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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Revisiting Depression

Over the weekend, Chuck Wendig (who, incidentally, is on the 2013 Hugo ballot for the Campbell Award) tweeted that one should make sure that "writer's block" isn't really depression. His remark prompted me to reread my post on the subject from last summer, and I realized it fell short.

Plunging into Despair by Johan Tobias Sergel
One of the reasons I've dropped back in my posting, except to put up book reviews, is because I'm struggling through a particularly difficult depressive phase. It had been creeping up on me for over a year, but it finally hit me full force in September. It was so bad, I considered driving myself to a mental hospital. Hence the hiatus. I don't think I'm doing other writers who struggle with depression or myself any favors by keeping my battle a secret.

As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, I received my diagnosis of depression in the spring of 1998. (I've since gotten my diagnosis clarified: I have major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD.) I was living in the house I tried to write the ghost story about when I received my initial diagnosis. That book was my way of addressing my issues within a fictional context. Clearly, I wasn't in the right place to write it. I needed to be able to think about solutions and hope, and I couldn't wrap my head around such positive concepts. I was already spiraling down into depression by then.

My depression can get worse or better depending on outside factors like how much daylight, exercise, and sleep I get, how many stressors are piling up on me, how well I'm eating, and whether I've had quality time with people whose company I enjoy. Often, though, it simply feels like I'm failing in things I used to find easy. I start to feel lazy and stupid, and I don't realize how bad things have gotten until I've considered how much better the world would be without me.

In such phases, I can't write. I can barely remember to eat. I have to pull back and devote my energy to reversing the negative thoughts, to finding my value as a human being, to looking forward to living again. Yes, writing is something I feel proud of accomplishing, and it's one of my reasons for living, but it's just not feasible when I'm in that head space. I spend most of my writing time when I'm in that dark place grumbling about how stupid all my characters are, how no one will ever like them, and how every sentence is terrible and I'm a terrible person for writing it. It's an exercise in feeling even worse.

I will always have depression, barring some miracle of modern science that fixes my brain chemicals. Good antidepressants will lessen the symptoms so I can objectively approach the problem of whether I suck as bad as my brain tells me I do. Exercise, adequate sleep, sunshine, low stress, a good diet, spending time with good friends, and accomplishing things will also help, but sometimes I don't have the energy to do those things. The spectre of my illness will always be there, lurking and waiting for me to let my guard down. It doesn't help to deny it's there, nor does it help to try to overpower it.

My depression is not your depression, but I've learned how to live with mine. To me, it means treating myself gently, sometimes, and acknowledging there's strength in pulling back and recharging. I've had a diagnosis for 15 years, and arguably had the disease for most of my life. It's important that I manage it, that I don't punish myself for keeping myself alive and as sane as I can be, and that I do what it takes to piece myself back together as quickly as I can.

Sometimes, that means I don't write. It doesn't mean I'm being a precious little snowflake about it. It means that I know myself well enough to know what it'll take to keep me writing over the long term. It also means that deadlines are dangerous for me, and having a buffer written ahead of time is essential before I go out into the publishing world.