Treading Darkest Waters: on death, depression and other happy things

dark waterI met her in my fourth year of teaching.  A gifted young actress, musician songwriter, artist.  Able to communicate emotion through her talents with the kind of sincerity, depth and honesty that you cannot learn.

She was loved.  Oh dear me was she loved.  By friends and family.  Loved like crazy.

Later, I had to explain to some people who loved her—to my own students—that their beloved friend was in hospital because she had tried to take her own life.

She has been on my mind and in my heart recently.  Like Robin Williams, she was an artist.  Like Robin Williams, she suffered from mental illness (bipolar).  Few people knew it.  Fewer people saw it.  I know she tried more than once to take her own life. I am guessing Robin William’s final suicide attempt was not his first either.

I’ve been thinking too about my former teacher David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in almost the same way as Williams.  Struggles with depression, struggles with substances but ultimately the struggle was in themselves.  And their struggles were widely misunderstood.

I remember breaking the news of my student’s hospitalisation to a classroom of young people who knew her well.  After the shock wore off, they had questions.  The answers were difficult.

‘What happened to her?’ one asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well something really awful must have happened to push her to this.’

‘Nothing awful happened to her really.’

‘Why’d she do it then?’

I had to think about that.

‘She was sick.’

‘When did she get sick?’

‘Always.  Maybe.  A long time.’

My answer was pretty lame and I was losing my audience.  But how do you explain to someone who’s never been at the bottom of a well?  If you’ve never felt yourself drowning in darkness how can you empathise with someone who constantly treads black water?

‘It’s like having a broken leg,’ I said.  ‘If someone breaks their leg, you notice.  They limp.  Maybe they have crutches.  Or someone has a missing arm or finger.  You can see it.  And you know that person will have to do things differently.  Make allowances for their missing limb or digit.’

‘She had a missing arm, only no one could see it.  Every day she had to make allowances for that and worked three times harder than anyone else to go about her daily business.  Just not in a way anyone could see.’

And that’s the thing about mental illness.  It’s hard to see.  Because we can’t see it we struggle to understand.

Reading various on-line posts and messages about Robin Williams’ death, many are sympathetic, heartbroken.  Some use it as an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of mental illness and the quiet tragedy of depression which so many suffer from every day.  And there is confusion.  He had everything.  He was so loved.  He was so talented.  What a waste.  Some expressed anger that he would selfishly take himself out of the world that needed him.

But if you have depression, you cannot see any of that.  All you can see is the darkness around you and no way out.  Like the bottom of a well.  Your head can’t escape from the well.  Your body certainly won’t co-operate because all it wants to lie back, float, let the dark water lift your burden.

People with depression live like this–always treading darkest water.  Medication can lessen the symptoms.  Therapy can alleviate the helpless loneliness.  And sometimes it gets better.  Good days.  Better months.  But it’s not something you can snap out of.  It’s not simply a matter of shaking off the blues.  Depression is illness.  You treat it.  You cope with it.  But you can’t shake it any more than you can tell your sinuses to stop running because a cold is not convenient just now.  You can’t will a severed limb to be whole again.  You can only learn strategies for coping without it.

I have experienced depression in small doses on two occasions in my life: after the births of each of my children.  I struggled to bond with my daughters.  I felt useless.  There were many times I convinced myself both children would be better off if I gave them to someone else to raise.  I even had a plan for this that seemed totally reasonable at the time.  Breast feeding was particularly awful.  This reached a high point—or rather a low point—when I took a pair of scissors to my favourite t-shirt and shredded it just over my breasts.  At least it was my shirt and not my skin.

If I spoke to anyone about my feelings, people would almost always say the same thing: “your babies are beautiful, healthy and they are going to be fine.”  My babies were never a question.  I always knew they were fine and would be fine.  I was the mess.  I felt like I was slowly dying.

I vividly remember when I finally felt like a mother.  Or felt the way I thought a mother should feel.  My first born daughter was seventeen months old and we were on holiday together in New York City.  That was the first time I had fun with her.  It was just as bad with the second one, though I recovered faster.  I still have moments, rare though they are, when I make plans.  Plans that seem totally reasonable for about an hour.  I can’t image how it would feel to live in that dark place full time.

Some of my favourite authors have written about depression.  Matt Haig is one of the most honest.  Stephen Fry the most vulnerable.  David Foster Wallace the most eloquent in his own way.  Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggles.

She wrote about it too.  And I have written about her.  She was my primary inspiration for the character of Rowan in A Circle of Lost Sisters.  She is still here.  Everyday managing to tread darkest waters.

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A Question of Comic Art

Emma_Frost_(Earth-811)I have recently become a fan of comic books.  Sorry, graphic novels.  Mostly because of my husband.  That’s what happens when you marry a geek.  You learn stuff.

While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff.  Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything.  Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.

As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art.  Predictably, it was about boobs.  To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe.  It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels.  Realism and proportion were at issue.  The conversation soon evolved into something more.

It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection.  Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs.  Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous.  I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.

This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion.  You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable.  My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.

I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous.  The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image.  But that is a minor point.  My main issue with the argument is one of equality.  Cause there ain’t none.

ThorWCAnytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong.  Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on.  Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women.  Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact.  You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none.  There never has been.  We live in a patriarchal world.  Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.

If this still confuses you, let me break it down.  A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it.  But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks.  That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it.  Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy.  Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects.  Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality.  There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.

But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys.  Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want.  What they have always wanted.  What they are hardwired through nature to want.  And that cannot change.  Ever.

Bullshit.

Not bullshit that men desire women sexually.  Lust away.  It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with.  Even more the idea that men can’t change.  Of course they can.  We can.  Humans are adatable.  We’ve been changing and evolving since day one.  You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?

And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument.  Boys will be boys.  That’s men for you.  Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis.  I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time.  I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.

sandman1_deathCulture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women.  Culture can change it.  Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to.  Patriarchy benefits men.  If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus?  Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why.  Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice.  And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women.  Plans that do not always benefit all men.

Lots of men get this.  They truly do.  I know many men who identify themselves as feminist.  One of those men said something once I will never forget.  He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters.  “I have never believed this to be true,” he said.  “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change.  It is an act of respect not hate.  It’s an act of love.”

Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books.  Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men).  But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel.  The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do.  I’ll help you do it.  I’d like that.  With respectful anger and love.