Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dooce Treatment

Remember dooce.com? The LA party girl blogger turned mommy blogger turned blogging industry? I followed her for years, mostly writing about parenting and her struggles with mental illness. She's a really good writer, and I enjoyed the blog a lot.

Her name is Heather Armstrong and her new book is called The Valedictorian of Being Dead. It's about an experimental treatment for depression that she underwent--experimental as in she was patient #3 in the trial--after an 18-month depressive episode that nothing else could touch.

It's really hard for me to review this book apart from my feelings about Heather herself--isn't that always the case with a memoir? I have fairly strong opinions about her work, and it's kind of hard not to have strong opinions about her life, too, when you've read years and years of detailed accounts about it. 

One of the pivot points of my reaction to dooce is the idea of honesty, straightforwardness, and self awareness in a personal blog. Just because you write a blog about your life doesn't mean you owe your readers any particular details. I don't have any right to know more about the facts that fall in the gaps I see in her storytelling, the places where I want more detail. I want it, but I'm not entitled to it, and I know that.

But am I entitled to the truth about the parts she does write about? Nobody promised me nonfiction, did they? And then again, what is "the truth" when you're telling your life story? There are plenty of stories I tell myself and mostly believe until I don't and I realize they were never true.

Take the divorce. That's about when I stopped reading the blog; that's about when I realized that the people I thought I was reading about were personas. (It's reality TV. No one believes reality TV, right?) I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that pictures of her on a date with someone else (selfies, not any kind of blogger-paparazzi shots) showed up on her Instagram just a couple of days after the separation was announced. What that said to me was either a) cheating, or b) a long-term rift that there had been no hint of in the storytelling. To the point where, in my memory, there was a "my husband is the best husband" blog posts fairly current before the split was announced.

The specter of her ex-husband, Jon, hangs over the book. He doesn't appear, having moved to New York since the split, but one of the driving factors in the book is her fear that if he finds out about the severity of her depression, he'll take the kids away.

I have complicated feelings about that, too. She spent 18 months very, very depressed. Hiding in the closing crying on the phone to her mother about wanting to be dead. Weeping and leaving the room because the fight to make her daughter practice piano was too much. I have felt this--the tyranny of the neverending list of things that need to be done that she describes so, so poignantly. Her ability to explain the feelings of depression is amazing.

But also, maybe she wasn't doing her kids any favors by plowing through this? Not that her ex was the solution--he appears to be a "two weeks in summer and one holiday a year" kind of parent, which, eugh. Who is that guy, and who was the guy I knew on the blog? So no, I don't necessarily think he should have taken her kids. But maybe someone should have been looking at whether they were okay through this?

Ugh, I don't want to dump on her. I really don't; this is a great, interesting memoir of this particular treatment, and it does an excellent job with almost everything it's trying to do--her relationship with her mother and stepfather, her father and her siblings, the family history of mental illness, the experience of the treatment, the nature of her depression, all incredibly well-painted. 

I guess it's more that I don't entirely trust her to be an authentic reporter of her own life. Whether it's for reality TV reasons (in service of the story), or for standard memoir reasons (to protect the real people who are out there in the world living this life), or because her tragic flaw is the need to be the valedictorian of everything, including memoirs, and so everything is cured and sewed up into a neat little package--when I read her book, I am very aware of everything that must be there but is not being said.

One thing that gave me pleasure, though, was how, as the treatment starts to work and she starts to reconstruct her life, she realizes that she has to build it in such a way as to not trigger her anxiety. This is something I have learned myself in the past few years--that part of keeping myself emotionally healthy and strong is to build a life that does not press on the places where I am weakest. There are things that are harder for me than they are for other people--it is not weakness to work around those things instead of trying to do them anyway because I "should." Having a job that you can do competently without getting panic attacks is more important than having a prestigious job; I've learned that, and I am only, endlessly glad that Heather did, too.

I guess that's the other part of reading this book, the good part. In spite of my doubts about whether I'm getting a whole and accurate picture of this person's life, the story she is telling--her suffering, her family's support, her hope--all resonated with me, and I was rooting for her all the way.

Missed you, dooce.  Best of luck with everything.