Writing through depression

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Monday, July 3, 2017 Under: Creativity and Life

I want to say this right up front, I suffer from depression. It's something that a lot of people, not just writers, are dealing with, but it seems that mental illness  in one form or another is something that a lot of writers are facing. I’m a writer, and depression has influenced, and continues to influence, not just what I write and how I write, but my whole author career. 

Before we get into the meat of the topic, I’ve gotta cover my ass, so: I'm a writer and an ESL teacher, not a doctor and definitely not a psychiatrist or mental health therapist, so don't take anything I say here as advice for your situation without consulting a mental health specialist. 

There’s a stigma connected to ‘mental illness’, just as there are stigmas connected to many other things that are considered to be outside the ‘norm’. This despite the fact that the ‘norm’ isn’t actually normal in any sense of the word. The stigma is a way of normalising ourselves, and ‘othering’ those we fear. The fact is though, that we all have multiple facets to our lives, and all of those facets show up on scales of extremes. We are all, in one way or another, dealing with the shit that comes from living in a world where the expectations we are inculcated with are, more often than not, unrealistic and unobtainable. The [name of your country here] Dream.

I’ve lived with depression most of my life. I’ve tried to deny it, ignore it, or hide it most of my life too. For a long time I was successful. It only became something that I realised that I had to deal with, about fifteen years ago. Everything I talk about here is stuff I worked out by myself because I couldn't find, and couldn't have afforded, professional help. I live in Japan and there aren’t that many Japanese, comparatively speaking, who can hold a normal conversation in English, let alone a conversation about mental health issues. It may be that there are mental health professionals who are fluent English speakers, but my experience has led me to believe the opposite. It’s possible that if I’d looked, I might have found someone, but when you’re depressed, you’re not thinking straight, and though I sometimes thought that I should look, I never did.

I've spent over ten years struggling to drag myself out of the pit of despair and over the knife’s edge back to sanity, sometimes quite literally. Exhaustion and stress are both triggers for me, and being around groups of people, especially strangers, both exhausts and stresses me out, something that it took me a long time to figure out. This has had a negative effect on my ability to work. I’m an ESL teacher, but if I work more than part time for more than a couple of months, I wind up sitting in a dark room with a sharp blade contemplating the depth of my next cut and coming up with ways to kill myself without putting my family through unnecessary pain. 

The dark room scenario happened a lot in the early years.  

It wasn’t until my wife caught me trying to hide the cuts and was shocked to tears that I realised I had a problem. Looking back, I realise that this tendency to self-harm started a lot earlier. There were incidents even as far back as junior high school, though they were fewer and father between back then, and could be passed off as simple adolescent stupidity. The incidents got worse later, though never extreme. I was embarrassed by it. Ashamed of my weakness, but drawn to the blade again and again. I was already starting to escalate, to cut in more vulnerable places, to cut more often, more recklessly, when my wife caught me.

I'm not going to get too deep into my personal circumstances of that time, partly because it would take too long, and partly because I don't want to draw comparisons with people who have it a lot worse than I do. I had to deal with the 'starving children in Africa' argument a lot growing up. It’s one that has been used against me many times. I even used it on myself in the early years, when I was trying to goad myself out of my depression. The reason it's such a hard argument to refute is because, objectively, it's completely true. The starving children in Africa, or the refugees in Syria, or any of millions of other hungry, hurting, and displaced people around the world have it a lot worse than I do. No argument. Subjectively though, the argument is entirely specious. Just because someone else in the world has it worse than you do doesn't mean that your pain is any less real. We all have to deal with the circumstances of our own pain in our own way, and denying that we’re in pain because someone else's pain is, subjectively, greater, helps no one.

