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

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  2. I just want you to know that I am so thankful for the impact . I’m 19 and I’ve been reading your books since I was in 5th grade. Once in a while I check this blog to see whats going on in your literary world, and I’m always surprised to witty, intelligent blog posts abound that give real insight into what its actually like to live as a writer and mother without any frilly bullshit. I’m worried about you Libba, that this, your last entry, was over 6 months ago now. I know what its like to struggle with depression. And I know the isolation that it brings. I hope you are still fighting the good fight and that your lack of blog posts doesn’t mean you’re curing yourself off from life. I cant begin to know your struggle but I know this; not everybody has a spirit so strong that it touches even complete strangers and moves them. I’ve never once met you and yet you’ve made me laugh, cry, throw things, and lifted me out of depression in my own life, if only for as long as it takes to read one of your stories. I think a spirit like that is worth fighting for, if nothing else. Depression does not deserve your time. I hope you found some joy this past Summer and haven’t let these feelings get the best of you. Im behind you all the way!

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  4. I have been there and I never want to go back although a few times I’ve ended up there in spite of my best efforts. When I am there I tell myself “this too, shall pass” even though it is hard to believe as I say it.

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  7. I discovered “The Diviners” by accident, and loved it! In my efforts to find out when the second book will be released, so I can find out “what happens next”, I came upon your blog posting about depression. It was the most beautifully written description that I’ve ever read. I had suffered for years with it, until I finally found a combination of meds that worked for me. I wish you the same good fortune. In the meantime, please know that there are people who understand and care.

  8. I just want to start off by saying that I have loved your books since I first picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty at borders in 2004 when I was 14, I love your writing style amd the way you put your stories together. I know what its like to deal with depression I’ve dealt with it for a long time, I couldn’t ever bring myself to say anything about it, or to ask for help when getting out of bed was the hardest task I could conceive of. And books have always been my escape, my coping mechanism, especially your books. I dont know if you will ever read this but I want to thank you for those books and the breif moments they gave me to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I reread your books whenever it hits me the hardest and life just seems to be too much work to continue on. So thank you so much for giving me a break. And I hope you find something that gives you peace as well.

  9. I’ve never written about how I feel about this before. I wrote this earlier today, I read your post and it resonated with me, enough to want to share my experience. Thank you

    When it comes I wear the mask, down turned smile face frozen, eyes watery and dead. No life in me, I just want to sleep, sleep and sleep. My bed is my safe place. I don’t know what I feel or how to feel. I’m at the mercy of my thoughts, like a roller coaster fast, crazy up and down, sick feeling in stomach. I feel shame and guilt, why am I like this, I’m a weak person, even though I know deep down not, I can’t be ,my mind plays tricks.

    All I have is irrelevant, who am I? What’s wrong with me? I know why, I’ve done the therapy, I know how it works, I know how I am what I am but why? Why me? It’s been well over 20 years, I see it now a life lived in my head. Periods of deep sadness, anxiety and shame. I’ve not wanted to be here, a lot. I’ve had violent thoughts about myself that scare me and scare others, when I try to explain how bad I feel.
    I’m on the meds,I’ve kidded myself I don’t need them, missed a few, cut the dose – back on the roller coaster. Resentment, hurt, weakness I need pills to let me live I struggle to accept this.
    So here I am again I know it’s been coming but I’ve been trying to move away, do the things that can help, run away from it, but I’m caught, I’m it, the mask is back on, my beds my safe place and I’m like a stranger in my own life. Who am I? What am I? I’m me I’m the blackness, tearful wretch .

