Writing with Depression: A New Series on This Blog

Writing with Depression: A New Series on This Blog

One of the major themes of this blog and the Writing on Wednesday Podcast is the pursuit of a happy, healthier (writing) life. If I’m honest, a sizable personal challenge on that front is depression–not the severe, debilitating kind, thank God, but the kind that creeps up imperceptibly, gradually making a balanced, energizing sense of wellbeing an exhausting and painful struggle.

I have known for years–since I was a teenager, in fact–that I am prone to bouts of mild to moderate depression. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books. Heck, I’ve written a book about a spiritual condition not unlike depression. I’ve gotten better and better at recognizing my “tells,” the subtle signs I am heading into another depressive season. I’ve also learned the forms of treatment that work for me, and how to employ them in a timely fashion. (I count myself deeply fortunate that my depression has always responded well and quickly to treatment.)

What I’m trying to say is that for much of my adult life, I’ve been pretty “depression savvy.” I’ve lived a mostly full, engaged life despite (and sometimes because of) depression–becoming a kind of expert on what my depression looks like (it’s different for everyone) and how to work with it in proactive, meaningful ways. 

Yet I’ve been somewhat slower to appreciate how this condition influences and is influenced by my writing life. I assumed that writing is simply another part of my life, equally weighted with all others–my marriage, job, church, friendships, chores, ongoing BBC period drama addiction… 

A year or two ago, though, it dawned on me that it’s not. 

For one thing, no other part of my life is lived as fundamentally and concretely in my head–in my mind–as writing. For another, depression is not simply (or even chiefly) an emotional disorder–it is a mental and cognitive one. The pace of my thoughts, the way they connect to one another, my ability to think of words and string them together–all of these are quickly affected by even very mild depression that would otherwise fly below the radar of other measures. Finally, few other areas of my life are tied to my sense of identity as writing is. When I’m not able to write, or when writing is somehow tainted by the dim slog my mind, I feel not just frustrated but, in a way, unmoored. That feeling and sense of stress is as much a driver of depression as any other.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the connection between writing and depression, and I’m slowly realizing how sensitive my writing life is to the impediments of depression. Surprisingly, too, I’ve also begun to recognize how treating depression affects my ability to write, both for better and for worse. 

Along the way, I’ve often wished this were a bigger conversation. Am I the only one thinking about (and struggling with) these things? How do other writers and creatives integrate their work with the experience of depression? What has helped them? 

Depression and its impact on professional creative work is not something we talk enough about as writers. While we may recognize depression in ourselves, and even be proactive in seeking treatment for it, we (or I) may simultaneously neglect to appreciate on a practical level what this condition actually means in the creative realms of our lives.

So I’ve decided that moving forward, this is a topic I’d like to feature more often on this blog. I’ll be sharing more of my personal story about being a writer with depression, what I’ve found helpful and not so helpful, some insights I’ve found in the work and research of others, etc. It’s just my story, but I hope it is useful for others, and I hope it serves as an invitation for them to share their experiences around this topic. We all have something to learn from one another!

My aim throughout is to keep things lighthearted and directed toward self-compassion and self-improvement. I don’t see depression as a blight I need to “fix” about myself–it’s simply a part of my life, a life that I’m committed to living as fully and healthily as possible, both for my own sake and for the sake of those I share my life with. 

I’m looking forward to sharing and learning and writing more about this! I’ll be tagging these posts with the “Writing with Depression” tag for easy reference.


3 Responses

  1. Sam Holiday says:

    I look forward to following this blog reflecting on depression and writing. I am not a writer professionally, but have a drive to express my thoughts in writing, and am collecting a set of these musings, which I call “Snapshots”. I also have a tendency toward mild depressiveness / despondency, which often drives my writing to sort out my thoughts and my sense of grief over losses. My recent retirement was a significant before / after experience to which I am adjusting. A few years ago I came across a book on the intersection of writing and depression that I found quite fascinating. Perhaps others might find it of interest as well. THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice W. Flaherty. Flaherty is a neurologist who teaches at the Harvard Medical School. She reflects on her own drive to write, and how a bout of depression affected her ability to write.

    • Nicole Roccas says:

      Hi Sam! Congrats on your retirement. 🙂 Alice Flaherty’s book is on my reading list! You’re the second person this summer to suggest it 🙂

      I have the same experience that writing, to a point, helps sort out and bring order to my thoughts–particularly around losses or difficult topics. But if it becomes too negative or circular (as has been prone to happen, say, in my journal) I have found that it can exacerbate depression if I am in a depressive state. It’s a tricky balance. Blogging is helpful for me because, unlike my journal, I’m more conscious of an audience, and somehow that helps me stay above the fray of negative or ruminative thinking.

      Thanks for stopping by!!

      • Sam Holiday says:

        Hi Nicole. Thanks for your thoughts. As for retirement, I’m still not sure whether it should be “congrats” or “condolences.” Temporally it presents a new time span begging the need for purpose and, as in today’s #TemporalTuesday quote, “a Daily Schedule.” Now in the place of accumulation and retirement preparation are the tasks of legacy, detaching, and the reality of death as the endpoint. Despondency is a risk, while redeeming the time, living in the present between cresting the hill and the crash at the bottom (to use your childhood illustration) is the challenge through which I am still working. But I am reminded that while there is time and we are human, we are always living in that somewhat uncomfortable space of the middle (another topic on which I have ideas to expand).
        My hopes remain to develop my writing, combined with creative photography, travel and learning. While I made a living by Accounting / Finance with a long term healthcare facility in West Bend (I am good with numbers and analytics), my undergraduate was Sociology, and I completed an MDiv (Mennonite, Elkhart, IN) with emphasis on counseling and special focus on family systems (and genealogy discoveries). Theologically I have had wide exposures, and find the historical lens provides meaningful insight. So in my second life I am working on developing that more creative and integrative drive.
        I can relate to the tendency toward negative and circular rumination in both thinking and journaling. I also experience the tricky balance of sorting out thoughts in writing, but organizing them with focus on a goal so that it is meaningful to an audience. I frequently had to do that in my job as controller (from explaining regulations to managing conflicts), but post retirement, who is my audience? Who am I?
        It took me a long time, with encouragement from my photography club and many friends, as well as comparing my work to that of other photographers, to be able to say, even if tentatively, I am a photographer. (I can relate to your blog on feeling like an “impostor.”) Now I am wondering if I can be a writer. In both cases I have yet to identify an audience (though with photography have had some success). For someone who is testing the waters, particularly later in life, audience and identity seem like significant questions. Devoid of answers, one can become entrapped in a depressive state with the questions: Who am I to write? Others can do it better. Why make the effort? It will someday go “poof” from a “delete” button.
        As well as identifying an audience, I often find my way out of the rumination cycle by locking onto a specific idea I want to develop, often from a book or sermon, or an emotion elicited by one of my photographs or an experience. This can provide sufficient focus to complete a reasonable narrative.
        By the way, I was encouraged last week in our visit to the Laura Ingles Wilder museum in Walnut Grove, MN that Laura only began writing at age 65 at the encouragement of her writer-daughter, Rose.
        From TIME AND DESPONDENCY, page 60, “where there is time and change, there is the possibility of transformation…” While my theological tradition is primarily Wesleyan, I am finding so much to appreciate from the Orthodox tradition. Thank you for your book, and your blogs.
        Sam Holiday

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