Friday, October 12, 2012

Writers and Depression

It sounds like a scene from a movie. A woman has found a gate to a fantasy world, and her life there has gotten...complicated. Maybe she's the queen, or possibly an assassin caught up in a complicated political game. Lives depend on her. But back on Earth, her family needs her too. She's got responsibilities. But she's trying to keep too many balls in the air, and lately it isn't just the unimportant balls that are falling. In this scene, she has spent the entire day trying to catch up in the real world, and she misses something--her son's important soccer game perhaps. She is exhausted, and as she looks around at the mess her life has become, she completely falls apart. She can't imagine trying to keep things going for one more day. Sadly, this isn't a scene from a movie. Welcome to the dark side of being an author...

Although writers tend to suffer from depression more than the general population, the idea that it can help their writing is a myth. In her article The Writer and Depression, Elizabether Moon writes, 
"I can guarantee that depression beyond the very mildest level (which makes you just miserable enough to stay home and finish the book rather than go out and have fun) destroys creativity--and that treating depression enhances it. Why? Well, depression doesn't just make you miserable. When you're depressed, you have no energy--and writing books takes hard work, which takes energy. When you're depressed, you find it hard to start new things (like books, chapters, the day's work), and hard to make decisions (like which book, or which character, or even which way Albert will turn when he leaves the throne room...) When you're depressed, everything seems futile--you are sure the book will be lousy even if you do write it. When you're depressed, you have less courage, less resilience, less ability to handle ordinary stressors. can't summon the energy or the courage to write...every little comment throws you back into your misery...and the next thing you know you're in the midst of a full-fledged writer's block."

Have you seen this blog post from Hyperbole and a Half? (This link contains language I usually try to avoid, but sometimes can't. You have been warned.) It came out about a year ago, and I've never seen a more amazing description of the way depression can make you feel, and luckily it has a very hopeful, happy ending. However THIS is not the kind of depression I'm talking about today though. If depression is destroying your life, get professional help immediately, even if it takes more effort than you thought you could muster.
I've been struggling with a mild depression for a couple of months now. It was brought on by some health issues and some changes (not bad ones. Just changes) in my life. Today, I thought I would share some of the things that make it better.

  • Do something kind. It is almost hilarious how good it makes me feel to let a car turn into my lane when I'm driving. Or when I sneak a treat into my kid's lunchboxes. It doesn't have to be something big to get the reward, just something kind.
  • Make a list. When I come up for air after diving deep into a story idea, (or really just about any time lately) real life seems to hit me hard and fast. I can go to bed at night feeling like I am working as hard as I can and am still falling behind. Forcing myself to make a list every day shouldn't be as hard as it is, because those lists of things I need to do are like gold. They keep me from forgetting important things and feeling like a loser, and they serve as a reminder of just how crazy life really is.
  • Finish a (non writing) project. Just today, my husband and I put together some shelves and filled them with stuff that has needed a home for months. Sometimes when I'm having a rough time, I struggle just to get the things done that HAVE to get done. I promise you that forgetting the kitchen dishes and getting a real project done can change your whole outlook.
  • Exercise Also today, my husband and I went hiking. It's been a long, long time since I did any exercise beyond my daily saunter around the neighborhood. I'd forgotten how awesome it feels to get out of breath.
  • Reevaluate what your "minimum" is. Everyone has a minimum standard of living. It means how messy you'll let your house get before it NEEDS to be cleaned, how healthy your food is, how clean your garage is...Maybe your minimum is set impossibly high, and you need to figure out what things you can live without doing. Or maybe you've let your minimum sink to a level that is adding to your distress. Figure out what you need to do better. Simplify in one area so you can spend more time in another. There's a counter in my house that HAS to be clean, or I feel like a failure. Other things can fall apart, but if that counter is clean, all is right in my world. Another thing that can make me feel like a failure is having to move something in order to set something else down...If I have to move the laundry in order to set the groceries on the table, watch out.
  • Get outside. I love to hike. I also love to sit and watch water in almost any of its forms. Spending time outdoors, and getting enough sunlight is a luxury too many writers forgo.
  • Stop and watch the people who are the most important to you. Sheena wrote this not long ago, and it has become my new mantra: "I think the problem comes not when life gets in the way of writing, I think the problem comes when we let writing get in the way of our life. Life comes first. Life is the meal, writing is dessert."
  • Pray. The privilege to pray is a blessing I can't even fathom. What author in their right mind would create a religion with a God so kind that he would listen to (and comfort) an average person repeating the words, "I'm tired. I'm just so tired..." over and over and over again? It wouldn't be believable, and yet it is true. It happened yesterday.

How do you help yourself when you are feeling depressed?
*Edited to add: If you are reading this for the first time, check the comments. There are some great suggestions there.

