When I started writing the ideas that would eventually end up as “Channel B,” I wasn’t thinking essay. I wasn’t thinking in terms of anything structured or fully-formed; at the time, it was more about basic survival. I’d just had a baby. He was beautiful and perfect and awesome and healthy and I was terrified. Shouldn’t I … feel something? Like … love? My friend Amanda would come to my apartment and hold him so I could take a shower, and I’d get as far as turning on the faucet so it would sound like everything was okay, but everything was most definitely not okay. I was curled up on the bathroom floor sobbing.
Later I opened my journal and wrote: I need help.
How do you write about depression in a way that isn’t depressing?
It was the first thing I’d written in months. I used to write every day. It was how I used to define myself, to find myself, to feel, and now I stared at those words—I need help—like I didn’t know how they arrived on the page.
The next day, I decided it might be better to start small. Instead of I need help, I wrote I need a shower.
That day, I took a shower. It was glorious.
The next day, I wrote: I need to make the bed.
I made the bed.
I need to walk the dog.
I walked the dog.
I need to go grocery shopping.
I need to read a poem.
I need to jam the WiFi on the baby monitor.
Day after day, I made lists. At first, they were to-do lists, but eventually I came to think of them as points of gratitude, like holy hell, thank you, thank you for the seemingly smallest things, the joy in each step back to myself, and one day I walked into my son’s room and I saw him. He was beautiful and perfect and laughing and I saw him, I could live that moment from the movies where the mother holds her child and her heart cracks open and how can you even breathe under the profound weight of all that love?
The men and women in love with the women in the thick of it, the new parents in the midst of all that "what the hell is even happening?"
It was a few years before I felt ready to write about that time in my life with intention, to contribute to the dialogue around post-partum depression specifically and depression in general in a way that, hopefully, might be of some use. Again, I got out my journal—I am always getting out my journal. I need a place where I can make a godawful mess, those first tentative steps towards the truth—and this time, in the middle of an otherwise empty page, I wrote How do you write about depression in a way that isn’t depressing?
Taking the experience from lists in my journal to a cohesive narrative involved many very smart and generous people, but it was telling the story for a live crowd that finally sealed the deal. For over a decade I’ve worked with 2nd Story, a storytelling series here in Chicago, and the intimacy and support of our audience—sometimes fifty people, sometimes five hundred—has been been a lighthouse for me in some very dark times. I thought of telling this roomful of people what it had been like: the days and weeks and months blending into each other, the fog of it all, and my beautiful, perfect son. It was wonderful and awful. It was a bridge between Who I Was Then and Who I Am Now, not only in terms of how parenthood has changed me but also insofar as what I know and understand about love and fear and survival. It was the most alone I’ve ever been, within an experience that’s had by so many women, so many people, but still so rarely talked about. One of the many humbling things that have happened since Channel B’s inclusion in The Best American Essays 2013 is the sheer number of people who’ve reached out to me, via social media or through email, sharing their own stories of fighting through the fog; the women in the thick of it, the men and women in love with the women in the thick of it, the new parents in the midst of all that what the hell is even happening? and—this part totally blows my mind—because of a story, I can see them. I can see them. I can imagine all of us packed together in a big football stadium or something, sharing our stories and knowing that we’re not alone in all this wonderful, awful, perfect mess.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and Once I Was Cool, a book of essays forthcoming in May 2014. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been included in The Best American Essays 2013, The Rumpus, PANK, and Other Voices. Stielstra is the literary director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. You can find Megan Stielstra online at @meganstielstra.
On this track:
Megan Stielstra, author
Timothy Musho, filmmaker and photographer
Hear the complete essay and read its entire text on Australian Broadcasting Corporation's website.
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