A Life on the Brink

updated 05/07/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/2001 01:00AM

Amy Tan's success as a writer came early: When she was 8, her essay "What the Library Means to Me" won first prize in an elementary school contest. That's no surprise, considering her subsequent output—four acclaimed bestselling novels, including The Joy Luck Club and this year's The Bonesetter's Daughter. But talent wasn't her only precocious trait. Since childhood, Tan, 49, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who settled in California's Bay Area in the 1940s, has been prone to periods of depression so intense that death often seemed the only way out. "The urge was always to destroy myself violently, " she says. "Like crashing my car into a tree."

Fiction writing, which Tan took up in 1985 after jobs working with disabled children and writing for corporate publications, helped tame those demons. So did tax attorney Louis DeMattei, 50, whom she married in '74. But it wasn't until 1993, when she began taking antidepressant medication, that Tan felt the darkest clouds lift. "It's not that antidepressants make you happy," she says. "It's more that they give you a footing. You realize your problems don't have to keep you a prisoner." At the San Francisco home she shares with DeMattei, Tan discussed her depression with correspondent Alison Singh Gee.

In many ways, I consider depression my legacy. There's a photograph of my grandmother in China in 1921. She's with three other women in her family. Every woman in the picture committed suicide. The belief was that if you killed yourself, your ghost could come back and wreak havoc on those who had wronged you.

I first tried to kill myself when I was 6. I remember feeling deeply unhappy, although I can't remember why. So I took a butter knife from the kitchen and dragged it across my wrists. I tried to slice through my skin, but it hurt too much, so I stopped. Looking back, I realize I must have had some form of depression by then.

I never told anyone how bad I felt as a child. My mother had her own problems. She was very dramatic in her depression—she would throw the furniture upside down, things would be smashed. She always threatened to commit suicide. Once, she opened the door of a moving car and threatened to jump out. I don't know what my father thought about it all. I remember one day when she had overturned the furniture, he quietly left the house and took me with him. We never talked about what my mother had done. I would cry, and he would comfort me but not say anything.

Later, Mom had reason to be depressed. When I was 14, my brother Peter and my father, who was a Baptist minister and an electrical engineer, were both diagnosed with brain tumors. Peter died in July 1967, at 16; my father died six months later. My mother believed there was a curse on our family. My younger brother John and I lived with the notion that we too might die at any time.

I did speak to a counselor once. When I was crying, he molested me. He started tickling me and it continued from there. I couldn't tell my mother, because she already had so much to deal with. Besides, I didn't think anyone would believe me.

We moved to Switzerland for a while after the deaths. My mother probably reasoned that we could escape our curse. But some of my friends there were not the best influences—my mother eventually hired a detective and found out they were drug dealers. I was angry about losing my father and brother. I thought, "If I'm going to die tomorrow, I might as well go out with a bang." That year, a janitor at my school pushed me into a closet and tried to rape me. Somehow, I pushed my way out. When I told my teachers, they said, "You should be more careful."

By then, my mother had had it with me. One night she took a cleaver, backed me up against the wall and said, "I'm going to kill you, and then I'm going to kill John and myself. It's better. We'll soon be with Daddy and Peter." She was clearly crazy; I could see it in her eyes. She held the knife to my throat and I said, "Just do it. I don't care." Then something happened with me, and I started shouting, "I want to live!" What happened next is a complete blank to me, but obviously she must have put down the cleaver.

I think the combination of my mother's suicidal tendencies and all these traumas made me vulnerable. My depression manifests not so 3 much as lethargy—I don't just crawl into bed—but as numbness alternating with extreme anger. It's as if for once I see the world as it truly is, and it's false—ready to betray you at every turn. Also, my appetite dips, and I tend to wake up at 2 a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep.

My husband, Louis, helps. He's an extraordinarily easy person. I think my ghost-father was thinking, "She's going to need somebody to take care of her—she's a bit out of control," so he found Louis for me. But my depression hasn't been easy on Louis. In my 20s, I had a terrible period when I thought about suicide every day. I would play loud music to blast the idea out of my head. I was in a doctoral program at the time, and eventually I started seeing a school psychiatrist. But it was when my best friend was murdered in 1976 that I really began to reassess my life. My friend had wanted to work with disabled kids, and I decided to quit school and devote myself to that. It seemed so much more meaningful than what I'd been doing.

Still, the depressions came and went. In 1984 I went to another therapist. In four months of therapy, he fell asleep three times. It didn't do a lot for my trust. I started writing fiction after that. Writing helps make sense of what I'm feeling.

But by 1993 I knew I needed more. I remember the moment well: It was at the premiere of the movie of The Joy Luck Club. My mother was there and she was extremely proud. It should have been great, but I was overcome with this sense of meaninglessness. Everything looked ugly to me, and I felt incredibly lonely. There was an internal voice saying, "You might as well end it now." There was nothing wrong with my life, yet I felt this way.

A friend of mine who was a psychiatrist had long suggested I take antidepressants. I finally called him and said, "I want to try this." Before, I had been reluctant to take medication for the same reasons I imagine many people are. You may think there isn't anything seriously wrong with you, or that your problems will be trivialized somehow by taking a pill. And, as a writer, I worried it might change my personality, affect my creativity. But when I finally started taking an antidepressant that September, it was just a matter of days before this bottoming-out feeling started to fade. I thought, "Why did I wait so long?"

My mother, who died in 1999, first took antidepressants after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1995. What a difference that made. For her sake, I wish she had taken them when I was a child. But then part of me thinks that if she had, I would have grown up happy and never have become a writer.

Of course, no pill can change who you are. I still have phobias: I get nervous about being out by myself where somebody might be able to harm me. My Yorkshire terriers, Bubba and Lilli, help. They sit on my lap when I give readings on tour. I'm also afraid of driving, but with the dogs next to me I can drive a few miles to my friend's house.

I have been looking for a therapist who lives close by. I have a hard time talking to another person about my depression, but I think I should. Among writers, if you don't have a therapist, it's like saying you don't keep a journal or use the thesaurus. It's a natural accompaniment.

In the meantime, I use the Internet to link up with people who share my problems. It's very supportive. Nobody says, "Well, you're crazy to think that." It's great.

I know I will always have some degree of depression. I still have to wrestle with it, but I see where it fits in with my mother's life, my grandmother's life, my own life. For a long time, I think I didn't know how to be happy, and I didn't trust happiness—I felt that if I had it, I would lose it. But today, I am basically a happy person.

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