The sometimes frightening narrative arc of Kristine Joseph’s clinical depression could fill a book or a screenplay.
In fact, she’s written both.
At age 40, the executive assistant by day who finished her master’s in creative nonfiction last year has a newly released memoir. “Simply Because We Are Human,” published by Wise Ink in Minneapolis, has an accompanying screenplay Joseph co-wrote for an assignment at Augsburg University.
Yes, her story has a scene where she hits the wall — in this case, as a strong-willed 20-something, two years removed from her meds, living with her rock drummer boyfriend and studying the veins of her wrist next to the blade of a kitchen knife.
Satisfyingly, there’s life after the wall.
“It’s treatable, in my case, with medication and just being mindful,” said Joseph, who grew up in Burnsville as Kristine Berg. “It’s hard work. You’re going to have your hard days just like anybody. I stay ahead of things many people don’t have to think about. Like, I’ll exercise if I’m having a harder day. If something situational happens I’m more prepared for how to manage it, because I don’t want to trigger it.”
Joseph writes about her first mystifying episode of depression.
In the screenplay there’s a dropped lunchbox, uncontrollable crying, friends rushing to help and a trip to the nurse. In real life Joseph was 8, a student at Vista View Elementary in Burnsville whose parents were divorcing.
“Everyone thought that’s why I was upset, and it was actually not a horrible divorce,” said Joseph, whose mother, Renee Tyszko, still lives in Burnsville with her stepfather.
“I just felt all of a sudden it just kind of hit me, and was more of a mental feeling,” Joseph said. “I didn’t have a stomachache, but you get so worked up that later you don’t feel good. It was at lunchtime. I think the screenplay’s almost the same when it comes to the childhood memories in the book.”
The depression and anxiety could linger for days and weeks, even after a visit to a psychiatrist that Joseph said went nowhere.
“You have your usual ups and downs as a kid and a teenager, but this was, like, totally different than just that,” she said. “Because it’s clinical. Literally for me, I only had the downs. It’s hard to comprehend when it’s literally your brain chemistry and you’re physically reacting to things rather than it being situational.”
Joseph eventually saw a child therapist and was prescribed her first medications in seventh grade. They helped.
Joseph was still years from coming to grips with her condition when, as a Nicollet Junior High ninth grader, she was the only member of the Burnsville High School varsity girls track team to qualify for state in the 400-meter dash.
Training for the event alongside older male athletes, Joseph was befriended by a popular 10th grader, Matt Pelant, whom she described as a natural leader with a way of reaching out to introverts.
Joseph dedicates her book to Pelant, who would have graduated in 1998, a year ahead of her.
“I didn’t even know he was depressed,” she said. “He took his life his junior year, and I had no idea. No one really knew that he was depressed.”
The tragedy “had a huge influence on me,” Joseph said. “It was then I decided I needed to try to talk about (depression) more and try to work through it.”
But her ambivalence toward medications, their side effects and the stigma some attach to them remained. Besides, Joseph said, she had long depression-free periods without them.
“It took me years to understand it,” she said of her condition. “It’s one of those things where you really aren’t considered chronic until you’ve had it numerous times throughout your life.”
Which brings the story to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where Joseph lived with her boyfriend after undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
It was a “bar town,” where Joseph said it was easy to revert to college party behavior, which didn’t help her chosen medication-free lifestyle.
“And that was where I hit my last wall and I started to change my life,” she said, recalling “lurking” thoughts of suicide and the moment of truth with a knife in the kitchen.
She said her father fetched her in LaCrosse and drove her home.
“I was finally so shaken by the whole experience, I was afraid I wasn’t going to survive it,” she said. “It was like, ‘I need to change something.’ ”
Today she has two stepchildren with her husband, Noah Joseph, lives in Golden Valley and works as an executive assistant for Optum.
Having loved writing since childhood, Joseph used tuition assistance from her employer to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree. The memoir was her thesis project, though she said she’s been working on it for about five years.
At 137 pages it’s an easy read, deliberately so for the audience she wants to reach, Joseph said.
“Obviously, people will read it that aren’t necessarily having problems right now,” she said. “But for people that are, no one wants to sit and read a novel.”
“Simply Because We Are Human,” under the author name of K.J. Joseph, was released April 6 and is available through Amazon.