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On June Cleaver & Surviving Domestic Depression

annie reading in the kitchen

I’m no marriage expert, but I can offer this one observation: if your spouse instructs you to “act more like June Cleaver,” your relationship is probably doomed.

At least, that was my experience.

Eight years ago, and looking more like a frightened schoolgirl than a midcentury housewife, I watched as my husband slipped through a pair of sliding glass doors and into a poorly lit parking lot.

I never saw him again.

I think it was at that moment, watching how effortlessly he escaped into the darkness, that I began to imagine how wonderful it might be to disappear altogether.

I was already well on my way. In the last few months, I had withered away to a mere 93 pounds. I’d always been a “stress starver”, but what I had endured within my first few months of marriage wasn’t exactly stress. I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

All I knew was that despite my best efforts, I had failed as a wife. And there really was no excuse: I had conducted extensive research on how to be the perfect woman. Cosmopolitan was my go-to manual, and so far, I had successfully aced the “ideal girlfriend” checklist.

√ Don’t nag.
√ Don’t be needy.
√ Don’t be emotional.
√ Cook, clean, and memorize the Kama Sutra.

All I had to do was keep it up.

And I did, initially. I married my long-distance lover and moved an ocean away from all of my friends and family, fully confident that I was going to be the best little housewife Northern Ireland had ever seen. It was a challenge for me, just like making perfect grades, or getting accepted into Oxford University, or earning my master’s degree. I was going to marry the hell out of this man.

When Kitchens Kill

My husband quickly persuaded me that my place was in the home. I was to become a proficient cook and hostess while he pursued his Ph.D. I learned an awful lot about John Milton’s wife during this time. John Milton’s wife took notes for her husband, John Milton’s wife kept an immaculate home, John Milton’s wife did such and such and such. Eventually, I stopped listening.

When it became apparent that I was having a difficult time relating to John Milton’s wife, my husband picked an icon nearer and dearer to my heart: June Cleaver. I had always loved escaping into the uncomplicated world of Leave it to Beaver, so June was probably a much better model for me to emulate.

But apparently, I couldn’t manage that either.

I was a horrible cook and a clumsy hostess. Despite vacuuming in heels, the house was never cleaned to my husband’s specifications.

I remember thinking about Sylvia Plath and what she had said about men: how after they’re married, they want their wives to prostrate themselves like a kitchen mat. Practical and replaceable. Silent shit-absorbers.

I wondered about Sylvia’s kitchen mat. I wondered if she made it out of Ted’s cut-up suitcoats, weaving them together like words. I wondered if she shook it clean–the muddy imprints from tiny feet, the crushed pine needles from a neighbor’s back garden.

I wondered if it became one of those final mummifying strips, soaked and bloated like a pickled limb, filling up the cracks in her sarcophagus.

I wondered if a similar fate awaited me.

Beginning my Final Descent

I had worked so hard to hollow myself out, to perform the role of a two-dimensional character with a predictable storyline. But now that I had emptied myself of everything that made me Annie, there was nothing to keep my feet on the ground, nothing to prevent me from floating off into oblivion–nothing, except for my bed. I was tethered to it.

I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t shower. Leaving the house was sure to induce a panic attack.

So I sat indoors, gutted and rotting like a spent Jack O’ Lantern.

My husband told me that I was neurotic. At first, I thought he might dump me off at some asylum, the way they used to do with all the unfortunate housewives who suffered from “hysteria”–all those women who refused to become Stepford wives or went insane trying.

But he never did. When I mentioned that perhaps I was depressed, and maybe I should see a professional, he told me that the experience would just be too embarrassing for him. So instead, he left me at the airport.

Dispelling Myth #1

I flew back to the States, emaciated and ashamed. I had used up all my facades, all of my roles, like lives–smaller and smaller and smaller until I reached my most reduced self. The last of the nesting dolls.

People told me to eat a cheeseburger. Get over it. Put on my big girl panties.

I’m sure they all meant well. But it leads me to point out one of many myths about depression and suicide:

People who are depressed should be able to snap out of it.

Oh, if only.  If I had the strength to will myself better, I certainly would have. But I wasn’t starving myself for the hell of it or avoiding the shower because I was lazy. I was seriously hurting.

I believe most people have the good sense not to tell someone who has the flu to suck it up or criticize someone with mono for being unproductive. We all recognize the pain and lethargy associated with these experiences. But for some reason, we think it appropriate to tell someone suffering from depression to “get over it.” It’s just not that simple.

Dispelling Myth #2

Sleep was my only respite from the excruciating pain. Even my nightmares were more bearable than my waking moments. I lived to dream.

I would lay perfectly still; my arms by my side, imagining that I was Prufrock’s etherized patient.  I fantasized about a full body transplant. A do-over. A clean slate. I wanted to fall asleep and wake up as someone else. Or perhaps I didn’t want to wake up at all.

I began making plans and writing notes. And like so many Lady Lazaruses before me, I survived.

Convinced that my estranged husband was right all along–I must be neurotic–I began seeing a therapist, expecting her to diagnose me with some chemical imbalance and commit me to a padded room. Instead, she looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “Of course you’re depressed. Anyone in your situation would be.” I was incredulous. Perhaps it was because I had bought into the following myth about depression and suicide:

People who are suicidal are always mentally ill.