What I'm listening to: The Lord of the Rings
What I'm reading: (on my new Kindle!) Screwing Up Time :)


  1. First off, congrats on the new kindle. I can give you several reading suggestions for free books, and also tell you a few to avoid. :)

    Melanie, I love this post. I feel you. I get it, and I'm right there, squat in the middle of it, with you. Thanks for the tips. I love the go outside one. I one hundred percent agree with that. Sometimes with depression has a choke hold on me, I go outside and pick weeds. There's something about the vitamin D, and dirt under my fingernails, that makes me feel fulfilled, and proud.


    1. I'd love your suggestions and warnings Sheena! And I recommend Screwing Up Time. I'm enjoying it.

      There are plenty of weeds at my house, and I need the vitamin D, but somehow, I didn't missed out on the gardening gene...

  2. This is an excellent article. The items in your list have helped me, too, when I'm going through a depressive episode.

    About what Sheena said, studies show that certain bacteria that's breathed in while digging in dirt makes people feel better. Gardening is often recommended to depressives for this reason.

    So, is diet. It's obvious (now) when a woman in my family isn't getting enough B vitamins. It's an issue for many chronic depressives. I was lucky that I figured that out while still a teenager.

    Sleep can make a big difference, too. Sleep deprivation intensifies some symptoms of depression.

    The biggest aid, though, is to accept that depression happens, and it's possible to fight it. Feeling bad for feeling bad only makes the sufferer feel worse.

    1. These are great suggestions, Ann. I think you're right about all of them. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a lovely, lovely, amazing post, Melanie. Thank you for sharing it, and your thoughts about depression, with us. I had a tough day today (job stress) and this was just exactly what I needed to read.

    What do I do when I'm depressed? I find someone to connect with. Because depression, for me, seems to be rooted in isolation. Depression is a form of selfishness, a belief that your problems are central and overwhelming and will never be resolved. Connecting with a friend or family can remind you that this narrow world is not all that's out there.

    I also second doing something kind; another fantastic salve for depressed feelings.

    1. Thank you Sabrina! I think there is more than one kind of depression--there's definitely the kind you speak of, but there's also the kind that matches this quote:
      "Depression is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign that you have been strong for too long." Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference when you're in the middle of it. :)

  4. I haven't struggled with depression, but I had have other emotional struggles and I'd agree that prayer and exercise are really important to changing your patterns of thinking and bringing healing.

    I'll pray that your depression passes quickly.

    (BTW, I was so pleasantly surprised to see my book listed at the end of your blog post. I hope you enjoy it.)

    1. Connie, I'd hoped you would see that! I've been intrigued by your book's blurb for a long time, and it was one of the first things I put on my kindle. I'm really enjoying it. If only there was more time for reading... And thanks for the prayers!

  5. Melanie, I'm sorry you've been struggling. I do think it's common in authors and I absolutely agree that it doesn't help the writing to be depressed. I think that myth came about because people who are prone to depression are often quite observant and empathetic, both of which can serve their writing well when they're feeling better :)

    I'm glad you mentioned getting professional help, because sometimes that's what you have to do. I've learned through the years that there's a line between the kind of slump that needs more sunshine and exercise and the kind that needs a doctor, and I ignore that line at my family's peril ;) Going outside does make a huge difference and I don't do it enough, despite being blessed with nearly perfect year-round weather. Your whole list is great, and moms especially need to remember to do the little things that keep us sane because we can't afford not to. As they say on the airplane, "Put your own mask on first." :)

    1. Hi Sarah! I love the oxygen mask analogy. It makes so much sense, but it's so hard to implement in real life.

  6. Melanie, thanks for posting about this. I think it's something that doesn't get addressed sometimes because we just try to tough it through. Your suggestions and those in the comments are great. I've also found that consciously recognizing depressive thoughts and replacing them with good ones helps (journaling good things that happen every day - even small things - is even better, but I'm a horrible journaler).

    Great post as some of us head into the grayer months of the year.

    1. As I was leaving my daughter's high school today, I listened to my own inner talking--I was thinking things like, "Why are you wearing this frayed old jacket? You look like a lunatic." Those are the kinds of comments that don't do me any good--I know I'm going to keep wearing the jacket, so why should I beat myself up about it? I should change it up with something like this: "You are really rocking this jacket, Melanie. Not many people could pull this look off, but somehow you do it..." :)

  7. That was a beautiful post, and great suggestions. I know that I've had my moments of depression compounded by my lack of sleep (as Ann pointed out above). I think it is trying to do too much and expecting perfection in all areas which just isn't possible. Like you said in your post about having too much balls in the air.

    My only suggestion to add to that awesome list is that I think we need to look at failure differently. My oldest gets frustrated every time she misses a problem in her school work, and I keep telling her that that is how she will learn, and if she already knew the answers, then there would be no point of being in school. I think that we need to look at our lives like that and see failure as learning and growing opportunities and not be so hard on ourselves. We still have a lot to learn in all areas of life, and sometimes we just need to embrace that fact that we are far from perfect, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Great post, Melanie thanks for sharing.

    1. I wonder... if we were more willing to acknowledge our feelings, if they would be more easy to let go, instead of holding onto them like we actually want them in our life. Very interesting thought. Thanks MaryAnn


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