Beliefnet
Beyond Blue

Angelina-_l.jpgEntertainment Weekly asked Angelina Jolie how she reconciles her former image (doing drugs, cutting herself, etc) with her current one (mom and humanitarian). She said:

The reason I talked about going through certain pains or even cutting myself is that I was already out the other side. I knew there were people that do that — and somehow are happy that somebody admitted they did and discussed how they got out of it. I don’t see the point of doing an interview unless you’re going to share the things you learn in life and the mistakes you make. So to admit that I’m extremely human and have done some dark things, I don’t think makes me unusual or unusually dark. I think it actually is the right thing to do and I’d like to think it’s the nice thing to do.

(Thanks to Lilit Marcus, by the way, who found that nugget for me, and visit her site at http://savetheassistants.com)

I have mostly always agreed with Angelina. As I wrote about in my “Dear God: On Becoming an Ex-Suicide,” I have, in the years since my big nervous breakdown, tried to follow Walker Percy’s advice in “becoming vulnerable before God” and before my readers in order to escape despair.

For the most part, that has been a good strategy.

Why? For one, I owe God my life. I truly feel that … because I came very, very close to ending it so many times. And, second, by reaching out to my readers with absolutely no pretense–clothes off–I am better able to carry out the twelfth step of most 12-step support programs: share my experience, strength, and hope with the depressive still stuck in the hole.

However, I have always had those in my life who have asked me to rein it back in.

In one of my first interviews as a writer, for a short piece featuring three writers in Annapolis (I was one) that appeared in our local publication, “Inside Annapolis,” I divulged that I have come to know myself better in my struggle with depression and addiction in my young-adult years.

My neighbor, a lovely woman whom I very much respected, said to me: “Why in the world would you disclose that? People are unkind. They will take that and use it against you. Please be more careful the next time you are interviewed.”

I thought long and hard about what she said, and decided that I would do nothing different the next time. Because by not mentioning my battle with depression and addiction, I would be doing absolutely nothing to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. I further thought that she obviously didn’t understand depression to be a biological illness if that much shame should be attached to it.

The other day Catholic blogger David Gibson and I were e-mailing each other about the nature of our job (blogging), and he mentioned Emily Gould’s piece, “Exposed,” in the New York Times magazine, about how she left a cozy and safe place (professionally and personally) when she began blogging for Gawker about some very intimate details of her life, and consequentially suffered through muchos anxiety and inner turmoil.

“Yikes,” I e-mailed him after I read the article. “That piece scares me.”

Especially these paragraphs:

After all, by going on TV and having a daily blog presence in front of thousands of people, I had put myself in the category of “people who make their livings in public,” and so, by my own declared value system, I was an appropriate target for the kind of flak I was getting. But that didn’t mean I could handle it. A week later, I found myself lying on the floor of the bathroom in the Gawker office (where, believe me, no one should ever lie), felled by a panic attack that put me out of commission for the rest of the day. 

I started having panic attacks — breathless bouts of terror that left me feeling queasy, drained and hopeless — every day. I didn’t leave my apartment unless I absolutely had to, and because I had the option of working from home, I rarely had to. But while my actual participation in life shrank down to a bare minimum, I still responded to hundreds of e-mail messages and kept up a stream of instant-messenger conversations while I wrote. Depending on how you looked at it, I either had no life and I barely talked to anyone, or I spoke to thousands of people constantly.

I immersed myself in my job in a way I hadn’t even realized was possible — I thought about Gawker, one way or another, 24 hours a day, thrilling to the idea that a review of the restaurant where Josh and I were eating dinner might find its way onto the site the following day; pillow-talking about the site’s internal politics and our hopes and dreams about what we would do next. Just a few weeks earlier, I was scared to walk down my own block. Now I felt totally comfortable posting a picture of myself in a bathing suit on the site, inspiring Josh to do the same. I felt blazingly, insanely energized, and the posts came more easily than they ever had before.

I was happy, but I also wasn’t a complete idiot — I knew that the euphoria I was feeling was leading to a massive crash.

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

Not that I get the same traffic with Beyond Blue as Emily did when she wrote for Gawker. But getting obsessed with my blog–and having it take over my brain and my life–is a legitimate worry, given that I haven’t yet mastered “moderation” in other areas of my life.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at my college 15-year-old reunion.

During the Saturday picnic, a few friends kept asking me if I was okay. “You seem a tad withdrawn,” they said.

“I’m afraid I’m going to get attacked,” I said.

It was then that I realized what the fight between my good college friend and I had been really about. She and I have always held very different health philosophies–dating back to the day we met. In college, I took my antidepressants for my depression, and she relied on her herbal remedies and other techniques for her anxiety. No problem. Because we respected each other and loved one another.

But at the reunion, when she used certain words and described certain theories–like a garlic remedy to relieve ear infections–she suddenly in my mind became the mean reader who harshly accused me of being a “pill-lover” or “pharmaceutical-dependent creature,” insisting that I viewed the world through a distorted “depression and medication” lens.

My wall automatically went up, and I couldn’t say anything until we moved on to a different subject.

Why do I feel so vulnerable all of a sudden? I asked myself, knowing very well that she hasn’t changed her philosophies and I haven’t either.

I’m hurt, I realized. I’m truly hurt by some of the nastier comments that I get when a controversial or more clinical (medical) post gets featured in a newsletter whose readership is predominantly holistic.

After reading Emily’s article, I came up with a plan. I’m not quitting Beyond Blue. I love writing it too much. And I’m not divorcing my friend for seeing an acupuncturist instead of a doctor. I love her the way she is. Third, I’m not going to NOT write about my journey, which includes taking medication. I can’t leave that part out. Not if I want to become an ex-suicide, or be “transparent under God” and to the reader.

What am I going to do?

1. Try to separate the reader I don’t know, who feels very comfortable insulting me, from the friend I care about and love, who never intends to hurt me with her health opinions.

2. When the more controversial or more medical blog posts are picked up by the holistic newsletter, I will have a friend read the posts, and send me only the positive ones, on those days that I’m not strong enough to brave the attacks.

3. Continually remind myself that any time I raise my head above water, I automatically become a target and need to be prepared for the shots.

4. Keep on following Angelina Jolie’s style. Keep telling it all–in so far as I’m not invading anyone else’s privacy. Because she’s right. What’s the point of an interview if you don’t give people a candid shot of yourself? To quote her, again: “It’s the right thing to do and I’d to think it’s the nice thing to do.”

To read more Beyond Blue, go to www.beliefnet.com/beyondblue, and to get to Group Beyond Blue, a support group at Beliefnet Community, click here.

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