it is covered in pencil marks.
The book is giant, an examination of the history and politics of depression, as well as treatments/alternatives, suicide, and the intersection of depression with gender, class and race, as well as Solomon’s accounts of his own breakdowns.
It’s both lovely and scary to have someone’s experiences clearly reflect your own patterns and thoughts, and yet, one of the most restorative moments of the book was Solomon’s assertion that everyone’s depression is different. As I read, I kept thinking, everyone in here is on more drugs than I am. Maybe I’m lucky? Maybe I’m not really depressed? Maybe I’m just lazy? (I am wondering if it’s a hallmark of depression in women that so many of us try so hard to subsume our symptoms and question if our suffering is real.)
In addition to what’s been going on with me lately, I can think of two specific instances when I knew I was crumbling, and both times I was committed to hiding it. The first was when I was eleven, which I only see in retrospect, of course, and the other was the year my mother died, when it came in waves. The people around me probably saw it, but I still felt like I couldn’t reveal the depth of my fear. It’s hard to understand it or explain it when it’s happening. There were a thousand times, and a thousand ways in which I could have asked for help, people who were waiting and willing, and yet when you’re in it, it’s impossible to see a way out, even when someone is offering it. The level of self absorption is outstanding, that’s one of nastiest parts.
My plan is to read a lot more about depression now, specifically in regard to women, while trying to get up above my brain and stay there. This will not be fun, or easy, and I anticipate failure, at least once, but maybe I’ll be able to apply something I’ve learned. The poet Jane Kenyon wrote about her emergence from a breakdown, how surprising and fragile the world seems now:
“….With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.”
Angie Harmon wants you to drink milk, you guys. You can put milk in lots of things, but you definitely should make sure you put it inside your children. “As moms, we try to make sure our kids eat right.” (Just moms try, though. Not fathers. Men have no instinct to keep their children alive.) Also-”giving my family what they need starts with me.” Really, Angie? Just with you? And when you say “family”, do you mean your kids and your husband, whom I suspect is old enough to get what he needs for himself?
Mirena is an intrauterine device that prevents pregnancy for up to 5 years. On one hand, yay, because it’s hard to remember to take the Pill every day and women need reliable birth control. On the other hand, the risks are just as potentially horrifying as with other hormonal birth control-breast cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy. (I spent an uncomfortable time on the Mirena drug website tonight.)
Mirena is for women who have had at least one child. There’s a line in one of the commercials-”…if your plans don’t include another baby..” What if my plans don’t include a baby at all? What do I do then? Am I doomed to using hormonal birth control until I’m no longer fertile (danger)? Is the answer to get my tubes tied? Maybe, but I refuse to believe that with all the fancy medical advances out there, we can’t come up with better options for women. Mirena also feels it is best if you are in a stable relationship, because that is totally relevant to whether or not you should be able to choose the best birth control for yourself.
In one version of the Mirena commercial is one of my favorite tropes regarding gender. It’s the one where Men Are Dumb and Will Kill Themselves and The Children and Burn Down the House If Left Alone For Five Minutes. Dad sits in the yard and eat snacks, not paying attention while the children run around hysterically in a sugar coma. Mom, in the meantime, is harried and frustrated, because she’s been out all day doing errands.You know, because that’s what women do.
Usually, there are two scenarios in which I return to therapy. The first is when things are absolutely intolerable and terrifying and I can’t take it anymore. The second is when I’m feeling self indulgent. The latter almost never happens, and so it’s under the former that I’ve picked it up again.
Every time I restart therapy, I wish I could just hand the new person a piece of paper listing everything that has contributed to the situation they are about to get themselves into. It would just help us get to it, but I suspect that rehashing it all is part of the process? Or something. I have so far had one session with the new therapist, who I’m going to refer to as T in this blog from now on, since“therapist” starts with T. (Clever, right? I know.)
In the first of what I expect will be many moments of working with T in which I am completely disarmed, she asked, “(When you were a kid), who took care of you?”
There are three possible answers to this question: The first is my mother and grandmother, the people who were my parents. The second is that I took care of myself, and the third is that no one took care of me. I want to believe that the first is true, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s more like number three.
