Tuesday, May 05, 2015

L. M. Montgomery and My Truth about Depression

A lot has been written and posted and discussed about mental illness over the last few years, at least in my little circle of the world. To some extent, a lot of the openness was sparked by fellow writer and friend Robison Wells being public with his battle with several mental illnesses.

Then came the Altered Perspectives anthology, spearheaded by Brandon Sanderson and Robison's brother, Dan Wells, to help raise funds that would aid the Wells family, who were struggling financially due to no fault of their own.

I was honored to be able to be part of the anthology (my name is listed first on the back, which is cool, but that's only because the names are in alphabetical order). In the book, readers can find a brief glimpse into how mental illness has been part of my life, followed by an excerpt from a novel that will be coming out later this year. Writing that tidbit about mental illness turned out to be hard for me, not because of the topic, but because of the space constraints.

I've long wanted to talk about my experience with depression, specifically because it's so different from what people typically envision depression to look like. It's different from how a lot of other fellow depression sufferers describe it. Yet I know that I'm not the only person who experiences depression the way I do, so I hope I can show and explain in a way that helps with understanding.

I think I finally found a way to explain: by telling about the author who has had the single biggest influence on me and her personal, lifelong struggle with depression.

As long-time readers know, I'm a bit of an L. M. Montgomery nut. I own every book she ever wrote, collections of her hundreds of short stories, all five volumes of her annotated journals, her autobiography, a CD filled with photographs from her life, a first edition Windy Poplars, and more. But I'm not an Anne nut, something I wrote about a long time ago (see that last link). Rather, I've admired and connected with the author from the first day I opened one of her books back when I was thirteen.

Now that I've read her journals, however, I connect with her on a different level, and a lot of that has to do with her mental and emotional inner life.

What a lot of her fans don't know—and what many would be shocked to learn, considering how happy her books are—is that she fought deep depression and an anxiety disorder.

Yet to look at her during her lifetime, you never would have known. She put on a happy face. She went out in public and did her duties and acted the part everyone expected of her. She played the gracious guest. Then she'd go home and collapse. She'd walk the floor all night, unable to sleep. She'd wish for death. She had more than one nervous breakdown.

To make matters even more challenging, her husband, Ewen Macdonald, had mental illness too. He certainly had some kind of depression—religious melancholia, they called it at the time, as he was convinced that he was predestined to go to hell. He was a minister, which made this belief and his attacks that much worse. Some theorize that he had some type of bipolar disorder in addition to depression. Whatever it was, the medical community back then did not have the ability to diagnose or treat it.

Keep in mind that Ewen Macdonald was a minister. His salary was paid and his position retained only if his congregation remained happy with the performance of his duties. And that meant the congregation's belief that their leader was strong and stable. If they ever learned that he was really a complete wreck, that he was mentally and emotionally unstable and therefore unable to help others through their spiritual journeys because he thought he was personally going to hell? Well, the congregation would simply have found another minister.

That would have spelled the end of his career.

Quite literally, to keep her husband's career alive, LMM, as the minister's wife, had to cover for him and pretend that all was well. No matter how miserable she was, she had to go out to community and church events, looking chipper and acting strong and everything she didn't feel while Ewen stayed home with a handkerchief tied around his head due to a headache brought on by his mental misery. There he sat in a corner, wailing. From her journals, it sounds like most of his public appearances during bad spells were Sunday sermons. His wife took care of the rest, protecting him from prying eyes that would have destroyed the family's reputation.

LMM couldn't confide in anyone, or the secret would get out. Yet she was utterly miserable for years on end. Her anxiety and depression worsened and ate at her, yet she had to keep playing the role of the perfect minister's wife.

Her writing was the one escape she had from the bitter realities of her life and her own mental illnesses.

And no one around her had a clue. 

Things got worse for her. Ewen's episodes grew longer, deeper, and more frequent. He eventually ended up spending time in a mental hospital (during which, if memory serves, LMM made up excuses as to where he was). Eventually, he could no longer function as a minister at all. His career was over.

At that point, LMM was world famous, and for a spell, she was able to support the household with her own income. But then the Great Depression hit. When people can hardly buy food, they certainly aren't spending money on books, so in spite of her fame, her income plummeted. As the sole breadwinner, and with far less income than ever, she struggled to make ends meet. She had other problems as well, some due to the painful choices of her son Chester. And Ewen continued to get worse.

Yet she had to keep going. So she did. I'm sure that she would have preferred to sit in a corner and wail like Ewen did. But that wasn't an option for her. Someone had to keep moving, paying the bills, being a parent, and attending to her career as best she could. If she didn't keep stepping up, everything would fall apart for her, her husband, and their sons.

