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'My Depression: The Up and Down of It', Sketches a Relationship With Illness

The supermarket bins in this story are stocked with Mystery, Anxiety, and Fresh Doubt, and shelves are lined with boxes of Tired and Go Away or sacks of Malaise.

My Depression: The Up and Down of It

Director: David Wachtenheim, Robert Marianetti, Elizabeth Swados
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Fred Armisen, Dan Fogler
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2015-07-13 (HBO)
"By keeping it extremely personal, but using line drawings and goofy cartoons, I could get away from the usual clich├ęs that are associated when people talk about their experiences with mental illness."

-- Liz Swados

"The words I write don't make sense anymore." As Liz (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) sits at her typewriter and worries, the shot cuts to an example of what worries her, a page reading, "See Jane. Jane has a knife. See Spot canoe. Spot is sobbing." Cut to Liz at a party, where she wears her usual outfit, a pale lavender turtleneck dress and heavy brown boots. She worries some more. "Everything has become strange to me." She's approached by a friend, dressed in bright yellow and pink. "Oh my god, who is this? I can't believe I forgot her name."

Embarrassed and lost, Liz hangs her head in My Depression: The Up and Down of It, emphasis on "my". The animated musical documentary, based on a picture book by Swados and premiering on HBO 13 July, sketches the relationship Liz has with her illness, depicted as a smudgy black cloud hovering over her head. She ducks and waves the cloud away as singer Rachel Stern underlines, "That little cloud, he won't take the hint I don't want him around."

The cloud scrunches and expands, waits and intrudes. As Liz remembers her early encounters with the cloud when she was a teenager -- "I felt a little off from the rest of the crowd" -- her young self stands apart from three other girls. While they discuss makeup and pimples, she laments, "I wish I didn't have a face!" She becomes increasingly certain that she'll "always be alone" during her college years and, even when she is professionally successful as an adult -- Swados is best known for writing and directing the musical Runaways -- she's bothered by her cloud. "I'm destined to be an invisible outcast," she sums up.

Feeling overwhelmed is common for people with depression, but, as Liz points out, they grapple with their own forms of what is overwhelming. Swados' movie can seem simple in its efforts to be "universal". "Of course," she says more than once, "Everyone's depression and how they cope with it is different." Still, her story reveals characteristic patterns of thought and emotion. Among its cleverer conceits is the depression supermarket, grim and grey, where bins are stocked with Mystery, Anxiety, and Fresh Doubt, and shelves are lined with boxes of Tired and Go Away or sacks of Malaise. These many options are as deceptive as those in any supermarket, of course, in that all of them lead to similar enervations and desolations: it's no surprise that Liz selects a box marked with a cloud.

The cloud's very familiarity begins to seem comforting. As Liz recounts not being able to leave her apartment, the TV offers a marathon of "Cops & Justice LA-NY" (the optimum formula show for those in search of non-taxing distraction) and an announcer blah-blahs about Gossip and Science, Fashion and Homeless, all reduced to sameness, abstractions floating from the screen. When Liz chases off her roommate ("Why did you look at me that way? I saw you squint!"), she's left surrounded by an empty box of "Nuggets" and Chinese food containers, the usual signs of emotional descent. "Who cares about the stupid world?!" she wails.

Her next encounter with a seeming screen involves her mirror, where a giant and awfully toothy version of Liz leans out and points her finger at her chest" You see," scary Liz says, "I was right, you are nothing." Feeling like a "bad person", dwarfed Liz wonders if maybe she should "be punched", then issues a list of all sizes and types of apologies (leading, of course, to "I apologize for apologizing"), she barely endures a distressing courtroom scene ("The entire universe versus Liz"), then considers an offer from the fiercely jolly, white-uniformed driver (Steve Buscemi) of the starkly black and red Suicide Mobile.

It's a harrowing ride, the driver looking rather like the Grinch and frenetically talk-singing -- "Say goodbye to life! Who cares? It sucks! No more dealing with traffic or schmucks!" -- and Liz grabbing at the dashboard. Watching as he drives off a cliff, she takes a breath, and finally, thinks there might be a better way.

This way means coming to some kind of terms with the cloud. This way also means living with setbacks and new empathy for herself, her imperfections and her strengths. Despite and sometimes because of its simplifications, My Depression indicates the work everyone needs to do, those suffering from depression and those trying to understand how a friend or family member can succumb to it. The short version of Liz's survival is this: she finds a workable combination of medications and learns to forgive herself. But of course, it's never so simple. She also comes to see her cloud differently, not as an overwhelming force, but as a concept she can understand, a companion she can recognize and also reject.


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