Haunted by the living

by Steve Mitchell

A friend who suffered with depression and anxiety once described the feeling as being ‘a ghost to herself.’ In the depths of her depression, she was haunted by the person she wanted to be, the person she could be when the illness wasn’t relentlessly gnawing at her, and she was haunted by the care and concern of others. She felt as if these people were concerned for her ghost, the part of herself she could not reach. She could see them long for a glimpse of who she was outside the illness.

Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, explores the ravages of depression, anxiety and suicide on one family, using the first person voice of each family member: two parents and three children. The center of the book is Michael, the oldest, possibly brilliant, who struggles with anxiety, depression, and the ghost of his father. His suffering, and his family’s care for him, become the black hole around which the entire family circles.

There’s a concept in Buddhism of the Hungry Ghost. This is a spirit which, because of events while he was living, is now simply a creature of need, a need that can never be filled. A hungry ghost is destined to wander through eternity in this state, not only aware of its own need but aware of the effects of its need on others. Imagine Me Gone places before us the very real question of how we each react to and navigate situations in which we know the need will never dissipate.

Margaret watched her husband John suffer with depression over the years of their marriage. John did all the right things: medication, therapy, counseling. There were days, weeks, sometimes months, when he was the person she married and an engaged father to their children, Michael, Celia, and Alec. But when the depression came, he sank away from the family and she was left to care for both him and the children. As Michael grows older, she begins to see the same tendencies in him.

Imagine Me Gone places us in the mind of each character, where we can see the resentments and sympathies, the love and the necessity to distance from that love for self protection. As each child grows older, they begin their own lives with their own wounds, yet Michael remains the center. Each of them takes turns consoling him for hours over the phone about lost loves, missed chances, and the awareness of the illness with which he struggles. This becomes the invisible infrastructure holding the family together.

There had been an episode. This is why Michael had called. And now the charge of anxiety it had sparked was completing the family circuit.

Michael does all the right things, too.

He takes his medication, visits a therapist. He manages to keep a job most of the time. He tries going back to school. He falls in love. But his normal life eventually becomes crowded out now and then by his illness. He’s aware of his need and the burden his loved ones bear. Haslett takes a risk by putting us in the mind of Michael as his thoughts spin, dip and race; as he reaches out again and again to his brother, sister, mother. These sections can be difficult to read, but they give the reader the sense of what it would be like to be on the other end of Michael’s desperate phone calls.

Each family member deals with the situation in their own way, and they argue strategies with each other. These are real people, who often say the wrong things, do the wrong things; who wonder and agonize over their choices, struggle with a constant guilt, and argue with each other out of fear, desperation, and possibly love. This is the story of how a family builds itself around a crisis that is always possible, always unpredictable, and the bonds that crisis builds and those it destroys.

How do we arrange our lives around a need we know can never be met?

Margaret, the mother, is the foundation here. She is the one Michael can return to when life becomes impossible. She has subsidized his rent, paid for him to return to school; she’s been on the phone with him night after night. But as Margaret ages, real questions arise of how Michael will care for himself when she cannot and how his siblings, on different edges of the country can help. Celia is considering starting her own family, while Alec is wrestling with his own identity. Who will look after Michael?

Imagine Me Gone is a fascinating, difficult, and true novel in which a family, singly and together, confronts the challenges of mental illness. There is joy in this book too. There are good times, beautiful moments of intimacy and silliness. That makes it all the more heartbreaking. !