Can you talk a little about the ways in which your illness works as a barrier to writing? What are some of the specific challenges you deal with?
Because depression is more fleeting in my experience, it’s hard to imagine it even as “my illness.” I suppose I see it as the shadow I have to walk with and occasionally interact with, if not downright wrestle with (if I have the energy) or just meld with (at worst). I’ve experienced depression more often after having my daughter in 2010; before her, I could count on my hands the number of times I experienced depression and even tell you what years they occurred and what may have triggered them. I can even look back at them with some fondness for where I was at.
Writing for me simply dries up during episodes of depression. I try to write two pages in a notebook everyday and that falls by the wayside. I write longhand. It becomes a scrawl as though all the self-hate (a symptom of my depression) turns my handwriting into something spiny and ugly. That is, if I manage to write anything at all. The challenge here is pushing through because this particular kind of writing is touchstone stuff, not “new material” to work with. I need the touchstone stuff to make it through to my other side but is never so clear or easy as when I say/know that when not experiencing depression.
Also during depression, the internal critic and hater’s volume goes up really loud and it takes special effort to turn it down, or shut it the fuck up (and shutting it down does feel kind of violent).
The main challenge for me is remembering that if I don’t write, I feel homicidal (which can be taken as a joke, right? I’m not really going to kill someone else), when in truth, if I don’t write for long periods of time, if I feel like I don’t have the time or space to write, I feel suicidal. I have not felt that extreme since around 2002, 2003, when I realized that was what was happening—not writing=suicidal—so I made some serious changes to my life to avoid that feeling again (saved money, quit my job for a time, recommitted to somehow living off part-time work so I had time to write).
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I stay in Jungian analysis/therapy when I can afford to (just returned in fall last year after a three year absence). The two pages minimum per day reminds me I have done something and I allow it to be trash writing, lists, whatever. I move away from social media when the internal voices start hating on me too loud and I need to regain perspective. I start blocking out future writing time on my calendar so it exists. If possible, I arrange a day when I can go to the library alone most of the day to work. Ideally, I arrange an overnight somewhere so I can be alone or in the company of one other writer with the intention of writing (favorite location: the high desert of California). I avoid music that I know will completely sweep me into its undertow (I feel absurdly affected by music, often). I tell my partner when I’m struggling. I make sure to not interact with people I know have the power to also sweep me into their undertow. I also resort to the HALT method of stopping and asking myself if I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired and then respond to the need that presents itself. It’s so simplistic but it works for me.
What is your relationship to more traditional models of managing illness, like therapy and/or medication? Do you find them effective? Is accessing them an issue for you?
I’m a believer in therapy. I met my first therapist when I was 23 and we worked together for over ten years, the final years via phone when I moved away. Our relationship shifted over time as relationships do—the first six or seven years I was processing everything and it was important to have a witness, an objective person who could also jump in with love and alternative frameworks. The last few years felt like a mentorship of sorts. The content completely changed. All of it was effective for me. When I began Jungian analysis I’d been in therapy for over 10 years and it felt like all those years of therapy prepared me to go deeper. Hugely important life changes occurred, so yes, effective! I’ve managed to be in therapy this long because the two therapists I’ve worked with offer sliding scale fees. Without that, I would never have been able to afford therapy.
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
I struggle most with self-care when I’m scheduled to be at home with my three-year-old and don’t feel up to the challenge of self-care on top of childcare. There may be an urge to stare at the walls and let the tears come but I don’t really have the time or space to do this when someone is chattering happily at me and wants to dance and sing and dump all the toys out of the toy box. On the worst days I try to establish some strong(er) boundaries than usual: don’t go to Facebook or Twitter, or at least ask myself why I’m going there before I open a browser window. Try to maintain a calm voice when speaking to the toddler, who has no idea what I’m going through. Sometimes I’m able to force myself outside which is good for both of us. But the constant of being at home coupled with the tendrils of depression wanting to loop around my calves and pull me under is when self-care is the hardest.
