PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

My Depression: A Picture Book by Elizabeth Swados

Stephen Rauch

This can be a tricky audience to write for; after all, they'll just stop reading the book if it's too, well, depressing.

My Depression

Publisher: Hyperion Books
Length: 176
Subtitle: A Picture Book
Price: $16.95
Author: Elizabeth Swados
US publication date: 2005-04
Amazon affiliate

Time was, I used to snap up every book I could about depression, especially books written by depressed people. Starting with Elizabeth Wurtzel's classic Prozac Nation, I burned through what was, by the mid-'90s, fast becoming a cottage industry, as depression entered the zeitgeist, aided by high-profile sufferers and billion-dollar ad campaigns by drug companies. The last ten years of my life have been more or less one long struggle against the big D, and I wanted to hear all I could from those I considered "fellow travelers," "kindred spirits," or several other names too embarrassingly Goth to mention.

Lately, I seem to have gotten a bit burned out on the topic, but I was still curious about Elizabeth Swados' picture book My Depression, and to see what insights she has on the topic. Swados is quite multi-talented, having written novels, children's books, music, nonfiction, and plays, and directed several theatrical productions as well. She's also got the dep-cred: she's experienced depressions all her life, and both her mother and brother committed suicide. The book takes us on a ride from the first inklings of a depressive episode, through the bottom, and back up again, with stops along the way for some digressions.

I (and everyone else who's written on the subject) have always lamented the inadequacy of words on a page, even emotion-soaked ones, when it comes to expressing just how depression feels. So Swados' idea of a memoir in picture-book form seemed full of promise, right from the cover illustration of a plaintive-looking Elizabeth drowning in a see of streaky black lines. (Maybe it's just the comic geek in me.)

Visually, Swados' drawing style has a cartoonish feel, reminding me of nothing more than Cathy Guisewite's daily comic strip "Cathy." Maybe that's where the problems started. Something about "Cathy" has always pissed me off. Something about the self-consciously neurotic stress (all frazzled and wavy lines) always rubbed me the wrong way. After all, depression isn't when you fret over your dysfunctional parents or your awkward relationship; it's the thing that makes people kill themselves just to make it stop. Then there's the end, when things just seem to improve, kind of an "I know it takes a lot of time and work, but hang in there, things will get better!" The last page addresses the fear of a future episode, but says, "Remember, you got through once�You can do it again." It all just seemed a little too pat for me.

The thing is, Swados has to know this. From the sound of things, she's been in and out of depression enough times that she can't ever forget just how scary it is. Which makes me wonder who she's trying to reach with this book. Effusive praises like "funny and heartwarming" and "a look at the human side of depression" make me think it's aimed at reaching those who aren't depressed and have never been, to try to explain what it's like. With all the figures being thrown around about how prevalent depression is (I seem to remember hearing that something like a quarter to a third of Americans will have a depressive episode sometime during their lives), it's easy to forget that this means that between two-thirds and three-quarters of people will never get depressed.

These are the people who tell you that you should just "snap out of it," try not to worry so much, or else tell you that it's all in your head, or as someone once told me, that it's "a luxury of your class" (because if you've got enough to eat, you don't deserve to feel bad). Indeed, some of Swados' most difficult struggles are not with depression itself, but from others' inability or unwillingness to understand that what's going on is real, and it's serious, and that yelling at her isn't going to make things any better. And it's important to reach these people, because they seem to be the ones who run the world (at least the ones you have to prostrate yourself in front of -- insurance companies and psychiatrists -- before they'll help you). These are the people they're trying to reach with the figures of how many billions of dollars are lost every year as a result of depression -- all the ruined lives and the suffering don't make a dent, but look at all the fucking money it's costing!

This can be a tricky audience to write for; after all, they'll just stop reading the book if it's too, well, depressing. And Swados isn't off the mark when she says that eventually, something does help, at least for a little while. But knowing this doesn't help until the minute things get better: until then it's just so much inspirational "Hang in There!" kitten posters. And it's not like she makes it out to be a walk in the park; there's still plenty of badness to go around, and perhaps it's best that Swados doesn't go for the overkill and drown us in her sorrows. And parts are still heartbreaking: she imagines her mother and brother accusing "You didn't keep me alive!" -- blaming her for their suicides -- and wonders if she'll go the same way. And for anyone not already steeped in the topic of depression, her journey is sad and funny and poignant and encouraging in all the right places.

So I understand why My Depression is the way it is, and I see what Swados is trying to accomplish. Still, I can't help but feel at least a little bit betrayed. After all, this is the story of her depression, but dammit, it isn't mine. And I guess that's the point.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.