Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.
Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.
Episode VI: An interview with Dustin Illingworth
In this installment, Dustin Illingworth talks depression, anxiety and the loss of his partner.
Today I’m speaking with Dustin Illingworth, a book critic, essayist and fiction writer with work now or forthcoming in The Times Literary Supplement, The Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, Music & Literature, The Rumpus, Full Stop, 3:AM and more. Dustin has agreed to speak about mental health problems he’s experienced, and an event a few years ago that made his situation many shades worse. Why don’t we start with that, and then work around it. What happened in 2010?
Sure. I lost the love of my life in 2010 in a tragic accident. Amy was an incredible artist and the most genuinely radiant person I had ever met; but she also struggled with major depressive disorder and sometimes drank too much because of it. While I was on vacation with a group of my friends over the 4th of July weekend in 2010, Amy came home from a BBQ she had been at, drank an excessive amount of alcohol, and drowned in our bathtub. I got home the next day and found her there.
I'm sure words cannot express what you felt that day, or how you even feel today. I think it's common for the "grieving" process to be viewed as a standard human experience, when it's obviously not. Did you feel as though your experience was out of the purview of common coping strategies?
I definitely found it to be. I am lucky enough to have a steadfast and loving family, and friends who literally got on a plane when I called them losing my mind, but there is no preparing for the phases of this kind of loss. There was a realization very early on that despite being surrounded by this incredible net of love and support, I was also alone in my grief. I was lost in that wilderness and even if, objectively, I knew I would heal over time, the bleakness of that prospect -- and the dead, gray hours it encompassed -- caused me to look at grief and mending and my own existence in a radically different way. The shape and color of the world changed. I had no language and no conscious framework with which to navigate it.
I want to go back to before Amy passed, but before that I want to ask to what extent you think you've healed, in any measure of the word?
Amy's loss was a fissure in my life, and, to use what is perhaps a crude metaphor, that fissure has slowly filled in with the accumulations of 5 years of living. But it's unsteady, unpredictable; the outline of that fissure is still readily apparent to me. I won't think about her for several days and then some inconsequential thing she used to say will surface and there is this fresh sense of devastation. That has been the real learning experience for me; I thought of grief as this monolithic, immovable thing -- and in a way, it is. But it is three dimensional, constantly rotating, and you're exposed to these new and brutal sides. If one part of your grief has grown moss and you're even somewhat comfortable with it, it'll spin and you're stuck staring at this bare surface of pain and recollection. I don't know how many more sides there will be but merely being aware of those sides feels something like healing.
That is an incredible metaphor, and does a lot to present an inexpressible concept. Let's go back to before Amy's loss. You mentioned to me earlier that you were battling anxiety and depression?
Yes, I'd experienced panic attacks and general anxiety going back to when I was about 20 years old. Genetically, I was predisposed, as my father's side of the family suffers from panic and generalized anxiety disorder. Mixing that disposition with drugs and my own questing mind was a recipe for metaphysical disaster. That anxiety has grown to the point of borderline agoraphobia, and the depression was, I think, a consequence of being hemmed in by the daily, debilitating struggle to engage with the outside world. Both my anxiety and my depression grew to frightening proportions in the wake of Amy's passing but the seeds had been planted long before.
Do you feel as though Amy's loss made you confront those issues by changing the variables under you control—such as drugs—or was its effect incomparable with the type of struggles you were dealing with before?
Just to provide a little clarity, I'm 33 and I actually quit using drugs outright when I was 24 because of how it was affecting my mental health. I think, if anything, the loss of Amy magnified my problems and turned them into daily encounters with myself. Despite being anxious, previously I had a general sense of empowerment -- that I could "handle" my panic attacks and my sadness; that I was in control. Since 2010, the swings have been much worse and now there is a real recognition of a battle, of a war waged in my mind. I am infinitely more aware of governing certain thought patterns; of the necessity (for me) of exercising to counteract my depression; of meditation; of writing. I take it more seriously now, and I have a kind of playbook that I use to keep it from breaking me. And so far, while not easy, it has been manageable.
Can I ask if you've used prescribed drugs to help in the battle? I assume you're always writing and editing this playbook, as every day is a learning experience?
