Working: Litsa Dremousis

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?

I’m in no way romanticizing my depression or anyone else’s. I want to be clear about that. But mine has rarely posed a barrier to writing. If nothing else, it often fuels it. If I weren’t compelled on a cellular level to revisit past traumas and transform them into stories, I wouldn’t be writing. The one caveat: when I’m monumentally, terrifyingly depressed, then I mostly write in my journal. When the depression reaches that depth, yes, it can pose a barrier to creating work for other readers. But that’s rare on all on counts.

In some weird way, because I’ve contended with recurring bouts of major depression since I was twelve, I’m really good at not letting it stop me. I’ve never missed a deadline. As I wrote in a recent essay, I tend to overcompensate, both as a way to outrun the awfulness and to throw others off the scent.

What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?

I’ve learned I absolutely must stay on Zoloft. It’s dangerous if I go off it. Also, though I walk with a cane or crutches most of the time (I have an illness similar to MS), I still walk a mile to a mile and a half each day. I cry when I need to. I curl up with my dog, Thomas, who is quite possibly the cuddliest little creature ever. I spend time with loved ones who understand depression. I read voraciously, see matinees and obsessively revisit 30 Rock. (But I do those last three when I’m happy, too.) Oh, and the occasionally ingesting of Kettle Chips with Theo’s dark chocolate can render all sorts of happy neurological fireworks.

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?

Like I said above, I have to stay on Zoloft. I ended up in a dangerous place the last time I went off it. And I’m fortunate b/c I don’t experience side effects. My insurance covers most of it. I did benefit quite a bit from both my former therapists. (One retired; the other is nearing retirement.) The tripwire with the second therapist, though: he was great in a crisis, but didn’t understand creativity. So, that ongoing, lower-grade depression most of us face both as a prompt and as a result of writing, well, that usually stumped him. And he’d come up with these solutions that were too bumper sticker for my taste. I have a close circle of friends in several fields, but many are writers. Times like that, I find it most useful to gather with them and eat absurd food combinations and laugh our asses off.

When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?

Again, because I walk with a cane or crutches, self-care can be a bit of a challenge for reasons that have nothing to do with depression. Or at least they’re not about depression at the start. Unsurprisingly, when I’m very ill for a lengthy time period, I often become more depressed. Also, my partner died four and a half years ago. So, my best friend who’d help me during these times is dead. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what pain is causing what pain. It can all fold in upon itself. I’m maniacally tenacious, though, and that saves me again and again. 

As for when self-care is easiest: when I’m in a good place emotionally. Because I have the necessary perspective to realize everything might not be apocalyptic. When I’m in the worst of the depression, it very much feels like my brain is trying to kill me. And that’s exhausting. Anyone who’s ever had to enumerate the reasons they cannot kill themselves knows what I’m talking about.

What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?

Again, I don’t romanticize it, but I view it as “the creativity tax”. (One of my shrinks adopted this term after I started using it.) When a certain degree of intellect and creativity intersect, recurring bouts of major depression often result. So, I try to remind myself that the neurological gifts that bring me talent are the same ones that occasionally try to derail things.

And, like many depressives, it makes me funnier. Because if I couldn’t laugh about life’s ceaseless morbidities, I’d be dead. As I write this, I’m tucked into a wonderfully comfortable bed. But much of my family still lives in Greece, where the austerity measures are unraveling the social fabric. Suicides are at their highest recorded rates. Homelessness is at an all-time high. Impoverished families are putting their kids up for adoption, which hasn't been seen on a large-scale level since Greece's civil war after World War II. (These figures come from the U.N., BBC and Greek government. Also, I'm hearing it anecdotally from my loved ones.) My family members are safe, thank god, but how come I ate a lovely dinner tonight when so many other Greeks are living in agony? Geographic lottery, basically.

And how do you ever wrap your mind around that? I donate my time, money and writing, but I know in the course of my lifetime, kids in impoverished nations will die of diarrhea. I.e. something for which I can purchase a remedy in several places within blocks of my home. I return to Christopher Hitchens’ line, “The deck is stacked.” So, in addition to taking action, I laugh when I can. Too much of life will never make sense and humor sometimes nullifies the deep sting for the luckiest among us.

What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?

I’ve finally gotten to a point in my life where I’m open about saying, “I’m extremely depressed. I need to talk. Do you think you might have time soon?” I’ve always had a rule my loved ones can call me anytime, day or night, if they need to talk. Sometimes just knowing someone would pick up at 3:00 a.m. makes any of us feel less lonely. I tend to be a caretaker. Also, because I’m physically ill, I never want to be perceived as weak. (That last part is ridiculous, I know.) But yes, finally, I’ve gotten good at just saying, “Dude, things are grim right now and it feels like they always will be. Can we go get some egg rolls and just talk?” And I’m really fortunate so many of my loved ones understand. For their sakes, though, I wish it weren’t because they also live with depression. But it does give some of us a shorthand and we don’t have to explain what it’s like.

Also, my mom is a fantastic listener. She also contends with depression and she’s wonderfully compassionate and encouraging.

You're also a freelancer--how do you negotiate the balance between self-care and writing for love and writing for work and working?

My physical health is much more of a problem here than is my mental health. But again, it all ties in. When my health prevents me from working as much, I have less money. When I have less money, I worry more. When I worry more, it intensifies the depression. And when I’m depressed, his death seems more piercing. I make every effort I can to try and focus on what’s empirically real and what is the giant miasma of doom my brain is creating. I’m usually successful, but sometimes I fail. 

Recently, I composed a playlist for my funeral. When I told a loved one, she insisted I stop writing and leave my fucking house and go to a matinee. And it wasn’t until I heard myself say it to her that I realized, “Yeah, maybe I should not be compiling my funeral playlist. That’s not a sign of awesome emotional health.” So, I got dressed up, hobbled to a nearby theater and saw “Dallas Buyers Club”. And it really helped. Paradoxically, creating art is usually painful, but the best of it can help alleviate pain. So, art usually provides solace, too.

Litsa Dremousis' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney's, MSN, Nerve, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Salon, Slate, The Weeklings, on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She’s completing her first novel, assuming it doesn't complete her first. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.

Previously in the Working series: Mairead Case, s.e. smith, and Red Mills.