Eventually, in the spring of 1942, she reached her limit and fell apart one last time. So much weighed on her, and I'm sure that World War II was part of her stress, as World War I troubled and worried her deeply. In April of that year, she died, quite possibly after deliberately taking an overdose of medication. Whether it was deliberate or not, the note found on her nightstand is revealing:
I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
I can't help but see the juxtaposition between such utter misery and despair in someone outwardly functional and apparently happy (and famous!). I'll repeat the most telling sentence, with some important emphasis:
My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it.
I bring all of this up to show that depression doesn't necessarily mean that the sufferer is lying in bed all day, unable to get up. It doesn't mean that the person sits on the couch for weeks at a time, watching television but unable to do the dishes while life passes them by.

Depression can mean all of those things. I know people for whom that is their depression experience. And it tends to be the image most people have in their heads when they picture depression. They never think that the woman over there who is showered and dressed and behaving professionally and talking animatedly could be suicidal.

Many years ago, Oprah interviewed an actress who talked about a major bout of depression. In her case, she couldn't get out of bed except for work. She went to work, did her job (acting the role of not depressed on set, even off camera), and then she went home and back to bed as soon as she could.

Oprah was confused. She asked how, if this actress had really been so depressed, she could even get out of bed to go to work. As an interviewer, Oprah usually showed a lot of insight, but in that moment, she revealed a big blind spot. I knew firsthand what she didn't grasp at all: functional depression is dark and ugly and powerful, and it's real. That actress had to go to work. She had to. So she did. That didn't mean she didn't also suffer terribly.

Functional depression is my experience too. Some people consider functional depression to be "low-grade" depression, but I can tell you with no uncertainty that it can be every bit as brutal and devastating as other kinds. (Low-grade nothing; don't get me started.)

The truth is that I have battled depression in some form most of my life. Yet I get out of bed in the morning. Not because I'm not depressed, but because I have to get up; my children are counting on it. I shower and get dressed and go out into public when needed, and I act as if all is well. Because I have to.

(It's not always an act, but I'd bet money on times when I've been in a very, very black place, that most people have been quite sure I was totally fine and happy.)

Here's the truth: Wearing mascara doesn't mean I'm not depressed. My kids are fed and get to school on time (okay, most mornings), and they wear clean clothes. None of that means that their mother doesn't battle significant depression. I go to their events with a smile. That doesn't mean I don't have depression or social anxiety. (I deal with both.)

During some periods, I've kept moving and doing because that was the only thing I could do. I had to, like the actress Oprah couldn't understand. A lot has to be done, and I am the person who has to do it. Sometimes I've resented that fact, but even so, during the rough times, I drag one leaden foot in front of the other through the darkness, even when I feel sure that the light will never come again.

Of course, the darkness does end. But that's hard to remember when the black dog is hanging on your back with its claws deep in your skin as it growls ugly things in your ear.

During those times, I keep moving, yes. But I move like a robot, trying not to think too much, drowning in feelings of despair. Writing has always been the one place I could escape, if briefly.

But every time I've been so low that I wondered why I had to keep living, the rest of the world saw a functional, healthy person.

Another significant difference in my depression: When I'm in the throes of the battle, I don't feel bad or sinful.

Instead, I feel as if, even if I were to be perfect in every way, it still wouldn't be enough. I feel irrelevant. As if I could vanish from the face of the earth, and no one would notice.

Depression makes me feel like I have to keep working no matter what, because that's the only way to ever mean something or get anywhere. It's the only way to be relevant, but it's a losing battle. So I run and run and run but advance mere inches, then fall behind by yards. Even without progress, I don't stop running. I can't stop running. But no matter how hard and fast and long I run, it's never enough. It doesn't matter.

For me the last part of LMM's note jumps off the page because it describes the run, run, run, but never get anywhere feeling that has been a huge part of my life:
What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
Those words make me ache. Yes. I feel the same way. 

I'm not always in that dark place. Compared to many years of my life, I'm much, much better most of the time. But I still have periods where the black dog shows up, and I'm back to dragging my feet one step and then another until I'm running frantically on what feels like a hamster wheel going nowhere, because I have to.

I may look fine. A good chunk of the time, I am fine. Not always, though. Most people, not even close friends, will know when I'm putting on a Stepford act to keep from shattering into a million pieces.

That right there is part of what makes any mental or emotional disorder so hard for everyone involved: you can't see it

Even if you're looking for it, the person suffering may be hiding it in an effort to cope. And they may be very good at hiding it. None of us can know who is suffering and who is totally fine.

It's easy to assume from Facebook status updates and witty tweets that the people behind them live a charmed existence. I heard Person A get snarky about Person B's feeling down. A scoffed, thinking B had a perfect life. In that case, as in so many others, I happened to know that A was living a life many people would yearn for, yet A couldn't see it. I have a suspicion that A has depression too. Maybe they're both doing their best to cling to life at all.

So let's be kind. Let's have compassion. Let's give one another the benefit of the doubt. Let's get rid of the jealousy that poisons and has us judging and categorizing.

You never know who is fighting a battle, who is wounded. Let's assume everyone is dealing with a heavy burden, whether it's the black dog or something else.

Even when they look "fine." Sometimes, especially then.

And often, you'll be right.

