I was desperately trying to think of a topic to write about today when this fell into my lap via RonHogan on Twitter:

Writing and Depression:  the Kiwiburger Conversation

I have long wanted to discuss my depression in relation to my writing/creativity, but it seems so difficult to put into words.  How does one even describe depression?  I'll start by answering a couple of the questions posed in the Kiwiburger blog.

1. What is depression?
To me depression is like hovering on the edge of a cliff that you are trying not to slip off of.  You use all of your mental (and sometimes physical) energy to stay on the edge and not fall.  It is exhausting, and you always feel like you're dangerously close to slipping.

As a chronically depressed person, I live very much in my head.  I am overly analytical and I have an active imagination.  I am also very introverted and though well-liked and on the outside, fairly sociable, my preference is to be by myself or with my husband.

I do not use writing as a coping mechanism.  For me writing is a compulsion that taunts me mercilessly.  It's like exercise.  The process itself is miserable, but the end result is worth it.

2. If you live with depression, how/when did you first realise it? Was there a formal diagnosis at some point?

I have lived with depression my whole life, or at least as long as I can remember.  When I was young, I staved it off by reading my favorite books over and over.  I reckon I've read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret more times than anyone on the planet.

During college, my depression hit a fever pitch.  Already low on self-confidence, I found myself thrust into a new environment with no support system, no boundaries, and copious amounts of alcohol.  By the time I did build up that support system, I had already learned that alcohol was an effective, though temporary, form of self-medication.  Bad choices, lots of them, were made, particularly in the area of (shall we say) interpersonal relationships with boys.  Without a doubt, college was the worst four years of my life.

It was, however, the first time I sought treatment for my depression.  I made an appointment with a university counselor–at the time, the depression was so bad I didn't know if I could make it until the designated day of the appointment.  I did, but I found the experience completely unsatisfactory.  The counselor gave me worksheets in which I was to record who were my friends and why I thought they liked me.  I knew who my friends were but fuck if I knew why they liked me.

During my twenties, I was functionally depressed.  I had a steady job and good friends.  The depression showed itself in the form of poor money management, bad relationship choices, and more obviously, an obsessive need to go to the movies.  When I was a child I read books over and over–in my twenties I saw movies over and over.  I remember one period where I went to see The Crying Game  at least once a week.  The last count I remember was 15 times.

I understand now I was soothing myself, just as I did when I was a kid.  It wasn't until my early thirties that I finally mentioned my depression to my doctor.  She prescribed antidepressants.  Halle-fucking-lujah.  I remember thinking "Wow.  So this is how normal people feel."  I also began going to a therapist who helped me work through some tough issues–the meds helped me feel better so I was able to articulate my feelings and eventually see where some of my problems originated.

I've tried to go off the meds twice, only to return to them again in desperation.  I am lucky, I have seen great relief with medication with very little trial and error.  I will not go off them again unless forced to.  I like not being depressed.  I am not more interesting when I am suffering from chronic melancholy.  I am just…sad.

I am no longer in therapy, but rely on my medication, plus exercise and other coping skills to keep the mean reds at bay.  Medication is not a miracle pill that makes you feel nothing but happiness.  Instead, I have normal reactions to things that are stressful or sad but they do not develop into full-scale depression.

I am in my forties now and I am finally writing the novel I've always said I've wanted to write.  It feels delicious.  I have been writing off and on since childhood and although I've had some reference materials published, written a couple of screenplays, and done lots of writing on the web, this is my first novel.  It is impossible for me to say whether I'd be writing now if I hadn't finally gotten treatment for my depression, but I stopped buying into the idea that my depression was what made me interesting a long time ago.

3. 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?

Get treatment as soon as possible.  If your parents or guardians are not supportive, seek assistance through your school or tell your doctor.  You will have a better life (and be a better writer) because of it.

5 Replies to “Writing & Depression”

  1. Christine says: October 14, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    LOL @ my grammar mistake. I meant “your (singular) experience is…”

  2. Christine says: October 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Holly, your experiences is uncannily like my own (and apparently like that of others who posted comments). Thanks for putting this out there. And thanks to everyone for the insightful metaphors: the edge of the cliff, the prosthetic limb, the tightrope… It helps to have a way to communicate to people that I am not just weak, but that my life requires more energy of me than they might imagine. “Isolation is the dream killer,” says Barbara Sher. Glad I found your post. Maybe I’ll finally write MY novel at 42.

  3. saquanda@gmail.com says: April 8, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    This was like reading my thoughts, verbatim. I was 29 before I got help. My boyfriend argues that the side effects of my meds are worse than depression. I want to argue with him, but I don’t know how to convey what this feels like. I fancy myself a writer and I’m pretty funny. (I don’t just think so, people have told me) Outside of journals, I can’t write about my depression. It reads fragmented, if that is even a word. It just doesn’t come out right. Thank you for writing this.

  4. heather says: April 7, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    I really couldn’t have expressed these sentiments more clearly. Scary how your personal timeline of depression mirrors mine in so many ways.
    Books were definitely a panacea for me as well, but I think music was my true coping mechanism. It’s the only thing that kept me going through high school.
    My analogy for depression has always been like being on a tightrope with no safety net. The right med(s) provide the safety net. I never fall as far or as hard, and I know what to expect, for the most part.

  5. creatress says: April 1, 2009 at 9:27 am

    I’ve been on medication for a year and a half now for ADD and feel exactly the same way. As soon as I started taking it I also had that “AH! So THIS is what it’s like to feel normal!” moment. No wonder I was struggling every second of every day just to function. I can’t describe how the quality of my life jumped after medication.
    Like you, I also recently attempted to go off my medication, thinking my EMDR therapy may have corrected some of my neurological issues. Big mistake. Also like you, I will never do this again unless forced to. To me I equate my medication like a prosthetic limb. Sure I could hop everywhere I go, but my quality of life is drastically better with it!
    Good for you for never giving up. For persisting and finding what works for you. Have you thought about writing your story as a magazine article and submitting it? I really like how you pointed out that you unconsciously had your own coping mechanisms (books, movies, alcohol, shopping) that compensated somewhat. I think that’s really important for people to know, and to look for in their own lives.
    Thanks so much for sharing such a personal story.

Leave a Reply