The summer after I graduated college, I suffered from a serious nervous breakdown brought on by health problems, a prolonged break-up with my girlfriend, and a post-graduation existential crisis. I was despondent, constantly on the brink of panic, medicating myself with sleeping pills, anti-depressants, and tranquilizers. I was living inside of myself and my memories. Thinking about the future only provoked more despair. In the throws of this severe depression, I reached a mental state where, unlike ever before, I was able to write openly and honestly for an anonymous public. In the face of what I saw as the complete pointlessness of my life (and it seemed like I had little life to speak of), why should I feel self-conscious about my writing? So I wrote, unaffected by concerns about how I sounded, and a voice that was distinctly mine emerged. It was this frame of mind that allowed me to write “Dan Hoffman, College Graduate,” a piece about post-collegiate depression and heartbreak that was published on Thought Catalog.
It was more honest than anything I had written before. It mattered little if I appeared pathetic, dangerously self-centered, heartbroken, and completely disgusted and unappreciative of my situation. And it was a situation that, if I had been able to keep things in perspective, was not as bad as I thought. But depression is, after all, a distorted perspective. This was how I felt, so that is what I wrote about. I maintained a sense of humor, because one has to in those times, but the overall tone was one of despair.
This small piece was crucial in my development as a writer and, more than that, as a person. I heard from my editor that the piece received a few thousand hits and that people he knew in New York were talking about it; people from around the country and even abroad were tweeting about it, too.
On Thought Catalog itself, most of the comments were affirming; readers empathized with my sentiments and found that I had adeptly articulated a common state of mind for recent college graduates and, in a more general sense, described what severe depression feels like. A few comments were snarky or admonishing, but I wasn’t bothered by them. I felt a sense of conviction about what I’d said, and the criticism didn’t cause me any pain or self-doubt. Beyond these anonymous comments on the website, I also received emails and Facebook messages from people I had known in college who had stumbled upon the article. In some cases I was little more than acquaintances with the people who felt moved to write me. It was as if they all saw a little bit of their experience in mine.
“Dan Hoffman, College Graduate” began the creation of a persona, cultivated by sharing carefully selected aspects of my life for thousands of anonymous readers on the internet. I was encouraged to continue writing by comments from readers, many of whom continued to keep track of my writing after the first piece. In a period when very little comforted me, my moderate success on Thought Catalog was something that gave me a small satisfaction.
Eventually, I came out of the depression, and my recovery was due in part to the writing. I found something I actually liked doing, something that validated me, and what made it more exciting was that it was a form of writing I had never attempted before. It was unexpected and new. I found the answer to the question that never really goes away and, at my age, seems to pose itself in its rawest form: what does one do?
I had entered a new phase in my life, and naturally, my writing followed suit. Where despair allowed me to write unhindered by self-doubt, now it was mania — a mania brought on by the realization that finally I could stop thinking about everything I had been thinking about for the past six months and just live. My life became erratic. I had limitless energy and supreme confidence that anything I wrote, or did for that matter, was good. I would share anything; it didn’t matter at all how I came across, and my detractors on Thought Catalog bolstered my ego more than anything else. I developed a pill habit, drank daily, regularly had sex with a rotation of women, and stayed up until dawn. I became a rabid hedonist, and my life felt like one long party. I had been inert so long, and so I had to live again. And I had to live hard. A side of myself emerged that I had never seen before, a side that had completely let go of the burden of excessive thought. All of this came across in my writing.
Because I was so liberated from my former self, I felt entirely comfortable with sharing the most intimate details of my life, as long as they made for an entertaining story. It’s a natural tendency, I think, to keep our despair and our mistakes to ourselves — revealed perhaps to those we know, but always hidden from the public. Even internally, they are kept separate from the rest. For me these distinctions were blurred. I had no private life, properly speaking; even if I didn’t share it all, I might as well have.
