The MaddAddam Trilogy, or how I survived my depression.


I’m reticent to publicly delve into Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy because I want to resist coming out of hiding. I’m in a period of drastic change. Change catalyzed by an admission of failure.

Things aren’t going well, they haven’t been going well, so I withdrew, submerged into the bioengineered world of Atwood’s speculative fiction. I lived in the aftermath of a meteoric airborne plague that just about completely destroys all of humanity. The setting is mythic. Kudzu everywhere, bursting through concrete, squeezing, choking, collapsing buildings. Seriously dwindling resources, as most of civilization has already been looted, destroyed, or contaminated. Gene-spliced animals seem to have overrun their more docile kin: deadly liobams (lions crossed with lambs), bunnies that glow an unnerving ethereal green, pigs capable of symbolic thought and gesture.

What I liked best about the MaddAddam trilogy is the slow reveal. How the entire narrative beats in exposition. There’s tension in the past, but when you know that everything, all life, the world, everything, is about to COMPLETELY change, the action is tempered. The setting is the star of the show, and in no way does that suck.

The plague, or the Waterless Flood (as it will be referred to as later), was created by a genius twenty-something to rid the earth of the stupid humans. He injected the virus into a pill, a kind of vitamin, that promised bliss and sexual healing. Everyone turned to goop, except for a handful of protagonists, some of them bioengineers, a lot of them strict spiritual vegans, in the sociopolitical sense. They were outlaws. I wanted to be among them. Growing mushrooms in some basement, raising gardens on rooftops, chasing away pigoons and wearing bedsheets to block the sun’s magnified radiation. Foraging, defending, building from scratch, all seemed easier than finding work in a recession, and eventually, even doing the dishes. I knew this feeling. I knew it well. I was depressed.

About a month or so ago I stopped taking Nortriptyline, suddenly. I know, one is supposed to taper, but I was impatient and wanted to feel something, even if it was brain shivers. It wasn’t nearly as bad as when I quit Effexor, which I did taper, breaking open pills and counting out beads even, but still, it wasn’t great. My migraines increased, as did my Vicodin intake. My neurologist left the state and her replacement wants me off all medication, except for another migraine preventative, Nortriptyline’s cousin, Protriptyline, and the occasional sumatriptan. I’ve been on Vicodin for nearly seven years. I’ve killed my body’s natural dopamine receptors and my endorphins run dry. I no longer know how to fight pain. Radio Lab recently had an episode about a guy who couldn’t eat for years. His taste buds died. His tongue was flat and pink and completely bald. I can’t help picturing that image.


Oryx and Crake begins with Jimmy, who is not doing so well. He has changed his name to Snowman, thinks he’s the last human on earth, is only alive because he is responsible for the Crakers, beautiful humanoid creatures invented in a lab, by Crake, Jimmy’s best friend: the boy genius responsible for the plague. The story follows the cynical Jimmy through his mooning and his failings. I identify with Jimmy because I’m in a period of self-hatred. I feel just as ridiculous and out-shined, but Jimmy suffers from unrequited love, at first with a picture, then with the equally unattainable girl in the flesh, Oryx. He thinks he’s an emotional cripple, and he is, in a way, but nothing a healthy relationship couldn’t fix. But one wonders if Oryx experiences any emotions at all, or if her emotional receptors run as dry as my dopamine. She has seen hell, and it’s partially because of this sheltered Jimmy loves her.

Jimmy only knows compound life, as opposed to pleebland life. Think of 1984’s party life versus prole living, except this isn’t a dystopia based around a political ideology. Though Atwood’s CorpSeCorps does retain the iron fist, that closing in feeling, MaddAddam’s world centers around mass extinction. To compensate, scientists within the compounds are perfecting synthetic living from growing insurance organs inside pigs (pigoons), to chickens without hearts or brainstems (doesn’t KFC already do this?), to sheep-like creatures with full heads of human hair, etc. As I said, the trilogy, for the most part, is entirely exposition, which is great, but to Jimmy, nothing is happening. He watches a lot of porn on the internet, and executions, and he plays complex computer games, has little human interaction.

