…People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And it doesn’t matter if the sickness is cancer or if it’s depression . Sometimes the drugs work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the drugs work for a while and then they stop. Sometimes the alternative stuff works and sometimes it doesn’t . And sometimes you wonder if no outside interference makes any difference at all; if an illness is like a storm, if it simply has to run its course and, at the end of it, depending on how robust you are you will be alive. Or you will be dead.
I discovered Marian Keyes when I was riding a train in Europe about a hundred years ago. A girl named Dee – Jeanette and I had picked her up in Italy and she tagged along with us for awhile – gave me one of her books when I ran out of my own reading material. (What WAS I reading anyway? I feel like it was Forever Amber – what trash! Love it. Jeanette still says once in a while: I’m glad we met Dee, but I’m not so sure I enjoyed her coming with us for the WHOLE time…and I agree. It made the experience cool to meet someone to hang with – we were in Europe – how is anything NOT cool? But Jeanette and I are so all absorbed and exclusive in our friendship – there’s really no room for anyone else in it. Its always been like that. We really only like each other. Next time, it will be JUST US – and Jeanette’s daughter – but she’s basically an extension of Jeanette so that’s OK.)
I have liked Keyes ever since. She writes the dreaded ‘Chick Lit’, but her humor and insight and entertainment value are not to be denied. I am especially fond of her saga about the Walsh sisters – and this is her last book – for the moment – about them. Each book tells the story of one sister – with the rest of the delightful family making cameos – and basically dropping Irish phrases and humorous references every which way. (Shovel list! A mental list of people and things you hate so much you want to hit them in the face with a shovel. I howled and adopted it into my vocabulary instantly)
This book is about the youngest Walsh sister, Helen – and what a shock it turned out to be. Helen is the tough, gorgeous, man-eating, over-supply of confidence, beautifully self-centered, and hilarious sister that irritates her other sisters, but is really the most entertaining one of the bunch. So I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was suprised by this book. It wasn’t funny. I only laughed once or twice. But parts of it made me weep because it was about (and here I take a deep breath) clinical depression hitting Helen smack in the face and crippling her and sending her to a mental hospital for a while. Keyes does address some fairly serious issues with her books (addiction, domestic violence, bereavement etc) and she manages to do it in a light way – but this book was different. However, instead of being disappointed that this book wasn’t as amusing as her others, I was impressed. And I was even more impressed when I read an interview with Keyes and found that during the writing of this book she had actually been experiencing her own bout with serious depression.
To summarize, Helen Walsh is a struggling Private Investigator, which is a dying business in Ireland’s economy that has been hard hit by the crash of 2008. Apparently, finding out of your husband is cheating on you is a luxury only the budget-less can afford. In the beginning of the book, we meet the youngest Walsh sister as she is trekking home to the parent’s house in shame. (The Walsh Ancestral Home is what Keyes has referred to it as, and it makes me laugh and refer to my own parent’s house as the same thing.) She has lost her apartment, tons of money, and – it becomes clearer – is starting a (second) terrifying slide into Depression. While she is being all Helen and wearily unpacking her clothes and exchanging insults with her sisters and mother, her ex-boyfriend calls her up and hires her to help him find an aging pop star – a Boy Band pop star – who has mysteriously vanished from his home in Mercy Close – a mere week before a potentially very embarrassing come-back performance.
As Helen struggles with herself financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, etc etc. she sets out to find Wayne. On the way – as with all Keyes’ novels, the author gives you glimpses of Helen’s troubled past. Gradually, all the crappy stuff that has led her to detest her ex, to have lost her best friend, led to her attempt at suicide and her obsession with anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and the reasons why she is more and more comfortable lying on the floor in Wayne’s empty house – taking his sleeping pills, drinking his diet coke, and trying to understand why he would disappear – become clear. I actually said EUREKA! in the second to last chapter: Because I realized where Wayne was a split sentence before Helen did.
Most poignant for me, and the reason I liked this novel so well, were the several moments in the novel where Helen reflects on what it means to be depressed and how others react to it – and how you react to it inside yourself – and how the world judges it.
“Two and a half years ago I’d learned to stop wanting comfort from the people around me because they couldn’t give it. We were all too scared. I was terrified and so were they. No one could understand what was happening to me and when they couldn’t make me better , they felt helpless and guilty and eventually resentful. Yes, they loved me, my head knew it even if my heart couldn’t feel it, but there was a small part of them that was angry. As if it was my choice to become depressed and I was deliberately resisting the medication that was meant to fix me.”
