The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong is the personal true story of being the third person ever to undergo a dramatic, slightly frightening investigational treatment for depression, a treatment that she compares to being dead, even though the doctor doing the study does not.
While reading the book (listening to, actually, but I’m just going to keep saying “reading” so that we all remember it’s a book), I developed a bit of a girl-crush on Heather B. Armstrong. Armstrong, like me, lives in the greater Salt Lake City area. Like me, she’s a BYU alumna who now isn’t very churchy. Like me, she’s had struggles during her life with depression, and like me, she’s received treatment at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute’s ECT clinic. She, however, also has a wildly successful blog, www.dooce.com, is a published author of creative nonfiction, and is in remission for that depression, things are not like me, but that I really wish were.
I can make lots of comparisons between her and me. That’s pretty much how reading her book went: lots of comparisons. Shall I share some more?
Comparing the horrible-ness of our separate experiences with depression
Armstrong in the book: Describes locking herself in her closet so her daughters won’t hear her cry and scream, calling her mom to cry and scream, and generally “wanting to be dead.”
Me: Well, I’ve wanted to be dead before…but I don’t know if it was that bad. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing here…why do I claim that I’m depressed? Do I actually have depression?
Armstrong in the book: Explains that the “wanting to be dead” was for 18 months, and that besides that, she’s had bad episodes of depression, but that there have also been several good years, depression-free, between those episodes.
Me: (Scoffing internally) 18 months?? That’s it? And she’s making this big to-do, even writing a book about being depressed? I’ve had depression like, constantly for…(counting how many years it’s been since fifth grade…)
Comparing the extreme-ness of our depression treatment
Armstrong in the book: Describes having depression bad enough that she’s referred to this investigational study where she’s given anesthesia at a high enough dose to drop her brain waves down to almost zero for fifteen minutes at a time, which she compares to basically being dead.
Me: Jeez, I’ve never been so depressed that I’ve been referred to an investigational study where I’m given anesthesia at a high enough dose to drop my brain waves down to almost zero for fifteen minutes at a time. I mean, I’ve had some depression, but not brain-wave-reducing depression…
Armstrong in the book: Describes the worst part of the 10 treatments being fasting before procedures and being poked with a big needle over and over for up to “five minutes!!” to place an IV (a task that gets much more difficult when you’ve been fasting in preparation for anesthesia, btw).
Me: Are you kidding? You did this for 10 treatments and you’re complaining? I’ve been doing ECT—with the exact same routine of fasting and needles, since it’s also under general anesthesia—for four years now. Every six weeks for four years. Finding a vein in my arm for an IV every time is bad enough that two doctors have suggested I get a surgically-implanted permanent port. Calm down. And if you’re scheduled for the afternoon, that doesn’t mean you have to fast for like 20 hours. You just can’t eat for eight hours. So eat something eight hours before, for heaven’s sake.
Are you seeing a pattern?
Reading this book has definitely not been the first time I’ve made comparisons between my own and someone else’s mental health. Only this time, I started to realize I was making comparisons that were basically completely opposite of each other. Wow, your depression is so much worse than mine was followed immediately by Wow, my depression is so much worse than yours. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days since finishing the book.
Have you ever seen this kind of optical illusion?
In this tricky picture, parts A and B are exactly the same shade of gray. Really. Try blocking both the backgrounds and the part where they meet, so the only thing you can see in the picture is the middle of each box (I managed to do this after a minute of trying different shapes with my fingers—you can figure it out).
Then you see it: They really are the same color.
So why do they look different? Did they magically change? No. They were always the same color. The problem is, once you put them right next to each other and start basing what they are on how they compare with something else, you don’t see them accurately anymore.
Now back to the book, and to the comparisons. And here’s the thing. I have my own, personal experience with mental health. It’s something that’s been really challenging for me. It’s also something that’s very real for me. It’s easy for me to hold that experience up to the incomplete picture I see of someone else’s experience. And when I’m trying to look at both things together…just like in that optical illusion, by putting both next to each other, both get distorted.
It never changed, though. That color in the picture was always that color. And, my experience is my experience. It doesn’t change if someone else has a different one. If something more “severe” happens to another person, that doesn’t mean that what happened to me all of a sudden is insignificant. If I think someone else didn’t struggle as much, that doesn’t make me a martyr. It doesn’t really matter what happened to someone else. What happened to me still happened to me.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize with others or that you shouldn’t try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It just means that you matter too.
Heather B. Armstrong’s book is on Amazon and Audible. For being a book about depression, it left me positive and hopeful—it’s worth checking out.
Get the book on Amazon
Listen on Audible