“I didn’t realize how amazing it is to get help.”
We’re all familiar with the concept of a reboot, whether it’s a finicky computer, a TV show that trades in nostalgia or a health-centric resolve to start fresh. Heather B. Armstrong took the reboot concept many, many steps further in a bid to save her own life.
As Armstrong explains in The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live, she recently took part in an experimental medical treatment in which doctors put her in a coma akin to brain death 10 times—a series of reboots meant to calm her brain activity and offer relief from severe depression.
We’ll go ahead and confirm that Armstrong is no longer in crisis. Rather, she’s in advocate mode. As she says during a call to her Utah home, “As much as I want [this book] to help people suffering from depression, I also really want to reach people who don’t understand it.” She adds, “If I can offer the slightest glimpse of where our brains go, that’s what I want this book to accomplish.”
Armstrong’s wildly popular blog, Dooce.com, celebrated its 18th anniversary in February. Around that time, Armstrong also recorded the audiobook of The Valedictorian of Being Dead. “It was such an emotional experience to read it out loud . . . and really brutal. Who wrote this?” she says with a laugh.
There is a sort of beautiful brutality in Armstrong’s memoir, to be sure. She writes movingly, and often with dark humor, about the 18 months of psychic pain that led her to the medical trial: “Even though I wanted to be dead, I needed to get my kids to piano practice the following night. If I died, they would be late.”
That determination to survive her illness while being present and strong for her kids was a struggle that routinely drained her and left her screaming and sobbing in countless phone calls to her ever-supportive mother. “My mother has given so much to all of us,” Armstrong says. “She always picks up the phone, is always empathetic and just so giving.”
But despite Armstrong’s loving relationship with her kids and family, nothing was working. She felt as if her body was “an upright corpse.” She also feared that her ex-husband, who “intended to take away my kids in 2014,” would do so again if she admitted she was suffering so badly.
Her psychiatrist insisted she get help despite these concerns and told her about the study that would change her life. In it, the patient is given IV anesthesia three times a week for 10 sessions. “The study is designed to determine if ‘burst suppression’—quieting the brain’s electrical activity—can alleviate the symptoms of depression,” Armstrong writes.
She chronicles her journey in fascinating detail, from her eerie experiences after emerging from “the abyss” to an astonishing 10-day bout of constipation, an unfortunate side effect of the drugs. She also includes her parents’ and siblings’ perspectives, as well as the profound experience of the treatment itself. As on her blog, her writing feels off the cuff, by turns moving and irreverent, always conveying gratitude for the help she received from her family and the medical team.
Such gratitude wasn’t new for Armstrong, but asking for help and allowing herself to receive it was. After all, the book’s title refers to her urge to be the valedictorian of every-thing since childhood, when she became a high achiever to feel some control over a tumultuous family life.
“I was going to be the best,” she says. “I show up and perform; you can always count on me to get the job done. In the process, part of my soul is really hurting.” And so, learning to accept help from her mother and stepfather (who drove her to and from every appointment) “did feel selfish—this time I took away from my parents. For me, needing anything is being super-selfish.”
Throughout The Valedictorian of Being Dead, Armstrong pays a visit to her past. She writes of the legacy of depression that has been passed down from her great-grandmother, who was institutionalized for her mental illness. And she casts fresh eyes on her triggers, from issues with food to toxic relationships to unresolved emotional pain.
“It’s something I’m very hyperaware of, getting into situations that will trigger anxiety and depression,” she says. “It’s surrounding myself with nontoxic relationships or being able to call my mother and say, I can’t drive the kids this week. I have to go against a lot of my personality—I don’t ask for help, I have to do it all myself—and go into uncomfortable places. But I didn’t realize how amazing it is to get help.”
Armstrong hopes to spread awareness about depression and the potential of this new treatment approach via The Valedictorian of Being Dead (which includes an afterword by study creator Dr. Brian Mickey) and her upcoming book tour. “[I wish] people could understand that depression is an illness,” she says. “It has really detrimental effects on how we process and see the world. I want this book to be successful in the sense of reaching as many people as I can. I really feel like it’s the most important thing I’ve done.”
Author photo by Angela Monson.