Hollywood and the army base, and bipolar realities

Catherine Zeta-Jones

On the one hand, we have Catherine Zeta-Jones checking into an exclusive mental-health facility, diagnosed with bipolar II disorder within five days, and less than a month after that adorning the cover of People magazine.  On the other, we find Jessica Harp, an army wife, posting her suicide note on her blog after multiple attempts to get help both for her husband, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and for herself.  A vast gap lies between these two stories.  And yet the distance isn’t as big as it seems.  Depression is a strange unifier.

Good news followed Jessica Harp‘s April 11th blog post, describing how desperate she felt: she is recovering in a South Carolina hospital.  Her blog, {Mis}Adventures of an Army Wife, has been updated, with her mom’s help.  Jessica Harp gives a moving account of what transpired in her life to take her to such a dark place.  The incredible outpouring of support that followed, starting within minutes (200 comments in less than 2 days, with more following), is amazing, even overwhelming, to read.  So much compassion, empathy, and concern—and others sharing stories of their terrible times, from which they emerged.

Both Zeta-Jones and Ms. Harp have done a service, making public such private anguish.  The ordeal may not be over for either of them, but they’ve each found support and treatment.  Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide in the military are serious public health issues.  (I touch on this in an earlier post, “What Cynthia Ozick said to me  and a few other things.”  See also, the NYT, “After Combat, Victims of an Inner War.”  Anthony Swofford’s memoir, Jar Head, illuminates the subject too.)  Families of those serving are deeply affected by the circumstances and after-effects faced by soldiers.

Writer and army wife, Alison Buckholtz (author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War) has a great essay on the NYT At War blog, “War, Wives and a Near Suicide,” about Jessica Harp and her blog note. (And for an interesting interview with Alison Buckholtz, about being a Jewish military wife, check out “A Conversation with Alison Buckholtz.”)  The internet has helped to create and expand a strong community of military families who, in many cases, are quite isolated, not only from a spouse serving overseas, or a spouse suffering from depression or PTSD after returning, but also from others in similar circumstances.

Back to bipolar disorder….  (To clarify, there is no suggestion that Jessica Harp suffers from bipolar disorder; indications are that she is dealing with unipolar depression.)  Kay Redfield Jamison an eminent professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has written several wonderful books, including memoir, on the subject of mental health, the arts, and bipolar disorder—she herself suffers from the disease—as well as a seminal textbook.  I highly recommend An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, not just for their interesting, in depth portrayals of bipolar disorder, but for their insights into depression, mental illness, creativity, and mental wellness.  I belatedly came across Jamison’s most recent book, Nothing Was the Same, a memoir about the death of her husband, Richard Wyatt, a scientist and doctor, when I was thinking about my last blog post on grief.  I looked at the first page and then kept reading.  (It’s now in “pause” mode, since, as I mentioned previously, I’m already well into Jill Bialosky’s memoir, History of a Suicide, a deep and involving book, but I look forward to returning to Jamison too.  She is compelling, forthright and highly readable.  I wish I could request a reading-sabbatical, but I think the boys, as well as a few other areas of commitment, might not go for this …so, for now, I eke my way along.)

April has also brought the release of Alexandra Styron’s memoir, Reading My Father, about her father William Styron, esteemed novelist, whose own brief memoir on depression, Darkness Visible, is among the best books yet written on the subject.  He conveys, like few others (and before many others), the intense, inner turmoil and pain of depression (what suicidologist, Edwin Schneidman aptly terms psychache)—such a private and inward experience—in compelling and wrenching prose.  While I have not read the book in years now, the sense of it sticks with me in the way only the best literature can, particularly when read at a personally receptive moment.

William Styron, is one of a collection of writers who helped me step into the torment of my father’s mind, those circling, congested, wrenching passageways of sticky doubt and hurt and struggle.  Styron returned from this suicidal hell, and had the skill and tenacity to convey it such that others might begin to comprehend.  Now his daughter, in Reading My Father, is taking up the subject, rendering how it was to live so close to this whorling epicenter.  I had the pleasure of hearing her speak with lovely candor at the Manhattan JCC the other night, in conversation with writer and producer, Abigail Pogrebin, a long-time friend of Styron’s (and author of One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular).  Alexandra Styron remarked that her father realized after he had come to suffer severely from depression (following publication of Sophie’s Choice) that “there was suicide in every one of his books,” a revelation that seemed to surprise him.  How interestingly the subconscious mind works; and what remarkable things we learn from the artistic process.  Sometimes what we make up is as illuminative as what has happened and can hold unanticipated truths.

Why do I persist on these melancholy topics, suicide, depression, mental illness, mental anguish?  I suppose, like many compelled to pull at, revisit and revisit a subject, because the extent of its reach still alludes me, because there is much left to comprehend.  I continue to see things in different ways; whether directly related to the subjects of mental health and mental illness, or tangentially, like the dear sweetness of my sleeping five-year-old.  Memory is not static; it is constantly engaging with present moments.

Coming soon. . .the beginning of a brief “serialization” of a lengthy memoir piece I previously published in the literary journal Center.  (It’s almost moving day for me and my family, thus an opportune moment for re-presenting existing material, unavailable on the web!)  ~

~  Stop by karakrauze.tumblr.com for odds and ends on the mini-blog….  ~

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last week for her wonderful novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Hooray!  Her intoxicating first novel, Invisible Circus, takes on the subject of suicide, and must have been one of the first narratives with a central suicide storyline that I read after my father’s death.  Like Styron’s Darkness Visible and Sophie’s Choice, a sensory memory of the book has stuck with me.  It’s been great to see Egan getting such accolades for her most recent work!  ~

Andrew Solomon, another seminal writer on depression (author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression which was preceded by a fantastic essay in the New Yorker, “Anatomy of Melancholy“) passed through my sight-line this week when I happened across a piece he published in Newsweek in January, “Meet My Real Modern Family“—touching, illuminating, and beautifully written.  ~

About Kara Krauze

http://karakrauze.com Kara Krauze is a writer, consultant, and educator. Kara has worked in publishing, financial services, the mental health field, and community organizing. Her essays have been published in Quarterly West, Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. from Vassar College in International Studies and a M.A. in Literary Cultures from New York University. She has participated in workshops in New York City, Prague, and France, studied in Moscow and lived in London. Her writing, including a memoir and novels, engages with the subjects of war, loss, and memory. She grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York City. Kara founded Voices From War, offering writing workshops for veterans, in 2013. http://VoicesFromWar.org
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