Who would have guessed that mental illness plagued Anne Shirley’s creator?
Judging by the happy, fairy-world, romanticized published work of L. M. (Maud) Montgomery, readers often assume she lived a happy life. As a long-time fan, I certainly thought so too, until I read all five annotated volumes of her journals.
I’ve been an L. M. Montgomery nut since eighth grade, when a friend loaned me her copy of Anne on the cusp of Maud’s work being re-released after most of it being out of print for years. Any time I saw a bookstore, I checked the shelves to see if any more of her books had been republished.
Her stories of hope and happiness helped me through junior high and high school. They comforted me in my depression and social anxiety. I had no idea until later that she, too, battled severe depression and an anxiety disorder.
Turns out that not only did she have a similar condition, but her depression manifested much like mine: invisible to the outside world, but eating her inside.
During Maud’s lifetime, few knew about her inner turmoil. Her greatest confidante, her cousin Frede, died in the Spanish Flu epidemic during World War I. Maud never had another confidante on that level.
Frede was the last person Maud truly confided in. From her death onward, no one had any idea what Maud endured, and wouldn’t until her journals were published decades after her death.
She put on a happy face. She went in public and did her duties and acted the part expected of her. She played the gracious hostess and gracious guest flawlessly. Afterward, she’d collapse on her bed in miserable fatigue. Or she’d walk the floor all night, unable to sleep. She’d wish for death. She had more than one nervous breakdown.
Her husband, Ewen Macdonald, had mental illness too. He certainly had some kind of depression — religious melancholia, they called it at the time, as he was convinced that he was predestined to go to hell. Some theorize that he had bipolar disorder. I suspect that in addition to depression, he had OCD manifesting as scrupulosity. Whatever it was, science did not yet have the ability to diagnose or treat him.
Ewen Macdonald was a minister, which made religious melancholia so much worse — imagine a preacher believing he was damned before he took her first breath. Ewen retained his position, and got paid, only if his congregation remained happy with his performance. If they’d ever learned that he was mentally and emotionally unstable, well, they would simply have found another minister.
That would have spelled disaster for his career. Maud could not take that risk or bear that kind of public humiliation.
So Maud, the minister’s wife, covered for him, pretending that all was well. No matter how miserable she felt, Maud went to church and social events, looking happy and strong — everything she didn’t feel — while Ewen sat in a corner at home with a handkerchief tied around his head, wailing. During bad spells, he made public appearances only for his Sunday sermons. Maud took care of the rest, protecting the family’s reputation.
She couldn’t confide in anyone, or the secret would get out. Her anxiety and depression worsened year by year as she kept up the role.
Her work was the one escape she had from a bitter life. In her journal, she once wrote:
When I am writing I am happy for I forget all worries and cares.
For years at a time, except for those brief respites found during writing, she remained miserable, and no one around her had a clue.
Ewen’s episodes grew longer, deeper, and more frequent. He eventually spent time in a mental hospital. She made up excuses for his absence. Eventually, when he could no longer function, his career was over.
Maud had become world famous, and for a spell, she easily supported the household. Then the Great Depression hit. When people can hardly buy food, they don’t buy books. Despite her fame, her income plummeted. She struggled to make ends meet. She had heartbreak after heartbreak over her son Chester’s embarrassing behavior — flunking out of the university, having an extramarital affair — and Ewen continued to worsen.
She had to keep going, so she did. I’m sure she would have preferred to sit in a corner and wail like Ewen. That wasn’t an option. Someone had to keep paying the bills, being a parent, and tending to her career to enable the first two. Otherwise, the fabric of their family would unravel.
In 1942, she reached her limit. One last time, she broke down. She died in April, possibly after a medication overdose. Whether it was deliberate or not, we’ll never know conclusively, but the note found on her nightstand says volumes about her misery:
I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
The juxtaposition between such utter misery and despair in someone outwardly functional and apparently happy (and famous!) is stark. Note the most telling sentence, with added emphasis:
My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it.
Depression doesn’t necessarily mean the sufferer is in bed all day. It doesn’t have to mean they sit on a couch for weeks, watching television but unable to do dishes.
Depression can mean those things. I know people for whom that is their depression. That image tends to be the one most people envision when they hear about depression. It never occurs to them that the woman in the coffee shop — the one put together, looking and behaving professionally, talking animatedly — could be suicidal.
This kind of depression is often referred to as functional depression, and it’s my experience. Some people consider it to be “low-grade” depression, but I can tell you with no uncertainty that it can be every bit as brutal and devastating as other kinds. (Low-grade nothing; don’t get me started.)
I’ve battled depression most of my life. I still get out of bed in the morning. Not because I’m not depressed, but because I have had to; my children have counted on it. (Three of the four are in college, so it’s easier a bit now, but the youngest still needs me.) I shower and dress and go in public. I act as if all is well. Because I have to.
It’s not always an act, but I’d bet that many times when I’ve been in a very black place, most people have been sure I was fine.
Wearing mascara doesn’t mean I’m not depressed. Feeding kids or getting them to school on time (okay, most mornings), and making sure they have clean clothes didn’t/doesn’t mean I was/am free of depression. I’ve spent about two decades going to recitals, soccer games, school plays, concerts, and more with a smile. That doesn’t mean I don’t have depression or social anxiety. (I have both.)
I’ve kept moving because I had to. Sometimes I’ve resented that fact, but even so, I drag one leaden foot in front of the other through the darkness even when I feel sure that the light will never come again.
Of course, the darkness always ends, but that’s hard to remember when the black dog hangs on your back, its claws embedded in your skin as it growls ugly things in your ear.
During those times, I keep moving, but like a robot, trying not to think, or I’ll drown in despair. The rest of the world sees a functional, healthy person.
Another significant difference in functional depression: When I’m in the throes, I don’t feel bad or sinful.
Instead, I feel that even if I were to be perfect in every way, it wouldn’t be enough. That I’m irrelevant. That I could vanish from the face of the earth, and no one would notice.
Depression keeps me working and doing, no matter what, because in some twisted way, it lies to me, saying that doing and accomplishing is the only way I’ll ever be relevant.
So I run and run, advancing mere inches, falling behind by yards. I don’t stop. I can’t stop. No matter how hard and fast and long I run, it’s never enough.
The last part of Maud’s note jumps off the page to me because it describes the run, run, run, but never get anywhere feeling that has been a defining part of my life:
What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
Those words make me ache. I feel the same way.
I’m not always in that dark place. I can honestly say that I have many happy periods. But the black dog attacks, and that’s when I go back to dragging my feet, then moving faster and faster until I’m frantically running on a hamster wheel, going nowhere.
I may look fine. A good chunk of the time, I am fine. Just not always. Most people, not even friends, can tell when I’m putting on a Stepford act to keep from shattering into a billion pieces.
That what makes functional depression so hard: you can’t see it. Even those looking for it may miss it, because the sufferer is good at hiding it.
I once heard Person A get snarky about how Person B felt down. Person A scoffed, thinking Person B had a perfect life. In that case, as in so many others, I happened to know that the reality was reversed: Person A had a life many people would dream of, yet Person A couldn’t see it, and instead mocked Person B’s trial. I have a suspicion that Person A has depression too. Maybe they’re both doing their best to cling to life at all.
So let’s be kind. Let’s have compassion. Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt. Let’s get rid of the bitter envy that poisons, that lies and has us judging and categorizing one another.
You never know who is fighting a battle, who is wounded. Let’s assume everyone is dealing with a heavy burden, whether it’s the black dog or something else.
Even when they look “fine.” Sometimes, especially then.
Because more often than not, you’ll be right.