Saturday, July 31, 2004

How I Survived After Clarion

In the summer of 2003 I went to Clarion West. It was the best time of my life. In the winter of 2003 I had a severe depressive episode and went very close to taking my own life. In the spring of 2004 I began writing again.

My bout of depression, for several reasons, was by far the most serious I’ve heard about - going into major depression is not usual after Clarion - but my predicament was not unique. Most of us went through some kind or another of what my fellow Clarionite Gabe Morgan called Post-Clarion Stress Syndrome.

Clarion is an extremely stressful experience. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was even a bit scornful about all these talks of how stressful, how hard, how taxing Clarion was. I had been under a not negligible amount of stress for the year and a half preceding Clarion, on account of my job (I was, perhaps will be again, a professional fiction translator) – something that contributed among other things to the gravity of my subsequent fall – and Clarion itself seemed, by comparison, loads of fun. I hadn’t realized that just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean that you can’t be under a lot of pressure. Having the time of your life by itself , not counting what happens when you have to go home, can be extremely hard.

But let’s concentrate on what happened to me after I stopped having fun.

My position was, if not unique, peculiar among Clarionites because I was a foreigner (well, I still am, of course). English is not my native language, and I didn’t reside in an English-speaking country. I come from a different culture, so along with all the rest, I was in for culture shock. Not at Clarion... when I got back. When I landed back in Milan and looked around, in the most scorching summer Italy has known so far, a shiver went through me. I felt like I was on an alien planet. If there was a bright and lively centre of the universe, I was in the place furthest from it. This was a large part of my Post-Clarion syndrome.

Another stress factor was the fact that for the six weeks of Clarion we had been spoiled, pampered brats. Our needs were, for our mums Leslie and Neile, of supreme importance. Our sleep was sacred (apart from the racket across the street, but that’s another story). Ailments and discomforts were taken seriously. Conflicts were dealt with. Paperclips were provided. At the parties, we were the stars. At the readings, we were sitting in the first row. We got to stand up and be applauded.

Clarion is a hothouse, and rightly so. You are treated like the privileged guy you are, and it’s implied you’re going to give back lots to the SF community, because the SF community gives you lots more than can be paid by your tuition fee.

Then the six weeks end. Reams of scrap paper are recycled. You leave. The others dissolve into a cloud of electrons. You go back home and you’re nothing and no-one. You’ve been to what? What is it, a kind of school? Did you win something? It’s that thing about Star Trek, right?

Rapid wilting of hothouse flowers suddenly exposed to January snow.

This is all the more true if you live far from the fandom network. In large cities, especially cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, where fandom is thriving and you may even have a Clarion mate practically next door, it is possible to resort to the network. But if you’re in the sticks, all your achievements and pains are suddenly worth or a weight for you and you alone. I went back to Padua, Italy. A country where Science Fiction is basically dead and fantasy doesn’t thrive either.

I would probably have been able to brave the slump, and the culture shock, quite well if it hadn’t been for other factors. One is personal and particular but one is very Clarionite – I was one of my year’s Clarion divorces.

They tell me the Clarion breakup is often a result of a Clarion hookup. In my case it wasn’t so. I wasn’t married but I was certainly sure I was going to be in a short time. My partner had joined me at the end of Clarion and the plan was to tour the USA together. As soon as I saw him I knew that, no matter how much I loved him, our life together was over. Clarion changes you, and the rest of your life sometimes doesn’t change accordingly. We went through the motion of a happy holiday anyway, were even happy together for the last time, then we came back home and he took a plane back to his home town and I haven’t seen him since.

The advice I would almost feel like giving people about the Clarion divorce is: don’t. Don’t take life-altering decisions in the aftermath of six weeks of intense stress, at a moment when you are high on exhilaration and exhaustion. Wait to go back to your normal life, to your routine. Settle down, get over the slump, get over the mourning for the separation and loss of leaving Clarion, and then decide.

But I won’t give this advice in the end. After long internal debate I think that, sometimes, people need a push. Maybe I needed one, to get out of a relationship that wasn’t bad enough to be broken up as it needed to be. Being in a moment of flux and crisis, having to face loss anyway, helped me take what was probably a wise decision that I would, otherwise, have delayed indefinitely.

But if you end up being a Clarion divorce, and if there’s no compensating hookup, do expect to go through the wasteland. There is no skirting around it.

So now, a few words about going through the wasteland – a few words about depression.

