Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.

For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll think of all the things you could say: “Partly cloudy with a strong chance of rain later?” “Mostly okay except for that silent sobbing I did on the F train this afternoon which frightened the school children.” “Well, I’m okay now but around 10 PM I could be drinking from a seemingly bottomless cup of self-loathing, so stick around if you’re into that sort of thing.” You do not want to be labeled “That Depressed Person,” which was not a show on ABC. 

Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups. You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again. 

But other times…

 Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

I call it White Knuckling it.

When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.

You may find yourself on the floor of your shower, your face turned toward the wall while the water courses over your shoulders, your mouth opened in a howl that will not come.

You may find yourself on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. running, running, running, as if you could outpace the emotional mugger at your back.

You might sit at a dinner party making small talk, hoping that you pass for normal, because you suddenly feel as if you are not in touch with the usual social paradigms.

You will not sleep. Insomnia becomes your permanent house guest, and you will wake, blinking up at the weak moonlight splayed across your ceiling like a crime scene, the very stillness of the house seemingly complicit in your guilt.

Ordinary tasks become extraordinary challenges: The laundry. Phone calls. Emails. Making food. Making decisions. Engaging in conversation. Concentration proves impossible—you stare at your computer screen and all your words feel as if they are trapped behind a curtain far too heavy to lift. Deadlines are missed. These everyday failures compound adding an element of panic to the already untenable situation.

 There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.

If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.” But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition. “I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.” And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it.  Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.

The other trouble is that it is often incredibly difficult to articulate the pain you feel. Words prove inadequate, and the distance they must travel from this deep well of grief and loneliness up to your mouth seems impossible to traverse. It is miles and miles of no-man’s land. How can you communicate something so without form? Depression is a vengeful ghost you see from the corner of your eye always but you know that no one else can see it. So how do you alert anyone to its presence in the room?

Sometimes, people can’t take it anymore. Whenever a suicide happens, whenever I hear of these losses—Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Ned Vizzini—a certain terror takes hold. They didn’t beat it, I think; they didn’t win. Perhaps it is unbeatable, after all. Resistance is futile.

 I have heard people speak of the selfishness of suicide: “How could s/he leave behind a spouse or, worse, children?” It’s hard to imagine someone committing such a terrible act, one that permanently damages those left behind. I have heard well-meaning therapists explain that this is an act of rage turned inward. I’ve spent many years in psychoanalysis. I get it. And certainly, the fact that I have a child keeps me fighting during the bad times.

But I don’t think it’s all that simple.

To these cries, to these explanations, I can only say that you cannot know unless you’ve been there. Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end. The pain is all-consuming. It is a pit-bull whose jaws will not let you go, and the more you struggle against it, the tighter the bite gets, the greater the pain becomes. 

Imagine that you sit, shivering and blue, in a tub of freezing water. If you were not depressed, you’d get out of the tub. But now imagine that you cannot get yourself out of the tub. Your body is weighted to the bottom with invisible stones. The sides of the tub are too high—you can’t imagine that on the other side of the tub is a floor that leads to a warm towel and an exit. You can only see the walls of the tub, closing you in. You can only feel the relentless, needle-prick torment of the icy water. You can only watch, helpless, as your fingers prune and bruise with cold, a strange mix of acute pain and numbness. And you are aware of isolation so complete that it feels as if you are an astronaut whose line has come untethered in space.  As if you have swallowed loneliness and are drowning in it, unable to cough it up and breathe again.

In this state, you can only think of how desperately you want this agony to end. You can only think of doing something, anything to stop the feeling, to keep it from overwhelming you with shame, loneliness, guilt, and bleak-gray hopelessness. This is what it is to experience depression. It is the absence of hope.

I do not want to romanticize depression. The flip side of the stigma accompanying depression is a tendency to turn it into The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect, to borrow from Todd Rundgren. There is an idea that “artists” are such special snowflakes that the very air they breath injures them. This is bullshit. Again, depression is an illness, not a fashion statement. Certainly, there appears to be a large correlation between artists and depression. But I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.  I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me. It’s why I’m writing this now. Silence = Death, as ACT UP used to say. 

