A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, a high school classmate remarked that something was crazy. Seventeen-year-old Chrissie Anderson replied, “Oh, I know all about crazy: I’ve been running from crazy my whole life!” The comment elicited laughter from the group of students sitting together talking before AP English started that morning in 1988 or 1989. Seventeen-year-old Chrissie made a mental note: “Hold onto that line! It will come in handy someday.”
As an adult, I became diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I’d always known that I was depressed. I knew it that day I made the comment about running from crazy. And I was being serious when I spoke those words. Mental illness runs rampant in my family, and I had already been running from it for as long as I could remember, even at the age of seventeen. I saw it create strained relationships and unhealthy habits across generations of my family. And I did not want to be part of that chain. But it was genetic, inevitable. And I hated that. But, unlike most of the people in my family, I accepted my clinical diagnosis and embraced the disease for what it was – treatable. For most of the people in my family, it was something not to be discussed. Something not to be admitted. And I did the unthinkable. I wrote about it and explored it – for my own mental health and sanity.
In 2013, I started putting together a collection of stories that focused on mental health as a general subject. And I remembered that scene from AP English my senior year of high school. I entitled the collection of stories and poetry, Running From Crazy. It was my second self-published book. It was excruciatingly difficult to write, but also therapeutic (on many levels). To explore my own psyche and shoot straight about my own mental health and challenges exposed me, but also emboldened me. My family, however, did not appreciate most of these stories and poems. In fact, when my mother would go with me to vendor events to help me when I was trying to sell my books, she frequently told people not to buy my second book, saying, “It’s all a pack of lies, just a pack of lies!” I hit close to home and told the barest truths in the book. It was something that my mother never forgave me for. I exposed our family’s secrets, and that was not something to play around with.
It was never a great seller for me. It had a rocky history in the writing of the pieces it holds. I went through a great deal of depression writing about the depression and organizing it, putting it together to try to deal with my own illness and to hopefully help others do the same. Its release was not met with critical acclaim. The piece that seemed to get the most attention, “Call It Paradise,” was about bouncing back after hitting rock bottom my freshman year of college, after an incidence of date rape. It took me nearly 25 years to be able to write about what happened. To relate how I rebuilt my entire life because I literally found myself lying in my dorm room closet one day, bundled up in a pile of dirty laundry, knowing that I could not go on that way anymore; astutely realizing that life as I knew it was over, but I had to decide if life itself was over, too.
The decision to recreate myself was monumental. In doing so, I allowed myself the freedom to become the person I’d always wanted to be, but never had the courage to become. I had nothing left to lose, so why not become a new me? In becoming the me I’d always wanted to be, I found the person I was meant to be. Through that horrible experience, I discovered my true self.
I remember the first public review of the book was in my local newspaper, the Bristol Herald Courier. And it wasn’t a bad review, but it wasn’t glowing. It focused on “Call It Paradise,” actually praising the courage of the piece. Which felt good, because I wanted that piece to help someone somewhere not to be ashamed of something that wasn’t her fault like I had been. I wanted that piece to help someone not have to go through the darkness I went through. And then, that night, I had a book vending event in my hometown and was staying with my grandparents afterwards. When I got to their house after the event, I checked my email and discovered that Mariel Hemingway’s publicist had contacted me, basically telling me that I needed to change the title of my book because it shared a title with a documentary by Hemingway about her family. Only, titles can’t be copyrighted like that; I learned that in library school. Even as I read the words, “change the title or we will have to involve our legal team and Oprah Winfrey’s creative team,” I felt attacked all over again. These were my stories. This was my title. And I was not backing down from who I was and what I had fought through my whole life to be entitled to use those three words if I wanted to. To some extent, we’re all running from crazy, at some point. Mariel Hemingway and Oprah weren’t going to steal that from me! (The emails from the publicist continued for several weeks, with no responses from me, then ceased when a college friend talked to a friend of the publicist’s, about who I was and my rights to use the title; calling their bluff and having a connected friend apparently made the Hemingway camp realize that I wasn’t changing my title. For them, or anyone else.)
There’s a lot of buzz about mental health these days. But for some of us, it’s more than buzz. It’s our life. It’s part of who we are. October is Depression Education & Awareness Month. There’s still such stigma attached to depression and other mental illnesses. Yet millions of people suffer from “Major Depressive Disorder,” 14.8 million in the US alone, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15-24, a number that only continues to climb. (Information from https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-depression-education-awareness-month-october)
What to do about depression? Don’t alienate those who are depressed – and depression isn’t just being sad. It’s so much more complicated than that. Let them know that they’re loved, accepted, and supported. All of those things matter. For me, I never want to be treated as fragile because I’m depressed/bipolar; I’m medicated and take care of myself – that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have episodes of depression or mania, because those symptoms, even with the best regimen of medication and care, still exist. Encourage those with depression to stay involved with life, but understand when we sometimes have to pull back. Never question whether someone is serious about needing help. I remember the boss I had when I was first diagnosed with depression laughed in my face and said, “You’re the least depressed person I know.” No, I was one of the best maskers he knew, and that statement spoke volumes to me; his attitude towards my depression was a direct cause of me eventually leaving that position, many years after I should have left his supervision.
I invite you to check out my book, Running From Crazy. It’s not a happy book. But it’s a necessary book. And, in the end, it’s a book that is a testament to the fact that, even in bitter darkness, light can persevere. It’s a book about trials and survival. In spite of what my mother maintained, it is a book of truths. My truths. My experiences and observations. And if you’re someone who suffers from depression, my hope for you is that you will run when you need to, but stop when you can.