Novelist David Guterson has had many successes in life. His bestselling 1994 book, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” was made into an Academy Award-nominated movie. He was happily married and his life was very fulfilling. That’s why David was astonished when a sudden bout of depression, triggered by the events of September 11th had him descending into darkness.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the esteemed novelist was in Washington, D.C., evaluating grant applications for the National Endowment for the Arts. With airplanes grounded and amid tight security following the terrorist attack, David found himself stranded 3,000 miles from his home in the Pacific Northwest. Unable to sleep, he drove a rental car almost non-stop back home. During the drive, David’s thoughts seized him. “I was just a witness to an endless inner monologue. How brief life is; the horror of mortality.”
Once home, he told his wife, Robin, he wasn’t feeling well. That didn’t convey the depth of his despair. “He had no appetite, and he told me he’d been trying to pull himself out of this, but he just couldn’t,” Robin remembers. “It was frightening. Really frightening.”
Descending into depression
In his memoir, Descent: A Memoir of Madness (2013, Vintage), David details how things that had previously brought him joy now haunted him. His future gaped empty and fruitless. He imagined his children’s deaths and his wife reduced to mere “bones and then to dust and then to nothingness.”
David knew he was in trouble. Within two weeks of returning home, he saw his medical doctor. He hid behind a made-up stomach ailment when he called for an urgent appointment. In the confines of a private examination room, he confided his troubles, noting what he interpreted as the doctor’s sense of helplessness as he prescribed an anti-anxiety drug.
David was then embarrassed to see the pharmacist he’d known for many years. So he said the drug was for long airplane trips. A few days later, David went to a licensed counselor who recommended writing as a way to cope. “I think he was suggesting I use my position as a writer to do something good. Make a social contribution.” But in David’s state, writing was impossible.
At the time, David and Robin had a pre-teen, two sons in high school, and their oldest child was a young adult. “No one at home really knew except me,” says Robin. “David would come downstairs before they left for school, and then he’d go back to bed when they left.”
Robin learned as much as she could about depression. Sometimes she felt “abandoned and alone.” But intellectually, she recognized David had no control. “It’s easy to want to shake the person and say snap out of it, your life is great,” she says. Instead, Robin confided in trusted friends who provided her with support.
David had seen his physician, a counselor, and eventually a local psychiatrist who prescribed an anti-depressant. But because David was concerned about privacy in their small town, the psychiatrist referred him to a specialist in analytical psychology who practiced in a nearby city.
David began to look forward to those visits. Even traveling into the city, which included taking a ferry, a bus, and then a short walk, was helpful for him. Looking back, he concludes, “Content didn’t matter as much as the ritual of being in the presence of somebody who was completely understanding and present.”
David isn’t sure if it was the appointments, the medication, or both that helped him, but the veil of depression began to lift. Within about five months, he was able to reclaim his life.
The sudden onset of his acute depression still affects David and Robin, but they don’t think about it all the time. “He did such a great job making sure that he got help,” says Robin who checks in with her husband if he seems low. For his part, David is more mindful of his thinking and is quick to notice if his thoughts take a downturn. Then he consciously works to turn them around.
David wrote Descent to help combat the stigma of depression. “There’s way too much reproach and contempt in society for the depressed,” David says. In sharing his story, David hopes to inspire anyone who is depressed to let go of shame, be open, and seek help.