Jimmy and me both were suffering from ennui. I had writer’s block. I hated my sheltered past. I felt boring. I don’t see my friends as much as I’d like to. So many of them are doing great, interesting things, and I felt they were passing me by. I felt isolated as a mom. I was getting used to only talking to Aria or about Aria: she’s trying to write now! She’s leaping off the trunk onto the bed! She said camel! Moms who only talk about their kids are boring. When I go out into the world, I feel invisible. I look tired. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself. When I write, the process takes too long. Pages used to flow out of me, now it was taking me hours to write a couple of paragraphs. I lost the flow. I even started questioning my sacred space, my parenting skills: was I giving her too much TV? Why isn’t she eating anything? Am I imprinting depression onto her? In short, I’m a piece of shit who cannot produce her own dopamine.

Atwood is famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is another dystopia: a misogynistic, religious horror story. The Tea Party’s wet dream. That world, too, was vivid and penetrating, but now it seems sparse to me, its yarn was ideological, terrifying, and rage-inducing. In The Handmaid’s Tale, you drown. Inside the MaddAddam trilogy, you swim. You don’t feel like fighting or fleeing, you just wait for the inevitable, then survive it. The angry period is over. Climate change has destroyed the planet. Everything’s dead. First the plants and animals, then the people. Sounds good.

I had this overwhelming sensation that the world is fucked, that with climate change it’s too late, that violent tragedy is around the corner, that the jobless recovery has widened the class gap so far, I can only see us slipping further into poverty. We can’t afford nice things for Aria. Groceries are too expensive, but I am clinging to those fresh vegetables for dear life. I’m still struggling with my weight. Just the other day the cats peed on one of the only jackets that fits me. I couldn’t handle it. I was angry all the time. And sad. How do I stop hating myself?

“To stay human is to break a limitation.” Oryx and Crake.

In The Year of the Flood we switch protagonists. We move onto Toby, Jimmy’s opposite: hardened, wise, understated, quiet, dignified, level-headed, and stoic. You can tell she was written with admiration. We also follow Ren, a child when she lived Toby on the Edencliff rooftop as a fellow gardener, but now, in her late-twenties, she is locked inside Scales and Tales, an upscale brothel, while Toby has bunkered down inside the AnooYoo spa. Much like Oryx and Crake, much of this novel flashes back to life before the Waterless Flood, life before Crake destroyed it. Still laying down the setting, spinning and spinning, we start to see past the compounds, past HelthWyzer, OrganInc, and RejoovenEsence. The Year of the Flood says, “Okay. Now what?” I needed to hear that. At some point Ren and Toby meet up. In this narrative I am Ren, just as I am Jimmy (it is no coincidence that they once were lovers, that Ren still pines for him, even though he pines for Oryx). I am clueless. I need medical attention. I need help navigating the weather and defeating the bad guys. I’m a self-obsessed, selfish, stupid puddle. Toby, help me grow up.

Goocha gets up in the morning and is full of the dickens. She feeds herself pretend food (fake potatoes and carrots are soooooo much better than real potatoes and carrots) and hops maniacally. Still not much of a cuddler, but a new favorite game is to run back and forth between Ryan and me, hugging us and yelling, “I LA BEE TOO!” or, for those who don’t speak Goocha, “I love you too.” She fills me with everything. She is everything. I think, Do it for her! Stop being so depressed. Change. Change everything. If I could afford to make those superficial changes I would. I’d love to pierce my nose again, dye my hair, get another tattoo. But real change has to come from within. I need to stop hating myself. Duh. When I cry, she cocks her head, baffled, and stares with wide eyes. She used to point her finger and sternly scold me in gibberish. She’s tougher than me. Now she’s starting to understand, she’s starting to really see me as separate from her. Not only do I have my own desires and will, that she knows and already has little patience with, but now I’m someone who owns things, someone who feels things outside of her. I can’t teach her these habits. I know she’ll experience sadness, and probably even self-loathing, but I want to teach her to cope better than I am. I still look to art, but I’m not creating. This is all I’ve written in two months. I need to learn time management. Those few precious hours I have to myself need to incorporate art, exercise, and self-care. I need to learn how to do that. I don’t want her to ever think, My mom is pathetic. This is how I feel. Pathetic. I wanted coddling, nursing, help. Honey, fix me, hug me, love me. But I don’t need an enabler. Obviously. Vicodin is an enabler. I don’t Toby, not that Toby would be an enabler, she would have little patience for me. I need to be Toby. I need to be Zeb. I need to get shit done.