  10. I just wanted to say thank you, for writing something I know had to be difficult. I myself suffer from depression, and it has never been easy for me talk about the way I feel to anyone, even my parents. There have been countless times where I fear I may loose myself to depression, and everyday it is a uphill battle. Some days I feel like I don’t stand a chance. But after reading your story, I have been left with a feeling like there is a chance and there is nothing that I can’t conquer. Now, I have always known that there were others like me out there, but before today I have never read such a moving piece that you have written. I have always been a huge fan of your work. I will always remember reading The Gemma Doyle trilogy for the very first time my freshman year in high school; that was also the same year my depression showed its face. Reading about Gemma’s life and all of the challenges she had to face gave me the courage to try to fight my own battles. Sadly, I don’t have the pleasure of saying that I have kicked depression out on the curb, but I will say that whenever I find myself starting to fall into the dark abyss I always know that I can escape and find comfort alongside Gemma Doyle. So thank you, for not only writing this post, but for creating stories so that readers such as myself can escape their world full of sadness and dark, and immerse themselves in one full of adventure, excitement, and most importantly hope.

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  14. Hang in there. I along with many others patiently await the next chapter in the Diviners saga. In fact, that’s exactly why I looked you up, hoping I missed something, and I did – you have a life! You are very talented and creative, but sometimes that comes with a dark side. My thoughts and best wishes are with you.

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  16. I have no idea if you will see this comment, but I wanted to say, as the wife of someone who struggles mightily with depression–thank you for writing this. I get that his depression is not about me, or even “about” him, any more than cancer or diabetes is “about” the person who has it. It scares the fuck out of me to know that all the love I have for him cannot guarantee that he won’t ever attempt suicide. When Robin Williams died, my husband said, “What if I keep fighting and fighting and it just never gets better?” I am so sad that he, and so many others, have that much pain. He is in therapy and on medication, and it’s still an on-going struggle. Your description of the ebb and flow of depression is so recognizable.

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  29. Thank you for writing this article and sharing your thoughts. I too have had my ups and downs over many years. It took me about 20 years to realize that my own worst enemy was myself. Depression affects many of us in many different ways and it is typically the result of much deeper emotions we hold within ourselves that we have stored away for safe keeping so we don’t have to think about it. The problem is that – it sits there deep within our souls. We think we have eliminated it, but we have not. There is a solution to this – it’s called ZPoint. The founder and creator for this process is Grant Connolly. And this process really works at not only addressing the negative emotions but releasing them as well. So if you have an additiction, dealing with depression, relationship problems or any other negative emotions, give this a try. I personally use this process on a regular basis and it has helped me so much. I’m not saying this will be the ‘end all solution’ to your depression. But I am saying it will help! I am posting the website here in hopes that it finds you well and helps you with the emotions you are dealing with:

  30. Would just like to say I read this years ago struggling with post-suicide confusion and it brought me some peace. Now I happened upon the link again and it’s still relevant, and helpful and beautiful. Thank you, now and then.

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  36. I finished listening to the audiobook of King of Crows. Kudos to the actor, January Levoy, incredible performance. As I often do with audiobooks, I did a second read/listen. Thinking about the horror of the soldiers forced in an eternal reliving of their deaths, over and over…the words No Man’s Land came to me and click. She wrote about depression, a long time ago, and it was called No Mans Land. So I re-read this. Have you, recently? Because, my god, it is full of the Diviners. The WWI soldiers. Metaphors of water, rivers, drowning, feeling in the grip of claws, teeth, ghosts only you can see. Weighed by rocks in a rushing, uncontrolled river. Untethered and free falling into space. A hole in the center. Radio messages to anyone, writing and leaving writings, anything to communicate. Of being trapped in a cage of guilt, shame, ugliness. A bird clutched and fluttering in a squeezed hand. Pain and numbness. Not being believed. Of being belittled, judged, called a fraud. Of hiding. Of feeling disconnected, strange, pretending, fear of what is inside you, fear of being found out. Letting the dead rest, letting them go. And words you write disappearing, filling with someone else’s words, as the sand empties in the hourglass. And finally, confronting the monster. Seeing him. An empty coat. And freedom from hell, because your story is not done, and the rules are stupid. Love. And connection. Mind blown. And thank you. I loved all of them, feared for them, felt for them, cheered them on and cried for them. It was a truly magnificent conclusion. And, did you notice, it concludes right before the Great Depression? I hope you are well, and safe.

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