Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life | Yiyun Li
I’ve barely picked up a book in the last month. In January and February, I plowed through a handful of novels and essay collections, confident in my ability to reach my goal of reading 50 books in 2018. And then when March hit, so did a wave of crippling depression. I have these episodes every so often, usually a couple times a year, where my normal levels of hopelessness, fatigue, apathy, and sadness skyrocket to an excruciating level. When I’m stuck in these ruts, I never feel like reading. I can barely get myself out of bed to go to work. I fantasize about getting back in bed all day. Once I’m back in the comfort of my blankets and pillows and my stuffed wolf Lobo, I binge hours and hours of Netflix in an attempt to drown out all the shit I don’t want to be feeling. Reading doesn’t even appeal to me. It requires focus, for my mind to be present and when my mind is present it can’t stop thinking about how bad I feel.
Just before this most recent episode hit, I started seeing a new therapist.
I spent a year and a half with my last therapist. She knew my backstory, she knew my siblings’ names, she knew the things inside my head that made me want to crawl into bed and never come out. It was easy explaining things to her. And even when I knew that we were stuck in an unproductive place, that our sessions weren’t helping me anymore, I dreaded leaving. I dreaded walking into a new office, sitting on a new couch, staring at a new carpet, and opening my mouth with no backstory to support me, knowing that I would have to work so much harder to be understood.
“My intention is not to defend suicide. I might have done so at other times in my life, but I have arrived at a point where defending and disputing my actions are the same argument. Everything I say is scrutinized by myself, not only the words and their logic but also my motives. As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates; a self dissecting itself finds little repose" (Random House 2017).
I have savored every page of Li’s memoir. Her prose is quiet and beautiful, resigned in its sober sadness. For a memoir, Dear Friend focusses less of Li’s own life than I expected. From the glimpses into her unhappy childhood in politically-volatile Beijing and her memories of being hospitalized for suicidal depression, I get the feeling that Li could have crafted a memoir that solely followed the dramatic experiences of her life. But she’s chosen, rather, to only include brief glances at her own experiences. It’s her mind that we follow, exploring with her thoughts about the human experience and memory and how we create narratives from them.
I picked up Dear Friend a few nights ago and flipped through until I found the place where I’d left off. I haven’t finished it yet. Reading still takes a lot of energy for me; I find it so exhausting to have to exit this small world I have built around myself, my bed, my life. It’s hard to imagine a world without the thrum of my anxieties and worthless thoughts, a world filled with characters living in far away spaces and realities different from my own. But even if the act of reading is tiresome to me, Li’s voice is soothing. I enjoy flipping back through the pages to find all the passages I’ve underlined and starred and left notes by. This was one of my favorite quotes:
“One has made it this far; perhaps this is enough of a reason to journey on.”
My new psychologist is the first person to look me in the eye and give me a diagnosis. I’ve known for a long time that I was depressed, but I was terrified to self-diagnose, terrified that I was making it all up or that it was all in my head. There’s something about having a professional validate what I’ve thought for so long. She also encouraged me to try taking an SSRI for the first time, to help me escape the gravity of my vegetative depression, which makes it nearly impossible to get out of bed and get moving. The hope is that, as the Sertraline kicks in, I’ll start feeling a little more energy that will help me start making some lifestyle adjustments.
But despite the strides we’ve been making in the last couple of months, starting therapy over is hard. It means rehashing things from my past that are painful to think about. It means talking about leaving the religious community of my childhood, talking about my parents, talking about all my internalized worthlessness and shame.
And even though I know it’s going to help in the long run, talking about it sucks. Sometimes it’s easy to convince myself that it’s pointless, that no amount of therapy and medication will ever help me get better.
And that kind of self-talk is the kind of thing that's hard to combat head-on. It's the kind of thing where I can try to remind myself, Hey that's a lie you're telling yourself. It's irrational, It's not true. But even though I may rationally know that the lies aren't true, my feelings won't align with that knowledge. And it's that gut feeling of worthlessness and meaninglessness that is so hard to shake.
"There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.
"This emptiness does not claim the past because it is always here. It does not have to claim the future as it blocks out the future. It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: What if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?"