What I will mention about those years connects to my writing. I have, like so many other writers, dreamed of being a writer since I was small. I loved reading, still do, and the fact that other people, people just like me, created the worlds that I loved to get lost in, the characters that I loved to spend time with, was something magical. It was a magic that I wanted to be part of. My dream didn’t die when I moved to Japan. I wrote a couple of articles for the local English language paper. I wrote for magazines. It was all good, but it wasn’t what I loved, because it was all non-fiction. I wanted to be a novelist, but everything I read in the writer’s magazines and publishers’ blogs told me that it was an impossible dream. So I spent years lost in the worlds of my imagination, crafting an elaborate backstory for everything and everyone. I went so far as to write an encyclopaedia for my fictional world. My wife complained about the number of maps I drew. I clung to the dream, but knew it for a dream, which is why it took me twenty years to write the story set in that world.

It was this dream of being a novelist, almost as much as my wife’s shock, that forced me to find a way to deal with my depression. When I was depressed, I couldn’t escape into my fiction. The dream was all I had, and giving in to depression meant abandoning that dream. 

I realised that I needed to talk to someone, but couldn’t afford it, so I started journalling instead. I wrote a journal entry every night talking about what happened that day, what pissed me off, what got me down, what made me happy, and what I wanted to accomplish the next day. This helped, still helps, to give me perspective on what was happening, to give voice to my doubts, fears, and irritations. It gave me a way to break the feedback loop in my own head, to talk to those people who had hurt me without, in turn, hurting them. 

I spent a long time thinking about the nature of forgiveness, because there were people I needed to forgive, and people I needed forgiveness from. Most of these people weren’t in my life anymore, except as persistently recurring memories. Some of these people had hurt me deeply but would never apologise because it was impossible for them to realise, or admit, the pain they’d caused. I eventually worked my way through the worst of this. Writing in my journal helped me to break free of the mental rut that had me replaying old conversations over and over in my head.

This wasn’t a smooth transition. That rut was deep, and it was an effort to climb out of it. It felt like there was a black hole at the bottom that kept trying to suck me back in. Sometimes I fell, and, lying in the depths lost hope and returned to my old habit of self-harm. 

Setting goals helped, sometimes. Sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t realise that I had a manic phase, and would set goals for myself based on what I was able to do at the high point of my mania, and then beat myself up when, exhaustion setting in, I’d fall back into a depressive phase and fail to meet those goals. 

This is where the journaling proved most beneficial. Because I was writing about everything that happened, I was able to go back and see that there was a cycle to my insanity. I was able to watch for those ups and downs and, eventually, was able to come up with a way to deal them. It’s not a perfect system, but it works most of the time and has, built in, the flexibility that allows for growth and change.

Having managed to drag myself far enough out of the pit that I could think creatively again, I started to write fiction. I resumed studying. I didn’t write with the intention to publish. I practiced. I wrote with the intention to enjoy writing, to learn something new. Then, in 2014, I had a brush with a bad boss around the same time as I began to hear about ebooks and self-publishing. Spurred partly by losing my job and partly by the hope that, here, finally, was a path to authorship that I could take, I entered a manic writing phase and started publishing.

My first book did much better than I expected, mostly because I’d learned to keep my expectations low. This success got me really excited though, and I let that lesson slip. I grabbed another book I’d written and published it just a few months later. It sank without a trace. My hopes dashed, exhausted, I suddenly found myself back in that dark place again. 

It took me almost two years to climb back out of the hole. During those two years, there were many times when I thought of killing myself, and not just because my writing wasn’t going well. There were deaths, and brushes with death, in the family. Those years, compared to the decade before them, were havens of sanity. I didn’t give up journalling. I didn’t stop writing. But I couldn’t finish anything because all the stories that came to me were dark, and writing them took me back to where the despair could feed on me. The only way out was to let the stories go and find a new one that was going the right direction. I have to deal with the belief that, if I’d been able to write those stories, get them out quickly, then my author career would have done much better than it has. One of the key pieces of advice given to new indie authors is, ‘write fast, publish often’. It’s advice that I have to follow with great caution.

