Young, married, and searching for intangibles like success and contentment, Caitlin Shetterly and Dan Davis (pictured) left their home in Maine in 2008 for sunnier prospects in Los Angeles, and endured a cross-country road trip with their beloved dog and cat in tow. Unfortunately, what awaited them in Tinseltown was all too real — an economy deep in recession, an unplanned pregnancy; Caitlin’s debilitating illness during the early months of that pregnancy (Hyperemesis gravidarum, persistent and extreme nausea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration); potentially dangerous rental apartments that required moving expenses they couldn’t afford; unexpected, terrifying, and lasting unemployment for both of them; the challenges of having a new baby in a small living space; not enough money to pay medical insurance premiums or hospital bills that weren’t covered under them; and, finally, the death of their feline family member, Ellison. At this point, Caitlin and Dan were totally broke and completely broken. So, a year after their arrival in Los Angeles, with their young son and dog, Hopper, they packed up their entire lives yet again and drove the reverse route back to Maine to rest, recharge, and re-group at Caitlin’s mother’s home in Maine. Caitlin created an ongoing radio diary of this return trip for NPR’s Weekend Edition, which resulted in her memoir Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home that was just published this month. I talked to Caitlin about how she dealt with living through a set of traumatic emotional and physical circumstances that most people hope they’ll never have to confront in a lifetime, much less in one year.
There’s a scene in the book during a particularly difficult period of time in Los Angeles where you fall getting into the shower; Dan picks you up and basically tells you he needs you to keep going. You say that he’s seen you before when you’ve gone to your dark place. Aside from just feeling down because this was a really crappy time for your family considering all the bad things that were happening at once, did you or have you ever struggled with any mental health issues like clinical depression or anxiety disorders?
Actually, motherhood saved me. Before you have a kid, you don’t know how often you’re going to laugh. As a mom, I laugh every single day. But before that, I went through weeks (or at least days) without laughing. Becoming a new mom gave me purpose. You don’t realize until you have a child the brightness that you didn’t have in your life before. Everything tasted better to me (also probably because I wasn’t sick anymore). But the world before I had a child seemed much darker, even though it probably wasn’t. Motherhood was definitely for me, but I didn’t realize that was true until it happened. And, luckily for me, for whatever reason, I didn’t experience postpartum depression. It’s the other stuff that I find depleting and difficult: Writing, working, promoting the book, et cetera. But finding the pleasure of being a mom buoyed me through the difficult times. In the past, could I feel down for a few days? Sure, but it was nothing serious.
How did you deal with the fact that all of these negative things (unemployment, illness, rental apartment problems, financial difficulties, etc.) were happening to you, an educated, upwardly mobile person, even just in terms of your ego?
Well, I guess I’ve never had that kind of arrogance. I felt that the situation was happening worse to other people. There’s a saying in Maine that goes: It’s what you do with what you got. I really didn’t have time to think about how or why this stituation was unfair to me or us. Don’t get me wrong; I was angry. Reading about CEOs of companies flying their private planes to Washington, D.C. really pissed me off. But it wasn’t so personal. I didn’t think: Woe is me. I was just trying to keep my family together.
In the book you mention Dan’s health issue concerning his ITP (a blood disorder characterized by too few platelets in the blood which causes sufferers to bruise easily). How much emotional anxiety worry did that cause for you during a time when you had things like a first and unplanned pregnancy, unemployment, moving several times, and feeling deathly ill yourself to worry about?
When someone in your family has an autoimmune disease like ITP, of course you worry, but it’s also a part of your everyday life. Most people have platelets in the 150,000 to 400,000 range. When Dan is at his best, his platelet count is 25,000 to 45,000. When it goes down to 11,000 or 12,000, he really needs to rest and eat nutritious foods. But he does have very large platelets, which, healthwise, is good. Once we got to my mother’s home in Maine, we started going to bed early and rested a lot. And our stress level decreased because we had some support. Yes, I was concerned about Dan because I knew he was tired, but I knew that we could manage his ITP with rest, eating well, and doctor-prescribed steroids.
I worried a little about what you and Dan were eating throughout both your cross-country trips (burgers, BBQ, Ritz crackers and cheese, McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, etc.) and also that you weren’t able to really exercise. Even though those long car trips were temporary situations, did you or Dan ever worry about the effect that kind of diet and lack of exercise were having on you, physically and/or mentally?
No, because we’re usually very healthy. I was raised in a back-to-the-land environment in Maine, and we always try to eat well — lots of organic, whole foods. Plus, we’re naturally thin people. So it really wasn’t a big deal. We’d also bring apples, nuts, and other healthier snacks along with us in the car. But the truth is, when you’re driving across America and stopping in very small towns, sometimes fast food and junk food are your only eating options, and you’re stuck with them.
What would you say to someone who sympathizes with your situation in the book, but doesn’t really believe that they’d ever find themselves in your dire circumstances?
Well, there are 14 million unemployed Americans right now, and that number is probably closer to 20 million. So if you’re paying attention to the news — unless you’re independently wealthy — I don’t think there’s any way you couldn’t see that the same things could easily happen to you.
homepage photo: Daniel E. Davis