On Depression and Writing
Depression can take away a writer’s most precious tools: her words, and her desire to write them.
In July, I wrote my first piece of creative nonfiction since December 2017. It’s the first long-form essay that I’ve written since my most recent bout with depression.
Starting that essay marked the first time I actually wanted to write something, anything really, which tackled the hard things that have happened in my life that I’m still trying understand. This was one of many small moments when I felt like myself again. Like I could write how I wanted to. Like maybe, just maybe, I could be the person I knew I was but hadn’t been able to find. Like I finally found something that I thought would stay lost. Like writing hadn’t abandoned me like I had abandoned myself.
I have been depressed before, but I didn’t quite know it. No, that’s not quite honest, and I want to be honest. Let me try again: I knew depression was a possibility, but I didn’t want to give what was happening to me a name. If I didn’t name it, it couldn’t be depression. And if it couldn’t be depression, then my brain wasn’t broken. And if my brain wasn’t broken, then these periods were simply funks that I fell into that tore my world apart but only temporarily. They never happened quite frequently enough to convince me to do something. I always seemed to get over them until they happened again.
I’m just down, I would tell myself, which happens to everyone.
I’m just down, I would tell myself, which happens to everyone.
I could identify the contours of these funks: the unendingness of exhaustion; the lack of joy in anything I did; the fake smiles etched onto my face when all I wanted to do was hide or cry or some combination of both; the way in which everything became hard (impossible even); the desire to withdraw from the world or maybe just disappear without a trace; and how simple choices about what to eat or wear or do became choices I couldn’t make. I knew the funk had settled on me when my standard response to questions became “I don’t care,” “Whatever,” or “You decide.” I knew a funk was bad because of the consuming self-loathing that made me feel like a waste of human being who was a terrible partner, parent, daughter, sister, and writer.
My hatred of everything, including myself, burned me from the inside out. All that was left was a shell of human being who had become very good at pretending nothing was wrong. I told everyone that everything was fine, even as I knew that nothing was. A funk might last a week, a few weeks, or maybe even a month. Usually, I could survive them because they didn’t last long. I would once again convince myself that they were temporary and fleeting. Everything was fine, if a funk would go away.
These funks passed me by, and I would move on. They were routine, and I got used to them. At least, I knew what they brought with them.
And yet, starting in December of 2017, a funk hit me and lingered. I finally admitted by May that it was actually depression, and it wouldn’t go away. I finally decided to get help. I finally decided to call depression by its name.
I finally decided to call depression by its name.
What I found was that I couldn’t write creatively if I was struggling just to be.
Now, some of you might note that I’ve written assignments and columns for my magazine and even published pieces in other magazines since December. From the outside, I appeared to be writing. I might have even appeared fine. After all, I made my deadline on a book that I was finishing. I wrote column after column. I even wrote for a magazine that I dreamed of writing for. And yet, all of these pieces were externally-driven writing with clear deadlines and editors who would have been disappointed in me if I didn’t finish an assignment. I don’t like to disappoint people. I remain a people pleaser, it seems, even when I’m depressed. When someone asked me to write for their magazine or site, I did. What wasn’t visible was how I struggled through each essay, each paragraph, each sentence, and each damned word.
And I do mean struggle. I’m a writer who usually likes to write and finds joy in drafting, revising, and polishing a piece. I usually have lots of ideas for all the essays that I want to write, often more essays than I can possibly write. I usually want to head to my standing desk, open a document, and get to work.
Since December, I have had to force myself to even look at my laptop. I had to force myself to wrench it open and stare at the blank page. I had to type slowly and painfully each and every word as I was convinced that everything I wrote must be garbage. (I thought I was garbage, after all, so why would my work be any better?) When I couldn’t make myself get out of bed, I wrote there. My laptop propped up by a bright blue pillow while I was draped in blankets and didn’t want to move.
I thought I was garbage, after all, so why would my work be any better?
I tried my old tricks. I set word counts, which I promptly ignored. I tried telling myself that writing was what I loved to do and how privileged I was to have work that I loved. I couldn’t seem to make myself care. Everything felt impossible, and I was exhausted. Living was hard enough.
When I talk to people about writing and my writing career, I like to tell them that I think in essays. And I do. I have for awhile. I imagine potential essays and follow their arcs and arguments in my head. I toss away those that for some reason or another don’t work or become less interesting the more I think about them. I type up the ones who hold my curiosity. I draft the ones in which I have something important to say. I keep revising until the essay emerges, different from what I imagined but still worth it. The essays were always worth it. Until they weren’t. Depression made me stop thinking in essays and convinced me that they were never really worth it.
Depression had hollowed me out. I was an empty vessel with my creativity destroyed. Depression almost ate me alive, but it didn’t. A good therapist and medicine helped me realize what depression was and how it could be treated. I started feel a little less hollow. Things felt a little less hard. And then, one day, I smiled because I wanted to, not because I was expected to. I laughed at my kids’ jokes with a genuine laugh, and I finally remembered what joy felt like. I realized how much I missed it.
So, when I started to write the essay in July — a painful one about how to feel when someone who hurt you dies — I was afraid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to write it. What if I couldn’t? What if I was setting myself up to fail? I became convinced that I wouldn’t be able to write this essay because I hadn’t written an essay like this in seven months. What would happen to me if this part of me was truly gone?
Somehow, I made myself go to my office and open my laptop. When I looked at the blank page of a brand new document, I had a moment of panic. I almost shut my laptop, but I didn’t. I wanted to be braver than that. I had to try. To open the document. To evaluate what I had written on the topic years earlier. To see if this essay deserved to be written. To try my best and see what would happen. To reclaim what I had lost.
I almost shut my laptop, but I didn’t. I wanted to be braver than that. I had to try.
I gingerly typed the first line, and then, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Hours flew by and still I wrote. The next day, the same thing happened. And the next. Before I knew it, I had written over 4000 words. I had a draft. It needed work. But, I had done it.
Soon, I started to think not only about this essay but also in other essays. There were essays I wanted to write again. I began to feel like myself because I found something that I was convinced that I had lost forever.
Depression, I realized again, is terrible. I keep discovering how terrible it really was now that I am no longer depressed. I was so relieved that I could write again in the way I most want to write. I was thrilled that I would even want to. I felt more joy. I no longer felt so hollow. I felt like me again, and it felt good.
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