The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Gallery Books (April 23, 2019)

That’s another thing that people don’t understand about depression: we don’t want to take a shower, we don’t know why we feel this way, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make us stop feeling this way. We have lost all interest in doing anyting, especially anything that once brought us joy – because that thing will bring us joy, and we can’t bear the meaning of that.

  • Valedictorian of Being Dead

If you’re thinking this kind of book isn’t my normal fare, you’d be mostly right.

I’ve been a fan of Heather’s hugely popular blog Dooce nearly a decade, give or take. Fired from her corporate job for taking hilarious – though unappreciated – jabs at co-workers, originally she was just a snarky, damn funny writer.

After marrying and having a baby, she graduated to “mommy blogger”, going stratospheric. With her uber-honest writing about everything from the ups and downs of pregnancy (including particularly memorable sharing about constipation) to stunning photography and monthly love letters to her child, Leta, she shot up the ranks becoming one of the top 25 most influential blogs on Time magazine’s list.

Years later, dooce is still going strong, a highly personal and often funny account of parenthood, pregnancy, struggles with depression and cancer, and life as a former Mormon living among Mormons. Dooce’s strength is its unflinching honesty.

  • Time, 2009

After the publication of her first book about crippling depression, a local Chicago paper found Bluestalking – which had garnered attention through mention in The New York Times, a book about literary blogs, and winning a couple lit blog awards – and wanted to interview me about the reasons I wrote, and how it related to mental health. So, when Heather announced she was in the process of writing a book about an experimental treatment aimed at drug-resistant depression, I made time for it.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead describes in depth how and why a team of medical professionals took her brain function to near zero, then essentially brought her back life, in an effort to reset her brain. Related to ECT, this new therapy is thought to have less side effects, though it’s so new long-term data isn’t yet available.

It has so far worked for Heather, which is encouraging. She no longer wishes she were dead. Sounds like a victory to me.

Characteristic of the honesty and thoroughness of her writing, it’s not a straight relation of medical facts. Heather talks about the history of her depression, its impact on her children and family, and the evolution of dooce.com. She also opens up about her marriage, and the reasons for its demise.

Not as well written as I’d hoped, it was worth reading both for its explanation of this fascinating new treatment and further honest revelations about her life. I overlooked how over-written it is, occasionally cringe-worthily so. Though we’ve met and interacted only briefly, like millions of other readers of her blog I’m fond of Heather, and identify with what she’s been through.

It won’t make the shelf of iconic memoirs relating battles with mental ilness. It’s no Darkness Visible or The Noonday Demon, but fans of dooce.com will appreciate hearing this part of her story. Likewise, those battling depression unresponsive to traditional treatments may find hope knowing doctors are pioneering new approaches.

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