If you've made it this far, thank you. On Thursday, May 7, I'm part of the northern Utah Listen to Your Mother night of readings. (Think TED talks about motherhood.) It's at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. I've heard all of the readings, and they're all wonderful. Some are hilarious. Some are tearjerkers. Some make you think. You can get tickets HERE


Luisa Perkins said...

I think this is your best, most important post. I SO WISH I could be there tomorrow night!

Jennifer Griffith said...

Thank you for this post. It describes me exactly. Exactly. I wonder why it has to be this way?

Heffalump said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Kaylee Baldwin said...

Beautifully written post!

Karlene said...

Thank you for the post. Over the years, I've learned to "do it anyway" a lot of the time. Sometimes I just can't, and have to stay in bed. Most days, I get up, pet the black dog on its head so it will sit at my feet and be (mostly) quiet, and then get on with what I have to do.

The difficult part is that people who know I struggle with depression assume that if I'm smiling and laughing, I'm all better. Doesn't work that way. Depression is just one of those things I've learned (am still learning) to live with.

Mindy said...

Love you.

Rebecca Blevins said...

I identify with this so much. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Annette. I am working to actively balance my life so that the depression and anxiety don't have as much of a grip. When it does (and it has a lot) things are quite awful. But most people never know, because I'm the functional sort as well!

Heather Moore said...

Great post. So true. I feel like a lot of times I'm in survival mode. LOL. Just this week I read all the introductions of the Altered Perceptions book and absolutely loved it. I think I relate to Sandra Tayler's story the most. I loved the collection because it makes me realize that we are all struggling with something and that none of us are alone in our struggles, even when we are feeling alone in our battles. Even the event you're doing "Listen to your mother" is something that sounds stressful to me, since my kids don't listen to me, which makes me feel like LM's line of "in which I always tried to do my best" but it's just never enough. I guess that's where faith comes in ;-)

Carole Warburton said...

Thanks for sharing your story Annette. I love that you are being open with what depression is like for you. I feel it along with you. There have been times that I have had this kind of depression too. And yet, when I'd take those tests set up to measure depression, it didn't say that I was because I too, would get up and go through the motions and even get a lot accomplished. It was my way of coping. I knew that it had something to do with my personality, but I didn't have a name for it--functional depression makes sense to me. I am now very interested in L.M. Montgomery also. I had no idea the story of her life.

Cheri Chesley said...

You are my champion. This is a beautiful expression of what so many of us cope with every day. And I know in those dark moments it's hard to hear this voice, but this is my voice telling you are NEVER insignificant, NEVER irrelevant. I have someone who is that voice for me, and I know you do too.

It's so hard not to give in sometimes. And it's so hard not to let that nasty old dog derail your life. Some of my triggers include health issues, unemployment, and overwhelming bills--and right now we're facing all three. Faith helps, but it doesn't do it all. Sometimes I just have to keep pushing up the hill, regardless of how I feel. I love you, lady. You are wonderful.

L.T. Elliot said...

There's about 10 billion things in this post I can relate to. I'd pretty much have to parrot your post right back at you.

In the original LMM post you wrote, I found a lot of comfort understanding an author I respected had gone through something I knew. With this post, that feeling of gratitude is 100x deeper because it was written by an author I respected, and a person I love. I couldn't possibly list the things I admire you for and do it justice, but I will say thank you. Thank you for being a mirror and an aspiration all in one.

God bless, and all my love.


Kimberly VanderHorst said...

Above all, thank you for writing this. I've been struggling with depression since puberty, sometimes functional and fooling the world (and feeling guilty as hell for that), sometimes anything but. I'm also doing better than I have in a long time, possibly ever, but that brittleness never goes away, no matter how well things are going. I feel as fragile as a thin pane of glass, and too many people have accidentally been hammers due to not knowing, not having any way of knowing. Posts like this remove hammers from the world. They let us be fragile, and vulnerable, with less risk of being smashed. And I will never be done being grateful to people like you and Rob, who have shone the spotlight so authentically on this dark little corner of our souls. Despite my own struggles, I know I've been an accidental hammer myself. I know I can be kinder, more thoughtful, and more patient. And I know I need to be because, as you made so beautifully clear, this is often an invisible infliction. But we don't need to be invisible just because suffer from it.

Thank you again. So much.

Lael said...

Thank you for describing so graphically what a lot of us have silently gone through. I carried "the black dog" on my shoulder for seven years back in the Seventies. I kept active because I was terrified of what might happen if I let myself sink into the pit. Eventually I was able to leave it behind -- I'm not sure how. But I'm grateful to have been of help to others since then.

Eileen Davis said...

I've had periods of functional depression too. It really is survival mode. Thanks for sharing.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Beautifully written. Thank you for taking the time to shine light on this type of depression that hits many of us.


Susan Anderson said...

What a great post.

I often wonder if (and believe that) creative people are more subject to depression and/or anxiety. It sure seems that way to me.

Lots of colors = lots of feelings.

What say you?


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