This is why there is such comfort in books and movies and music and art. Why it often saves. I have taken comfort from depressed characters like Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood, Jimmy from “Quadrophenia,” Harold from “Harold and Maude,” Franny Glass, and too many others to name. I have found my emotional DNA in theirs and continue to draw solace from knowing that I am not alone in these murky, hard-to-articulate feelings.

We are not alone. That’s key. 

Time and again, I am humbled by the beautiful vulnerability and resilience of human beings trying to stay on the bendable side of that all-too-human fragility. Everyone, it seems, fights a personal battle every day, one that, hopefully, leads to a greater well of compassion, empathy, and enlightenment. Once, I thought this path was about an idea I had of “self-actualization.” I imagined that this was an accomplishable goal and that it would look like a smooth, shiny fortress, something unassailable. But more and more, I’m coming to see the fallacy of that. That’s a hologram of happiness. That’s a defense against the pain of being human. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about impermeability. To live in a keep is to retreat from the world. No. I’ve come to think that perhaps it is about the messiness of mistakes, of falling, of the bravery of unvarnished honesty, of forgiveness and love—the forgiveness and love we offer others, yes, but also the forgiveness and love we must extend to ourselves. There is no such thing as reaching the end goal of humanity. There is only the continued, imperfect striving. We are satellites sending radio signals to Earth, waiting for contact: “I hear you. Do you hear me? Over.” 

If you are, yourself, depressed right now, send a signal to someone, anyone you trust. Say the words out loud. Words have power. You are not a freak. You are not icky. You are, simply, human and in great pain. You do not “deserve” that pain. You are not less than for feeling it, and you DO deserve love and care and relief from that pain.   

If you know someone who is depressed, one of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen without judgment and to let the person know that s/he is loved simply for being.

This is not a pep talk to myself or anyone else. This is not a fucking happy face bandage on the very real torment of depression. This is the resistance fighter in me moving in the city shadows at midnight, posting notes to myself and anyone else who happens to need them to keep fighting, to strike back against the enemy. 

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

 And if you take comfort from my words, if it helps you to feel understood in your pain, if it helps you to know you can and will get out of the tub, then I am glad.

 As for me, today, I take comfort from the last line of one of my favorite short stories, J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” a story I discovered during a low period in high school. If you haven’t ever read this story, well, I highly recommend it. It’s about an encounter between two lonely people in an English tearoom, an American soldier shipping off to WWII and a precocious, thirteen-year-old girl putting up a brave front after losing both parents. I won’t spoil it with further banal explanation. You really should read it for yourselves. But suffice to say that the war doesn’t go well for the soldier, who returns, broken, until he receives a letter from the now-grown Esme, which comforts him such that he is finally able to put aside the horrors of war and sleep:

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

 I hope your faculties remain intact.

 As for me, I will do what I must to make my way through the miles of No-Man’s Land. And if I haven’t returned your email, I ask your forgiveness. It may be a while.






416 thoughts on “Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

  1. You are so incredibly courageous, Libba. And have made me smile and laugh and sing your name filled with praise. And I’m not talking about your writing. Though that deserves a tremendous amount of praise, too. I’m talking about your acts of kindness. I’ve been blessed to witness how you changed the lives of several people during your signing in Milwaukee, WI. You called a student of mine who couldn’t attend because of an exam. You purchased a book for a girl who couldn’t afford one. And you made me decide that when my novel comes out some day, I’ll do the same! Your honest post is once again Libba being Libba, giving back to others by sharing and caring enough to say that sometimes life can pull a person into a pit, despite trying everything to pull oneself out. I wish I could hug and thank you in person. Instead, I’ll continue to sing your praises for being a real, imperfect, wonderful human being. Sending blessings and love you way. Liza

  2. I love this and that you wrote it. I write about my depression and PTSD and anxiety through my stories and it hurts to hear people call the characters weak or selfish or whiny because in effect it’s me who is those things. But then someone comes along who feels the same or who writes a post like this and I remember it’s empathy and understanding that I’m creating in these stories. The fact that people like you can bravely share these things gives people like me hope.

