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Reading Myself

Young, depressed and at odds with the relentless cheeriness of Milwaukee in festival season, a woman turns to literature to help get her life back on course.

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren.

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren.

When I was 22 and living in Washington, D.C., I applied to several graduate school programs in creative writing and didn’t get into any of them. After this disappointment, I picked myself up and bravely did what every self-respecting young adult does in the face of a minor setback that feels like a devastating earthquake: I moved back home. To be specific, I packed up a U-Haul trailer’s worth of mismatched kitchenware, particle board furniture and opaque tights, drove across the country and moved back into my old room in my parents’ house in suburban Milwaukee with absolutely no idea what I was going to do next.

I had been living in D.C. for about a year, working at a temp agency and hanging on to my comforting delusions of grandeur: I don’t belong here, I assured myself, as I sat behind a very large desk, occasionally answering phones and smiling at lawyers but mostly reading magazines in my lap. Of course not! I was destined to be a writer, and I felt certain that an MFA program was the first step on that path. Eleven months and five rejection letters later, I was on my way home.

I can look back on this moment in my life now, two decades later, with some equanimity and maybe a modicum of wisdom. I can even laugh at the 22-year-old girl-woman who thought the world was ending because her life wasn’t shaping up the way she thought it should. But as I drove away from Washington, D.C., and toward home, my despair was real. With every passing Cracker Barrel, I felt a familiar weight sitting more and more heavily on my shoulders – the return of the feeling that had been dogging me more or less my whole life. I was depressed.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was back then, but I’ve struggled with depression, to varying degrees, my whole life. As a child, I sometimes felt an overwhelming isolation and loneliness, even in the midst of my incredibly loving family. In my 20s, I often felt as if I were watching the rest of the world from inside a cloud. My friends’ lives seemed to be moving forward at a good clip; they were advancing in their careers and their relationships, while I was mostly scribbling in my journal, trying to think of new adjectives for “sad.” I had a friend in college who, annoyed with my persistent funk, told me that when she feels down in the dumps, she just smiles and smiles and smiles until she feels better. (Come on, Melanie. I know there’s a dark side in there somewhere. Admit it, Melanie!) Her words have come back to me many times in the ensuing years, not only because they are insipid, but also because, to me, they draw a clean line between the curably blue, the I’m-having-a-bad-day-and-I-need-some-chocolate moody, the Cathy-cartoon glum, and the truly depressed.

It was June when I arrived home. As anyone who lives in Milwaukee knows, summer in this city is basically Melanie: Get outside and enjoy this weather, you! Spend the day at Bradford Beach. Be festively festive at one of the endless fests – Polish, Greek, Summer, Beer. Be happy! Smile! Smile! Smile, dammit!

Back in the cocoon of my childhood bedroom, the shades drawn, I was a stranger in a strange land. I pulled up my covers around my ears as the world spun. My whole life, I had thought that I could make sense of my surroundings through writing. Now, in the form of graduate school rejections, that idea – which had stitched my identity together – was gone.

One of my first mornings at home (okay, afternoons; I wasn’t exactly bounding out of bed at sunrise back then), after registering at yet another temp agency (my parents’ gentle requirement for extended residency), I dragged myself to the North Shore Library.

I am not a spiritual person. I’ve only ever felt the divine spark at the bottom of an ice cream sundae. But the library has always been as close as it gets to a sacred place for me, a place of possibility and plenty. Something pulled me out of myself and over to the library on that summer day – perhaps a hint of self-preservatory strength I didn’t even know I had. I wandered the stacks before finding myself in Fiction, at A, and I grabbed a book I’d always wanted to read but somehow hadn’t: Pride and Prejudice. My gaze swept across the top shelf, and I decided that I would start there, at Austen, and work my way through the alphabet, reading every novel I wanted to read, until I got to Z or figured out my life – whichever came first.

Jane Austen was a fortuitous first choice for me. For a little while, the romantic entanglements of the Bennet girls carried me away, and I cheered their eventual happy endings. After Pride and Prejudice, I dove into Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and allowed myself the briefest inkling that my life could be worse – that I could, instead, be the victim of psychopathic tweens. I moved on to Wuthering Heights. (Even in the midst of my own dark hours, I knew Heathcliff was no good for her. What a sourpuss!) After that, it was Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, whose characters’ post-college shenanigans mirrored mine not at all.

The weather that summer was, as I recall, generally perfect, but my main experience of it was through the window in my bedroom, where I watched puffy clouds drifting past. I endured my days the same way I got through the Bs, Cs, Ds and Es – with concentration, a focus on what was in front of me and a deliberate attempt not to skip too far ahead, not to worry about what was next, in the hopes that the denouement would reveal itself. I trusted that the novels’ resolutions would become clear; about my own, I remained unsure.

I read E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime; the jazzy, staccato structure suggested alternatives to the expected. I read Love in the Time of Cholera, and found that even though I couldn’t motivate myself to leave my bedroom, I still had the capacity to swoon.

In July, I turned 23. By August, I was at G, and still waking up most mornings feeling like my head was stuffed with cotton. I hadn’t figured anything out, but I knew I couldn’t watch summer cool into fall from the suffocating comfort of my childhood bedroom. I needed to do something, so… in the polar opposite of a lightning bolt of inspiration – more a slow loosening of ennui – I decided to move to Madison. I ended up sharing a house with a bunch of people I didn’t know; I got a part-time clerical job at the university and tried to spend every afternoon writing. I knocked out a few essays. I read. By December, I had applied to some more creative writing graduate programs. By the following August, I had moved to Minneapolis to start my master’s degree.

I’m 47 now, more than twice as old as I was that summer. I still occasionally fight against a bleakness that sneaks up on me and settles into my chest, tries to convince me not to bother getting out of bed. Books didn’t cure that bout of depression, and they definitely didn’t change my opinion about Milwaukee’s oppressively chipper summers. (My kingdom for a cool, rainy August.) But those novels kept me company. Fiction reminded me then, as it does now, that I’m not alone; human beings are creatures of extraordinary depth and empathy; our struggles are vastly different, but they connect us. I turned to Austen and Atwood and García Márquez when I barely knew who I was. Quietly and without expectation, they nudged me gently toward understanding.

‘Reading Myself’ appears in the August issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the August issue on newsstands beginning August 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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