Yes, I'm definitely always looking for other tactics, things that have worked for other people. I take atavan and/or xanax for my panic episodes but I only take them in the midst of full-on attacks, never as part of a daily regiment because, though effective, they make me feel glassy and ethereal. Anti-depressants have always been on the table between me and my therapist but because I've been responsive to other kinds of treatment (namely, as previously mentioned, regimented exercise, meditation, and constant writing), I'm not currently taking anything for depression.
Let's switch now to the writing. Which can be meditation, release, expression, trigger, diversion and anything else, depending on the day. How does your writing factor into your recovery and your daily struggles?
Whatever it is I'm writing -- a book review, an essay, or my novel -- I'm constantly aestheticizing the world and myself, giving contour and color to these otherwise sort've amorphous things. I think that act, in and of itself, is generative and healing. It is also a source of power for me. I'm a good writer and I know that. There is real joy and potential in the simple expression of what one is good at. And finally, I find the whole thing very beautiful and very communal. I know that so many of my fellow writers suffer through afflictions much greater than my own, and this gives me tremendous courage.
There is of course the cliché of the damaged artist. Before this interview you mentioned that creativity is rarely compensatory. Can you go into that a bit?
Sure. What I meant is that I think it's easy to fall into a romantic vision of the connection between mental pain and art. I do not dispute the link between creativity and mental anguish (the list of afflicted writers and artists is far too long to mention here), but I think the concept has become so familiar as to make a caricature out of the unimaginably horrible reality of that suffering. It is fantastic to have your work read and shared by strangers; it is wonderful when your friends and family think of you as intelligent and accomplished; it is even great, from a purely egoistic standpoint, to buy into yourself as an artist, one of those rare, fierce breeds trying to change the world; however, none of it is worth a dime when you're sick. In the grips of a months long depression, you would trade every ounce of talent for a day of normality. When I'm not depressed, art is my life; when I'm in the endless gray sea, it is utterly meaningless, a bad joke. I think it's important to recognize and understand the links between creativity and mental problems; but it's just as important to see each of them on their own terms, lest they become cartoons or something so pat that they lose their deadly serious forms.
Do you think if you didn't write at all, and didn't engage in any sort of consistent creative expression, you'd be much worse off in the healing process?
Without question. I think I would be in a hospital or worse. My family, my friends, and my writing have saved me.
Do you think there's anything you could have told yourself when you were 25 that would have prepared yourself more for the struggles to come?
I could have said a great many things but I don't think they would have meant anything to me at the time. I was young, talented, and I had Amy. I was invincible. I think there is some part of us that realizes loving and losing are inextricably woven together. If you love in this world, you are guaranteed the most amazing varieties of pain. But it doesn't really click (or at least it didn't for me) until what you love is well and truly gone. No matter what future me would say to my younger self, he wouldn't get it. But he will soon.
You've mentioned the consistent support of friends and family throughout. I know many people aren't sure about what to say to someone grieving, as if there are perfect words. Besides just being there, what have those around you done to ease the pain the most?
I think, for me, it was just presence. My closest friends and my family knew that there were no words -- there never are -- and so being in a room or in a car with me and being ready for silence, sobbing, shouting, cynicism, hope, whatever I was feeling that day, that was so incredibly helpful. Just being versatile in your kind attention is of enormous help. Sometimes I just wanted to go watch an NBA game and have an IPA with my friends and not talk about matters of grave import; sometimes I wanted to argue; sometimes I wanted to laugh or scream or stare at a wall. Being ready for a grieving person's swings and adapting gracefully to them is, I think, one of the most helpful things imaginable.
Whatever you do, don't say "Things happen for a reason."
You've provided so many great thoughts for someone going through grief, someone who knows someone going through grief, and even someone who doesn't fall into either camp, but will now have a better understanding of everything they've got, and shouldn't take for granted. Were almost out of time so I'll ask if there's anything you'd like to add that you haven't had the chance to mention yet.
A couple parting thoughts -- if someone talks to you about depression or anxiety, even if they seem perfectly happy and functional, don't trivialize their experience just because they've learned to be good actors. We can fake it with the best of them. Lastly, I'll give the most clichéd yet authentic advice imaginable: tell someone you love them today. I would cut off my arm to be able to say it to Amy's blue eyes again.
Dustin this has been a physically emotional experience for me, and I cannot imagine the courage it has taken to express what you've gone through and are going through. Thank you for your time and your words.
Thanks very much for the opportunity Andrew.