The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: In your piece, you describe “silence” in a very creative and unusual form. What effect did you want this representation to have on the reader?
Tyler Arndt: I think any attempt to articulate “silence” is bound to fail. By its very nature, and despite our most earnest attempts, silence defies expression. In the quote I borrow from William Styron, he suggests something similar with respect to depression—that it is almost “beyond description”. At the same time, the idea and the experience of silence (and depression) are familiar to many if not most of us. In this piece I make several overt attempts at articulating silence, and each attempt fails. I think this failure was the effect I wanted to convey.
RR: The hornet plays a pivotal role in introducing the idea of depression in the piece. What else did the hornet symbolize to you?
TA: The giant hornet is something both familiar and strange. I think that’s what made it so unsettling to behold. The hornet sort of stands in for the terror of depression—the deeply unsettled and disturbed feelings that go on and on during a major depressive episode. The difference is depression has no concrete object of terror. There’s no specific thing—no event or thought—that is the primary focus of depression. There are events that can trigger a depression. But the illness takes on a life of its own. It is the feeling of being utterly terrified at nothing in particular. I think the hornet stands in for this “absent object” of terror.
RR: Throughout “Getting Gone,” you take a lot of risks by skirting conventional format and breaking the fourth wall. How did these instances heighten the impact of your piece?
TA: I wanted the overall tone of the piece to be bizarre and a little unsettling. The fourth-wall breaking possibly contributes to this. It’s also a way of reminding the reader that, despite the weird tone that maybe feels like fiction at times, this is indeed a nonfiction narrative and there’s a real person speaking and recalling the events.
RR: This piece stands out among others as longer, yet is equally engaging. What was the process of writing it? What choices did you make in gathering and organizing the different story threads, and what stories did you leave out?
TA: This piece was written as part of a book-length memoir that I’ve been working on for several years. The memoir details some of my experiences in Korea during the three and a half years I lived there. This piece comprises most of the final section of the memoir. In the book, this final section continues on with chapters about my first couple years back living in Portland and Seattle. For this piece, I cut those chapters to make it work as a stand-alone essay and for issues of length. Because the foci of this section are depression and anxiety (and alcoholism to an extent), I kept the narrative close to those themes. Earlier sections of the memoir cover my experiences as an ESL teacher at a public elementary school, a couple of hospital stays (unrelated to depression (it’s a long story)), some romance (of course!), some heartbreak (of course, of course!!), etc.
RR: After your experiences in “Getting Gone,” how are you dealing with your depression? Did the process of writing the piece feel cathartic to you in any way?
TA: When I met with the doctor at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, it was the first time I had ever sought treatment for depression or anxiety. I quit drinking when I left Korea, which has done more to improve my mental health than anything. I’m approaching seven years of sobriety. Sobriety has probably kept me from slipping into another severe, protracted depression like the one I describe in this piece. That being said, my depression and anxiety are still with me. So is my alcoholism (you’ll always be in recovery, no matter how long you’ve been sober). I did okay for a while living in Portland without any antidepressants. But my anxiety relapsed pretty hard after about a year and a half. Basically, I felt short of breath all the time. I was convinced there was some underlying condition other than anxiety. I went to see a family doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong with me (besides anxiety) that would explain my symptoms. So, I started taking Lexapro again. And it turned out to be pretty effective in treating my anxiety. At the time, I was living back at home and had been jobless for a while. After a couple months on Lexapro, I got a job and moved into an apartment in Seattle. And I did okay for a while. But my depression gradually resurfaced. So I met with a psychiatrist, and we decided to switch my medication to Zoloft. It was a difficult transition. Although the Zoloft eventually worked pretty well, I briefly slipped into a severe depression. The worst of it lasted for about a week. It was the first time since leaving Korea that I felt that terror come back. It was scary, because I didn’t think that feeling would ever come back in the same way. So, I did okay on Zoloft for a while. But the depression resurfaced again, and it has been ongoing for most of this past year. My psychiatrist and I decided to add Wellbutrin to the mix, which has been helping.
I think the point I’m trying to make here is that depression and anxiety don’t behave like a lot of the diseases familiar to us. They are not always single events that can be eradicated with treatment. Sometimes they are, depending on the patient. But for others, depression and anxiety are lifelong struggles. In his TED talk from October 2013, Andrew Solomon said that he “figured out that depression was something that was braided so deep into us that there was no separating it from our character and personality”. I have returned to his words again and again. I love writing. But for me, reading is the cathartic activity.
Tyler Arndt’s work in Issue 6.1: