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A Conversation with Ned Zeman, author of The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness

Ned Zemen / Ben Barnz

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

Ned Zeman’s career was thriving as writer and editor at Vanity Fair. He had profiled people from all walks of life including the likes of Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and others. But at the age of 32, anxiety and depression took hold of his life.

Bouncing from therapist to therapist, medication to medication and hospital to hospital without finding any success, he found himself staring down electroconvulsive therapy as a final resort.

By the time it was over, Zeman had lost almost two years of his memories.

Through The Rules of the Tunnel, Zeman chronicles the lives of some of individuals he has profiled, individuals he thought once wholly different from himself, but now who have begun to show similarities with him in a life affected by mental illness.

Zeman’s memoir is different than many others. It’s abrasive; some might even call it crass. It’s cutthroat and doesn’t shy away from any topic. But it’s real.

As evidenced by his job as an editor for Vanity Fair, and former writer for GQ and Sports Illustrated, among others, Zeman is an extremely gifted writer. The stories of his memoir ring true and are powerful. They speak with clarity and force that let you know that all “moodies” are not always depressed, they do not need to be tiptoed around—they are incredibly resilient.

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 Memories 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.

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. Others 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 that the cocktail parties themselves.

Did you worry about offending others who live with 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 that 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 calling Insane Anonymous. He was the toast of the asylum. And I love him for that.

There are a few close friends you mention throughout your book. How important was your friend’s continuing support during your depression?

Their support was beyond vital. I'm certain it made all the difference. I'm not sure how people without solid friendships and families dig themselves out of the deepest holes. I often find myself thinking the main thing that separates those who don't from those who do is the issue of support. The hallmarks of depression are loneliness and isolation. Without the right people around you, you tend to get lonelier and more isolated. I'm sure my friends saved me from disaster.

Do your family and friends still play important roles of support for you even though your “brief period of madness” has passed?

They absolutely do. If anything great came out of the experience, it was my realization that my human relationships are paramount. Also, although the experience of going to pieces surely tested my relationships, it also strengthened them. Friends who stick with you after you come undone are friends for life. And now, for me, there's nothing to hide. There's more transparency and honesty now.

What would you tell the friends and family of an individual experiencing depression?

The first thing I'd tell them is to not suffer in silence. Depression wants you to do that; it's the nature of the beast. But silence and isolation are killers. You absolutely must reach out to someone, anyone: friends, family, therapists, whomever. This sort of thing can be uncomfortable in the short-term but golden in the long-term. The minute you start talking to someone you trust, you're heading in the right direction. Things might not move swiftly, but they'll move. If you're in a position where there's no friends or family nearby, there's always a therapist. In a pinch, you can just visit your local hospital. They'll have specialists standing by. There are plenty of people out there who want to hear your story. Trust me on that.

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.