A couple of days ago, I officially accepted a place in the SF State MFA program. As a student. This winter I sent out applications to Mills, SF State, and the Stegner Fellowship program, hoping that, one way or another, I’d be able to spend the next couple of years truly focused on writing. The folks at Stegner weren’t interested, but Mills and SF State were. I have spent the last month or so trying to decide which would be the best place for me to spend the next two or three years; what a lucky thing to get to make such a difficult choice.
For many years, I was determined never to go to school for an MFA. Many of the writers I loved and admired — Anne Lamott, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg — had not received MFAs. They just wrote, and shared their work, and then wrote more. Why did I need to go to school for a piece of paper that would tell me I had the right to write? Why did I need to sit in a room with folks who would tear my work up just to please the instructor? Why would I set my tender, still-budding, creative vision under the knife of harried creative writing teachers, who were only teaching in order to make enough money in order to buy themselves a little more time to write, and didn’t want to be teaching anyway, and who wouldn’t be able to help me develop my work the way I wanted to because all they’d see was how different my writing was from The Canon and, thus, what a failure I was as a writer.
Plus, I applied to an MFA program in, what, ’99? 200o? And didn’t get in. The professor from Goddard’s MFA program thought my poetry was too “young.” So there was that, too.
Call it sour grapes, what came after. MFA? I don’t need no stinking MFA.
But there was another thing, too: MFA? No one wants to give me an MFA. I’m not a real writer. Who am I to think of myself as a writer that way?
Forty-nine days ago, I stood in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and stared at the pill in my hand. What did it mean that I was about to do this? I promptly fumbled the pill and dropped it down the drain.
By the time I decided to take the step I was about to take, I’d tried about everything else I could think of (consciously and unconsciously) to deal with my depression. I’d gone to therapy (lots and lots and lots of therapy), I’d begun to exercise more, I’d changed my diet, I’d even tried to self-medicate with various herbs and supplements (according to lists offered on blog posts and herbalists’ websites). And I wrote and wrote, of course. I’d also self-medicated in plenty of other ways: eating so much that all I could feel was fullness and shame (rather than despair), watching television to numb my spinning brain, and, of course, there are all the years I gave to alcohol (which, as a depressant, isn’t actually the best antidote to chronic depression — but, being drunk, it was hard for me to logic that one out.)
But I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t want to take drugs. (Never mind, as my sister reminded me, that alcohol is a drug, and food can act like a drug, and television… never mind all that.) Drugs weren’t natural, and anyway, why would I want to medicate my depression away? Why would I want to pretend like I wasn’t depressed? I had good reason to be depressed, for christsake, given all I’d been through at the hands of my stepfather for my entire adolescence, given the fact that I was a queer woman living in America, given the facts of misogyny, homophobia, the pervasiveness of violence against women and children, and the hostility and suspicion often cast toward those who were willing to come forward with their lived experiences of abuse. Who wouldn’t be depressed, given these and other realities of this so-called civilized society. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t depressed, actually. I didn’t want to be numbed to my feelings by psychopharmaceuticals. (I would, instead, numb with other things.)
And I didn’t want to be a part of a system that wanted to individualize the problem of depression and other psychological responses to living in rape/trauma culture — we didn’t fucking need drugs, we needed adults to stop raping children; we needed a massive cultural shift. If so many kids weren’t being raped, they wouldn’t grow up to need Prozac in order to be able to present as a functional part of capitalist society, in order to act like everything was ok. Everything wasn’t ok.
I’ve been wrangling with a well-earned, post-trauma depression since the early 90s, and there’s a history of depression on both sides of my family as well. I lived with my depression, getting to know its contours and bearings, its triggers and nuances. I found a fairly decent way to coexist with it, and function. I wrote about sorrow and loss and shame. I wrote about living in the aftermath of trauma, that depression was part and parcel of my reality. I taught friends and beloveds to understand that there would be days I simply couldn’t be available to them, days I would be sad, days I would not be able to be touched. Those were my inside days, I called them — when I was all the way inside myself. They wouldn’t last forever. That was a blessing of recovery, to get to the place where I knew that a wave of depression wouldn’t last forever. I would come back out of it, and be a different self again. But all of these parts were myself. My depression was part of what made me me.
And then, a few years ago, my hormones began to shift. Maybe it’s perimenopause: right around the time I was bleeding, and maybe for a few days after, I felt fine, but then my mood would begin to sink — often, for at least two weeks out of every month, I was trying to function while in a state of total despair. Everything I wanted to do — prep for a workshop, write a blog post or even a journal entry, have coffee with a friend, take the dog for a walk — required all the energy I had, and then required a rebound period, time to recuperate, recharge. I had to drag myself through most of my life. Writing stopped helping the way it once had. I had one low plunge that left me feeling suicidal — even though I knew, intellectually, what was going on. I knew this was my hormones talking. I knew I would feel better (at least somewhat) once I bled. But that didn’t help ameliorate the despair. Instead I thought, Is this how my life is going to be from now on? Am I going to spend half of it just trying to recover from the other half spent feeling like I’m crawling through a cave of misery and shame? Do I have to live like this?
Depression isn’t just anger turned inward. Depression isn’t an attitude problem. Depression isn’t an inability or unwillingness to see the good side of things, to engage in more positive thinking. Depression isn’t simply sadness. Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the body.
Someone said to me, If you had a broken leg, wouldn’t you go get a cast on it until it healed? Taking anti-depressants is like that, they said.
But I was stubborn. I had made it all these years. Was I really going to give in to Big Pharma now?
(And then there was the little matter of the drugs’ side effects, not the least of which was the trouble folks had sexually once they started taking SSRIs. I had enough trouble with my sex — did I really want to make sex more difficult?)
