I stared at myself in the mirror of Penn Station’s bustling men’s room. I’d recently left a bathroom stall where I’d simultaneously changed from jeans and a t-shirt into khakis and an untucked button-down blue shirt while hopping so as not to step in pee. The event called for business casual, a clothing style that makes me uncomfortable especially since I can’t wear my battered Yankees cap also known as my security blanket. I hate my hair and the growing desert at the back of my head, so without my hat I felt more anxious than usual. Outside waited Elaine and Sienna. Sienna and I spent a nice day at the Bronx Zoo with my good college friend and his 2-year-old daughter who were visiting from Texas. Elaine had brought my dress clothes to her job. She’d take Sienna and my sweaty, comfortable clothes home so I could attend a screening of My Depression: The And Down And Up Of It, an HBO documentary scheduled to premiere on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 9 pm. I took a deep breath and left the bathroom, eyes to the floor, accidentally knocking into a few of the unending river of people. I apologized each time, but I couldn’t look up. I found Elaine and Sienna and walked them to their train. Elaine gave me a kiss and wished me good luck. I pressed the button and entered the empty elevator, my daughter’s unhappy whines and calls for “Daddy! Daddy!” filling the compartment until the doors closed.
Adam Cohen, the dad blogger behind www.dadarocks.com, got me on the screening’s list, though it wasn’t until I met Jessica Driscoll, Director of Media Relations at HBO that I learned Adam had given up his seat and recommended me because he felt the documentary’s subject would be much more beneficial to me. I can’t thank Adam enough for such a caring gesture.
I arrived early at the HBO building and a guard told me check-in would begin promptly at 6 pm, so I went next door to the HBO store and its mugs, t-shirts, hats and assorted trinkets devoted to every HBO show from The Sopranos to Veep. $70 for a letter opener in the shape a Game of Thrones’ sword? I think not. I headed back to the lobby and stared at the posters of so many shows I’d watched remembering my time running screenings when I worked in film before I decided the industry wasn’t for me because I didn’t have the toughness to survive.
At 6 pm I checked in and headed upstairs to a large room where they held a small reception honoring everyone who worked on both the film itself and behind the scenes, but most importantly, for Elizabeth Swados, the documentary’s inspiration. In 2005, Ms. Swados, a 30+ year veteran writer, composer and theatre director; the recipient of multiple Tony and Obie nominations as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship; an author of 13 books and tons of articles featured in everything from The New York Times to Vogue, wrote and illustrated a graphic novel titled “My Depression: A Picture Book” detailing her near life-long battle with the disease. She wrote the book for a friend also suffering from depression as a means to help. Recognizing the importance of illuminating depression for a national audience, HBO translated her words and images into a musically animated half-hour documentary featuring the voices of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Fred Armisen and Dan Fogler.
I entered the reception room with trembling hands and met the aforementioned Jessica Driscoll, one of the sweetest, most encouraging people I’ve ever encountered. After introductions and a little chitchat, Jessica mentioned to me that not only had Adam recommended that I take his place at the screening, but she researched me, read my blog and felt I needed to be there. These are the type of things to which I still don’t know how to respond.
“Um,” I stammered, “I was wondering if I could speak with Ms. Swados one-on-one for a little bit. Do you think it’s possible?”
“Of course!” Jessica said happily, “I’ll make sure to introduce you to Liz when she’s free. Just hang out and have a little food!”
“Ok,” I said, and headed to one of two small bars to get myself some Diet Coke.
I took my drink and a few skewers of chicken and pineapple in teriyaki sauce and sat down as far out of sight as possible. I knew no one in the room, and I rocked back and forth a bit, sipping my drink and wondering who they all were. Did they work on the film? Were they friends? Relatives? Students? (Liz, as I would soon learn to call her, teaches drama at NYU). I wondered if Steve Buscemi would show up and if so would I have the guts to go up to him and tell him I worked with him on the NYC press junket for Living In Oblivion back in 1995, how I remember sitting next to him at lunch and talking about his then in-production directorial debut, Trees Lounge. But none of the voice actors attended the screening so I’d only have to gather up the courage to talk to Liz.
Jessica found me and told me she’d spoken to Liz about me and she’d be more than happy to talk with me about anything. She led me near the front of the room where Liz sat, receiving hugs, thank yous and compliments by a line of people.
