Dedication: For all writers who struggle with mental illness. But particularly, for Aubrie Cox Warner and Jill Talbot who, whether they realize it or not, continue to inspire me to be vulnerable and open. With thanks to Ben Barnes for assistance with self-portraits and so much more.
Today we are pleased to feature author Beth Gilstrap as our Authors Talk series contributor. In conversation with Jim Warner (of Citizen Lit), Beth openly discusses her focus on female voices, the South and southern women, grief, the passing of her grandmother, and her experience with depression.
When discussing her chapbook (No Man’s Wild Laura, 2016), Beth says, “I think everything we write prepares us for what we’re writing next, right?” She also candidly shares her experience with grief and how writing has been “a method of survival…a way to put things down and be able to look at it objectively.”
Beth ends the podcast with a bit of laughter when she jokes: “I am not actually dragging carcasses into my home. I am only writing about it.”
Laurie Rachkus Uttich is a lecturer of creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her prose has been published in Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction; River Teeth; Brain, Child (nominated for a Pushcart Prize); Sweet: A Literary Confection; Burrow Press Review; Poets and Writers; Iron Horse (fiction recipient of the Discovered Voices Award); So To Speak (recipient of the Creative Nonfiction Award); The Writers Chronicle; The Good Men Project; and others. Recently, she began writing poetry and has been published in Rattle and The Missouri Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The last time I did a guest post for s[r] blog, I wrote about writing, depression, and vulnerability. This week my second book—a chapbook called No Man’s Wild Laura—is out from Hyacinth Girl Press. All four pieces in the short collection are feminist-fueled stories about hopeful, disenchanted, grateful, damaged, and sometimes, angry women. At 39, I no longer believe these things are mutually exclusive. The following is a letter to my 17-year-old self inspired by my own struggles with mental illness and writing.
I see you have hunkered down in your bedroom again. Your black balloon shade is drawn, the door locked, candles lit, and opium incense burning. The window is barely cracked so the smoke drifts above you. A mixtape is playing as you doodle and write and copy down poems and songs and passages you like in your sketchbook. A guy who plays guitar made the tape for you. In a few months, he’ll make you a “fuck off” tape. You will feel a little bit sorry about it, but mostly relieved because you don’t tell people what’s happening in your brain unless circumstance forces you.
I want to tell you this is temporary.
I want to tell you this is the worst it will ever be.
I want to tell you that your difficulty maintaining friendships will wane.
I want to tell you the chest pains will cease.
I want to tell you the urge to stay under water in the tub or break open the disposable razor passes or when you finally do learn to drive at twenty-four that you won’t ever think about pressing down on the gas and pointing yourself at some large, immovable object.
But the best I can do is tell you to hang on, to keep doodling and playing with words. Keep reading. Read more. Write more. Forget the mean girls. Forget the guitar players. You won’t find your love at a show. You will find your love on a dilapidated porch and unlike most people in your life to date, he will ask questions when you look unwell, when you start pulling your hands and shoulders in as though you could make your body fold in on itself, become invisible. He will buy you bread when he learns you haven’t eaten for three days. He won’t give a damn about lactose or the cause you’ve slapped to your food issues. Hang on, girl. I can’t tell you it won’t be twenty years, but once you get there, you will know that all of this made you into the writer you become. The writing saves you. Again and again. It’s the only way you’ve found to release the valve of your malfunctioning brain.
I want to tell you you won’t need medication for the rest of your life.
I want to tell you you won’t stop taking it from time to time and let yourself drift into an almost speechless existence.
I want to tell you that all your people notice, that they come running to your rescue, that they don’t let you push them out of your life.
I want to tell you that having work published, books even, cures you.
I want to tell you you feel wanted and loved, but even when the rational side of your brain argues for the objective truth and counts the ways, you will always feel far away—like you watch those you care for from the dangling basket of a hot air balloon. This will never change, but it will make you observant, insightful. This is good for the work, if not for your well-being.
You already know your biggest truth. I see it from here as you ink lines from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Beloved and three-quarters of Emily Dickinson’s poems into your notebook. It is only in the repeated act of writing itself that you are free.
With love and hope that you can one day learn to look at yourself with kind eyes,
I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.
I write this with the full weight of it causing my shoulders to spasm. I don’t write this as a threat or a way to evoke fear or pity. I write it as a statistical fact based on my diagnoses: major depression, anxiety & panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (including body dysmorphia). I have been in treatment for twenty-two years, but my troubles started long before I ever stepped foot in a therapist’s office. I used to ask myself in the vein of Nick Hornby’s protagonist from High Fidelity, “What came first—the writing or the misery?”