In May I worked myself into a depressive episode trying to follow this advice. I ignored the warning signs, the tendencies towards binge eating, the growing enervation, and the headaches. I was feeling pressure to do more, to produce more, to move faster down the path towards being a full-time writer. My wife and I aren’t getting any younger, and, once again, I was feeling the strain of dealing with the stresses of being a severely introverted person whose job requires that they be the focus of dozens of other people’s attention. Coupled with that was overload from dealing with the thousand and one things an indie author has to do to make a living. I was trying to do it all as quickly as possible. 

The problem for someone subject to depression arises from trying to juggle all the balls that represent all the aspects of work and family. It's not something that I've been particularly good at right out of the gate. My OCD encourages me to concentrate on just one ball at a time. I'm still learning which balls are the important ones, and how to keep all of them in the air.

In May, I was so focused on the 'create a lot of work' ball, that I lost sight of the mental health ball.

I fumbled it.

I worked my ass off in May, and that felt great, right up until it didn't.

My feet slipped into the whirlpool of doubt, darkness, and despair, and I began to get sucked into it. I found myself walking down the street wondering if the bus coming towards me would kill me if I stepped in front of it. I wondered if I could get over the barrier between the platform and the subway tracks before the staff could stop the train. I stayed away from the bathroom and all the razors. And I binge ate all the foods guaranteed to fuck with my head and give me migraines – self harm.

That all lasted a little over a week. That wasn't the end of it, of course, the pit of depression has steep, slippery sides, you go in fast and come out slow. It's taken me weeks to recover something of my equilibrium. Not so long ago it would have taken months. It only took weeks this time because, after all these years, I've worked out a few tricks that help me cope, the first of which is 'no recriminations.' I fucked up. Beating myself up about it doesn't help, it just makes things worse. Live and learn. That's not an aphorism. That's a mantra.

This time I was able to drag myself out of the pit in less than a month. I know that, life being what it is, I'll face that task again. As far as I know, there is no cure for depression, but there are tools that can help. Everyone's tools are, I suspect, unique to themselves, but just the knowledge that there are tools is cause for hope. And hope is the life preserver.


I know that, to a lot of people, talking about all this has probably made me sound like a whiny, little, snot-nosed kid. After all, how hard can sitting at a computer making up stories be? And teaching English as a second language? That’s laughably easy! They let anyone do that. It's not as though any of this is Real work. And, for some people, writing or teaching really is easy, but those people aren’t me, in fact, they’re a rarity. For most of us, Hemingway's "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed," feels much more real.

For me, writing, like my emotional state, is more of a rollercoaster. There are highs – falling into flow, when my fingers fly over the keyboard and the story pours out of me like flood waters over a plain; the satisfaction of finishing a good story; the joy of creating something. And there are lows – when my fingers stutter on the keys, pecking out words, each one extracted from my soul with rusty pliers, only to have to throw away several day's worth of work because the story stalled, or went somewhere so dark I don’t dare follow it.

Like a rollercoaster, the ride can be wonderful – exhilarating and terrifying at the same time – and, most of the time, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than writing.

For a long time I let depression take the joy out of my life. I thought that the only way to avoid the lows was to remove the highs. The greater the high, the deeper the low. And that's true. What isn't true, and what I couldn't see at the time because I was so far down that the sky was dark even in daytime, was that you don't build rollercoasters underground, you elevate them. And when they’re elevated, even the lows are still off the ground. 

Once you know yourself, your own triggers, your own behaviours, you take control of the ride away from the depression. You can gun the engines on the up and apply the brakes on the downs. I know, talking about gunning engines totally destroys the rollercoaster metaphor, but that's the point. Once you take control, you’re no longer on a rollercoaster. You’ve gotten off the ride. You're now in your own vehicle, creating your own track. You get to decide how high those highs are, and where the lows end. Just like with any vehicle, there’s a learning curve, and there are bound to be accidents, but as long as you live and learn, one day you’ll be able to fly so high that despair’s gravity-well won’t be able to affect you anymore. That’s the dream anyway, and, for me, it’s always been about the dream, and turning that dream into reality.

In : Creativity and Life 

Tags: writing  depression  mental illness  creativity  indie publishing 
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Meet the scribbler

I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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