It seems impossible to have a conversation about suicide without also discussing its presumed corollary: mental illness. In a society that tends to pathologize rather normative human experiences, it’s easy to understand how suicide may be viewed as inherently irrational–the act of a diseased mind.

It’s a reductive theory that David Hume addressed when he remarked: “When suicide is out of fashion we conclude that none but madmen destroy themselves…nevertheless, how many instances are there, well attested, of men, in every other respect perfectly discreet, who, without remorse, rage, or despair, have quitted life for no other reason than because it was a burden to them…?”

Ultimately, I came to understand that there are as many reasons and explanations for suicide as there are individuals who die by suicide. Incipient studies are beginning to reveal that this is indeed the case; in fact, for some, depression isn’t a precipitant to suicide at all.

Redefining Depression

While the mental health paradigm can be constructive, I believe it’s helpful to distinguish between what scholars define as “organic depression” and “circumstantial depression.” Although the experiences may be similar, the etiology is quite different.  And identifying, or rather, attempting to identify the origin of the depression is essential, just as it is crucial that doctors treat a victim of a car accident differently than they would an individual suffering from bone cancer. For some, antidepressants may be beneficial; for others, addressing toxic sociological environments is what’s needed. And a few may profit from a combination of both approaches.

Unfortunately, science has yet to evolve to the point where pathologies can be distinguished at the molecular level, making it all but impossible to definitively diagnose the source of an individual’s depression. Thomas Szasz, an iconoclast of the psychiatric community, has written prolifically on this subject, suggesting that the current mental illness taxonomy is an oppressive mischaracterization of the phenomenon. Szasz takes a positivist view by arguing that mental illnesses, unlike physical illnesses, cannot be scientifically tested or measured; as such, the term “mental illness” is philosophically errant, a category mistake.

Szasz’s position is undoubtedly a controversial one, and while I would never question an individual’s right to identify as mentally ill, I do believe it’s important to acknowledge the various sociological and environmental precipitants to depression. I also think it’s critical to be aware that psychiatric diagnoses are often used to gaslight and oppress women and minority groups–both at an individual and at a structural level.

During the nineteenth century, black slaves who fled captivity were diagnosed with Drapetomania, a “mental illness” that provoked them to escape, and Dysaethesia Aethiopica, another “mental disorder” which caused African-Americans to exhibit a poor work ethic. And lest you think that bigoted pseudoscience is a thing of the past: as recently as 50 years ago, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), and today, the gender-specific Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder hearkens back to earlier, misogynistic diagnoses of hysteria.

Many women find the mental health model elucidatory and invaluable to their survival and healing process; I would never presume to take away from the reality of their experiences. My only suggestion is that, as a society, we begin to recognize and identify environmental catalysts to depression, including individual abuse and systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. There is a reason, for instance, why suicide rates are higher among the LGBTGIA+ population, and it has nothing to do with their inherent biology.

Leelah Alcorn, a transgendered teen who died by suicide in 2014, revealed in a blog entry that her parents’ rejection of her identity and insistence upon conversion therapy provided the impetus for her suicide. She concluded her suicide note by stating, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights….Fix society. Please.”

While we have a collective responsibility to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, I believe we have an equal duty to hold communities, policy makers, and systems accountable for creating untenable living situations for women and minorities. The domestic depression of a trapped housewife and the identity depression of a gender non-conforming teen cannot be fully understood without first considering the impact of disputative sociological environments. I would argue further that depressive symptomatology cannot be completely ameliorated without addressing and changing these environments.

The best antidepressant in the world wasn’t going to do me any good if I kept trying to meet some elusive ideal—an archetype imposed on me by a sexist society and a man who viewed me as a malfunctioning appliance. It wasn’t until I reclaimed my identity and began pursuing my own dreams that the fog of hopelessness finally started to lift.

Concluding Thoughts

There are many homemakers and stay-at-home moms living fulfilled and appreciated lives. But I am equally certain that there are women reading this who are currently battling domestic depression–women who have sacrificed their most authentic self on an altar of love, security, and belonging. To you intrinsically valuable women, I say this: your identity transcends any prescribed mold and any accepted or imposed diagnoses.

And despite what you may have been told, there is no shame in seeking help. Talk to a trusted friend, make an appointment with an understanding therapist, and if you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Eight years later, I’m now married to a man who encourages me to be myself—not a June Cleaver caricature. I’ve done the hard work of establishing boundaries for myself, recognizing that I no longer need to ascribe to pernicious models of perfection. I’m enough just the way that I am.

Society is crazy to suggest otherwise.

Get the Look: Recovering June Shirt-Dress Eggs and bacon brooch

Dress: Bernie Dexter

Brooch: Pinderella

Shoes: Pin-up Girl Clothing

This may be my favorite Bernie Dexter dress of all time. It’s fun, idiosyncratically subversive, and a visual reminder that domesticity did not defeat me in the end. I do find it runs a bit bigger than other BD dresses—particularly in the waist. I probably could have sized down to an extra-small, but I wasn’t sure if it would be too tight in the chest. For reference, I’m 36-25-36 and took a size small. Also, how cute is this eggs and bacon brooch from Pinderella?