But first I’m going to crawl inside this hole and sleep…

 “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau.

 Let’s get back to nature. Civilization sucks…

MaddAddam was long awaited but I’m so glad I didn’t have to. Finally everyone, all the survivors are together. They’re rebuilding, satisfying that perpetual narrative itch I have for the raw-survival-in-nature trope. (This is what drew me to Lost, but lets not now or ever discuss Lost.) By this point I’ve realized what I was doing: that this depression wasn’t going to go anywhere until I finished MaddAddam, until I left this world and came back to my own. To my delight, Atwood stayed with Toby and gave us everything we wanted to know about Zeb, the sexy rebel gardener with a dark past and a knack for surviving. He’s crass, large, and highly intelligent, a kind of hacker-extraordinaire alpha Macgyver. Like Toby, I fell in love with him.

Back in reality, surviving equals thriving, not simply breathing. I wasn’t surviving. So I avoided blogging. But that isn’t the whole truth. I began this blog with the confessional in mind. It’s the Catholic in me, the exhibitionist in me, the way I look up to Kate Zambreno and Dodie Bellamy and Roxane Gay among others. I wanted this blog to be my personal narrative woven into, creating, revealing my perspective, my lens, my raison d’être, the when, why, what, how I deconstruct. Then I caught wind (or rather read her loud complaints) that my mother-in-law was reading my blog. Of course I anticipated people I know reading my blog, but given my mood, and that my mother-in-law deeply despises me, I felt exposed, critiqued, laughed at. One needs to appear strong in front of adversaries. To be hated so much gnaws at you, and while I’ve gotten used to it, mostly, sometimes I’m still bothered. My insecurity increased. My inkwell ran dry.

I no longer wanted to be seen.

I want to be seen again.

On the Edencliff rooftop, they don’t call it depression, they call it a fallow state.

Fallow: 1. plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production. 2. Figurative: inactive : long fallow periods when nothing seems to happen. 3. (of a sow) not pregnant.

Solutions are found, among the gardeners, with hallucinogenics. They take some mushrooms and perform an Advanced Meditation. I can’t take mushrooms anymore because of the migraines, but I can try and meditate and think and write about what to do next. I’m unsown, inactive, and not pregnant (literally, thankfully, but I mean that my language is no longer pregnant). Poetry eludes me. My ideas seem meek and paltry. Pathetic. That word, rolling about the page. It feels good to be back, but I’m not fully here yet. I have dips. I wane still. But it’s getting better. Maybe that was a kind of postpartum, maybe it was from a sudden drop in serotonin, maybe I’m terrified of getting off of Vicodin, or of any real change in general. I crave it though, and fortunately, it’s happening, whether I’m ready or not, whether I like it or not.

About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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2 Responses to The MaddAddam Trilogy, or how I survived my depression.

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh, my darling girl. I am sorry you’ve been so dampened.

    I go for years without creative impulse, but it seems my muse just shifts directions. I haven’t been a poet since 2004. One or two will still come out of me a year, but that’s all. I shifted to visual art somewhere around that time. And then, two years ago, visual art shifted to writing the songs I’d always hoped I would eventually be able to write. There’s a novel in me that’s been started, but can’t seem to get going again, though I know it will some day. I have learned to be patient with this. I have learned to understand that I am too many things to be identifying myself as just one thing, and let things flow as they will. You are a Writer. You are a Mother. You are a Friend. You are a Daughter. You are a Wife. You are a Sister. You are a Migraineur. You are a scratchy-voiced, wide-eyed, whole-bodied Woman.

    And you are loved, so very, very loved.

  2. Sarah, you deserved a response to this oh so long ago, but in the throes of depression, my vision becomes myopic. I feel much better now, and I do have things in perspective. I am a scratchy-voiced, wide-eyed, whole-bodied woman. (Someday this will be part of my biography.) And I am loved, and it feels good to be loved by you too. I think you are so interesting, so strong and abled, scratched raw and kicking, you’re like tempered glass, you don’t shatter, you break, but you clean up nicely. When I first saw Kintsukuroi, I thought of you, which translates, “to repair with gold.” It’s the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Not just anyone thrives, improves, let alone learns, from ache.

    I know you too have been going through some tough times and I wish I could just swing by for coffee and to finally watch Twin Peaks. There’s so much I want to talk about after your last tumblr. For now, know that I love you too,

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