  3. As someone whose also almost given up, know that all of us who support are there, invisible, in that No Mans Land sending you good thought and love. That thought has helped me before. May it help you.

  4. My M.O. is to isolate, so one of the biggest obstacles to getting back to “normal” is encountering friends and “having to” explain where I’ve been. I’ve started telling people, “Oh, I fell down a mineshaft. You know.” That seems to work.

    During the time I am suffering from depression, I avoid contact with people. When I have to leave the house it is usually despite the anxiety of seeing someone I know. I just feel so raw, exposed and ashamed. And then it happens. While on a supply run to the store, carefully timed to minimize the possibility of contact, there he or she is. The friend or worse, the friend of a friend. Perhaps a former coworker from that job you quit/stopped showing up for. They ask that fraught question, “How are you?”

    I think my best response is “Do you really want to know or are you being polite?” If they say they really want to know, I then ask, “How much time do you have?”

  5. First of all, I just wanted to commend you for speaking out about this. For being so brave to write about depression when you have no one else to turn to. And it’s hard because people don’t understand what it’s like to go through it. But I do. I’ve been depressed for years myself. And you summed it all up with these words: “Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end. The pain is all-consuming.” A perfect version of what it feels like to be depressed gathered into one simple sentence. They don’t know what it’s like to not want to get out of bed. To cry for no reason whatsoever. To go to the ER because you’re afraid you’ll kill yourself and then proceed to make you talk.

    Secondly, I want you know that you’re not alone. I’ve slowly gotten myself out of it. I’m not on any medication anymore, and I’m hoping not to be. Life is brighter, more cheerful and I have a reason to get up out of bed every day. Do not give up hope. Strive to fight for your life. It’s a wonderful and precious gift that has been bestowed upon us mere mortals.

    I’m rooting and praying for you Libba

    ❤ one of your fans xoxo

  6. Libba! I’m so glad you shared this. I don’t know if I can quite articulate it, but just like Holden and Esther have meant a lot to me, so has Gemma Doyle. The summer I was sixteen and depressed I read through all of the Gemma books late into the night, recognized something in them I hadn’t found anywhere else in Gemma’s struggles and felt this profound connection, copied out quotes into my journal, sobbing, and started to feel okay. Writing as resistance makes so much sense to me, and I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve written, and just want to send hugs or love or “I hear you” and let you know I’m here.

    Love love love,

  7. You are very brave to write this. You are also uncommonly courageous. There are people who have much to overcome in life. Others seemingly never have to face the bleakness. I have no idea why or who. Why some and not others? Who is chosen, singled out for good or bad things?

    I have no answers. I can only say that depression i nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes things just happen. You deal, you go forward. We go forward the best we can. All of us only do the best we can.

    I had a very difficult 10 year period in my life There were people I looked at and envied. I envied them for many reasons. In later years, I found the situation reversed. They were having difficulties and I seemed to be on easy street.

    I think life is ever changing. I want you to know that I admire you. I also deal with some things I don’t seem to have any control over. I admire you. Amazing things come to those who have much to overcome.

    Blessed be.

  8. I take 100mg Sertraline as well as a combo of 50mg Trazodone and .25 Risperdal for sleep (for the first time in my life, I sleep wonderfully). I am feeling very well and wish you only the best. Much love to you.

  9. Hugs, Libba. Yeah, I have been there. And I have been frightened nearly to paralysis when my kids were there. I can handle my depression, but theirs sends me to depths that burn me. Just keep doing what you need to do. Thank you for writing this. May it bring understanding.

  10. I am a person in the world you may never meet, but I am so proud of you for revealing what you are going through, when not writing I am a Child Youth Worker that helps teens and children deal with a slew of mental health issues. Depression is the hidden disease your right it needs more recognition because many people suffer from it. So although I am a person in the world you may never meet if you ever need to talk I will listen and I will never judge. *hugs*

  11. Thanks for this. It’s vivid, first-hand reporting like this that tells me I do not have depression. I have, perhaps, a shallow candy version of it sometimes, which is dependent upon circumstances, and I can use my resources for other things.

