Five Ways Writers Can Deal with Depression

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

A little bit back, the brother of one of my old friends committed suicide. He’d been depressed for a while; I’m uncertain if he’d expressed any dramatic intentions about ending his life before his death. Not long after that, the brother of a woman who works with my girlfriend Alice killed himself. Again, a man who struggled with depression. Most recently, one of Alice’s friends, a woman who has suffered depression and other anxiety issues, was found dead, under puzzling circumstances that are yet to be explained.

That’s a lot of death, and a lot of suffering that preceded it. The people I mention above weren’t writers, but I want to turn the discussion to writers and depression, because it’s a subject that’s been explored by medical professionals and by other writers. There’s some contention with the notion that writers and artists in general are more sensitive to depression and associated conditions, but the list of well-known authorial depressives is broad: Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, and my shining guide, Mark Twain—and lots more. The famous names suggest that there’s a wider carnival of sad writers, but their lack of fame hasn’t let us peer into their dank mental grottoes.

Writers have a peculiar set of traits that can lend themselves to dark thoughts. Stereotypes can often trip up facts, and exceptions are everywhere, but writers are often inward, reflective sorts. Many are introverted, and spend less time in jolly social engagement than other people. Many are frustrated and thwarted by the impossible demands of language—no piece of writing ever seems good enough. Many are frustrated by the demands and rejections—and right now, the everything-changes-everyday—of the publishing world.

Hey, Isn’t That My Face?
I have known a number of writers that had depressive tendencies, but the one I know best is me. My own mild (and less often, moderate) depression has followed me from adolescence into my adult life. Its face has morphed from “There is no meaning” to “I have no meaning” and back again, over and over. Sometimes the face is just an old photograph in one of my rooms, forgotten until I look, but sometimes it’s the only face I see in the mirror.

When you are depressed, the knowledge that “this will pass” means little. It’s like being softly smothered, or encased in a shell of dullness where sight, hearing and thinking are subdued. Contrarily for me, the state also carries a bit of a malevolent energy—I can feel it coming on, a tingle in the soul. And often it’s not precipitated by any event. However, when you’re in it, the key of “Hey, at a fundamental level, you are OK,” doesn’t fit into any slot of belief.

But I’m grateful that I don’t have full-blown depression, which renders some people near catatonic or incapable of action. I have dark thoughts indeed, and they go places they shouldn’t, but I’ve found that these foul possessions rarely last more than three or four days, a week at most, and then, blessedly, they lift.

There are so many people with tremendously more challenging lives than me, but the depressive state of mind remains a real and a serious thing. I’ve found a few helpful ways to fight it:

Five Anti-Depressants That Don’t Require a Doctor
1. Regular exercise. Even a half-hour walk a day is beneficial. The body moves, the blood circulates, the mind can look at the passing scenery and not fold in on itself.

2. Meditation: I’ve been meditating in the mornings, between 10-20 minutes, for more than a year now. It has been grounding for me; though my mediations can be fitful, because the brain is a spastic ping-pong ball, there is a calming solace in just sitting, breathing and watching the brain ponging.

3. St. John’s Wort: I don’t want to become another one of the pharmaceutical industry’s minions, so I’ve chosen an herbal supplement that many feel offers relief. And many people don’t. For severe depression, prescription anti-depressives can be life-saving, but that route doesn’t feel right to me. But placebo or not, I’ve taken St. John’s Wort on and off for years, and think there is a mild benefit: fewer episodes of depression and fewer episodes of longer-lasting depression. Your mileage may vary.

4. Writing: I often duck, sidestep or back away from my creative writing (hey, all you marketing-writing or editing clients: I always do the work, and with full attention, mopey or not) when I’m feeling low, and that seems to reinforce or exacerbate the soul-drain. Writing anything—essay, fiction, travel piece, haiku—gives the sad face more lift.

5. A person who believes in you: I’m grateful that Alice is around to tell me to stop moping. I don’t stop moping, but I appreciate her efforts. She has watched my struggles in these areas for years, and has stuck around to help. She is a dear creature, even if she has funny hair.

And one I didn’t list as my own, because I’ve yet to try it, but I’m considering it: a SAD therapy lamp. Winters do seem harder for me than other seasons.

And if none of those help, there’s always dropping a little acid. I saw that Tim Ferriss is underwriting (and crowdfunding) a Johns Hopkins study on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD. The initial research is very promising. And the mushrooms might be good in pasta.

Seriously though, the pain of the families that I mentioned above is unimaginable. If you are habitually down, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, get help. There is a way out, and it’s not by taking your life. There’s a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255, and here’s their associated website.

Better days ahead.

Honey, Somebody Shrunk the Summer

Sunrise

Yeah, it’s a sunrise and it’s the Bahamas, but I needed something soulful, so…

Did you feel summer slip away, like a door quietly closing? I had an unnerving, visceral sensation yesterday, walking in my driveway when the sun was going down. An arrow of information—summer’s gone!—shot into my head, all because, without consciously thinking of it, I noticed how the angle of light from the waning sun was different, softer, recessive. And it wasn’t as though I actually thought about it—the bent beam just went into the processing center, where time’s sequences are catalogued, and it came out stamped “End of Summer Light.” Only then did the painters from Emotional Central rush out with their brushes dripping with blue.

Blue because seasonal passages are always colored with melancholy for me, even if I’m anticipating good things to come. I too often make the error of measuring by “things I didn’t get done” rather than sifting through the Greats, Goods, Pretty Goods, Neutrals and Wretched Circumstances That Tasted of Bile and Longing. Why some personalities (one being mine) might gravitate to bile and longing has long puzzled me, but that’s one for the psychoanalysts I can’t afford.

