Julie Hersh wrote two versions of Struck by Living about her struggle with suicidal depression.
She ended the first one with her hike to the top of a New Mexico mountain in a symbolic celebration of her recovery. A happy, triumphant ending. She bound the manuscript and sent it to dozens of her friends.
Then came her relapse into the same bleak emptiness that had led to three suicide attempts. Despite all she had learned about her illness, she initially met this recurrence with the same denial that had made recovery so difficult in the first place.
She was fine. She was done with depression.
Luckily for her, she was surrounded by friends and family who knew all the signs. After all, they had read her book. As one friend reminded her, “You gave us the manual on your symptoms.”
Yet, she couldn’t admit she needed help once again. She dismissed medication as drugging her into the self others wanted her to be. She had to keep going on her own. The locked psych ward, endless therapy, the stupor of meds – all that meant defeat.
Electroconvulsive therapy had saved her after her third suicide attempt. But now she told herself that “whole” people didn’t need ECT.
She finally admitted what was happening when confronted by her 12 year-old son who asked if her depression was back. She admitted that it was and apologized. In his matter-of-fact way, he assured her it was OK. Go get the treatment, “that shock thing.” Why was she making a big deal out of it?
That’s the question she keeps asking herself. What’s the big deal about seeing depression as a disease that needs treatment? But she knows so well, like anyone who’s been through this, how many layers of self-doubt prevent a depressed person from accepting that idea. There’s always a deeper belief that it’s really you, not an illness, that is such a blot on life.
Struck by Living is many stories. It’s the compelling account of all the ways she tried to evade the idea of illness and convince herself that everyone would be better off without her. It’s a search through her past for the patterns that might have led a hard working, high energy person to near catatonic depression.
It’s a painfully honest story of the way a severely depressed person breaks away from living. Hersh felt nothing when deeply depressed and believed she couldn’t matter to anyone else. She was replaceable, filling a space with emptiness that was meant for a vital human being. Suicide would remove the obstacle she had become in the lives of her husband and children.
For someone who has been there and done that, these are some of the most powerful scenes. Hersh brings you inside her mind in this detached state. You follow the twisted logic that rebuffs the protests of everyone close to her that she is loved, has so much to live for, will return to her dynamic self. She has arguments undercutting any claim she might have on continuing her life.
It’s frightening to read how coolly the deadly thinking explains things. In the same moment, the illogical logic makes perfect sense and horrifying nonsense.
Like many with severe depression, she sleeps too much – or too little, doesn’t eat or take care of herself, can hardly survive the daily chores of living: preparing a meal, meeting people, getting her kids where they need to be.
Despite knowing that her family loves her and that she loves them, she also “knows” that “my shadow is all of me.” Her family loves a “mirage” that she created.
She’s at her lowest ebb of detachment and distance in a psychiatrist’s office as she hears her husband, the doctor and her therapist – three men – discussing what the best course of action would be.
She says nothing and gradually sinks into a fetal position on the couch. Eventually, she gets down on the carpet in the same pose, thinking: They don’t exist – maybe they’ll forget I’m here. Her husband has to pull her up off the floor to get a response.
She finally agrees to another round of ECT treatments and once again recovers. At the end of her narrative, Julie Hersh emphasizes the choice you have to make if you’re suicidally depressed – to live or to die. She doesn’t lecture or cover up any of the pain or hardness of choosing to stay alive. In fact, she survived her third attempt to kill herself by accident.
After that, the choice was deciding to accept treatment and to keep doing whatever she could to stay well. As she dramatizes so effectively in her book, that’s the hard part when you’re slipping back into depression. It’s easy to lose touch with your own life as you keep thinking, I’m fine.
Julie Hersh tells her story in a vivid and fast-paced style that brings each incident to life without any lecturing or general background about depression. That way, we can feel directly what she’s been through and what each insight about depression has cost her. This is powerful writing, and I think you’ll learn a lot from it.