The truth is I’m not sure. Even before I could write, I made up stories to escape the trauma of my surroundings. Many of my earliest memories are violent and lonely. The rest are soft, sweet, and full of the joy of storytelling in the varied timbres of my brother, Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa seeping past and through our always-rocky financial situation and the great, gnarled yarn of mental illness among us. No one had to tell me we told ourselves stories in order to live. We all made something. Grandpa with his carvings. Grandma with her sewing, etc.
I know one of the reasons I’m alive today is because I write. As an adult trying to eke out a career in a creative field, I’ve devoted a lot of time to reading about the link between creativity (writers in particular) and depression. When I learned of Ned Vizzini’s suicide last year, (author of: Teen Angst? Naaah…, Be More Chill, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Other Normals, and House of Secrets) I found myself crying for him and crying for myself. I did the same thing for Robin Williams. As I did for all three of my friends who killed themselves over the years. As I’ve done for the ones who overdosed. As I will do over and over.
Sometimes, my outcome seems inevitable, but I write to combat that feeling.
Inevitable can get bent.
Like Dylan Thomas implores, I will rage against it. I urge other creatives out there (and everyone else fighting this terrible disease) to rage with me. Rage against it by making things. Do what you do and do it to survive. Rage against stigma. Rage against shame. Share.
TheAtlantic devoted a large chunk of their July/August Ideas Issue to the neuroscience of creativity. Dr. Nancy C. Andreason researches the link between creatives (including writers, visual & performing artists, and scientists) and mental illness. I think most of us are aware of the famous (and too often romanticized) suicides, but I’m also interested in those who have or did manage to cope, succeed in their fields, and somehow, survive their mental illness. Andreason reports:
“One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out their stories of their struggles with mood disorder –mostly depression, but occasionally, bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (68).
Andreason’s work shows there’s not necessarily a correlation between high IQ and creative genius, but more of a similarity in personalities. Creatives tend to persevere. Creatives are better at forming associations. They tend to be “adventuresome and exploratory.” Creativity tends to run in families alongside mental illness. The part I want to keep in my pocket for later use is her claim about creatives being risk takers:
“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”
I am not the only creative in my family and brother, you have no idea how deep the mental illness and addiction goes in our clan. I come from a proper, southern, religious, sweep-that-mess-back-under-the-rug-where-it-belongs (try not to snicker at the contrast) family. Don’t dare talk about your problems. Poor Mama. She wound up with a writer and a musician for children.
You may wonder what all this has to do with you and your writing or art (whatever form that takes), whether you struggle with depression or not.
It has nothing and everything to do with your creative work. For some of us, it is survival. It’s about anchoring ourselves to the few things we can rely on when, for great swathes of our lives, we cannot rely on ourselves. My anchors are the act of writing, my husband, and my animals.
If you are like the 80 percent Andreason talks about, you get it. I hope you’ll join and rage with me. If you are one of the fortunate few writers (& artists) who do not struggle with depression, it is no matter. Ponder these ideas when it comes to what you create and how you interact with the rest of us sad sacks. It’s not something we can shake off nor should it be for your characters. I recommend Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “Regarding Happiness,” (from Burning Down the House) in which he argues against “happiness” as sustainable in any narrative form. Baxter claims:
“I’d argue that in 80 percent of all narratives, the young couple and their happiness are not the story; the story resides in the unhappy onlooker –Satan, watching Adam and Eve; Claggert, staring at Billy Budd; Iago, looking at Othello and Desdemona…” (208-9).
What I find most interesting is how much Baxter’s essay reminds me of a discussion with my therapist about the meaning of the word “happiness” –its mythic, unattainable stature, and how what we should really strive for are moments of joy and self-care. I have major depression. It’s the one thing I write about that causes so much discomfort and unease. I lose more followers when I’m open about my depression than anything else I post about (even the constant stream of cat and dog photos). I struggled with whether or not to write about depression. I wanted to write something safer, but I chose the topic that made me most vulnerable. Most times if you are working hard to avoid writing something, that’s the very thing that begs to be written. Walk right into the dark, bubbling middle of that thing. Stare it in the eye. Writing without vulnerability is worthless.
I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.
Almost every writer I know is a procrastinator. I certainly am. That is, I was, until I moved to Shanghai, China, last fall to teach, and found myself with six classes and 160 students crammed into two days of classes, and five days a week with nothing to do. I teach oral and written English to graduate students at one of the country’s leading universities, yet homework in my course is discouraged by the administration, so unless there are papers due—and that’s not often—I have roughly fourteen waking hours a day to pass alone. I’ve explored the neighborhood, the campus, the local shopping centers, and all the city’s major museums. Most of the shrines are merely tourist traps, but I’ve checked many of those out, too. As for friends—there aren’t any. So how did I end up here?
