Writing and Depression: the Rollercoaster

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.

Writing and Depression - woman with fragile flower mindYes, 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.

Writing and depression - clouds over a manWhen 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.

Writing and depression - man with depressive thoughtsJust 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.

Depression and writing - devolution into depressionFor 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.

Writing and depression - rain inside the headAll 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.

About Lisa Sell

Lisa Sell is a fiction writer. When she's not wrestling with words she can be found showing the love for chocolate, cheese, coffee, books, the cats, and the husband. Perhaps not in that order.

30 comments on “Writing and Depression: the Rollercoaster

  1. I can’t see anyone being able to write while in the grip of depression, not even melancholy poetry. All we can do is one day at time – when we have the ability. Luckily I do not suffer, but I do get migraines and I can’t even open my eyes much less write, so I feel for you too. Keep doing what you must to survive and know you are not alone.

    1. Thanks so much Theresa. Some writers say that they can write when depressed and find it inspires some of their best works. I don’t refute that for them and more power to them if they can. I do however know that a lot of writers, whilst in major depression can barely function let alone write.

      I used to get migraines a lot for a few years when I was younger and get the occasional one now, so I know how awful they can be. I hope you’re doing okay. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. Lisa, I think you wrote this for me! I have depression too and take medication for it, but it doesn’t always help. I am a beginner working on my first novel and sometimes I can’t focus. I am tired all the time. Sometimes all I want to do is sleep, other times I suffer from insomnia and can’t sleep at all or I wake up every hour all night. It is like climbing a mountain and ending up closer to the bottom than the top. I shared this on my author page. I hear that axiom all the time, too. Just sit down and write. If you don’t write every day, you aren’t serious and maybe you don’t really want to be a writer. I have wanted to be a novelist longer than most of the advice givers have been on this planet. I just gave up and pursued a different career because it wasn’t so easy to get published in those days. Anyway, I am here and don’t intend to give up, but it is encouraging to know that I am not in a class by myself. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for sharing how depression affects both your writing and your life Rebecca. I admire your bravery and honesty. I understand how steep that mountain is.

      I believe that you should be proud of yourself for holding on to your writing dream and keeping going with it. That alone is so difficult when you are trapped in the negative cloud of depression. I wish you well with it and with your mental health.

      1. Thank you so much! You never know who you can help when you reach out and reaching out is hard when you are depressed. If you ever want to talk, just know that I am available. Best of luck.

  3. I hear you Lisa. As I have intimated before I have suffered from depression for years but have been miraculously OK for the past 2 years, which is basically the time I have been writing seriously for. All I can do is send you my love and support, I never feel its right to try and give advice (I know, I heard lots of it, and it doesn’t help). Just trust that one day the sun will shine again.

    1. I’m so pleased that you’ve had this respite and time to write Ian. Thanks so much for your kindness. I’m managing bits and pieces as far as writing goes. Thankfully this appears to be a small storm rather than a full-on tsunami of depression. Let’s hope anyway.

  4. This post is spot on. I struggle with depression often, and when I find myself able to write, it doesn’t sound like myself, I read it later and it’s like a whole different person wrote it.

    1. I think when we’re depressed we don’t feel like ourselves at all so it’s bound to show in what we try to produce. I hope you’re doing okay McKayla. Thank you for commenting.

  5. As someone with type 2 bipolar depression, this is very informative and so true. Everyday is a fight to the death in what seems like a never ending rollercoaster.

    Good post 🙂

    1. It does feel like you’re fighting for your life some days. I’m glad this post has resonated with you but I’m genuinely sad that it has to. I hope you’re doing okay Jade.

  6. Hi Lisa, Thanks for another brave and honest post about this difficult topic… There is no easy answer. I hope writing about this offers you a form of therapy in itself. It’s a way of not bottling everything in. I know a lot of people will identify with and thank you for your post.

    1. Thank you Brydie for being kind enough to take the time to comment with such compassion. I’m doing okay and I do think that writing about it helps. I hope more than this that it will help others who are struggling too.

  7. Very personal and something I know i deal with at a much more watered down level. I use humour (my blog) and horror (my novel) to distract… I think.

    Inspirational, thank you.

    1. I’ve been known to use humour to describe depression too. I’ve written the first draft of a novel that’s based on depression and uses black humour. It’s great that you’re using different genres to express it. Thanks for your encouraging comment Bernie.

  8. Thanks for sharing. I would imagine more often that not people have a difficult time being creative when they are depressed. That’s awful about the lady on the discussion board who got such BAD advice. It tends to happen a lot, though, with anything related to mental illness. People just don’t get it.


    1. It is a shame that mentally ill people are told such ridiculous things as if they’ll be cured instantly. Thankfully mental illnesses stigmas are being broken down but there’s still a long way to go. Thanks for commenting.

  9. I just wanted to tell you how courageous I think you are for sharing your truth. Depression is an ugly battle to fight and I think there is great inspiration for others when someone is brave enough to speak up. May this encourage many 💖

  10. This is a wonderful post, Lisa. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I have had similar experiences in the past. The “write every day” mantra troubles me as well. Forcing words only makes me feel like I’m failing, rather than making progress. I’m trying to focus now on what I have accomplished, rather than what I haven’t done yet.

    1. Kindred spirit right here Heather! I too am working more on reflecting on what I’ve achieved rather than what I sometimes can’t do. It really does make a difference for the mindset of writing. I hope you’re doing well.

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