Writing With Depression

TRIGGER WARNING: drink, drugs, psych medication, depression.

The first thing I’d like to say is this: I’m not a psychiatric professional of any type. I’m not a licensed counsellor, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a psychiatrist. I also don’t claim to offer a definitive view of depression.

However, I am a 40-year-old writer who has suffered depression since childhood. I’m not by any means the first person in my family to have it: my father battled severe depression. My grandmother was an unbelievably intelligent, otherwise indomitable woman.

She rose to the highest echelons of a department store in Wales – in the 1950s. Her mother was far from perfect, but one of the stories in our family folklore is that when my great-grandmother couldn’t afford to send both her daughters to university, she decided to send neither, because she knew they were both bright and fierce enough to make a good life for themselves no matter what.

Nevertheless, she had episodes of ‘the blaws’ that would see her take to her bed for days on end, too depressed to move.

When I was in my teens, I didn’t notice it because my father was very ill, and everyone (including myself) thought it was just normal teen stuff. When I was in my 20s I didn’t notice it because FOOD! DRINK! OCCASIONAL DRUGS! CHAOTIC LIFESTYLE BASED ON CLUBBING!

(Also, I also thought it made me better than everyone to be my absolute worst self and hate everything.)

I was in my 30s and married before I realised that, as a man whose father had severe depression, who had dropped out of university due to mental illness, and who could trace a line of depression back for multiple generations… I may have clinical depression.

Somehow, I have some books out. They’re not bestsellers, but they exist, so let’s talk.

 

It’s Alright if Your Depression Isn’t Creative

Probably one of the biggest reasons I ignored and resisted getting any help for my depression was because I held the unshakable belief that it was better to be my ‘true’ self than to change, and that getting help for my illness would leave me an emotionally stunted robot, incapable of creative expression.

Emotional numbing can certainly be a factor in taking anti-depressants. There are plenty of people who attribute their artistic success to depression. In fact, the idea that Melancholia gives you greater intelligence and artistic capacity is as old as the classical conception of the humors. It was argued (by some, not everyone) that those afflicted with Melancholia had a specific type of tragic, beautiful genius: Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in part an exploration of that (although, without giving away any spoilers, it doesn’t go so well for him) as is Jaques in As You Like It (although, much less sympathetically.)

Here’s the thing, though: my depression isn’t creative. It doesn’t turn me into a Byronic poet, confederate with the fleeting and futile nature of life. It doesn’t give my artistic soul new vocabulary to express the pain of being.

It makes me angry, unhappy and inarticulate. It makes me hate myself and everyone around me. It makes me paranoid and self-defeating.

It weighs on me, like a lead blanket, so that I sit, barely able to move, staring at a sometimes-blank computer screen.

It crushes me with too much despair to start writing, because the end result will be meaningless.

It’s alright if this is you too. It’s alright if it’s you to some extent, or if it’s not you, but having depression just means you can’t quite write for some other reason.

It’s alright, and you’re alright.

For some people, depression is the thing that drives them on. The fact that, for you, it’s not, means nothing. You have done nothing wrong.

 

It’s Okay if You Decide to Take Medication

Even now, in the late 2010s, there are a lot of well-meaning people who will go all-out in describing medication as a form of artistic and emotional suicide. In 2017 Johann Hari, a journalist with a degree in Political Science (not, you’ll notice, any other form of science), wrote a well-meaning book about depression, suggesting that we’d all been medicated to zombification and that all we needed to do to be cured was to stop taking the pills.

It’s a book that relies on a lot of straw men (often extremely outdated concepts of depression that haven’t been used for decades) and outright misrepresenting (or, being charitable, not knowing about) the practises used in actual psychiatry.

If you’ve come to the point where you’re looking at taking anti-depressants, there are perfectly valid reasons not to take them (the side effects alone may mean you have to try more than one type before you find one that suits you) but there are also lots of good reasons to try them. If nothing else, do you know something?

(As someone who suffers chronic pain, I feel I can say what follows with some authority)

You know when it’s okay to be numb for a while? When you’re in agony. If you’re in terrible emotional pain and you can’t go on? Be numb for a while (and, seriously, you might not be, you may just feel better.) Even if it isn’t your ‘most authentic self,’ if your authentic self is just suffering, be something else for a bit.

Even if you lose your whole joy for writing, I am not the first person to assert that the majority of writing isn’t about enjoying yourself. Stephen King, as I’ve quoted before, referred to some phases of writing as ‘shovelling shit in the sitting position.’ Kingley Amis described it as ‘the art of applying the seat of your trousers to the seat of the chair.’ Russel T Davies, writer of the early Doctor Who revival, joined George R R Martin, Frank Norris, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sidney Sheldon, Irene Kampen, and Dorothy Parker in saying, ‘I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written.’

The writing group Bliss-Junkies will always try to tell you that writing should be a continual epiphany of moment-to-moment creative joy, but when it comes to serious writers with output, they are very, very much in the minority.

Also, just one more time: writing is produced by living functioning human beings. You know who deserves to be a living, functioning human being? You do.

 

Look at the Small Picture

We live in a culture obsessed with thinking big. Even the otherwise awesome Neil Gaiman described the idea that you need to always keep an eye on ‘the mountain’ – the Nirvana of being a successful author that you need to continually ensure you’re still heading for.