Jessica introduced us and left us alone to talk. Though our conversation was short and interrupted many times, it was in many ways life-affirming, for someone as successful as Liz essentially said to me what I often say to others: you are not alone – best exemplified when she put her hand on my own trembling one.
After telling Liz a bit about myself, my history of depression and anxiety and my blogging about the 2 while being a stay-at-home dad, I asked some questions.
“How do you stop from spiraling?”
“I don’t,” Liz responded with a bit of a laugh. “Sometimes it means I need new meds.”
I took her response to mean that even though she’s battled and continues to survive the disease for longer than I’ve been alive, she still has her dark moments that as much as she tries, she cannot control.
I told her about how I feel like I’ve hit a wall in therapy, how my therapist wants me to pretend pretend pretend that I have confidence and am happy so that it eventually becomes more real than fake.
“But I don’t know how,” I said somewhat desperately. “It’s like telling me to believe blue is green. I don’t know how to change after living most of my life like this.”
“I have blue days,” Liz said philosophically, “But I also have green ones. Today’s an orange day.”
I didn’t ask her to expound for I felt it meant what my therapist constantly repeats – that my brain’s locked into a thought process of blacks and whites and refuses to acknowledge color.
While I asked other questions, those 2 stick out most when I think of that evening.
Eventually it was time for the screening itself. I thanked Liz for her kindness and took a seat in the screening room. Many of the images come directly from Liz’s graphic novel. The animation style is like an extremely kinetic Peanuts strip. The voice acting is spot on. The songs are wild and often…funny. One perfectly illustrates the horror and franticness of suicidal thoughts via a taunting suicide van driver portrayed by Steve Buscemi and shows Liz getting closer and closer to ending it while fighting against her harried mind. Another, which takes place after Liz’s therapist decides she should be on medication, shows a rapping pill bottle (Fred Armisen) explaining the science of depression.
The animation style of “My Depression”
My Depression tells how Liz worried about things common to all teenagers, but at a much more intense level, one so extreme that she felt alienated. We see those feelings (illustrated by a dark cloud) follow her to college and then into the world. We see Liz find joy in music, but her depression quickly flattens her to the point where she can’t get out of bed. We watch Liz’s depression get triggered by almost anything, “the change in seasons, [an] overwhelming un-cleanable closet, a rejection letter…the loss of a friend or loved one, or sometimes nothing whatsoever.”
I nodded along so much I felt my head would fall off and roll to the front of the room. It was me there on screen surrounded by non-sufferers suggesting different ways for Liz to just get over it. It was me falling into a pit of blackness. It was me listening to friends’ triumphs and feeling wholly inadequate. It was my mind screaming at me that I’m a failure after receiving a rejection letter. But at the same time Liz’s character, voiced by Sigourney Weaver, keeps reminding us that everyone’s battle with depression is different and that is very true. Although all of us sufferers share some similarities, our actions and thoughts and experiences are completely unique. Eventually, through a combination of medication and therapy (including the “pretending” that scares me to death), Liz learns to cope and experience life even if that little cloud still follows and at times engulfs her…for a bit.
It is a beautiful film designed to shatter the stigmas surrounding depression and mental illness while educating those who often mistake what is a real disease for simple sadness.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about My Depression; I wanted to blog immediately upon walking out of the screening. Perhaps it’s because it was so real, so intimate (for me). Perhaps my anxiety got the best of me – it is true that each time I tried to blog I’d sit staring at a blank screen feeling as if I were the victim of that medieval torture in which people were strapped down while oppressors placed heavy rocks on their chests until their ribcages collapsed. I think most of all I didn’t want to let Liz or Jessica or all of the people behind the film down so I waited allowing the pressure to produce something golden became so overwhelming I just couldn’t write until the eve of My Depression‘s premiere on HBO.
Here’s where Liz, my therapist and hopefully Jessica would say to me: It doesn’t matter. You did it. It’s done. Put it behind you. You had and have nothing to prove.
Maybe me writing that sentence is one of the most significant things I should take from meeting and talking with Liz and watching her battle on screen. All I know is that I’ve written to Liz and she’s written back and I feel like I have someone else in my corner (even if she barely knows me). And for all of you fellow depression sufferers out there, Liz is in your corner too as am I.
My Depression: The Up And Down And Up Of It premieres on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 9 pm on HBO. I hope you watch it. And you know I’ll be watching it again.
Many thanks to Liz Swados, Jessica Driscoll and Adam Cohen. I hope I’ve done you proud.