By Deanne Gertner
Not that long ago I watched a TED talk on depression. In the world of illness and treatment, the talk proposed, depression occupies a unique position: whatever makes one feel less depressed is successful in treating the disorder, no matter what that treatment might be. Standing on one’s head, lip syncing to Prince, watching pets-dressed-as-food videos, completing an entire adult coloring book in a single sitting, etc. Imagine treating cancer with a jaunt around the lake or AIDS with a set of heavy squats or Parkinson’s with a poem. The idea is laughable, juvenile even. But in the battle against depression, whatever moves the needle works.
I graduated high school in the spring of 2001. Blinded by my desire to get a degree in creative writing, I decided to enroll in Colorado College despite the fact that I was denied financial aid and had received no scholarship money. By mid-summer, the relentless pragmatism of my grandfather’s loan calculator convinced me not to make a terrible financial mistake. One Friday in July, my mom drove me down to the Springs where I told an admissions counselor I would not be matriculating after all.
I’m not sure if the depression started before the trip down to CC or on the drive home when I noticed an amoeba-shaped Coca-Cola stain on my shirt that had most surely been present during the resignation meeting, but within a month, I was unable to sleep at night, wide eyed and blinking in my not-dorm room, and spending my days off from Old Navy buried under my comforter. On the morning of September 11th, I was the only one home, yet again avoiding anything outside my bed until the incessant ringing of the phone forced me to get up. With the funk of weeks-old pajamas about me, my mom described the horror of that morning as I flipped on the TV and watched people, small as seed beads on the screen, jump out windows.
A crusty, despondent anger grew about my heart. My family tried to help, this time with trips to the doctor, interventions disguised as lunch meetings. I started taking Paxil but instead of feeling better, I just felt numb. Still, I clung to one thing: books. I decided I could educate myself, so I read and read and read some more. Catch 22. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A Fine Balance. The Lord of the Rings. Requiem for a Dream. I Know This Much is True. The Reader. The World According to Garp. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Angela’s Ashes. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. I lived my life in books. For them, I had enough strength to turn pages, I had enough stamina for one more paragraph, one more chapter. It was an education in resiliency, in empathy, in imagination. I found an incredible intimacy with the authors and their thumbnail-size headshots, the beautifully flawed characters, and in language itself that I could not find elsewhere. I didn’t have to justify my thoughts and feelings or ask for anything from me but my time.
Since 2001, depression has ensnared me more than a few times. Just two years later, after I had pulled myself together to go college, shit had yet again hit the fan. My parents were getting divorced, something I had thought I had safely escaped by middle school. Then, I had become estranged in a very short time from my new roommates. Finally, and by far the worst thing, my cousin, who was a month and two days older than me had died suddenly in a car accident. I was taking 18 credit hours and volunteering and working that semester. I don’t remember sleeping. The thing that got me through was my writing seminar. I wrote about my cousin’s cracked lips in the casket, how I wanted to put chapstick on him. I wrote about my volunteer work at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and tutoring first through fourth grade kids, how one day they had asked me to draw a Christmas scene with angels and when I reached for a brown crayon a little black girl with Cheeto dust around her mouth said, “No, angels are white. White like God.” And then she handed me a crayon that perfectly matched the color of my own skin.
Flash forward to March 2016. I had signed up for Hybrid Forms with Alexander Lumans, my first writing class in over a year. Late on the Saturday night before Easter, between our first and second classes, I discovered through Instagram that my ex-boyfriend of nine years, who I had bought my house for so we could be life partners, who I had sacrificed much of my own happiness for, had started seeing another woman before we had broken up and before he had moved out. Her Instagram account documented their life together, that he could easily do for her what I had so desperately wanted him to do for me. Easter was a whiskey-soaked blur. I called out from work on the day of my second Hybrid class. I read and reread that week’s assignment: excerpts from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Before each class, we had to email everyone a creative response to the reading. That afternoon I sat down at my computer and sent the following:
Cities & Loss
The city of Esso sits at the base of Eagle Mountain. At night, the people are always home but never put the lights on. Instead they use the pale blue light of some kind of device. You can see their dark silhouettes and ghostly blue faces shifting through the window. During the day, they pace up and down the streets, aimless, their steps keeping time with the seashell-like jangle of teeth (human, dog, cat, buffalo, bear, lynx) in their pockets. They survive on a bottled elixir of hunger and insomnia that makes the tops of their heads hum and the lumps in their throats easier to swallow. After the snows melt, the streets smell like wet cigarette ash and the asphalt cracks like an elephant’s skin.
Each week, I sent one dark response after the next until I was finally able to send in something with a few jokes. I’m sure my classmates were relieved.
Now, after the election, I feel depression bulldozing its way inside yet again. But now I know that literature remains one of my strongest allies. They’ve became a sort of lifeblood, as necessary as water and always within arms’ reach. In the coming years, I can assure you that I will wear the spine off Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I will be like A.M. Homes and ZZ Packer and George Saunders and Lauren Groff and Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri to strive for radical empathy, to know that each and every one of us has a rich inner life that deserves an honest, compassionate and nuanced telling. I will strive to make my life and the lives of those around me better one word, one sentence at a time. Above all, I will not doubt the power of art to move the needle forward.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Colorado native Deanne Gertner works for NINE dot ARTS and serves on the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop board of directors. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been published in Quaint Magazine and Scintilla. She also regularly contributes dance criticism to Presenting Denver.