As someone who does their best to write through depression, the big picture is one of the most paralysing things I have ever encountered. You do still need to look at the mountain, sometimes, but only with the correct viewing equipment: if you have less depressed phases, do it then. If you can do it with the moderating advice of an experienced (trustworthy) writer? Do it with them.

The rest of the time, stay very, very small.

At my worst, my to do list looked like this:

  • Sit at computer
  • Turn on computer
  • Open Word.
  • Write One word.

On a personal level, I found that incredibly empowering, since I could wipe out two-thirds of my list before I was under any pressure to type anything. After writing my one word (and yes, there have been days where I just typed ‘word’ and closed the software down again) everything else was a win. Some days I typed 300 words (or less.) Sometimes, I managed my ideal daily quota of 1000.

Whether they were good words wasn’t part of the deal. I don’t edit while I write, and you may want to avoid it too. Some writers go great guns on it, I find it means I just endlessly re-write and delete the same paragraph.

The game of being a writer is just filling that wordless void. Unless you’ve taken someone’s money in return for a deadline, you are not under any obligation to fill it by a particular amount. So long as you’re writing regularly, in any amount, you’re winning.

 

Plan

One thing that helps me is planning. There’s a huge debate about whether you should plan your novel or just write it organically, but planning definitely allowed me to write through some of my fairly bad episodes of depression.

A part of the benefit is that it takes pressure off you. You may think you’re writing utter shite, and that you’re going to die alone with your novels unread (probably while you’re eaten by your 44 cats), but isn’t it easier to feel that and still get writing done when you don’t also have to think up the scene, decide where it fits in the plot, and keep track of continuity?

There’s a lot to be said for planning out what your story is going to look like. If nothing else, getting to know the characters, working out the plot, and choreographing the scenes means that when you turn up to write on the day, you can just be like a word plumber, putting things together.

Depression demons telling you your plot is utter shit?

Just shrug. “Not my problem, guv’nor. That was the other bloke. I just work here.”

 

Don’t be Ashamed

There’s a meme. You might have seen it on social media. It goes something like:

“Anxiety/depression/panic attacks are not a weakness. They are a sign you’ve tried to remain strong for far too long…”

Now, I’ve sworn a few times on this blog over the years, but for this one I’m really going to push out the boat:

I fucking hate that meme.

I suffer anxiety, depression AND have had my share of panic attacks.

I also have back and hip problems, and an upper-limb disorder.

My back and hip issue are absolutely a fucking weakness. They are not a sign that my sciatic nerve tried to be strong for too long. They are a sign that I’ve got a medical issue.

It’s the same with all my psychiatric issues, or as I affectionately call them, ‘head weasels.’

My depression is absolutely a weakness. So is my anxiety. Someone without them can probably work longer and more consistently than me.

Here’s the thing, though: having a weakness doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. That lucky bastard with impeccable mental health? He may not be as bright as you. Or have your attention to detail. Even if he is (and does) LIFE IS NOT A COMPETITION.

You are completely fine with all your flaws and imperfections.

That meme is full of shit because wrapped up in its very fabric is the idea that there are good and bad reasons to suffer depression. I have had depression for as long as I can remember. There was no stoic period of suffering where I ‘broke’ and started suffering the black dog. That doesn’t mean I am less strong or valid than someone who developed depression after losing a job, or a child, or a sibling.

 

Celebrate the Small Victories

I’m reasonably lucky with my physical issues in that not only am I able to exercise (within reason) but also there are some exercises that improve my function and level of pain.

Because of this, I go to the gym 2-3 times a week (more, before my hip deteriorated to where I wasn’t allowed to do cardio anymore.)

I don’t celebrate the ‘good’ workouts.

The ones where I feel like a million dollars, smash my one-rep-maximum and decide that my reflection is a man in peak physical condition for the age of 40? I thank them for their time, and smile at them in passing, but they aren’t the ones I really keep in my memory.

The workouts I celebrate are the ones where I had to drag myself out of bed, barely managed my program, and suffered (both physically and emotionally) through every part of the exercise process. Why do I celebrate those?

Because they took a hell of a lot more grit and energy than the day I got ten hours sleep and leapt cheering into a record bench-press (disclaimer: it’s actually been years since I could really bench-press.)

I encourage the same thing with writing. I had a day where I put aside thirteen hours for writing. In that whole time, I managed 1000 words.

I hold that as one of my proudest days of writing. I got through thirteen hours of absolute shite, but I still managed my daily quota. I’d wanted to do more, but there are probably people who would have walked away entirely.

The days when you’re too tired to write more than 300 words? Celebrate. When you hate everything in your manuscript? Put another few words in it, even if you’ve decided to delete everything and start again, then celebrate. The black dog was chewing your feet off, and you did your part anyway. Get your first book out, even though it’s really short, you don’t like the cover, and you’re not particularly proud of it? Celebrate. You got something out there.

Writing with depression isn’t easy. I hope this article doesn’t come across as saying that I have all the answers and I’m entirely together, but it can be done, and you can hang in there.

Read Jon’s meditations on disability and mental illness in his Occult Cyberpunk novel, A Dark Neon Dying, available electronically via Amazon, or directly from Other Side Books.

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The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

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