My Depression: A Picture Book by Elizabeth Swados
This can be a tricky audience to write for; after all, they'll just stop reading the book if it's too, well, depressing.
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.