I – and I speak frankly and honestly and beg for no judgement – I’ve been clinically depressed since I was about 15. I believe that we – as humans – as a culture – as a country – don’t pay enough attention to mental illness. We stigmatize it and we doubt it. We really don’t understand it. And what we don’t understand, tends to scare us. Believe me, everyone around you not understanding something and therefore ignoring it, isn’t nearly as scary as having it happen to you. Helen’s depression was not like mine. Hers involves a lot of anxiety and worry and seeing things that aren’t there.
Mine is the classic one. It’s the one that doesn’t involve much fear or anxiety. It’s more of a ‘hitting a blank wall and stopping’ sort of depression.
If you don’t know what its like to not be able to even get up out of bed and you can’t even think or talk or anything because just breathing in and out is taking up all of your time, and there is no real, concrete reason for you to be that way at all because your life is good, you have friends and family that love you, etc etc – then you don’t really know what clinical depression is. Because THAT’S what it is and its the absolute worst thing to experience. Its scary and it’s isolating. And it goes on and on every day and just gets worse and worse. The last time I went through it I laid in bed for weeks. I didn’t go to work or do anything. I cried for hours. I barely ate. I was afraid to get up and use the bathroom because that was where the razors were and I knew how close I was to slashing my wrists.
And there was NO REASON. None. I went from being fine one day to not fine the next. I was so alone and I was so terrified of my own brain and body and what it was doing to me – I had no control of it at all. It wasn’t like I could just think happy thoughts and feel better. I could barely think enough to string two sentences together. It wasn’t like I could just get up and go for a walk and feel better. I couldn’t send enough signals to my brain to create a sentence telling my body to get up and go outside. It’s that hard to do anything. Its not something that you snap out of or go talk to your best friend or have a drink and get over it. You can’t physically do any of those things. Its like being in a fog or – as Sylvia Plath put it – under a glass bell jar. Everything is muted and slow and so hard to do. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Unlike Helen – my medication worked right away. It was amazing. I took it, slept for a day and a half, and then woke up and felt completely normal. Shaky, yes. But normal. For the past eight years, I’ve controlled my illness with a daily dose of it – 350mgs – and it works. Well enough, for now. But there are definitely days when I wake up earlier than I want to – trouble sleeping seems to be the universal stamp of depression everywhere – stare at the sun rising and stretching through the wooden slats of my blinds, and wonder when the pills wont work anymore.
Helen goes on a little rant about no one blaming a cancer patient for having cancer. Or telling someone with emphysema they ‘are just SO selfish’. I wholeheartedly agreed. Yet another example of how clinical depression is misunderstood. After her attempted and botched suicide, one of her rescuers says furiously:
“Have you thought about the people you’d have left behind?” the woman asked, suddenly sounding angry. “Your parents? Your friends? Why don’t you think about their feelings? How they’d have felt if the tide hadn’t been out and we hadn’t been here?”
I looked at her tearfully. “I’ve depression,” I said. “I’m sick. I’m not doing this for the laugh.”
Talk about adding insult to injury! Like, if someone gets lupus or cancer, they don’t have to put up with people accusing them of being selfish.
This made me laugh more than I should have probably. But it was a sympathetic laugh.
As Marian Keyes says – or has Helen say: Waiting to be better is the wrong approach. It’s learning to live with it.
You do live with it. It’s just a shame you have to live with the stigma and the misunderstanding, too. I don’t tend to talk about my depression much to anyone. When I get accused of being negative, depressed, and bitchy – as I do all the time by friends and family alike – I just laugh and think: You people have no idea. This is NOTHING. I’m actually doing really well. You should hope this continues. ( Seriously. Sarcastic and Pointing Out the Shortcomings of Life and Others is just my personality. That and I really like being alone. Jeez.)
Maybe that’s why I related so well to this novel. Helen is a bit of me. Or how I like to see myself. Confident. Beautiful. Smart. Self-Centered. Fearless.
Especially the last. Because it is easy to be fearless when you have gone through the hell that can happen to you from the inside. And after years of it – I know that nothing that can happen to me from the outside will ever be as frightening.