Home Entertainment Book review: ‘Life B,’ by Bethanne Patrick

Book review: ‘Life B,’ by Bethanne Patrick


While I was reading Bethanne Patrick’s memoir, “Life B,” I happened to receive an email message from a woman I don’t know. She contacted me because she had read some of I what I’ve written about my lifelong challenges with clinical depression. She told me that she too had major depression disorder, a diagnosis made nearly 20 years ago. “Sen. John Fetterman’s story is inspirational,” she wrote, “but as a single working mom, admitting myself to the hospital for a month isn’t a real option.” Hearing about celebrities who admit to having a hard time but “are better now,” is equally unrealistic, she added.

Patrick’s story is a different kind of depression story. In this slim volume, Patrick, a book critic, author and host of the “Missing Pages” podcast, courageously reveals her lifelong challenge with depression. It began, she writes, as a fog that descended in her early teens and has, in the many decades since, never abated. She describes her childhood as being “sad and maladjusted … alternately sleeping and weeping.” It is painful reading, full stop — made worse, for me, because her coming of age mirrors mine. It’s fair to say we both grew up in “bleak house.”

In a similar vein, it wasn’t until Patrick hit her 50s, married and the mother of two daughters, that she finally received a correct diagnosis: double depression. Double depression is the combination of persistent depressive disorder, a chronic form of depression that is present most days; and major depressive disorder, long referred to as clinical depression, which makes it near impossible to function or maintain hope.

Patrick eventually found a skilled and empathetic psychiatrist who understood her. When he heard the depth of her despair, he started her on a new set of medications that opened a much more stable chapter in her life. Patrick makes clear that he didn’t hand her a cure but rather the tools for living with her illness, which included a realistic understanding of her condition as a lifelong one and the importance of being open about her diagnosis.

Just as someone might use insulin to control diabetes to make it a more manageable disease, Patrick found the right meds to help her become more stable mentally as well as a skilled professional who took a more extensive family and social history than she’d ever been given before, giving credence, yet again, to the importance of shopping around for the best health care. It’s what I’ve come to understand as a new normal, by which I mean, living with a chronic illness called depression. A therapist of mine once described life on medication as “living in the middle.” No extreme highs, but no extreme lows — a trade-off I am happy to make, considering what I’ve previously experienced.

Much as I admired this book, I did have a couple of quibbles. Patrick’s choice of “Life B” as a title is a reference to a typical eye exam. (“Which is better? A or B?”) Life A is blurry and fuzzy; Life B is clear and sharp. It strikes me a bit as meaning second rate, like a B movie, which I’m certain is not her aim. And although one of Patrick’s gifts to us is her honesty, at times the book felt repetitive and too one-note. But these are small complaints for an author who is brave and who has diligently pursued a better future for herself and her two daughters. And, at the same time, provides many more of us with a positive road map of how to live with and transcend the limitations of mental illness.

Steven Petrow is a Washington Post contributing columnist and the author, most recently, of “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old.”

Overcoming Double Depression

Counterpoint. 208 pp. $26

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