Working: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Can you talk a little about the ways in which your depression works as a barrier to writing? What are some of the specific challenges you deal with?

On the day I first heard about this interview project, I was so underwater--you know when it just feels like nothing in the world will ever give you pleasure again? I had one of those days--the whole day long, and then I read your announcement, and I thought oh, right, depression. And it felt so affirming--I even cried a little, which is always good for me because it’s a release.

I deal with so many debilitating chronic health problems — chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia — whatever the hell they call it, it basically comes down to debilitating exhaustion, pain, hypersensitivity to scents and temperature and food and environment, intestinal problems, digestion issues, migraines — everything wraps around me until I can barely function, this is my daily life. And unfortunately the list of health problems just keeps getting longer and longer, so of course I’m depressed, right?

Sometimes there’s a great idea in my head, maybe even a whole essay, and then I look at the computer screen and everything is gone, I have to push through a fog just to get a few words onto the page. That’s the hardest part, I think, and I would say that mostly that comes from the exhaustion, and then the exhaustion produces the depression, but of course it goes the other way sometimes too.

You mentioned that you don't think of your depression as an illness--can you talk more about that?

Generally I think of depression as a rational response to living in a horrible world. Why the hell wouldn’t we all be depressed--it just seems completely irrational not to be. And I don’t think I’ve ever really known anyone who isn’t depressed, at least some of the time, and I do mean in debilitating ways. Of course, maybe this says something about me, or the people I’m friends with--that we’re more sensitive or traumatized, but whatever it is it just seems normal. I’ve been depressed my whole life, there are moments when I feel better and then boom, it’s gone. So I guess for me the important thing is to try to think about those moments as the reality, something hopeful, and the despair as something I can get through, to get back to those moments of hope, maybe.

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

Going on long walks is the best thing, even if I’m exhausted. Even when the walks make me more exhausted, it still feels better. Getting out early in the day, no matter what the weather, and just walking through a park and looking at the trees and whatever is growing, and the sky, the flowers, listening to the birds, getting the light into my eyes or now that I get migraines that’s kind of difficult but at least getting a sense that it’s light out. I don’t know if anything else helps, really. Of course, having close friends who you can depend on, but damn that ends up being so complicated, especially when they don’t call you back, right?

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?

Talk therapy isn’t that useful for me, because I can talk about anything with anyone, pretty much. I need to be able to go past the rational brain and into my body, so somatic therapy is what’s helpful. Especially if I want to go to the core of things, which for me means feeling the place of trauma as a child, because I grew up sexually abused by my father, feeling like he was going to kill me, I really didn’t think I was going to survive but I wanted to, I had a really strong will to live, a way of escaping into my head, and I’m sure that’s one of the things that’s allowed me to be so thoughtful and creative. So any kind of therapy that goes past the rational brain, that’s what’s helpful for me, so I can feel the pain and let it go.

Medication doesn’t help me because I’m too sensitive, basically any kind of pharmaceuticals just end up wrecking me. I mean if I have gonorrhea or something, then I want to take antibiotics to get rid of it, but otherwise I don’t take pharmaceutical medications. Every time I try, I mean I’ll take the lowest possible dosage and I just end up feeling like a piece of paper I’m so dried out. Or, like there’s a metal vise around my head. Once I got so desperate that I took sleeping pills for six months, the doctor said that after six months I wouldn’t have that groggy feeling and then I would feel better, rested, the pain and the exhaustion would be so much more manageable. No, he said they would be gone. And after that six months, oh my God that was the most exhausted I’ve ever been. And the pain, oh the pain—it was horrible. And then in the process of getting off those pills everything got like three times worse—what a mess. Of course the doctor said these medications were totally not habit-forming. I tried. I really tried. I’ve tried so many things, but I’ll never do that again.

I’ve actually found constitutional homeopathy to be pretty helpful. That’s when you sit down with the practitioner and you basically talk about everything in your life, even weird specific things like whether you’re afraid of spiders or dogs, and then the practitioner takes everything into account and gives you one remedy. It’s homeopathic, so basically that means they take a certain substance, and then they put it in a centrifuge, and then there’s nothing left of the physical matter, it’s just the energetics in a sugar pill or an extract, and that’s what you take. Because I’m so sensitive, sometimes even homeopathy can throw me over the edge, but over time it seems to help balance me. I take herbs too--sometimes they help, and sometimes they don’t. Feldenkrais is the most helpful thing for the pain. And, if I’m out in the world and losing it, the best choice is always to come home, or anywhere where I can just shut the door and try to relax, no matter what, I mean if that’s a possibility.

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

I’m pretty good with self-care. The problem is that nothing helps. Or, to be more specific, I feel like I get better and better at dealing with how horrible I feel, but overall I feel worse. I mean when I’m taking into account all of my different chronic health problems, the trajectory is definitely down. This is frightening. It’s horrifying. I don’t know what to do. I think things are easier when I feel like I have a support system, that’s for sure, or when I like where I live. Long dark winters definitely make things worse, and now I live in Seattle, where, as you know, the winter is eight months of the year, so that’s a bit of a challenge.

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

The most useful thing for me is to be able to talk to people about how terrible I’m actually feeling. I can’t deal when people are trying to fix things, that’s never going to help. Or, when someone tries to change the subject to something that is going to make me feel better, like oh, what about your writing? I mean, I do that all the time. I’ll say oh, I feel horrible, but let me tell you about this other thing. But when someone else does that, it feels like they’re silencing me. So I need friends who can actually listen, who don’t feel threatened by the fact that they may or may not be able to do anything. I mean, actually the best thing they can do is listen, that actually feels like something, it makes me feel better.

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

Well, right now it’s definitely harder than usual. I just got back from three months of travel – I was on tour for my latest book, The End of San Francisco, and then after that I was in Boston for a month working on my new novel, Sketchtasy. Traveling always wrecks me, although there’s also this incredible connection with people who are connecting to me through my work and I realize oh, this actually means something. And then whenever I get back I have a lot more clarity about where I’m living. Unfortunately this time that means I see all the limitations of living in Seattle. I don’t really have many close friends. I don’t have much of a support system. And Seattle itself is so middle-class in orientation, and that means such a clampdown on everything. When I feel better I really appreciate it environmentally--the trees are amazing, the air is fresh — but when I feel disconnected from people I sink into this dark depression that just feels like it will never end. And then it’s really hard to connect to people when I’m feeling so exhausted, because looking for new friends is so exhausting, right? Especially if they don’t understand about chronic health problems--I mean just explaining things is enough to ruin my whole day. I only have enough energy to do one or two things in a day, so I tend to prioritize my writing when other things aren’t working out as well, so that’s been the pattern over the last several years and my writing is going really well, that’s for sure, I mean it’s always a challenge but it’s also what grounds me, what inspires me, what connects me to the world, what gives me hope that maybe I’m getting somewhere, that somehow I won’t always feel this awful.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Most recently she’s the author of a memoir against memoir, The End of San Francisco, and the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Mattilda is currently putting the finishing touches on a devastating third novel, Sketchtasy, and would love to find a fearless agent to represent her, why not say that right here? Mattilda lives in Seattle, and today she loved that walk in the rain, oh how she loved it. Is Twitter a walk in the rain? Mattilda is trying it out now, just in case, @mbsycamore.

Previously in the Working series: Mairead Case, s.e. smith, Red Mills, Christine Hou, Litsa Dremousis, Jacqui Morton, Gina Abelkop, Elia Osuna, Wendy Ortiz, Roxane Gay, B R Sanders, and Katherine Locke..