    You’ve helped me. I wish I could help.

    • If you see yourself as having a “shallow candy version”, even just during certain circumstances, ask a professional if it is a problem. There is also a problem called dysthimia that is like having a low-grade perpetual depression. The lows are not so dramatic but the presence of low energy and initiative are a problem affecting daily functioning. Most people do not have to wonder if they have a problem. So if you are thinking you might, you might.

  12. Thank you. This is one of the best things I’ve read on depression in a while. I hope you feel better soon, Libba. I know the pain and am also going through it.

  13. This really captures the truth of depression, quite beautifully. I am so sorry that you too fall prey to this nasty beast. Sending hugs, always.

  14. Hang in there.  Chocolate and a virtual hugs.  You are not alone.   Depression sucks.   #1 fan

    Libba Bray <> wrote:

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    libbabray posted: “This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a par”

  15. You are so brave to write this. It so needs to be written. Just this week two teenagers in our local community–both at the same high school–took their own lives. Two. In the same week. And still, there is a silence surrounding the issue of why and how and what could we do. Just last Dec., my husband’s uncle took his own life after a decades’ old struggle, and I can’t help but think that the silence around his illness (no one knew, really. No one talked about/shared about previous attempts)

    Thank you for this. Thank you for sharing something that is so personal and so intensely private, because by sharing it, maybe someone else will see that they aren’t alone. Maybe a family or circle of friends will start talking. Maybe a life can be helped or saved.

    Thank you.

  16. WOW it’s like you looked into my soul and wrote my feelings. Thank you. We are not alone. as for suicide it’s not an option for me. My love for my family overrides that and a great lesson I learned a long time ago “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” ans although depression will be a life long struggle but it reminds me that the deep darks will go if only for a while.

  17. Thank you. You’ve put words to something I’ve tried to explain/quantify time and again. Giving the beast a name makes it easier to deal with. Understanding it/speaking about it, gives us strength.

    Thank you.

    We aren’t alone.

  18. Thank you for having the strength to so eloquently share with the world how I feel 99% of the time. I’m currently on disability for depression coupled with an anxiety disorder so severe that I barely leave the house. My husband knows, and obviously my therapist, but nobody else. I’m too ashamed. I’d rather people think I can’t find a job than have them know that I normally don’t consider getting out of bed a good idea.

    The worst part has been losing my Words, which may be something you’ve experienced, too. I used to write, and was given positive feedback from other writers and even a agent, but right now depression has clogged my brain so badly that I can’t think of coherent sentences. It’s like waking up one day and being unable to speak, and I feel like I’ll never get it back. I try to explain to people that I miss my Words, and their replies are harsher than any discussion of depression might be.

    I don’t have any advice for you, because I know sometimes it just sounds like platitudes. Just thanks.

  19. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this piece, Libba. Several people in my family struggled or are struggling with depression, so I appreciate whenever someone is brave enough to be able to speak about their experience with it. As you say, silence = death; this is something I know too well. Hopefully, there will come a time when the shame and stigma of depression no longer exists.

  20. Libba,
    I near you loud & clear. Over!
    You have given a voice to the silence that hurts so many of us. I have battled this silent disease a few times in my life & know all too well not wanting to die, but wanting the pain to end.
    You have a beautiful way with words. Thank you for speaking so eloquently about a subject many do not want to even acknowledge.
    Thank you & (((HUGS))). Hang in there!

  21. I am so thankful you wrote this and I stumbled upon it. You wrote exactly what I have not been able to say. I’ve never read anything with so much truth in every statement, or something that is so raw.

  22. Thank you, Libba. I’m a writer struggling with this, too…and your words are a tether. You put context to my feelings and for that I’m grateful. Resistance fighters…yes. That’s what we are. Thank you.

  23. I’ve been there – and sometimes feel like I’m tipping closer to that edge again – but you explain what it feels like so clearly. Thank you for having the courage to share your struggles.

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