Four years ago, I taught in a remote city in northern China and shared an office and too many good times to count with other foreign teachers, many of whom remain good friends. In Shanghai, although it’s a bigger and more international city, the foreign faculty who share my apartment building keep to themselves. The few who speak English are busy with their young Chinese girlfriends and side jobs. We had a getting-to-know-you meeting in the fall, and one dinner at a Brazilian barbeque restaurant in the New Pudong District, but as the semester wore on there were fewer, and then no opportunities to socialize. My only regular contact is the British professor who teaches across the hall from me. He lives off-campus with his Chinese wife and child, and we chat and complain to each other for about five minutes on the two mornings a week we teach.
At my apartment, the one English-speaking channel on television delivers propaganda disguised as news, so I’ve unplugged my TV. Most outside news sources commonly available via internet in other places have been cut off by the Chinese government. I didn’t even know there was an Avian flu outbreak in Shanghai until my parents told me in their weekly phone calls. And as far as the local authorities are concerned, those thousands of dead diseased pigs floating in the Huangpu River haven’t damaged the local water supply one bit.
In short, I live in a vacuum, a world insulated from the West, fearful and often disdainful of Westerners, and very lonely. Although I enjoy my students, it would be unprofessional to socialize with them. Using the few Chinese phrases I know, nodding, and smiling, I have friendly relationships with a few shopkeepers; others, and even older people walking down the street, scowl at me in disapproval. So I pass the time taking walks, reading, listening to my ipod, watching American television shows I download onto my laptop, and, yes, writing. I’ve finally begun my memoir, the one I’ve been meaning to start forever, and that blank computer screen that used to be my nemesis is now my best friend. I find that writing about my solo experiences, observations of people, loneliness, and occasional despair is not only cathartic, but serves as a sort of friend, someone with whom to share my deepest feelings—ironically, many that I wouldn’t share with other people, but which may be open to anyone who cares to read the piece if it is ever published. I’ve even applied for a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to help to finance me in finishing my memoir-in-progress.
So far, I’ve completed fifty pages. To be honest, the writing flowed more easily during fall semester. There were those occasional faculty outings to write about, my solo excursions, and my students’ reactions to different contemporary topics I gave them to discuss during oral English lessons. I’ve woven in my earlier experiences in Shenyang, China, and there still is much to say about that (mostly good, along with one dreadful experience I won’t go into here). I’ve written about spending Thanksgiving as a normal working day, and strolling through the lovely French Concession area of the city alone and miserable on Christmas day.
Over time, however, I’ve become less and less productive. Early in the spring semester, depression settled in to stay. This illness isn’t entirely new to me—I’ve experienced major bouts of depression periodically throughout my life—but the disease breeds in isolation, when there is nothing to do but ruminate on one’s own dark thoughts. I’ve grown to understand why human rights advocates believe that putting prisoners in solitary confinement is a form of psychological torture, because I could hardly be more isolated than I am unless I were in a jail cell. Still, I can put on a bright face for my students, and give a friendly wave to a colleague when we pass on the street, or exchange a brief greeting with him (I’m the only female American teacher here), and send coherent responses to the administrative staff when they contact me about holidays or exam dates.
One thing I know for sure: I will never return to China, and probably never teach abroad again. The stakes are too high—I don’t know if I’ll find amiable cohorts, as I did in Shenyang, or end up totally alone again. And my father, who is frail and in poor health, needs me to come home and help care for him. I miss my adorable five-year-old niece immensely, even though we Skype every Sunday night. I fear I am missing the best months of her life, and wasting much of what’s left of my own middle-age. I will finish my memoir, I know. It just might take me longer than I thought it would.
Sarah Snyder, from Issues 1 and 2, has traveled to the Far East and back–and discovered a true passion for teaching English as a foreign language. She shares with us her experience:
Grandma always said, “Everything in moderation—even moderation.” As a junior at ASU, taking 18 credits a semester, being the Reading Series Coordinator for Superstition Review, working at the Polytechnic campus Writing Center, serving as the President of ASU’s Devil Dancesport ballroom dancing team, and volunteering as a Peer Advisor for the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, I was no stranger to overextending myself, to going deeper than I could swim back up in time for air. When I graduated in 2009, I made a strategic career move and took a job in Japan teaching English in two high schools. It was only strategic because I couldn’t even get anything close to a job in the United States. Luckily for me, this job helped me realize what I really wanted to do with my life: create positive cultural exchange and communication. This lesson came to me through all of the artists that I coordinated through SR, the students that I worked with in the Writing Center, as the President of a student organization, as a Peer Advisor and in Japan.
