A Conversation about Depression and Writers

Aussie writer Colin Rowsell has posted an excellent entry in his blog about depression and its effects on writers. There’s already a great conversation happening in the comments of the entry, but many people are spreading the word on their own blogs as well. I thought, since I’ve dealt with depression quite a bit and talked about it a few times here, that it was a great opportunity.

I’d recommend reading the original post to get the full context, but you can just go ahead to my answers to the questions he posed if you prefer.

WHAT TO DO:

* Read the questions below.
* Choose some (by no means necessarily all) that you’d like to answer.
* Either write into the comments section, or email Colin privately on (if you email, I will respect your privacy to any extent you want, the default is complete anonymity)
* If you like, add a tiny bit about yourself – eg ‘I’m a 22 yr old female aspiring writer’, ‘I’m 46 years old, used to be an emu farmer, and have 3 books in print’, etc. Also add any further advice that isn’t covered under the questions.
Finally, tell anyone you know who might be interested in being part of the conversation – the further we can retweet and link this, the better it’ll get.

For anyone who’s not acquainted with me, I’m a 26 year old female, pursuing publication. I’ve got a husband, a dog, and a cactus, and I have a bachelor’s in Music (voice) and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction from Eastern and Seton Hill Universities, respectively. There’s a history of depression in both sides of my family.

Depression

1. What is depression?
It’s walking around in circles through hip-deep, sucking mud, just to figure out what to have for lunch.

2. How is it different from just having a bad day?
There’s no reason for it–there might be a trigger event, but there’s nothing solid to point to like, “My boss has been hounding me unfairly all month.” It’s just there.

3. What does it feel like on the inside?
For me? All my thoughts get tangled and move in circles. I’ve got a lot of things to accomplish, but I don’t have everything I need to start the first one and the second one will take a long time and I probably won’t get anything done and really I’m incapable of finishing ANYTHING so I might as well lie on the couch and watch the same movie over and over all day. I can’t process conversations, I can’t even follow printed directions. I tend to forget to eat, and if I do remember, it’s often not worth the trouble of making all those decisions about what to have and how to fix it.

4. What can it look like from the outside, i.e. from the perspective of friends/acquaintances?
I think sometimes it looks like I need more sleep, but I learned very early on how to have a “normal person” mask in public, so I doubt many people even notice. My husband is very familiar with my warning signs, though, and so is my mom, and they are both good about stepping in.

Personal Experience

5. In what way is depression a part of your life?
It’s like my hair. It’s a part of me, it sprouts back even if I were to try to shave it off. Some days are great, and it cooperates. Other days, it’s a miracle to pull things together enough to go out in public without drawing stares. If I take care of it, it does better, but there are still good days and bad days.

6. If you live with depression, how/when did you first realise it? Was there a formal diagnosis at some point?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I can identify my first major depressive episode nine years ago, during my freshman year of college. Since then, I’ve been at a fairly constant low level of chronic depression with several other severe episodes scattered about. I self-diagnosed six years ago, after the second major episode (four months), and with my husband’s help self-treated until a year ago, when I went to a doctor, got officially diagnosed, and got meds for it.

7. What were some early experiences with depression that had an impact?
Isolation, forgetting to eat (I look at photos from that time and realize how very, very thin I was), ruining relationships (family, friends, boyfriend). Once I identified the initial symptoms of a downward spiral, I set up methods to pull myself back from the edge.

8. If you write, how does it affect your writing?
Well, when I can’t accomplish anything or put together thoughts that run in anything but circles, that’s not a great thing for writing. I’ve learned to allow myself down time as a natural part of my productivity, and to find other things to occupy my time instead of retreating to thinking about how little I’m ever going to get done and how useless it would even be to try.

9. What have you found useful for coping? What’s NOT useful?
Finding activities in which I get tangible evidence of progress–quilting is great, because at the end of each step, I have stacks of Things I Got Done staring me in the face. A long walk outside, preferably in the sun, also definitely helps. Allowing my husband to make plans with good friends and then dragging me along can help turn around my mindset by the end of the evening. My medication has done wonders for my chronic depression–but it took thinking about it as a medical condition, like diabetes, that has to be treated regularly and seriously before I caved and went to the doctor. But there are still greater fluctuations that I have to be aware of even when I’m consistent with remembering my meds. Adjusting my expectations so that I work with my depression instead of against it is important, too. NOT useful for me? Watching TV or movies, talking to someone who is being super-productive, “just cheer up, everything will be fine”. Reading is neutral… it does have the advantage of being able to see my progress, but there’s usually a bit of guilt because I feel I *should* have been writing.

Advice

10. What advice would you give to a young person, interested in writing, who’s beginning to realise that depression will be part of their life?
Well I’m not sure that being a writer necessitates having depression, but for the young or new writer who deals with depression, I’d give the same advice as I would to anyone with depression. Know your treatment options, use whatever support networks you have access to (I have one friend whose coworkers are closer than her family in many ways), and make the best informed decisions you can for your own situation. Don’t let depression be an excuse for not doing what you dream of, but don’t kid yourself that it won’t be an obstacle; and know that it might be more of an obstacle for some than for others.

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