The first story that really reflected this new phase of my life was “Oops, I Totaled My Sister’s Car!” Many of its features quickly became some of my trademarks: drinking, sleeping with women, an awkward situation, a mistake, a bit of self-deprecation mixed with brash confidence, and in the end the ability to come out of it with a sense of humor. The real story was actually worse, because I hadn’t only been drinking — I was liberally indulging in speed, Xanax, and pain killers as well — but out of fear that someone from my family would read the story, I left those details out.
I raised the stakes after that and wrote about an embarrassing health problem, the very health problem, in fact, that had in large part led to my nervous breakdown. I began to realize that if I wanted to keep writing so openly and not worry about repercussions, I would have to create a pen name. I didn’t care what people thought about me, but I didn’t want to get in trouble with a future employer or a family member. So to write with impunity I created “Neal Mackey,” and the first story detailed a day-long drug bender. Under that same name I wrote a succession of stories, which in particular highlighted my more erratic side, prone to drugs, booze, and women.
And all the while, I was having so much fun, and my Neal Mackey persona seemed to have the dual effect of not only raising the stakes of what I would write about, but also what I would do. These Mackey stories in particular generated a lot of hateful comments, and I loved it. I was arousing passion, after all. With each story I waited eagerly for the comments to come, and each time it seemed I had infuriated some commenter more than the last time. Under my own name I even wrote a piece about how I liked “trolls,” which predictably attracted more trolls.
Something strange was going on. To an extent I was reporting on what was happening in my life, but it was more complicated than that. I was becoming more than just myself; I was becoming a character in a story I was continually writing more so than the actual person who inspired a character. Even events that didn’t make it into stories were part of a larger, overall narrative. It was as Philip Roth says in The Anatomy Lesson: “The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book.”
I did not write so openly and freely without it eventually coming back to haunt me. Any number of my stories were offensive on different levels; the number of anonymous yet deeply personal comments left by people suggest that I alienated a lot of readers — readers who may have even known me in person. But the truth is none of that mattered to me, except in one instance. Shortly after I wrote “Oh Shit, I’m 22 and I Got Circumcised,” I heard from my ex-girlfriend — the same one mentioned in the story. She was embarrassed, and she told me never to write about her again. She has not communicated with me since, and I’m given to believe that her hatred for me is profound.
After a while of acting out these stories and then writing them up, I ran out of steam. Whatever mania had been propelling me to write consistently and live erratically gradually dispelled. I wasn’t the same character any longer; it simply wasn’t something I could sustain. It also didn’t help that the more and more I was obliged to write and edit, as it eventually became my full-time job at Thought Catalog, the less time I had to live erratically. Right around this time, I had one last drunken romp where I alienated the girl I was currently sleeping with, a girl who I actually cared about. It would’ve been another entry in a series of similar pieces, but this time I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just laugh it off.
The shock of that event radically restored me to my former self. I realized I wasn’t the person that I’d been writing about all along, nor did I necessarily want to be. Writing became more and more difficult. In a sort of symbolic gesture, the last story about me I wrote for Thought Catalog in that period was humorless and sincere, simply detailing my struggle with severe clinical depression.
It is with a mixture of regret and pride that I look back on that period. I lived violently and my life became a story that I reported on as it unfolded. It is true that on occasion I do something debauched, debase or embarrass myself in some way, or live dangerously, but I have a lot more trouble writing these stories, because now they belong to my life, not to a character’s. I couldn’t keep up being that character, even if I wanted to. It was probably for the best. During this erratic period I made a distinct impression on both an anonymous readership and the people I knew. What worries me now is not so much what people thought of me then (though I have a few regrets), but what new people I meet will think, when and if they ever google my name.
When I make new friends, at a certain point I feel obliged to mention that time of my life, even if only in a perfunctory way. Having so carefully told those stories already to so many people, it doesn’t feel right to tell them again. I wouldn’t be doing them the justice I did them the first time around. For a while I used to mention my Thought Catalog pieces, hoping they’d later be read. Now I don’t say anything, other than perhaps, “I used to blog professionally.” There’s too much explaining to do; and besides, these stories don’t even belong to me anymore. They belong to someone else or something else — the internet perhaps, or the commenters, or a once-real world that now seems more like fiction.
Illustration by Justin Rands