You won’t find many articles on writing and depression written when the writer is in the thick of it. That’s probably because it’s really hard to write when you’re depressed.
I’m not looking for plaudits or praise but I am writing this whilst unfortunately in the currently tentative grips of relapse. Some days are good, some not so great. At least it’s not full-blown depression.
Welcome to the recovery-relapse rollercoaster of depression where you try to write in the midst of a scary fearful ride.
Seizing the Writing Moment
I am writing this to you on a day when I feel I can, sort of, write. It’s not coming easy but when I feel even the vaguest sense that I can transport the ideas that are often obscured by my loud and negative mind, I seize it for all its worth. I may not be able to write this tomorrow or even in a few hours. So this is what you’ll get.
Yes, steadfastly routine writers, you tell us often on social media that we must be writing every day and that we must sit there and just write, whether inspiration rocks up or not. The same rules do not apply to the depressed writer.
When your brain and body are so riddled with badness, angst, and fatigue, there are days when you count feeding yourself or brushing your teeth as a win. Writing will not feature high up on the ‘Guilt List’ of all we need or wish that we could do.
Recovery Is Not Necessarily Easier
Forget all those films you’ve seen or books that you’ve read where recovery from mental illness comes and we walk off into the sunset ready to take on the world. Recovery is often harder than having full-blown depression. Really.
When you’re heavily depressed you can barely do anything. You cannot connect with the world, ideas go off to a lovelier place and your mind and body don’t connect.
You are almost permitted not to do anything. Don’t think it’s easy to accept though. Not being able to do much is torture. You can add that one to the rest of the horrors going on in your head and life, but at least you kind of know that not much can happen, let alone writing.
Recovery is different. You’re turning a corner. You feel like you want to pick life back up again. The depressed writer feels like they may want to write. This is where it gets scary.
The depression monster’s presence has largely diminished and therefore you no longer hear that voice telling you not to bother. Instead you hear a more seductive voice telling you that you just might be able to write again.
You follow that voice that you know is your inner writing self. You don’t know where to start. You feel like a failure before you’ve even started; dangerous territory for a recovering depressive.
I am not saying this is every depressed writer’s reality. I know that there are writers who can write throughout the most earth-shattering of depressive episodes. I understand that writing can be therapy, as it often is for me. I wish I could seize the potential of being in the darkness and making writing my light. I cannot always do that.
Recovery has been tough for me, regarding writing. Somehow I can write blog posts and I’ve contributed articles to a website. Maybe it’s because it’s non-fiction and I don’t need to conjure up my wild imagination that feels like it’s still working out how to flee an unlocked prison in my mind.
Fiction seems so hard. As I write short stories I stall and think too much of how it’s not going to be any good. Some days I don’t try at all.
Recently I have managed to do a general outline and some planning for a new novel but I wonder if I can go any further with it, if relapse will allow me. I feel inexplicable shame for that. Depression, even in recovery, is a nasty guilt-mongering bitch.
Relapse Says ‘No’, Possibly ‘Yes’
Every morning when I wake up one of my first thoughts’ is ‘Will I write today?’ It is not a question I ask of myself as if I have some kind of luxury of choice.
I am not a ‘lady that lunches’. I’m not sitting here binging on box sets, stuffing my face, and sponging off my hard-working husband. Every day that I cannot write I feel guilty. I know this is the relapse talking but it’s a chatty little blighter and it often dominates.
Just as an aside, I do not hear voices in my head contrary to what you’ve read so far. I have no issues with those who do and have only the hugest of compassion for them. I want to clarify this as I don’t want to come across as another ignoramus using schizophrenia for dramatic effect.
Relapse often says ‘No’ when I want to write. It tells me that it’s not worth the hassle to start something I’ll never finish.
I am a finisher. I hate starting things that I cannot compete. You will often find me starting projects and sitting there until silly o’ clock just because I want to get it done. I have come to understand this is foolish as far as writing is concerned. It’s a constant process of planning, researching, drafting, editing, and revising that requires breaks between.