I find self-care easier when I can believe the mantra that this is all temporary. This feeling is temporary. Sometimes repeating this is enough to pierce the numbness and remind myself there are a number of things I can do to get myself millimeters freer of the depression. It really helps to have a go-to list of things that have worked in the past or things I have yet to try that I’ve learned from others.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
Our relationship is spotty. I don’t know this depression part very well because it took one form before I had a child and another form after I had a child. I respect that it changes and I even respect that it exists. (I can say this right now because I’m on the other side of a visit this past weekend. When I’m in it, there is no respect, just an out-and-out fight, typically.) There’s more I want to learn about it and yet I never want to feel it again.
I used to keep subject-based notebooks and had one titled “Loss.” It was a place to focus purely on losses, which were, at the time, completely related to a couple of extended episodes of depression I faced in my late 20s. Now I have a “dialogues” notebook that is partially about using active imagination to get at the root of things I’m struggling with, so there are some conversations with depression.
It’s only in the last year or so that I feel a sense of knowing and trusting I will get to other side. In fact, I don’t feel I have a choice but to get to the other side. My daughter ensures that.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
The support of my “husband-wife,” also known as my domestic partner, is incredibly useful. She’s at work all day and is able, somehow, to come home and listen to me talk the most coherent, mature sentences I’ve formed all day when I maybe haven’t spoken to another adult. She helps me keep my writing dates and retreats by taking over childcare duties with a fierce and loving presence that continually makes me wildly happy that she’s parenting with me.
As I think about this question what I am considering are ways in which people have helped me with my daughter, made opportunities possible for me to leave her in good hands so I could write or do writing-related projects. That is an enormous form of support that keeps me balanced and is incredibly important to me. The people who come forward willing to hang out with my kid are total lifelines to me.
You do a lot of caregiving--as a mom, as a therapist. How do you balance giving to others and taking care of yourself?
As someone who struggled mightily with boundaries most of my life I’ve developed what might seem like hyper-boundaries to some (occasionally, even to myself). I can look back at my early 20s when I began therapy, which was the place where I really started looking at the lack of boundaries I had and started experimenting with throwing them up, sometimes willy-nilly. While I’m not proud of some of the decisions I made based on my developing sense of boundaries in the past I see those times as totally necessary, episodes of muddling through with too much boundary as opposed to zero or little boundaries, all of which was good for me to practice.
Now I feel like I can enjoy a more flexible sense of boundaries but have no qualms about putting up big ones if needed. This is super important and useful to me when wearing any of the hats—mother, therapist, friend, etc. At the same time I feel like I have to apply an almost painful sense of self-awareness at all times to keep boundaries intact, stay somewhat balanced, and be effective with everything I’m working on.
How does being a parent intersect with depression for you?
This is a question I’m still asking myself. There’s the obvious—I experienced post-partum depression (and a severe reaction to medications post-labor) in a way that told me in no uncertain terms, Oh yeah, you have a body and it responds to traumatic shit (AGAIN)! and then I experienced several more depressive episodes later. It often feels related to not having enough time or space to write—which is related to that extreme homicidal/suicidal feeling I’ve felt before when I don’t have time or space to write. If I feel unsupported as a primary caregiver, here comes depression (which only gives me stronger deeper empathy for those who don’t have another engaged co-parent to lean on). If I start to feel like being a parent is my only identity (a trapdoor I sometimes fall into, especially on the days when it’s just me and my daughter and I’m not making connections with the world at large), it gives depression more space to enter.
Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books) and Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press), both to be released in 2014. Wendy writes the column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, PANK, Specter Magazine, and other journals. She is co-founder, curator and host of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series in Los Angeles. Wendy is a mother and a registered marriage and family therapist intern. She is @WendyCOrtiz on Twitter. Visit her at www.wendyortiz.com and wendycortiz.tumblr.com.