After a year in the Land of the Rising Sun, I moved back home to the Valley of the Sun. My parents were happy to have me home in the flesh instead of pixelated and robotic on Skype. They were perfectly content to keep me there, but I was soon restless. I needed something to keep me happy, healthy and productive, but I experienced the same depression that my father remembered as an adolescent. He told me his story from the 1970s when he was expressing the same feeling of helplessness to his grandfather. To that, Great-Grandpa Krebbs said, “There is always work for those who want it.” To this day, my father doesn’t know whether or not that was a challenge or a jab, but I took it as a challenge. I pulsed all of my networks for careers in academia for months. I applied to everything. I also kept myself busy taking Spanish and Japanese at the local community colleges to keep my morale up. Around month six, I was called for my first interview. It was my chance to vie for my dream job of being an academic advisor! At the age of 24 (my lucky Japanese year of the Rabbit) I was hired as the youngest member of an academic advising team with my mentors from undergrad as my supervisors.
After some serious soul-searching, I had to sacrifice my dream job in favor of the English and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs at Northern Arizona University, where I am happily immersed in concurrent graduate programs and teaching freshman composition for native and non-native speakers of English. I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition and Linguistics in the near future. This, I believe, will help me bring positive cultural exchange and communication to more people than I could have ever hoped while being one teacher working with just 30 students at a time in a sea of millions. It will be more work that I have probably ever had in my life—but I also have itty-bitty daydreams of being the President of the United States as well, so bring it on.
As I look back now, all I can say is that Grandma was right. “Everything in moderation–even moderation.” If I could go back in time with all of this 20/20 retrospect, I wouldn’t change one thing. Now, I am making sure that I give just as much as I have received, and these last sentences are little karmic presents for anyone who wants them: In order to survive in the world that we live in today, concentration and positive thinking are the keys to getting what the universe thinks you deserve. Nobody gets anywhere anymore by stepping on people. We’re in the age of Google, people! Also, it really DOES matter who you know and how you treat the people around you…No one ever knows who they will be interacting with in the future. Network, network, NETWORK! Oh, and always brush your teeth (another Grandma quote).
A few days ago, I was driving with my cousin and her husband to their house in Gurgaon, when he asked me what I thought was the biggest difference between America and India. After ruminating on the question for several minutes, I realized that despite the overwhelming complexities that have shaped the modern workings and images of both nations, the answer is actually pretty simple.
One is subtle. The other is stark.
To the average person living in Scottsdale, it’s pretty difficult to say that he or she has any first-hand experience with the effects of the recession. If they’re anything like me, they’re aware that unemployment is at an all-time high, foreclosures have been occurring in the truckloads, and that the national debt is so far into the trillions the U.S. government soon might need to make up a new number to describe the amount they owe other people. But they don’t consciously grasp or interact with the repercussions of what any of this means for their daily lives. When the recession hit in 2008, I was in my senior year of high school taking my first economics course, and the relatively small amounts of information I became privy to made me think the whole American experiment was going to explode into a million pieces within my lifetime. Unemployment hadn’t been so high since the Depression? The government had to spend billions to bail out huge corporations as a result of their irresponsible spending? Foreclosures occurred by the thousands all across America? The interest on the national debt could have sent every college-bound kid in the States to the school of their choice FOR FREE? Insane. Completely insane, but also completely factual.
But despite the reality of these facts, there’s no way I would know it by walking out my front door. The same could be said of the many children of my generation I happen to know. Just because America’s fate seemed like the darkest it had ever been (or still is, depending on how you look at it) doesn’t mean this darkness was visible by and large across the country to everyone.
Contrast that with the Indian state of affairs. In the past decade, India has been statistically ranked among the world’s top five largest growing economies, and remains in that bracket with one of the world’s greatest purchasing powers. In the past five years, it has been touted as one of the 21st century’s greatest heralds of economic prosperity.
Today I took a walk for a few blocks around the neighborhood where my grandmother lives in order to get my eyes tested at the local optometrist. My grandmother lives in an area of Delhi called Rajouri Garden, and it only took me 10 minutes of walking to get to the doctor’s office and back. This is what I saw.
If I hadn’t spent every summer in this neighborhood since I was 11, I might have walked back to the doctor for a re-test. Here, within a five-block radius, in this purported place of exponential economic growth, I saw the kind of stark disparity between national image and reality that exists as a direct contrast to the American way of life.