This post was originally published on July 4, 2016.
Until recently, the only short story I ever loved was Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery though the truth is that I had not read many short stories since I went to college many moons ago.
Just over a year ago, I decided to go back to school and complete my Bachelor’s degree online. I am working on an English degree with a focus on fiction. Lo and behold, I have to write short stories, of all things, for some of the classes. Plus, I have to read them too. Initially, the thought made my skin crawl, but as time went on, I found myself falling in love.
These days, I buy lots of short story compilations, usually from Amazon. Every time one arrives at my house, I am as excited as my dog Loki is when he plays with a squeaky doggy toy. I have compiled a list of my favorite stories, which deal with depression, anxiety and addiction. These stories are special because they have provided me with valuable insights in my recovery. They also make me feel better when I am miserable, which happens often, since I have a Pandora’s box full of co-occurring disorders. Ironically, another short story by my old fav Shirley Jackson is at top of my list. Not surprisingly, Jackson also suffered from depression.
1. Colloquy by Shirley Jackson
Mrs. Arnold visits a psychiatrist, because she wants to know if her husband is insane. Apparently, hubby is talking to himself. During the session, she gets hysterical. The shrink has been analyzing her and tells her that she appears to be cut off from “reality” implying that perhaps she is the insane one. I once had a shrink tell me something along these lines, when I went in for a psychiatric evaluation to get medication for my OCD and depression. Mrs. Arnold didn’t hear what she wanted, so she storms out of the shrink’s office. After my experience, I ended up with a prescription for Celexa. While some of my OCD symptoms were alleviated, I still skulked around, like a demon in search of a body to possess.
I realize now that was probably because I chased my Celexa with so much alcohol I could hardly recognize reality. I believed that living in a surreal existence would help my creativity. Wrong. One time when I tried to work on my novel on my Mac desktop, I knocked over a glass of wine all over my brand new Mac keyboard. It was ruined. What did I do? Pour another glass of wine, of course! By the time I replaced it with a cheap old-fashioned Apple keyboard that I bought for ten bucks at a thrift store, the last thing I wanted to do was write, for godsakes! Not only did the keyboard’s letter “A” not work, but I had other things to worry about. Like the fact I had no food and that my gas had just been cut off. When I hit rock bottom, the last thing on my mind was working on the Great American novel, or according to my keyboard, “gret ‘mericn novel.”
2. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Based on Gilman’s experience as a mental patient, the story is about a woman who descends into madness. The narrator’s physician husband has prescribed a “rest cure” and insists that our heroine remain inside her home’s nursery. She hallucinates and imagines that she sees a woman in the yellow wallpaper. There were many times when I drank, and I remained inside the house, staring at walls covered with spider webs. I felt as trapped as the dead bugs that were caught in the cobwebs. The narrator goes nuts the longer she stays inside the room, and even throws the room’s key out the window. Like alcoholism, depression is progressive. This story really hit home for me. It made me see that by living in isolation I was not going to get better, but worse. Instead of throwing the keys out the window, I opened the door and walked out to get some help.
3. Beyond the Bayou by Kate Chopin
In this story, the heroine, La Folle, was traumatized by a past event. She is terrified of the woods that lie beyond the bayou where she lives. This story is a great example of a person suffering from severe anxiety. Besides depression, I also have anxiety. It was so bad at one time in my life, I was afraid to walk through the aisles of Ralph’s, let alone run through a bayou. One of the reasons that I drank, was to get rid of my anxieties. It’s awful walking around Ralph’s (unless you are in Hollywood) late at night, wearing dark glasses, a hoody and ear plugs that are not connected to any device. I turned to booze to alleviate the fears, which made things worse!
La Folle is forced to walk through the woods and face her fears when she has to care for an injured child. The experience of La Folle overcoming her terrors is quite powerful. In recovery, turning to a Higher Power has helped me face my fears, for the first time in my life.
4. The New Dress by Virginia Woolf
Woolf, who probably suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide at the age of 59. In this story, a woman named Mabel is wearing a new dress, but when she takes a look at herself in the mirror, she flips out. I suspect she suffers from body dysmorphic disorder. Guess who has similar issues? That’s right—moi. Forget Pandora’s box. I think my co-occurring disorders could fit into a three-piece luggage set.
Mabel refers to herself as a “dingy old fly.” Mabel is a lot nicer to her reflection than I am. When I was newly sober, I became very depressed by my physical appearance. When I peeked in the mirror, I felt as if I was looking at the endangered proboscis monkey, a unique mammal that honks its big nose to its fellow proboscis monkeys, as a form of communication. In early sobriety, I was overwhelmed with many regrets which warped how I saw myself. Working the steps has helped me find self-acceptance.
5. Janus by Ann Beattie
Andrea, the main character in this tale, is a lonely real estate agent. She is obsessed with a pottery bowl that her former lover bought for her at a craft fair. With the bowl as her focal point, she time travels between the past and the present. She recalls all the events in her life that surrounded the bowl. I also time travel when I find myself caught in self-pity. When I start sobbing while looking at sentimental tchotchkes in my house, I know its time to call my sponsor and get my butt to a 12-step meeting.
6. In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel
While this is a story about a woman being at her best friend’s deathbed in the hospital, there are many sad feelings at play. Ultimately, the friend who is left behind grapples with overwhelming emotions, including fear, guilt and loss. Not only is Hempel a talented writer, but she once owned six pooches. Guess what? I own six dogs. It’s not easy to find a kindred spirit (or fellow lunatic) out there who owns six dogs. I’m no stranger to losing loved ones, either. I lost both my parents within a two-year span. Although it happened more than ten years ago, I had to deal with my grief again when I got sober. Reading this story, then being inspired to write one of my own, was like doing an amends to my parents.
While these stories deal with depression and other heavy issues, relating them to my own life in recovery makes me feel as if my own luggage set of co-occurring disorders just got lighter.