Dang, I Can’t Even Get an NSA Agent Interested

My biggest goal that I’d hoped to achieve by summer’s end was to get an agent for my novel. Not for want of trying, but so far, all my fiddling with my query, avid agent seeking, fussing with my opening chapter and sacrificing infants on a candlelit altar has been in vain. I’m going to continue to look into traditional publishing, but after six months of querying, it’s looking more likely that I’ll have to go the self-pub route with this, as I did with my first novel. That’s OK, but I’d hoped to get a pass on all that entails with this one (though part of what that entails—a lot of platform building and marketing outreach—isn’t sidestepped with traditional publishing today anyway).

Longing and bile aside (I keep a bucket handy, filled with both, plus a mixer), I am making some progress on a new short story and a novel, so there’s that. Plus, some fun articles of mine coming out soon on various subjects in magazines and papers.

The light slants, fall beckons, still many sentences to shape.

Writers, does the sliding of the seasons affect your work, goals, or cocktail preparations?

If There’s a Fall, Will There Be Bruises?

Stone Sleight-of-Hand, Big Sur Style

 

A wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away, and the trees stand.  I think, I too, have known autumn too long.
—e.e. cummings

Another in a succession of mornings of deep fog; the sun does struggle forward as the day turns, but effort is fitful, the results tenuous. The change from summer to fall always provokes melancholy in me. It’s a host of things: the winds pick up a bit, and their whispers are cooler; they curl under my collar, with cold intent. Leaves dry and curl, lose vitality and color, and fall brittle to the ground. The light itself, its weak slant, its ebbing warmth, seems a conspiracy. Or even a taunting: time rolls on, what have you done? I have a touch of SAD, that aptly named Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the shorter days and the dimming light seem to drain my batteries.

But whatever the physical component of that, whatever the tangible indicators of time’s timeless march, there’s a kind of surrender to the conspiracy that’s purely psychological. After all, it’s not winter that’s here, but fall, a time of harvest, often one of fruition. (And of course, I live in California, where folks of the Eastern flavor would make a scornful roll of the eyes at whimperings from a body that’s never touched a snow shovel.) And yet, and yet, there’s always the feeling for me at fall’s outset that the movement is toward winter, and that spring won’t come again. I’ve looked at fall as an ending, rather than a beginning.

There’s Really Not An Effing Thing to Whinge About

But I’m making the effort to be more conscious of my moods, and look at them with a sort of dispassionate affection: “Oh, a bit on the whiny side today, are we? Maybe it’s just a nap after lunch that’s needed, or a quick go-round with a neighbor’s cow and the trebuchet.” Partially because I’ve been trying to put one of the tenets of the book I’ve been reading, Buddha’s Brain, into practice. One of its many salubrious offerings is to recognize that there is the situation, and then there is your reaction to the situation. I know, old porridge that, but the book offers a number of approaches to recognize that when the elements of your nervous system light their alarms and dispense their flight/fight/brain-blight chemicals, you can consciously pour on a cerebral cocktail of your own making to soften the assault.

Thus we have fall. Instead of thinking of the next Ice Age, I can think of my coming birthday, the sympathetic shape of pumpkins, the writing conference I’m soon to attend, and good soup. I can try to take to heart Samuel Butler, who said, “Youth is like spring, an over praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes.  Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.”

Oh, about that fog this morning: it broke early. My girlfriend and I drove down to Big Sur, one of God’s palaces on earth, with the top down on the Miata, hiked around a winding hillside overlook with waves crashing on rocks below, went to the sweetly eccentric Henry Miller Library, where I fondled the Ginsberg and the Kerouac, flipped through old vinyl records from decades past, envied the giant coon cat sleeping on the warm deck, ate a scrumptious lunch high on the hill at Ventana, and came home dizzy with sun.

Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.
—William Cullen Bryant

Fall, there are worse seasons.

Warming Up the Winter Writer

Ezra Pound had some unsavory racial and political views, but he did trot out some intriguing verse. The rhythms below from his “Winter Is Icummen In” are germane to today’s topic:

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham,
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

I couldn’t agree more (and have particular fondness for the line “An ague hath my ham”). As days grow short, I am seized by Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD, but I prefer “Goddamm”).The waning of the light curdles my thinking, and my liver turneth. I’m never far from a sour turn of mind anyway, finding a fellow traveler in the Woody Allen-as-child character in Annie Hall who tells his therapist “The universe is expanding—someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!”

I know just what he means.

So when the pall of low light strangles the sun, my ruminations naturally turn to thoughts of beloved pets that died cruelly, the knowledge that the price of stamps will spiral ever upward, and the notion that Newt Gingrich will in my lifetime be elected Emperor (and Sarah Palin will be his Moose Queen, you betcha).

Write Light
This time though, I’m not going to let that winter furze settle about my face and person. I will take Dylan Thomas’s adage to heart: Rage, rage against the dying of the light! Rather than wearing the clammy cloak, I’m going to toss it off and self-medicate. My prescription:

  • Read more Mark Twain, David Sedaris, Dave Barry (and maybe a bit more Mark Twain)
  • Put all political ads in the compost, unread
  • When the sun does come out, revel in it, drink it up, dance its warmth

In the last few weeks, I’ve returned to writing fiction, which is a warmth to me all its own. I’ve revived a novel that stalled a couple of years ago, and its lead character is a kind of hapless boob, though a well-meaning one. I had so much fun yesterday putting him in a dreadfully compromising position that I barely noticed the gathering clouds and low light of the late afternoon.

It’s storming here today, and the sky is a dark, roiling thing. Man, my protagonist is in for a heap of trouble.