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On depression and the writer

Don't emulate poor Zelda Fitzgerald.

This is a topic I’ve wanted to address for a while, but every time I started to write, I’d decide that maybe I should, I don’t know, research? At the word “research” my brain would get fuzzy and then I’d find myself batting at a ball of aluminum foil as it skitters across the kitchen tiles. And then I would nap in the sun.

Because I am more wise than learned, I finally realized that I would never do any amount of research and instead would simply talk, as it were, out of my ass. From whence all my favorite opinions emerge.

So.

There has long been this notion that in order to be a writer or artist, you should also be an emotional car wreck. That–whether you struggle with addiction, depression, anxiety, psychosis, or a heady mélange of all of the above–your demons are somehow part and parcel of your identity as an Artist. With this in mind, too many talented writers and artists have gone and drank themselves to death or allowed their illnesses free reign, because it was more important to serve the Muse than live a rich, full, happy life, and there was certainly no way to do both.

This is a steaming pile of horseshit.

Most people these days at least know that drinking yourself into a nightly stupor will not help your novel. (Although I can name a couple of writers who won’t disabuse themselves of this notion, bless their pickled hearts.) When it comes to depression and anxiety, however,  many people continue to believe that their pain is intertwined with their creative ability. They choose to live with despair because they don’t want their creative mojo taken from them.

I think this is exactly wrong, but I’m sympathetic to the notion. I was afraid that I’d lose all urge to write if I went to therapy, and also I’d lose my sense of humor completely and become painfully earnest. In fact, the opposite occurred–I regained my perspective and eventually a lot more things struck me as hilarious rather than tragic. I was more fun to be around. This was even more true of my experience with medication.

I know many writers who are terrified of medication. They can’t let go of the idea that medication will steal their “spark.” Some writers have actually felt like this once they began a course of an antidepressant or antianxiety. And then they refuse medication from then on. Understandably.

But here’s what you need to know: medication should only make you feel better. It should not make you feel less. If you’re blank or dulled, you are on the wrong medication or dosage. If you can’t create or suddenly don’t want to, change things up, because this is not how you’re supposed to feel. You need to know that you can tinker with meds until you feel better AND are the same creative nutty lovable self you were before.

I don’t necessarily think that medication is the only answer. (It was and is an essential component for me, but I’ve heard rumors that everyone is different.) Nutrition, exercise, relaxation–all of these can offer routes to relief, and none of them will murder your inner artist. The belief that they will is, in my opinion, another sly route that Resistance takes toward keeping us from our best work.

The idea that depression somehow feeds creativity is nonsense. Depression is a parasite. We all have limited reserves of energy, and mental illness drains these reserves. If you suffer from depression, you begin your day depleted. This is why a depressed person can be so easily irritated, or crawl back to bed over seemingly small setbacks. They have nothing to fall back on.

This was my experience, for many years. I could and did write, but not without a lot of self-flagellation and subsequent exhaustion. And if I did manage to churn out some significant work, I had nothing left for the rest of my life. And then I usually figured my work sucked, and more often than not I destroyed it.

It probably didn’t matter that I destroyed what I wrote, because I bet it wasn’t even all that good. Depression dulls your senses and turns your thinking inward. I was saddled with obsessive, circular thinking, and I was constantly preoccupied with death. How are you supposed to write anything interesting when you’re actually kind of boring?

So, fellow interesting-mental-health friends, please don’t think you must choose between writing and health. You don’t need to be tortured and miserable to create. Medication can work, as can light therapy, yoga, running, weightlifting, meditation, craniosacral work–I could continue this list for a while. Once you find something that works, you can be happier and more productive than you were before. I promise you this.

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