Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
October 28, 2015 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
In 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), there were 41,149 suicides reported in the U.S. Someone in this country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes, and suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for Americans. And while there was a slight decline in suicides from 1986 to 2000, over the next 12 years the rate climbed steadily.
Given these sobering statistics, Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris and just out from Seal Press couldn’t be more timely. The 34 essays represent a wide range of perspectives ranging from writers who reveal their own failed suicide attempts to survivors struggling to make sense—if not peace—with the wreckage left by the suicides of loved ones. Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Ferris about how she came to compile these accounts and what she hopes readers will take away from them.
YZM: What inspired you to assemble this collection?
AF: Robin Williams’s death. Just like most folks, I was in deep, deep sad shock that he had committed suicide, and I felt this urge, this need to do something. I’m a writer. I write. I also had never come out about my very own suicide attempt when I was a young woman. And so I decided to write a post about that, which was doubly inspired by a friend sending me an email, and the subject line read: did you ever try it? I knew exactly what she was asking. So, I sat down and wrote a piece about my greatest failure—my suicide attempt, and it went viral, and folks shared it, and it sort of circled the globe and then I had that ‘aha’ moment—I wanted to put together an entire collection of stories, essays, pieces from other writers, artists, authors, creators who experienced all shades of blue: depression, attempted suicide, family members who had both depression and or attempted suicide, postpartum depression.
YZM: Did you find writers eager or reluctant to talk about their experiences with depression?
AF: Most—actually, all, yes, all—of the writers I went to were thrilled to be sharing their stories. Truly. There is such a stigma attached to depression and suicide that to be able to create an entire collection with truth-telling, heart-wrenching essays that will change the way people see you, view you, understand you is quite astonishing. Each piece is so exquisite. I am certain that each contributor felt the need, while writing the essay, to share the pain and sorrow and shame of depression; their family history; their suicide attempt, but also to share that glimmer of hope that comes from breaking through, knowing you’re not alone. You can’t wish or hope depression away. It doesn’t work that way. But when you share your story you’re releasing a piece of you that will no doubt ignite a spark in someone else.
YZM: Do you think depression is more common in women?
AF: I think it’s common in both. Much too common, actually. Both men and women experience, go through, and live with depression, but how men and women deal with it is much different. Women talk, and share, and open up, take medication, do physical activity like yoga, Pilates; men hide their feelings often, and don’t share their shame in quite the same way. Men have a tendency to act out their depression. Women have a tendency to act on their depression. There’s a tremendous amount of shame around men and depression. That’s not to say women don’t have, or share that shame, it’s just men were—are—taught to be strong and brave and hide their sadness, their feelings, their ‘blues,’ whereas women stand up and declare their feelings out-loud. I mean, all of these horrific mass shootings—in schools, and malls, and airports—and killings, like the one in Virginia, are predominately men, young men, who have severe mental health issues and do not seek help, or haven’t received help. Rage, anger and untreated self-hatred, along with emotional impotence, are often by products of mental instability. I think, to answer your question, women deal with depression much differently. Depression has many facets, and faces and colors. It’s not just sadness. There’s a whole host of struggles that accompany it.
YZM: Do Jews deal with depression differently?
AF: Most Jewish girls and women I know who fall into depression go shopping, and I don’t say that lightly or cynically, or as a joke. Shopping is a big band-aid. Spending makes us feel powerful. Unfortunately it has many side effects. But, to answer your question, do Jews deal with depression differently, the truth is I don’t know. Do you mean religious Jews, or secular Jews, or just Jews in general? I’m going to say that I hope that anyone who is struggling with this darkness—this sadness, this pain, the inability to see and find their own light—to please, share their suffering with someone. That is so important, life-saving. To not live in shame or fear of being ridiculed or dismissed because depression is real. It’s not make-believe. I have a friend who is a religious Jew. She had four babies back to back (this was years ago), and she suffered deeply, deeply from postpartum. She was so unhappy, so sad, so blue. She could barely function. Her initial reaction was to just ‘deal.’ But there were days that she couldn’t function at all. She needed help. She needed guidance. She was in a constant state of dread. I gave her Brooke Shields’ memoir, Down Came The Rain (back when it first came out, years ago), and boy, was she relieved that there was a book describing the very thing she was going through. She took charge of her life, her depression, and she got help, and was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression. I have no idea if her community supported her, or if she hid her diagnosis. My fervent wish is that all folks who suffer from this often debilitating and crippling disease seek help, seek friends, seek encouragement, seek solace to know that they are not alone.
YZM: You have been very open about your own struggle with depression; was it consoling to read about the struggles of others?
AF: Oh, yes, very consoling, yes. When you share pieces of your life—the broken, messy, jagged, unattractive pieces of your life, your big hope, your big wish is that it inspires others to speak out, tell their story, stand tall. And then one by one people share their messy, edgy, broken lives, and pretty soon you have this gorgeous mosaic filled with so many pieces fitting together—and each piece fits, blends perfectly into the next piece. It inspires me to no end to know that I am also not alone in this struggle.
YZM: What do you hope readers will come away with?
AF: I hope, from the depths of my heart, that readers come away knowing that pretty much we’re all broken, and fragile, and messy, and complicated and have secrets and stories that need sunlight. The longer we keep our life-stories in darkness, hidden away, they longer they will cause us sorrow and shame and pain. I hope this book shines a huge light, a massive light on everyone and anyone who needs to know that they are not alone. That this book is a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on, a light at the end of the tunnel, a life jacket. We want to save lives with this book.