Release is a story about Mandelyn, a woman getting her life back together in the midst of depression. Note that I didn’t say “after” depression. True depression doesn’t end. It can be mitigated, and its intensity may recede on occasion, but it doesn’t ever completely go away.
Depression isn’t pretty, neither for the sufferers nor anyone with whom they interact. Their behavior can come across as “weak,” despite whatever accommodations the sufferers may have from those who care about them. When people are in pain, mental or physical (depression brings both), they turn inward. This is a generous way of saying they become somewhat self-absorbed. They often make bad decisions, blame others for their shortcomings, seem sullen, and let people treat them poorly. In a word, they’re kind of annoying, especially to casual acquaintances. The most loyal, empathetic, and loving people in the lives of the depressed are relentlessly tested, and relationships often disintegrate without some sort of intervention.
But enough about “them.” It’s easier to put “those people” aside as different from ourselves than it is to identify with them.
Do a little exercise with me:
Think back to a time when you were weak, in the wrong, fell short, blamed others, felt gloomy, or let yourself be treated badly. What did you do?
- You ate half a chocolate cake.
- You drank too many cocktails and puked at the bar.
- You picked a fight, either verbally or physically.
- You texted that ex whose number you should have deleted.
If you can’t think of a single time when you did anything wrong, then you should stop reading. Release is probably not the book for you. The rest of you, read on.
Next, think about the state of mind you were in when you did whatever you shouldn’t have done. I’m no psychiatrist, but odds are you were acting, at least in part, to compensate for some less-than-ideal mental state.
- You were blue, so you ate half a chocolate cake.
- You didn’t feel accepted, so you drank a few too many cocktails and puked at the bar.
- You endured a lie—or worse, a truth—and you picked a fight.
- You felt lonely, so you texted that ex whose number you should have deleted.
How eager are you to tell the tale of your weakness? If you told the story at all, would you tell it truthfully? Would you convey each and every ugly detail, or would you gloss over your failings, leaving out the most damning, self-incriminating evidence?
Odds are that you’d probably be a pretty unsympathetic, unreliable narrator, just like Mandelyn.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of people around you. There you are, hiding your weaknesses, concealing your flaws, and compensating for your shortcomings. You’re brilliant! You’re fascinating! You’re popular, attractive, strong, witty, and altogether irresistible!
Except you’re not. You’re superficial, conceited, vapid, and boring. You’re annoying.
Finally, consider what it must be like to subsist in a state of mind that renders functional behavior nearly impossible, and makes bad choices seem perfectly reasonable. It’s one thing to have a bad day and take it out on yourself, your friends, or your family. Imagine what it must be like to wake up each morning (provided you slept at all, you crazy insomniac, you) feeling as undeserving, incompetent, directionless, and alone as you did the night before.
Writing about depressed people is a delicate balance. You want to garner sympathy, but being true to the character means depicting their flaws. If you’re going to be a stickler about accuracy, with regard to how it feels to be around people with mental illness (which is what depression is, no matter how casually or prolifically the term is bandied about), you have to demonstrate the gap between their reality and how they perceive it. You have to show them bargaining with themselves, deceiving others, being pretentious, and behaving in other destructive ways.
Many of us identify with the Mandelyns of the world on some level, which is not a comfortable feeling. And yet, we continue living our lives. Mandelyn’s life continues, as well, and the reader who’s paying attention should realize that her life is pretty damned great. It should make you angry that she can’t seem to appreciate her home, husband, mother, dogs, job, or friends.
Release is a mirror. If Mandelyn annoys you, stop and think about whether it’s because it’s easy to judge from the peanut gallery (which makes you a rotten person), you truly can’t relate to her (in which case you should thank your lucky fricking stars), or if you’re uncomfortable with seeing the worst parts of yourself in someone else, even someone who only lives on the pages of a book.
In conclusion, there are a lot of people out there who’ve done a better job of tackling this subject than I have. The woman behind Hyperbole and a Half absolutely nailed it. Check her out here and here.