Unfortunately this mind that sits on a precipice between recovery and full-blown relapse doesn’t want to hear that. It demands the security of knowing that I can finish something before I even start. I cannot bear to fail at the moment.
I wrote a post recently about failure: A Fear of Failure. It was timely in that it taught me that I’d been calling myself a failure far too much recently. I’m learning.
Relapse occasionally says ‘Yes’. It tells me that we really don’t want to let go of what gives me that motivation to be; writing. I am not going all worthy on you. All I will say is that writing is there and always will be. It’s probably why I feel so shitty when I can’t do it, struggle when it’s hard, and feel an enormous sense of relief and possibly even elation when I do it well.
I have written pieces whilst in this hopefully temporary relapse. They’re not half bad. I’ve been given feedback that tells me this. If I’m honest the feedback was far more praise-worthy than that but self-confidence is a bitch when you’re skirting around the edges of depression.
When It’s Just Not Happening
I’m no guru on how to write when you’re depressed. All I know is my own reality. I will, however, state that if you are depressed and you cannot write, don’t. Forcing it makes you feel dreadful.
I got really angry recently when a woman reached out to writers in a Facebook writing group to say that she was depressed and couldn’t write. She was obviously desperate and needed compassion. I couldn’t believe the amount of people who, for want of repeating their words verbatim, told her to just get on with it, that she should just write regardless because she should be writing every day (that old chestnut), that writing is better than an antidepressant or therapy, or that she should just think positively. Grrr. Not helpful and potentially extremely damaging. I wonder how that woman is doing.
For me it has been better to tell myself that this will one day be over and I will write more in the future. That’s not always what I’ve said to myself though. I’m not going to paint an unrealistic picture of depression and do others who are stuck in it such a disservice.
There are times when I tell myself that I will never write well again. I tell myself to give up on this folly. On dark, murky days that’s so easy to believe.
It’s the same kind of voice, or inner feeling that instructs you to end your life. With hindsight you know it’s bullshit but in that moment when it’s shouting the loudest, it feels like the truth.
If you cannot write, you’re not making it up. It is not your fault. Your wiring is a bit dicky and it’s not firing on all cylinders. You’re probably barely firing on one.
Not being able to write when you’re depressed is like the notion of purgatory. You’re stuck in that circle of hell where you feel like you’ve lost the writing life you used to have. You’re scared of descending further into a more permanent place where you will never write again. This is no mere writer’s block. This is writer’s prison.
Looking to the Future
I can practically hear those of you who have depression groaning at the idea of contemplating the future. You can’t. You won’t. It’s too dangerous and too painful to consider.
I’m not going to patronise you by telling you to look on the bright side and that this will pass because (a) I don’t have the ability to see into the future and (b) you’ve probably heard that rubbish a million times over already.
All I can tell you, fellow depressed, relapsing, and recovering writers is that the future does not have to be next year, next month or even tomorrow. It can be the next few minutes.
Anything that is past the present second is the future. That somehow makes it more manageable for me. If I think of how my writing is going to go for the next year it makes me want to build a blanket fort and hide for said year.
I cannot clearly visualise right now a long-term future of finishing a novel and getting it published. I can hold it as a dream though and try to work towards it when I am able. I can occasionally see my novel out there in the world, albeit blurry, in the spaces where relapse makes way for glimpses of recovery.
I look to the next few minutes and seconds and know that but for the grace of something out there that keeps me going, I will still be breathing and living. That means I can be me; a writer.
I am still a writer even if I am not writing, no matter what memes or dictates from writers on social media tell me.
Today I will not believe that I am lesser a writer because depression occasionally holds me back from the act of writing. It’s all there, in my head, occasionally expressed in better moments, held for brighter days in the worst.
Depression and writing do not have to be enemies. There is so much to learn and grasp in the well times.
Being in the thick of the mud and mire sometimes makes you appreciate the beauty of writing when it comes, yes, even that messy first draft. Nothing can ever be as tangled and chaotic as depression. First drafts included.