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Bookeater: Woke up this morning, afraid I was gonna live

Jennifer Bennett on paper perfection and deep depression

Published Nov. 30, 2012

I’m not really much of a crier. Watching “Titanic” doesn’t tear me up. “The Notebook” is sad, but it leaves me dry-eyed. Even at the end of sorority recruitment, while other girls bawled with happiness while bonding with their new sisters, my mascara didn’t run.

The only exception is when I’m once again rereading “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” by Elizabeth Wurtzel. If any book changed my life, this was it; reading it for the first time in junior high left me sobbing. It’s just too relatable.

I’ve been a part of 'Prozac Nation' since I was 16. Wurtzel’s stories of therapists, out-of-control emotions, helplessness and salvation through medication are all too familiar to me. Like her, I’ve had some awful therapists and some lifesaving ones; like her, I’ve had days where even though I can objectively appreciate the awesomeness of my life, I still can’t get out of bed and face the world.

Wurtzel’s book describes her ongoing battles with depression, starting in 1980 when she was 11. She writes about struggling to find some semblance of stability through therapy. She writes about appearing perfect on paper – she’s brilliant! She goes to Harvard! She wins awards for her writing! – while still being caught in a deep depression. She talks about trying to be her pre-depressed self, trying to fake happiness with bright makeup and a peppy voice. Through it all, she struggles to explain what depression has robbed her of: A chance to enjoy her life and all of her accomplishments.

Her writing removes some of the stigmas surrounding depression and mental illness in general. She talks about feeling broken, as if she “came off the assembly line wrong … and my parents should have taken me back for repairs before the warranty ran out.” She spends large portions of the book talking about all the things she could do with her life if only her brain would let her. Wurtzel makes it clear that depression is NOT who she is -- it’s what’s keeping her from being who she is.

Wurtzel has an astonishing gift for finding ways to express sentiments I’ve always felt but never been able to name. She describes perfectly what it’s like to feel trapped, and to feel silly for feeling so trapped when the thing trapping you is in your own head. She talks about how fragile her emotions are and how “sometimes I wish I could walk around with a HANDLE WITH CARE sign stuck to my forehead.” She talks about depression as a black wave -- she can escape it, sometimes even for months, but it’s always following her and threatening to come crashing down.

I love Wurtzel for her unflinching honesty. She tells the good stories and the bad, “often sacrificing her likability on the altar of her truth,” as one Vanity Fair reviewer put it. She doesn’t sugarcoat things. She writes frankly about all the drugs she did in college, searching for a happier state of being. She talks about drunkenly sleeping through her octogenarian grandparents’ visit during her freshman year at Harvard. She talks about how the benefit to having a miscarriage is that it finally gives her a tangible reason for feeling so awful. Oftentimes her actions make me want to lecture her -- how could she do something like that?!? -- but it’s worth it because it adds such a sense of closeness.

It’s hard to really explain how much this book means to me. When I read it for the first time, my life started to make sense. Finding someone else -- someone just like me in so many ways -- who felt like I did gave me hope; it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone. Wurtzel’s book should be required reading for the human race. She’s able to express the tyranny of depression, of having your own mind turn against you at times, in a way that makes it understandable even to those lucky enough never to have a major brush with it.

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