Still, the despair was making it difficult for me to feel much joy or positivity at all. The rebound periods weren’t that much higher than the lows, and the lows were getting lower. I had those days of sitting on the couch, watching endless repeats of crime dramas, weeping at how I was wasting my life, comparing myself to the (apparently) non-depressed and functional people around me who could just get up and go to work and spend time with friends and spend time with family and still have energy left over. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just power myself through this anymore?
I couldn’t power through it because I was depressed.
Finally, at an appointment I’d made for completely different reasons, I talked to a new nurse-practitioner about my depression. But I don’t want to go on anti-depressants, I said. I talked about wanting to see an nutritionist, go to an herbalist, try acupuncture. She asked me about the extent of my depression, and I heard myself describe how impacted I was by this aspect of my psychological and physiological makeup, about my family and abuse history. She wondered if I might not be dealing with pre-menstural dysphoric disorder (or PMDD — in other words, really, really, really bad PMS). She talked about the way depression works in the brain, and reminded me that if I went on anti-depressants, I wouldn’t have to be on them forever. I could try them out and see how they worked — while also doing these other things I wanted to try. Something in me shift, or broke, or gave up, or raised its hand and said, Please. We need some help.
I said I’d talk to my therapist. And I did. And later that day, I called back, and my nurse-practitioner wrote me prescription for a low dose of Wellbutrin (the one anti-depression without negative sexual side effects, as it turns out), which is often prescribed for PMDD.
On a Friday morning, 49 days ago, after dropping my first pill down the drain (talk about ambivalence), I went into the bedroom and swallowed this medicine.
Over the last decade (or so), I’ve eaten a lot of crow. As someone who spent her twenties in a lot of judgement of others decisions and lives, in righteous indignation and certainty that I knew the Right Way to do things, life has knocked me down an awful lot. Righteous indignation has a lot of power in it, and a lot of strength. It makes sense to me that my twenty-something self, once released from my stepfather’s controlling and viciously libertine worldview, would need to stand up and state what I believed with no room for anyone to question or challenge me, with no room for complexity. I took hold of a viewpoint and stubbornly defended it: gay was not just good but preferable to straight, butch was good/femme was bad, MFA candidates were sellouts, folks who took antidepressants were weak, people who charged money for healing work were suspect, and many, many more. I honestly believed I knew what was right and what was wrong– for myself, and for most folks, really.
Then my first marriage broke up and I began coming out as femme and trying to run a business, and ran smack into the backside of my stubborn, judgmental self. Crow, crow, crow.
Strong judgement is a safe place to live, especially when living with as much anxiety as I do. If I held a position with absolute certainly, I didn’t have to worry about it. I could have a place of clarity amid all the panic and terror I swam through every day.
But absolutes aren’t sustainable, at least in my experience (notice how I can’t even make that statement as an absolute!) — they’re like towers made of shale, from which I couldn’t descend without feeling like I’d failed. My judgments trapped and isolated me.
Slowly, through my 30s, I had nearly all of those towers of certainy crushed beneath me, and I sunk into the complicated morass of Real Life, which is messy and imperfect and contradictory. I mourned my capitulation, struggled through shame and grief. Mostly shame. And I kept writing, slowly working my way into an understanding that having strong views wasn’t in and of itself a bad thing — but being unwilling to question those views (just as my stepfather had disallowed any questioning of any of his pronouncements) was harming me, and harming my relationships.
I noticed an immediate impact from the anti-depressant. There was a day in that first week on the medicine that I had a writing group, then a phone call with a friend/colleague, then a coffee date with someone, and after that, I still had energy left over to write and connect with my beloved. I was astonished. Before the medicine, just one of those things in any given day would have knocked me out. I thought, Is this how normal people experience their lives? Do non-depressed people always have energy like this?
Feelings didn’t go away. I didn’t suddenly turn into happy happy joy joy just because I was on an anti-depressant. That first weekend on the medicine, I felt as though a fat clot of heavy cloud had been pulled off of me — and underneath that weight had been my joy, my sadness, my anger, my fear, all those feelings that had been pushed aside to make way for the demands of despair. I could actually feel things again. Oh.
(I then promptly proceeded to over-schedule my life, given my sudden increase in energy — if I’ve got it, I better give it away! — apparently having to learn the lesson again, through exhaustion, that the anti-depressants aren’t magic beans. They didn’t make me an extrovert; I still need to balance time with others and time to work and wander alone.)
And the PMDD has faded, at least these first months. We’ll see what happens over time. I still get premenstrual (thank goodness– I love that crabby PMS girl!), but the trough of despair isn’t there for now.
I decided to apply to graduate school for creative writing because I wanted, finally, to be able to fully apprentice myself to my craft, something I was never able to do as a student. I have studied writing alone, I have participated in writing groups, I have learned about writing through writing (and reading). I am profoundly grateful that I wasn’t accepted to that MFA program 15 or so years ago. I needed to get to another place in my writing self before I set my work into the hands of others. I needed to learn what teacher could mean, and what I was looking for. I needed to learn to trust my own processes, how to accept the complexities of my own work, and those of readers and respondents. I don’t believe that having an MFA makes me a writer. I am already a writer. The MFA program will introduce me to new aspects of my writing self, offer mentorship and challenge that I may finally be ready for.
I still have plenty of things I’m righteous and certain about — not the least of which being that I’m certain that those convictions will also get complicated if I get to live long enough. The longer I live, the messier everything gets — or rather, the more I’m able to be aware of and sit with the complexities and layers in everything. I am not perfect. We don’t have to be perfect. We get to be ourselves: contrary and obstinate, laughing at ourselves if we’re lucky, as we choke down one more thing we used to be so certain of.
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