Dummerston writer shares battle with depression

Wednesday March 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- For two years, starting in October 2005, David Blistein was a very sick man.

During that time, Blistein's life-long -- and largely successful -- struggle to keep his demons at bay became something worse -- a two-year descent into the darkest recesses of depression.

"You're worried all the time. You sort of feel like something's always right behind you," said the Dummerston writer, recalling those horrible two years. "When I had to go into the world and function, I could get through a meeting ... and then I'd go in my car and scream. ... After 5 or 6 (in the evening), I'd survived another battle. I was sort of exhausted from it. ... I don't remember being without it."

Gradually, Blistein did manage to find a way out, and that story is the subject of "David's Inferno: My Journey through the Dark Wood of Depression," an inspiring, unflinching memoir just published by Hatherleigh Press.

Blistein will read from and discuss his book on Friday at 7:30 p.m., at Next Stage in Putney, as part of its Community Artist Performance Series. Admission is by suggested donation of $10. For information, visit www.nextstagearts.org.

Though he's feeling well now -- his depression is under control with the help of two drugs, an anti-depressive and an anti-psychotic -- Blistein has been revisiting those two dark years a lot these days, due to the attention the book has received, including interviews of Vermont and New Hampshire Public Radio and a promotional film by his pal Ken Burns, who also wrote the Foreword. It all makes him feel a little uncomfortable.

"I actually would prefer not to be a poster child for mental illness because I have other things to do," said Blistein.

He didn't write the book to cry out loud about his years in hell. He didn't write it to champion a particular therapy or hawk his own self-help program.

Instead, "David's Inferno" mixes soul-search and science, heart and head, creativity and research in a careful balance -- intensely personal yet free of narcissism; humorous at times, wrenching at other times; triumphant yet humble. The result is a book that transcends his story and becomes a universal story -- with something meaningful for all who suffer from depression and for anyone who has ever endured something hard and come out on the other side.

"The lesson here is that each of our lives is epic. ... Everyone's life has value. Everyone goes through these things," he said. "I don't call them ‘my lost two years.' I call them my ‘lost and found' years. I had to accept that those years were as creative for me as they could have been.

"I found in the process that a lot of ideas, say, about acceptance of people and how judgmental I am about people got burned into me," he said. "I became so brought to my knees by the nature of the human condition. ... Things happened in my brain that led me to experience the human condition in a way I never had before."

But that's the David Blistein who has come through it those two years talking. Being in the middle of it was different.

Looking back honestly on his life, Blistein says that depression has always been with him. "I was a classic hypomanic depressive from the time I was in elementary school," he says ruefully.

In adult life, he used cigarettes, alcohol, other drugs (prescription and otherwise), the adrenaline-rush of running a business and a relentless compulsion to create to help "self-medicate successfully for 30 years."

Still, he was prone to bouts of depression, which began to get worse in the 1990s. His breakdown in 2005 might be attributed to what he calls "a perfect storm" of circumstances -- midlife (he was 53), male menopause, the sale of his business, an empty nest, a death in the family.

The story of "David's Inferno" begins on Monday, Oct. 10, 2005, with Blistein taking a pill to quell the surging agitation and depression he felt. The pill didn't do any good, and by the end of the week, he had fallen deeply into the black hole. It took two years, and a whole lot of help, most importantly from a cherished circle of family and friends, to get back out.

But family and friends alone were not going to do it. "David's Inferno" is a fair-minded account of all the treatments Blistein pursued, from what might be termed conventional to those labeled "alternative" to therapies of his own devising (who knew building a labyrinth or supervising a crew pumping out his septic system could be so helpful?).

Deep in the throes, as winter gave way to spring in 2006, Blistein embarked on month-long cross-country road trip, obsessively ticking off miles in his 1990 VW pop-up camper van with a ferocity that would have impressed Jack Kerouac and the Beats -- sometimes covering more than 700 miles in a single day. Along the way, he did some business, connected with old friends, covered a lot of ground and couldn't outrun his demons.

"I had to move. I had to keep moving," he said. "There was a feeling it would provide distraction. ... It didn't really work."

One of the great blessings of the book is the respect it gives to all forms of therapy. Blistein himself has explored acupuncture, craniosacral bodywork, Rolfing, t'ai chi, yoga, B-vitamins, amino acids, Chinese herbs, Bach Flower remedies, dietary changes, screaming and physically pounding bike rides. In the end, finding the right combinations of pills probably did as much as anything to help Blistein through, but he knows that's not the case for everybody.

"When I hear someone say, ‘I want to do it naturally,' or when I hear them say, ‘The natural stuff is just voodoo,' it sort of makes me sad because they're limiting your possibilities for treatment," he said. "I just don't want people to feel wrong."

Whatever he did, it began to take hold. In June 2007, he remembers sitting on his porch and feeling ... the best kind of nothing.

"The first time I began to sense that, ‘Wow, I might really be OK.' It was like the biggest ‘Phew!'" he said.

His wife, Wendy, to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, saw another hopeful sign. "She knew it was over when I sold the van."

When it was over, Blistein, who had worked in publishing and run a successful advertising agency but whose lifelong dream had always been to be a writer, began to write again.

"The opposite of being depressed is not being happy, it's being inspired," he said. "Now, I feel like the writer again."

He has about seven different projects going, including "Real Time," a novel in which historical figures come back to life to speak to people today, as well as a field guide to prescription drugs, a field guide to alternative healing and a food book written from the point of view of a vegetable.

The idea for "David's Inferno" began with a blog Blistein started writing four years ago about his experience with depression. In 2011, material from the blog was picked up by The Commons. Dede Cummings came on board as agent, championing Blistein's story to a wider audience.

As he was writing about his experience, the idea of linking it to Dante's "Inferno" began to take hold. Long interested in Dante, Blistein found inspiration in the first three lines of Dante's book: "Midway upon the journey of our life,/I found myself in a dark wood,/For the straightforward path had been lost."

"I thought it was a little too cute to call it ‘David's Inferno' and then I started getting really into Dante, and I realized the more I got into it a parallel not only with my condition bit with the human condition," he said. "It had something to do with how we go through these cycles."

Though the book has just been published, early response indicates "David's Inferno" may just reach a wide audience.

After Blistein's interview with Jane Lindholm aired on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition" Monday, the message board at www.vpr.net it up with comments, many from people struggling with depression or mental illness who are grateful to Blistein.

"I'm amazed at how much people appreciate being able to talk about it openly," said Blistein. "A lot of people say how courageous and brave it is. I don't feel that way. ... I feel like, ‘Wow, I'm so glad I can do this. I'm so glad I can make people smile.' I feel like I'm paying back the world."

And the world says thanks.

One of the comments on VPR's board Monday came from Blistein's daughter, Emily, who wrote: "It seems silly to say that I'm proud of my dad for writing this book, but I am really humbled and grateful that he is my dad and I think this book and the ongoing conversation is one that will benefit all of us."

Jon Potter can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 149, or jpotter@reformer.com.


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