His work made him unusually welcoming of the fact that people in various states of emotional crisis often want to be near Laura. A few months after they were engaged, Bianca Gutman, a twenty-three-year-old from Montreal, flew to Hartford to spend the weekend with Laura. Bianca’s mother, Susan, had discovered Laura’s blog two years earlier and had e-mailed her right away. “I feel like I’m reading my daughter’s story,” she wrote. Susan paid Laura for Skype conversations, until Laura told her to stop. Laura had come to think of Bianca, who had been diagnosed as having depression when she was twelve, as a little sister navigating similar dilemmas.
While Bianca was visiting, a friend from out of town who was in the midst of what appeared to be a manic episode was staying at an Airbnb a few houses down the street. Laura was fielding phone calls from the woman’s close friends, who wanted to know what should be done, but the only thing Laura felt comfortable advising was that the woman get some sleep—she had medications to help with that—and avoid significant life decisions. The woman had been traumatized by a hospitalization a few years earlier, and Laura guessed that “she came here because she didn’t want to be alone, and she knows that I would never call the cops on her.”
Laura and Bianca spent the weekend taking walks in the frigid weather and having leisurely conversations in Laura’s small living room. Bianca, who is barely five feet tall, moved and talked more slowly than Laura, as if many more decisions were required before she converted a thought into words. She had been on forty milligrams of Lexapro—double the recommended dose—for nearly nine years. She’d taken Abilify for six years. Now, after talking to Laura, Bianca’s father, an emergency-medicine doctor, had found a pharmacy in Montreal that was able to compound decreasing quantities of her medication, dropping one milligram each month. Bianca, who worked as an assistant at an elementary school, was down to five milligrams of Lexapro. Her mother said, “I often tell Bianca, ‘I see you coping better,’ and she’s, like, ‘Calm down, Mommy. It’s not like being off medication is going to wipe me clean and you’re going to get the daughter you had before’ ”—the hope she harbored when Bianca first went on medication.
Bianca, who had reddish-blond hair, which she’d put in a messy bun, was wearing a bulky turtleneck sweater. She sat on the couch with her legs curled neatly into a Z—a position that she later joked she had chosen because it made her feel more adult. Like Laura, Bianca had always appreciated when her psychiatrists increased the dosage of her medications. She said, “It was like they were just matching my pain,” which she couldn’t otherwise express. She described her depression as “nonsensical pain. It’s so shapeless and cloudy. It dodges all language.” She said that, in her first conversation with Laura, there was something about the way Laura said “Mm-hmm” that made her feel understood. “I hadn’t felt hopeful in a very long time. Hopeful about what? I don’t know. Just hopeful, I think, because I felt that connection with someone.” She told Laura, “Knowing that you know there’s no words—that’s enough for me.”
At my request, Laura had dug up several albums of childhood photographs, and the three of us sat on the floor going through them. Laura looked radically different from one year to the next. She had had a phase of wearing pastel polo shirts that were too small for her, and in this phase, when Laura was pictured among friends, Bianca and I struggled to tell which girl was her. It wasn’t just that she was fatter or thinner; her face seemed to be structured differently. In her débutante photos, she looked as if she were wearing someone else’s features. Bianca kept saying, “I don’t see you.”
Since I’d known Laura, she had always had a certain shine, but on this day she seemed nearly luminous. She had taken a new interest in clothes and was wearing high-waisted trousers from Sweden with a tucked-in T-shirt that accentuated her waist. When Cooper returned to the house, after an afternoon with his family, she exclaimed, “Oh, Cooper is back!” Then she became self-conscious and laughed at herself.
I told Laura that I was wary of repeating her sister’s sentiment that marriage was the end of her story. She agreed. “It’s not, like, ‘Laura has finally arrived,’ ” she said. “If anything, these trappings of whatever you want to call it—life?—have made things scarier.” She still felt overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, like too many e-mails accumulating, and she cried about five times a week. She was too sensitive. She let situations escalate. Cooper said that his tendency in moments of tension was to get quiet, which exacerbated Laura’s fear that she was not being heard. She did not see a therapist—she felt exhausted from years of analyzing her most private thoughts—but, she said, “If I actually sat in front of a psychiatrist and did an evaluation, I would totally meet the criteria for a number of diagnoses.” But the diagnostic framework no longer felt meaningful to her.
Perhaps we all have an ugly version of ourselves that, in our worst moments, we imagine we’ve become: when Bianca felt hopeless, she thought, mockingly, This is you. How could you possibly think otherwise, you poor thing? Laura’s thought was: You are not a legitimate person. You don’t deserve to be here. In many of our conversations, Laura said, she was trying to ignore the thought: Who do you think you are, speaking with this journalist? Shut up and go away. She said, “And yet we’re also having this conversation and I’m totally present in it.”
Bianca said, “It’s like your darkness is still there, but it’s almost like it’s next to you as opposed to your totality of being.”
Laura agreed that she was experiencing “the stuff of being alive that I just had no idea was possible for me.” But, she said, “it’s not like I’m good to go. Literally every day, I am still wondering how to be an adult in this world.” ♦