What ‘Anna Karenina’ Taught Me About Living With Depression

One humid night in September, I called a mental health crisis center. I told the volunteer who answered that when I looked into my future, I saw nothing good. I felt so overwhelmingly alone in the world I was terrified. The despair that had been haunting me for so long would, I feared, eventually kill me. What could I do?

The volunteer suggested that I take a warm bath.

Interesting. It was still nearly 80 degrees at 7 o’clock in September. I was sweating in a stuffy old house in upstate New York, and I wanted a warm bath about as much as I wanted to walk over a bed of fiery coals.

My silence prompted the volunteer to try again: “Could you put on the kettle for some herbal tea?”

Through my teeth, I snarled, “I don’t want tea.”

The volunteer’s advice seemed ludicrously inadequate to my situation. I had told her that the anniversary of my father’s suicide was approaching; that he’d never recovered from my mother’s death when I was small; that his torment, tormenting me, had always been a weight around my neck. I’d explained that the sleeping problems and debilitating fatigue of my depression had been crippling me for nearly 20 years, making life a relentless ordeal. I barely wanted to live with myself; how would anyone else ever want to live with me — or love me?

I’d lost hope that I’d find a lasting relationship or be able to have a child. I’d lost hope in general.

The volunteer tried again. “O.K. Then how about, do you have something good to read?”

I lifted my head to consider that idea.

A good book — usually, that did help. A good novel is great company, less an escape from life than a different way to engage. A good novel is reassurance that other people have endured tragedies, long ordeals, bad odds. It’s evidence I’m not alone — not in the history of humanity, at least. A good novel often ends on an ambiguous note — yet every novel also implies a survivor still alive to tell the tale. A good novel is a form of hope.

But although I was deep into an exceptionally good novel, a masterpiece, in fact, I’d been compelled to put it down a few days earlier. The book was “Anna Karenina,” famously about a suicide. I’d been about 700 pages in when the titular character’s despair picked up speed, just as my own mood deteriorated. Fearing Anna’s darkening thoughts would darken my own, I’d stopped reading.

Even so, after I hung up the phone, I sat down next to “Anna Karenina” on my couch and wondered if it was really a danger to me. Suicidal Anna hadn’t been whispering directly into my ear as I read. She hadn’t been convincing me as she convinced herself. Rather, an omniscient narrator of brilliant psychological insight was telling me all sides of Anna’s story — giving me access not only to Anna’s mind, but to the minds of the people around her. In that way, the narrator created a more rounded picture of Anna’s world than I would have had if I’d heard only from her.

I’d read past the point where Anna had walked away from everything — her stiff husband, her position in society, even her beloved young son — to move in with her lover, Count Vronsky. Anna’s brother and sister-in-law remain loyal to her, but her old friends shun her as a “fallen” woman. She becomes increasingly isolated. In her psychological confinement, she can’t help taunting herself with the idea that Vronsky has grown tired of her and now loves someone else.

Though I had no husband or lover, I understood how Anna felt; I felt that the world had grown tired of me. But I could also follow Tolstoy as he took me into Vronsky’s mind, where I saw that Vronsky was a man of real if unconventional principle; the count remains committed to Anna, respectful of all she’s given up for him, and determined to care for her — even as her jealousy strains his love.

Maybe reading on wouldn’t hurt.

So I poured myself a glass of ice water and picked up “Anna Karenina” again.

I turned the pages and found Anna collapsing under the weight of her anxiety. She sends a messenger to Vronsky with an urgent request, Come at once. Vronsky never gets her note. But Anna doesn’t realize that. She takes his nonresponse as proof their love is dead. Feeling that all is lost, she heads for a railway station. I knew Anna would kill herself by kneeling before a train, so I urged her to stop and turn around: You poor fool! Look at all you have. Look at all the people you’ll hurt.

In saying that to her, I said something similar to myself: I’m not utterly alone. I have a devoted sister and a choir of supportive friends; even a “fairy godmother,” the exquisitely compassionate mother of one of my closest friends who often talks me through my dark spells. I have more options than other people with major depression who are homeless, addicted or imprisoned. I still have plenty of life left.

In other words, Tolstoy wasn’t riling up in me a voice that mirrored Anna’s. Rather, he was rallying me, calling on me to talk back to Anna, and to the Anna in myself.

Of course, nothing I said would change the mind of a fictional character. Anna descends to the tracks. In her final seconds, she has an overwhelming insight: “Suddenly the darkness that covered everything for her broke and life rose up before her momentarily with all its bright past joys. … She was horrified at what she was doing.” Horrified — but too late. The locomotive is on her. Her life is over — and in destroying herself, she also lays waste to Vronsky with the guilt and grief she leaves behind.

Tolstoy begins his novel with the now famous line about how all happy families are alike, all unhappy families uniquely unhappy. He calls back to that opening in his final pages: After Anna dies, the book’s other main story line resolves with a joyful wedding and the birth of a baby boy. But the happy ending only irritated me. It was Anna’s tragic story that, paradoxically, improved my spirits. Though Anna’s tunnel vision killed her, it helped me stand back from my own narrow view for a more expansive look at my life. The clouds will descend again before too long, of course. But life’s bright joys can likewise rise up again, its great stories can lift me again, as long as I stay alive for them.

Maura Kelly is at work on a novel. She encourages anyone experiencing a mental health crisis to go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (nami.org).

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