[Trigger warning: suicide, mental illness, self-harm]
When Carrie Fisher unexpectedly passed away in December of 2016, I was inconsolable. It was the day after Boxing Day and I was sat around the kitchen table with my extended family when I started scrolling through Twitter and began seeing tweets announcing her death. My eyes immediately began burning with tears and, as another member of my family saw the news on their phone and the group began talking about it, I excused myself to the bathroom. As soon as I shut the door I began to sob uncontrollably and remained in that state just long enough for my family to not suspect anything, wiped my tears, and rejoined them. I joined the conversation my family was having about her death and participated like any “normal” person would – acknowledging the sadness of the death of a celebrity you did not know and then moving on. What I could not tell my family in that moment was that I did know Carrie Fisher; I knew her intimately and she knew me, even though we had never met. We had spoken many times throughout my twenty-seven years of life, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Our conversations happened through books, films, interviews, through our experiences and through our persisting bodies, all of which are intertwined with our illnesses.
Fisher lived with bipolar disorder and was an advocate for mental health awareness throughout her career. Although many celebrities advocate for mental health in some form, it is usually in a disembodied way that severs the celebrity from the stigma. What made Fisher special was that she rooted her advocacy in her own struggles – drug and alcohol addiction, body dysmorphia, and electroconvulsive therapy, to name a few – unabashedly exposing those struggles to the world and working outwards. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Fisher spoke about why she always remains so open and honest about all aspects of living with a mental illness, telling the interviewer that, “[i]f you claim something, you can own it. But if you have it as a shameful secret, you’re fucked.” After reading the interview, this quote became my mantra for dealing with my own depression and I promised myself that I would live like Fisher – accepting my mental illness as an integral part of myself and sharing that part of me like I would any other. What I did not fully know at the time of making that promise, and what I would not learn until quite a few years later, is that speaking your truth about mental illness is incredibly difficult, a fact that makes me admire Fisher more and more every day, even a year after her death.
This story has been one I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. My silence has not come from a place of shame or embarrassment, but from the inability to speak this story into being, an inability to express something that I didn’t fully understand. Recently, I took a course titled “Literature as Witness” where we read a mix of theoretical texts on witnessing and testimony, as well as fictional texts written by Canadian Mennonite authors. While reading one of those fictional texts, Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, lots of things hit very close to home for me as a scholar, and lover, of Romanticism – from the Coleridgean title to many of my favourite Romantics being peppered throughout the text. It wasn’t until near the end of the book, however, that things moved from being close to home to hitting home right in the bullseye. The novel follows the story of two sisters – Elf and Yoli – and chronicles Elf’s struggle with depression and multiple suicide attempts. After Elf’s successful suicide attempt, her husband gives Yoli a package that contains a story written by Elf, titled Italy in August. Yoli opens to a page of the story and observes what her sister has written:
“I peeked at a random page and read a short paragraph in which the protagonist expresses her all-consuming passion for Italy, that she wants to go there because it’s where her ‘fictional sisters’ went. Then she listed some of these fictional sisters and the books they appear in, and how each one of them protected her in a way, pulled her up and out of life’s quicksand moments, the bullshit, the agony of being alive… She loved these books and they loved her back.”[i]
When I read this passage in the text I had to step back for a moment and then return to it, reading it over and over again. Yoli doesn’t mention the names of these fictional sisters but, based on their appearances earlier in the text and their attachments to and their own texts set in Italy, I can’t help but imagine Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley as two of the women Elf feels connected to. Wollstonecraft and Shelley are not fictional beings, per se, but their almost mythological status in the literary world makes them quasi-fictional, as does their status as long deceased. I don’t know whether this moment is true or a narrative flourish on Toews’ part and I don’t know whether the validity matters at all. What matters is this passage’s affective truth and its ability to bring into words something I’ve been struggling to come to terms with for almost two years.
Mary Wollstonecraft and I have at least two things in common: we never got the chance to meet Mary Shelley and we both tried to kill ourselves twice. Our methods were different (hers by drowning and mine by razorblade and a bottle of pills) but we both successfully failed in trying to take our own lives – for me, the only two things I’ve ever failed at. I obviously don’t know Wollstonecraft, in the traditional sense of the term, but I feel confident in positing that mental health potentially played a strong role in her suicide attempts, as it did in my own.
Depression is different for everyone who experiences it and my particular brand is like water. It comes in waves, always lapping at the shore, depositing debris on the surface and pulling objects back into the sea. But the tide always comes in and reigns it back, just long enough for me to get my bearings. Twice, however, the tide has been too late and the waves have crashed over the barricade and flooded everything in sight. Once violently, when I was in high school and tried to die, and once subtly, during the last year of my undergraduate degree. In high school, I could quantify my depression, justify it, which made it easier to understand. There were external factors that mapped neatly onto it and rationalized the whole experience. The second time was different. I was happy. Incredibly so. I had supportive friends and family, was excelling in school, and had a great job that I loved. So, when I woke up one morning and suddenly couldn’t find the will to get out of bed, when I started retreating away from my family and making excuses to not see my friends for months at a time, I was lost and, more importantly, utterly confused. What made it even harder was my choice to keep it to myself. In high school, I made it visible – I acted out and self-harmed. But this time, over ten years later, keeping it invisible, buried, silent, was a marker of success to me. If nobody suspects, then it doesn’t exist.
