Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Vermonter David Blistein is author of the new book “David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression.”
“Right now,” Vermonter David Blistein begins, “I am not depressed, manic, hypomanic, dysphoric, bipolar, cyclothymic or agitated.”
But for almost two excruciating years, he was all of the above.
Yes, the 60-year-old Dummerston resident suffered many of the same symptoms reported by others among the nearly 10 percent of Americans with mood disorders.
“Sometimes doing anything seems like a burden,” he wrote in his journal in 2006. “Total debilitating breakdown every week or so. Utter hopelessness; crying jags; how can I spend another 20-30 years like this?”
But Blistein also searched for relief with the help of physicians, psychiatrists, acupuncturists, astrologers, craniosacral therapists, homeopaths, medical intuitives, tarot readers — and ultimately himself.
The result is a new book, “David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression.” The 304-page paperback, published by Hatherleigh Press and distributed by Random House, is reaping unusual praise from such national powerhouses as Amazon.com, which last week heralded the work atop its “Hot New Releases in Depression.”
“It takes us deep into the mysteries of depression, and its power to transform our relationships, our creativity and our very selves,” famed filmmaker Ken Burns writes in the book’s foreword.
Burns speaks not only as a longtime documentarian but also as Blistein’s 40-year friend.
“The strange thing is that the book isn’t depressing,” Burns adds in a YouTube teaser video. “It’s just gripping.”
For people struggling with other medical conditions, it’s also a guide to seizing all your options in an increasingly opinionated, polarized world.
“You’ve got to have your wits about you,” the author says in an interview, “at a time when you don’t have your wits about you.”
The contemporary “David’s Inferno” takes its framework from Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century classic “The Divine Comedy,” which details the Italian poet’s three-day journey — from Good Friday to Easter — to hell, purgatory and paradise.
“How wild the forest was, so tangled and overgrown, I still shudder to think of it,” Blistein’s book quotes from the opening lines of Dante’s masterwork.
“But to reveal how I was transformed there, I must tell you of everything I saw.”
So Blistein tells the true story of how the Rhode Island son of a Brown University English professor graduated from Massachusetts’ Amherst College to head a New Hampshire ad agency before retiring early to his Vermont home full of love for writing and his wife of 30 years.
Free of debt and duties, Blistein’s life felt rich. But his energy and enthusiasm soon fell inexplicably into a sinkhole. He recalls an autumn drive through blazing foliage.
“The experience of it being so unspeakably bright out there and so dark in here is one of the most humiliating aspects of depression,” he writes in his book. “As if you’ve failed the universe itself.”
As images of Hurricane Katrina flooded the news in 2005, Blistein felt swept up by an “internal tug-of-war.”
“You want to be alone — away from the pressure to ‘act normal,’” he recalls. “You want to be with people — away from the prison of your own experience. You want to sit still and relax. You have to keep moving or you’ll explode. You desperately want to do something. You desperately want to rest.”
Unsure what to do, the author tried everything — starting with acupuncture, amino acids, B vitamins and Bach Flower remedies and moving through the alphabet. As for specialists, he talked to old-school and new-age practitioners alike.
“If I had to choose my favorite diagnosis, I’d say Melancholic Depression — Severe with Hypomanic Episodes,” he writes. “Just seems like a nice blend of literary and technical, with intense visual undertones.”
Each cure worked — temporarily — before sending him back to the search. Blistein eventually came up with an adman’s sound bite on the complex science of neurotransmitters — which, for people with depression, “aren’t doing a very good job of getting your brain cells to communicate with each other.”
He also hit upon a disclaimer: “There are as many variations on depression, obsession, agitation, mania, attention deficit and combinations thereof as there are patients. To provide a ‘precise’ diagnosis of anyone, you’d have to add details about their gender, weight, genetics, hours of sleep, diet, the number of close friends — the list is endless. The disease is that personal. The treatment is that elusive.”
Blistein discovered that when, losing his appetite amid seemingly everything else, he dropped to 125 pounds. All he hungered for was to turn his breakdown into a breakthrough. Then, on the Ides of March 2007, a friend and fellow depression sufferer in remission asked how he was doing.
Blistein started to cry as he spoke about the possibility of admitting himself to a psychiatric unit. His friend instead pointed him to a doctor who prescribed a drug combination that finally lifted Blistein’s spirits — even if questions still weighed on his mind.
“Beyond brain chemistry, astrological alignments, midlife crises and raging kundalini, why did this happen?” he wondered. “Even in the midst of my experience, I wanted to write about it; I wanted to understand it; I wanted it to have meaning.”
He began with a blog. That led to a hometown weekly paper publishing one of his posts. That led to a local designer with New York connections securing him a national book contract.
“It’s my attempt to get right inside the madness and rip it open, so the allegedly sane can see the guts of the thing,” he writes, “and also reassure the clinically ill that there is intelligent life on the other side.”
Blistein’s book doesn’t arrive in stores until Tuesday, but it became Amazon’s most-ordered paperback on depression last week based on advance publicity and word of mouth from such groups as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Sharing your writing is a beautiful way to break the silence and get folks talking, engaged and moving toward, if nothing else, supporting one another,” one woman wrote Blistein.
But for people seeking solutions, the author offers a word of warning.
“I don’t pretend to know the best way for you to deal with your depression,” he writes. “Remember: It’s about you, not some point on an indecipherable graph. It’s about you, not friends who think you should just think positively or should try this or that ‘natural’ cure or do yoga or tai chi. It’s about you, not some drug company that says you’ll live happily ever after if you take their drug.”
“It’s about you,” he adds, “not some guy who’s writing this book!”
For Blistein can only speak for himself.
“I don’t want to be a poster child for depression, but people really want to talk about it,” he says in an interview. Recalling the first days of his recovery, he told a friend: “I don’t say, ‘David’s back.’ I say he’s forward.”
In his own words
“What do you say when you see someone who’s clearly fallen into an emotional sinkhole? You want to help, but how?
You should know that even if we look down, turn away, change the subject and/or try to act like this moment does not exist, we appreciate how hard it is for you. We don’t enjoy casting a shadow over your life. Far better that you keep enjoying your own good humor, rather than letting us drag you down. Just being able to let down our guard is helpful.
As I began to recover, the first thing I wanted to do was reach out, call people, interact. So be patient. If you can. We’ve gone on a long voyage. But we’ll be back.
Probably the best thing you can do is acknowledge/accept deeply depressed people as the not-exactly-happy-go-lucky people we/they are; and remain as happy and loving as you possibly can. I better stop before I appear too New Age, but, if we don’t look too ornery, you can even give us a hug.”
— From David Blistein’s “David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression,” available from Hatherleigh Press/Random House to buy or order at most bookstores.MORE IN Central Vermont
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