What a thing to realize, and I have no idea what to do with it. In some ways, I already knew that I had had to take care of myself well before my mom died, before my grandmother died, and before I moved out to go to college. The striking part comes with having another adult articulate the truth to me, which is that while it might be possible for a kid to take care of themselves technically (as in, keeping myself alive), there are just some things that I couldn’t do. I couldn’t convince myself that it was going to be okay if I never had any evidence, if there was no one helping me to feel safe, no one to create and maintain an emotional safety net.
For a long time, I just accepted these realities, and in some ways, I still accept them. Maybe I think I deserve it. The point of therapy, I guess, is to help one get over these things, and in the meantime, learn to cope with how they’ve impacted life up until now and restore some power.
I am, of course, thinking about the role of feminism in the midst of all this. I’ve written before about how people love to explain away political opinions they don’t agree with by chalking them up to pathology-”your childhood was fucked up, so you make choices that are accordingly fucked up and extreme.” On the contrary, feminism is what taught me that I’m not insane. It made everything make sense, it gave me a context in which to believe that I can be my authentic self, that I can trust my own instincts, that I’m worthy of being not only powerful, but unapologetic.
I’m at a café in Brooklyn that is the setting, for a brief moment, of a short story I wrote three years ago:
“Leah and I run to Ozzie’s for coffee, and Grace Hartley is behind the counter, her blonde hair struggling out from under her purple kerchief. She smiles when she sees us. Grace is going to Stanford, but it doesn’t start until October. She gets to watch all her friends leave. She winks at me when she hands me a cup. Then she puts both her hands on top of the counter. Leah reaches out and touches her fingertips to hers.”
I wrote this story in a desperate frenzy, to get Leah and Grace and Adrien (the narrator) to see the light of day, and now it looks completely different. Leah is wider now, I’ve opened her more in the last few months than I was able (willing?) to in the five years since I started writing her. Grace is a grittier, sassier, Stanford drop-out with a dog.
Adrien has somehow managed to become my fictional nemesis. On the phone with D the other day, I said, “He’s kind of a jerk.” (My favorite moments are when I get to talk about them like they’re real to people other than me.) In defense of A, he’s just reacting badly to a situation that I’ve thrown him into, a situation I actually feel better about every day that it keeps making me write it.
I’m trying not to give everything away here, so I’ll just say that it’s occurred to me lately that, like most things, writing depends on adaptability. Putting any faith whatsoever in inertia is terrifying, but letting this die is worse.
Before a lot of other things could happen to me, I needed to live on the first floor of a large Victorian house in Jamaica Plain, MA, with three other Jews. There were four more Jews upstairs, and two cats, and some plants and books and for a while, cable. We moved into the house in August 2001, and I remember watching the news in the weeks after September 11th, but eventually, the cable disappeared, but not before I, like the rest of the world, had become completely saturated with the images.
I came to Boston after graduating college to spend the year as a Jewish Organizing Initiative Fellow, a program that empowers young Jewish leadership with organizing skills in order to build strong communities predicated on social and economic justice. There were twelve of us that year, some of us living in that Victorian house, some in other parts of the city, all working in community organizations and meeting once a week to meet and talk with members of the Boston Jewish community and as a fellowship, talk about justice, identity, privilege, power and what it meant to create and live in a pluralistic Jewish space.
As soon as I learned about JOI, I knew it was the only thing I could see myself doing when I graduated. I needed a Jewish community,a self reflective, imaginative one grounded in progressive values, where, as a Jew and an activist, I could push at my edges. My year with JOI taught me that not only could I be an organizer (a new and terrifying concept to me), but I could use the best parts of myself to do it. In many ways, I am the person I am now because of JOI, which challenged me in my work, my feminism, my allyship and my idea of myself as a Jew. It was long, hard, honest year, of impact and reward and movement.
In short: If you’re between the ages of 21 and 30, eligible to work in the US, frustrated, hopeful, committed to change-making, and identify as Jewish, apply to JOI. The application deadline is March 18th, and you can find everything you need to know at www.jewishorganizing.org.
Two new pieces from me this week:
At the Sisterhood: on women’s visibility in the Jewish world and what’s behind it.