High-functioning or chronic depression is a difficult thing to live with. You can’t be mad at a loved one for not understanding your depression when it is something that you don’t even understand yourself. But it is a debilitating, festering type of wound to know that you are hurting the ones you love by just trying to exist. My brand, and I suspect Elf’s brand, of depression is hard to explain. But my best attempt usually goes something like this: it is a devastating loneliness. Not a loneliness caused by losing loved ones or being physically without others, but a loneliness from being without yourself. It’s horrific to realize that the one person you truly should always be able to count on – yourself – just isn’t there anymore. Instead, you are replaced with a sad, performative shell of yourself and left wondering if this is what it will be like for the rest of your life. You miss yourself deeply and achingly, and you feel as if no one can fill that space or begin to understand that kind of devastating loss.
Which brings me back to the last year of my undergrad. To cope with my depression, I, like many others, threw myself into my work. It gave me an excuse for my reclusiveness and my insomnia, and helped to fill, distract, and occupy my otherwise empty brain. I had just begun work on my undergraduate thesis on Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, an aptly (or not) chosen text about the mental and physical horrors of being the last man on Earth after a plague wipes out the human race. It is here where I entered into my fictional sisterhood with Shelley, where she, through the writing in her journals and letters, protected me, spent some time with me in the bullshit quicksand of life, and, ultimately, helped me understand and accept the agony of being alive. Shelley was the same age when she wrote The Last Man as I was when I was writing my thesis, and by the time the book was written and published she had lost multiple children, her husband, and one of her closest friends, been excommunicated from her family, was isolated from other friends due to vicious and false gossip spreading about her failures as a wife and a mother, was betrayed by another close friend, and was being forced to return to England from her beloved Italy by her stepfather. If anyone knew how to write about suffering and loss, it was Shelley – and she did. The passages, in her journal especially, about loss are simultaneously beautiful and heartbreakingly visceral. And she never “gets over it” or “gets better,” but she does become more and more resilient and persistent, and, through her, so did I.
I’ve only been thinking about literature as witness to something tangible to its author, as the text acting as a witness to the author’s trauma or to the traumas of their loved ones or community. I never imagined that bearing witness is exactly what occurred between Shelley’s texts and myself, that a text itself could bear witness to something the author could not know, could never anticipate. Bearing witness becomes a way of knowing outside of knowledge itself, a knowing of something unknowable. Impossibly unknowable. In this sense, Shelley’s texts listened to me and spoke back to me in a way that no living person in my life ever could have. The act of bearing witness to my trauma then became multiple, with Shelley’s texts acting as a “blank space,” to use Dori Laub’s term, on which I could inscribe my trauma, and Toews’ text being “the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the ‘knowing’ of the event is given birth to.”[ii] My relationship with Shelley confirms Felman and Laub’s hypothesis that the hearer of trauma needs to be removed from the situation but still cognisant of at least some part of it. Shelley and I are removed by centuries, by geography, and by time itself. But we have a “mutual recognition of a shared knowledge”[iii]: our melancholia. Her and I became “disparate bodies” whose mutual melancholia “remains steadfastly alive in the present” and allowed for me to confront my loss through “an ongoing and open relationship with the past”[iv]. Even though the terms of our melancholia are different – she tangibly losing everything and me intangibly losing myself – somehow, she became my witness and I, perhaps, hers. I hesitate to say the Shelley saved me, as that term is too neat and clean to explain what happened, but her texts did hear me. And, in the moment, that was enough. Toews’ text, in a similar way, has heard me as well, heard something that I didn’t even know I wanted to say. Elf, through Yoli, or Marjorie, through Miriam, have given me the ability to speak a part of my life that was, until now, unspeakable.
Mary Shelley and All My Puny Sorrows’ Elf have joined Carrie Fisher as three of the most important strangers in my life and in my mental health journey. The intimate estrangement between myself and these women is one of the most difficult aspects of my depression, and of my healing process, to explain – how can you explain the a/effect that a stranger, a celebrity, a fictional character, has on your embodied life? I need to make it clear that in this particular exploration I do not want to give credence to the notion that depression is universal, to attempt to pathologize Shelley’s grief, or to suggest that Elf’s experience with depression and Fisher’s with bipolar disorder are interchangeable and comparable to my own. What I am interested in parsing out is the ways in which these women and their experiences helped me with the seemingly impossible task of becoming a witness and testifying to my own experience. Part of becoming a witness is assuming “a responsibility for telling what happened” and testifying “to a truth that is generally unrecognized or suppressed”[v], and that is what I am attempting to achieve. The truth that I am testifying to is not only the truth of my own mental illness, but a truth beyond myself – that strangers, including celebrities and fictional characters, are valid and necessary witnesses to trauma even if they are not, nor ever can be, physically present as either speaker or listener.
Oftentimes, looking to figures outside of one’s “personal” circle of friends, family, and health specialists is considered to be a form of escapism, a symptom of mental illness rather than a coping strategy. I want to argue, especially as a student of literature, that strangers are and can be legitimate witnesses to trauma since, though their bodies are never physically present, they become embodied witnesses through other means – on paper and through film.
[i] Toews, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows. Knopf Canada, 2014.
[ii] Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Taylor & Francis, 1992.
[iii] Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Taylor & Francis, 1992.
[iv] Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian, eds. Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Univ of California Press, 2003.
[v] Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2013.