Feeling heartbroken and bereft is not pathological. Especially if you’ve got a huge stressor to justify it, like divorce, or Clarion, or both. But it can devolve into depression and depression has to be cured. Depression can be cured. The tell-tales are widely known but I’ll recap them briefly:

feelings of sadness and dejection
feelings of hopelessness, radical and unrelenting pessimism (this is probably the most important signal)
feelings of worthlessness, guilt or inferiority
loss of interest for activities or other things that used to give pleasure in the past
loss of interest or inability to perform everyday tasks
loss of sleep or increased sleep
feeling always tired
loss of libido
suicidal thoughts or ideation, including masked suicidal thoughts or behaviour like reckless driving, dangerous behaviour, etc.
loss of appetite

Almost everybody goes through some or all of these at some time or other in life, but if you experience most of these and they persist for more than two weeks, you’re likely depressed. Now depression can lift of its own, but you don’t want to wait for this, for several reasons. The first one is that nobody will award you any points for your stoicism, and there are good and efficient treatments for it; the second is that depression has quite a high mortality rate – that is, people who have it tend to kill themselves. Depression is a serious condition, a dangerous one. It is not a moral fault. It is not a character fault. It’s an illness, it’s a way certain brains have of dealing with stress, it’s got nothing to do with how brave, strong, worthy or nice you are. If you develop it, it’s because your brain has taken a pathological path to deal with stress. You’ve got to help it, just as you’d help your body deal with diabetes with insulin, or deal with an infection with antibiotics.

In dealing with depression, you will not be alone, no matter how strong and clear the impression that you are will be. Something that must always be remembered is that depression skews your perceptions. You will have strong, crushing feelings that all is vain, all is ugly, all is hopeless, that nobody loves you, nobody cares for you, and that life isn’t worth living. You may believe that you have lost the will or ability to write. And you will feel a soul-crushing loneliness. This is all an artefact of depression. You are not hopeless, you are not faulty, you are not alone.

Depression, as a friend told me, works like this: your brain has some feelings, generally of a very negative nature. It then searches for a reason to feel them. If it doesn’t find any factual reasons, and the feelings persist, it seizes on inexistent or irrelevant facts and constructs a pathological but very convincing case out of them. It is very important not to lose sight of the fact that what seems very convincing under the influence of the illness is not necessarily true.

I have, for example, throughout my illness, been consistently helped by several people who have devoted time and attention to my condition, some of them my Clarion mates, some of them unrelated to Clarion. They have listened day in day out to my pain and fear, and never stinted on reassurance, reason, company, and love. They sent me cards and little gifts, they chatted with me, they emailed me, they phoned me, they showed up at my house to sleep overnight on the day I felt most dejected and close to the edge. This did help me – I probably would have killed myself if they hadn’t been there – but throughout the episode my most crushing, painful feeling was of loneliness. I felt absolutely alone and bereft of hope. But, having been depressed in the past (and thanks to the generosity and patience of the above-mentioned people) I knew the feeling was just a feeling, and would disappear with the illness.

Clarion itself is a great resource in times of trouble. It is an incredibly bonding experience and there is not one, not one of my Clarion mates I did not miss, I did not feel close to, I did not love. Not even the ones I argued with passionately during Clarion (or indeed afterwards). This is a common experience and a resource that is there for most people who go through it.
My Clarion mates were probably the most decisive in helping me survive until I got better. Some people broke under the strain – two of the people I cared for and counted upon most ended up shoving me away. One probably did it believing it was good for me. The other did it because he couldn’t take it any longer. This will happen to anybody going through a serious crisis; some people will stay and some won’t. Some people will help and some won’t be able to. It is useless and unfair to hold it against them: it is not an easy task.

The most important thing, and the one that is hard to believe, is that one day you will realize all of a sudden that a feeling of grace has taken hold of you again: that once you were lost, and now you are found. One day – that may come quicker because of medication, therapy, help, or the natural lifting of the veil – you will realize that the dreadful loneliness was being far from yourself. That the reason nothing and nobody seemed sufficient company was because it was you yourself missing. Missing but not gone: and you will wake up one day and every piece will be there, and the disorder won’t be chaos any longer, and you will spend a happy weekend all alone with your words, and you won’t miss something vital any longer. And new words will come back. You will realize that even brief notes scribbled in notebook are not as bad, as useless as they seemed at the time you were writing them. You will go back to life. Even collecting rejection slips has its own perverse charm.

It gets better.

Really. It does.