The Rules of the Tunnel
A Brief Period of Madness
A journalist faces his toughest assignment yet: profiling himself. Zeman recounts his struggle with clinical depression in this high- octane, brutally funny memoir about mood disorders, memory, shock treatment therapy and the quest to get back to normal.
Thirty-five million Americans suffer from clinical depression. But Ned Zeman never thought he'd be one of them. He came from a happy Midwestern family. He had great friends and a busy social life. His career was thriving at Vanity Fair where he profiled adventurers and eccentrics who pushed the limits and died young.
Then, at age thirty-two, anxiety and depression gripped Zeman with increasing violence and consequences. He experimented with therapist after therapist, medication after medication, hospital after hospital- including McLean Hospital, the facility famed for its treatment of writers, from Sylvia Plath to Susanna Kaysen to David Foster Wallace. Zeman eventually went further, by trying electroconvulsive therapy, aka shock treatment, aka "the treatment of last resort."
By the time it was over, Zeman had lost nearly two years' worth of memory. He was a reporter with amnesia. He had no choice but to start from scratch, to reassemble the pieces of a life he didn't remember and, increasingly, didn't want to. His girlfriend was gone; friends weren't speaking to him. His life lay in ruins. And the biggest question remained, "What the hell did I do?"
By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, profane and hopeful, The Rules of the Tunnel is a blistering account of Zeman's twisted ride to hell and back-a return made possible by friends real and less so, among them the dead "eccentrics" he once profiled. It's a guttural shout of a book, one that defies conventional notions about those with mood disorders, unlocks mysteries within mysteries, and proves that sometimes everything you're looking for is right in front of you.
Why did you decide to write The Rules of the Tunnel?
I didn't do much deciding at all. I just started writing the thing -- in journal form, essentially. I didn't think 'book' until I'd written several thousand words. This was something like nine months following ECT. My motivations were many. I needed to pull together the pieces of a story I didn't remember. The more I learned, the worse I felt about some of the things I'd done. So I wanted to come clean. Also, I was reacting to some of the countless Memoirs of Depression out there. Too many of them, I thought, were either romanticized or depressing. On a brighter note, I was motivated by gratitude; in some ways, the book is a thank you note to the poor, gullible souls who saved my ass. My final motivation is the same one shared by all writers: I had a story to tell.
Why would someone as (self-described) self-conscious as you reveal the most private details about yourself?
Because the opposite approach wasn't working. I'd spent a lifetime trying to avoid being "found out" -- and look where that got me. The less I said, over the years, the more self-conscious I became. That's the trend for people with mood disorders or social anxiety disorders. Everything just seems so embarrassing, so ripe for ridicule and shame that you try to control the flow of information. You become your own little Kremlin. In the end, though, the strategy fails; it only makes you more isolated, depressed, and anxious. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. I was having trouble doing this in increments. So I figured 'Ah, well, might as well swing for the fences. What have I got to lose?'
How do you write about anxiety and depression without getting anxious and depressed?
You don't. Not entirely. Writing, in any form, is torture. Writing this book was, at times, misery. Parts of the story are so embarrassing; they made me want to flee to Canada. Other parts just made me sad. On the other hand, there's a reason why I -- and so many other nervous types -- write for a living. Writing is a solitary, quiet, inward vocation. It's the way we connect with the outside world. And, believe me; writing about the stress of cocktail parties is far less stressful than the cocktail parties themselves.
Did you worry about offending others who suffer from mood disorders?
I worry about offending my cats. So, yes, I'm aware that some people may resent my tone, or my lack of decorum, or whatever. And my response about that is: If you're a depressive, and you want to stay that way, go read The Bell Jar. God only knows how many readers Sylvia Plath sent over the edge. I like to think that most readers of my book will understand that I'm not making sport of mood disorders or the people who suffer them. They're my people. And I think I'm representative of many of them. Too often, moodies are portrayed as fragile, mirthless sad-sacks who turn to dust at the slightest offense. Now that's offensive. Most moodies I know are so sick of people tiptoeing around them. And, believe me; they own the copyright on gallows humors. One of the moodies I write about in the book, George Trow, deemed himself a founding member of a club called Insane Anonymous. He was the toast of the asylum. And I love him for that.
What parts were you most reluctant to include in the book?
The parts that involved the private lives of others. For example: I write about two of my ex-girlfriends, and some of that stuff is touchy and intimate. So I was constantly worried that I might be adding salt to wounds or invading privacy. Early in the process -- once I thought I might show my rambling to the world -- I went to all the concerned parties, explained what I was doing, and solicited their thoughts. I was frankly shocked by how open and helpful everyone was; most people were just excited to be part of a book, and were happy as long as I didn't criticize their haircuts or call them fat.
There are some interesting parallels between you and some of the people you profile for Vanity Fair. Did you see those connections at the time of the profiles or did it take looking back to make that leap?
Like most reporters, I consistently thought I understood more than I did. The whole process was paint-by-numbers. Early on, while profiling the first two guys -- the photographer Bruno Zehnder and the talent agent Jay Moloney -- I was not unaware that we shared certain things in common. They were depressed. I was depressed. So that fed my curiosity and empathy. At the same time, though, a large part of me thought of those guys as freak shows. I got it, but I didn't get it. I remained somewhat clueless even as I profiled the writer George Trow, who himself had been a profile writer. I didn't really see the full picture until it was very late in the game. Maybe, if I'd been a bit more self-aware during the process, things would have turned out differently.
You have some very loyal friends all described in the book. Have they read it yet? What is their take?
They've read it, yes. Initially, after I finished the first draft, I showed them only the sections that pertained to them. I pretty much had to, for fact-checking reasons. Such is the process of the amnesiac reporter. Then, gradually, I showed them more and more. This part wasn't as stressful as I thought it would be. A large part of the book hinges on material culled directly from my friends; in many ways, they knew the story better than I did. So, aside from little factual quibbles, everything went smoothly. Probably their biggest collective criticism is that I'm too hard on myself. Then I remind them of the shit I pulled. Then they reconsider. The most stressful period came when I showed the book to my mother. I was visiting her in Michigan at the time. So I spent the weekend watching my mother read a book about my descent into madness. The book, in the end, pleased her. But I aged twenty years in the process.
The relationships you have in the book are particularly raw. Was it hard going back to those times in your life?
Yes and no. Every day, while piecing the story together, I'd come across yet another mortifying tidbit I'd forgotten due to amnesia, denial, or both. So that was fun. But it wasn't as if I'd put everything behind me, only to reopen old wounds the day I started writing. The whole mess stuck with me. I just couldn't remember the details -- and, frankly, that was the worst part. So, really, the book helped me organize my thoughts, reconcile everything, and try to put it behind me. I haven't totally succeeded in the latter. But I'm okay with most of it. Or, at least, okay with being mortified.
You admit that you lost a great deal of memory due to ECT. How did you go about doing research for this memoir?
By doing the one thing I'm trained to do. I had to report the story as if I were preparing a profile of someone else. My recollections were few and flawed -- I was the most unreliable interview subject I'd ever met. I interviewed (and interviewed) the friends and relatives who saw me through The Forgotten Year. And these people were freakishly reliable. They documented the whole thing, in real time -- emails, letters, and medical records. Without their assistance, my book would be a haiku.
How do you feel about ECT now? Would you recommend it for someone in a similar situation?
I'd never make that judgment. That's for a doctor to decide. What I will say, first, is that ECT is a modern, legitimate, and vital treatment option. It can be a life-saver. Anyone who says otherwise has spent too much time watching Frances. But I'll also say that ECT is not as innocuous as some of its proponents would have you believe. Memory loss and mental impairment, however temporary, are no small things. ECT did not work for me; it worked against me. But I was not the norm. I was just unlucky. ECT brought a friend of mine back from a very dark place. So, again, I believe in it, in a caveat emptor sort of way.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: