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The Writer and Depression

“Depression is more likely to occur in people who have a larger measure of life’s gifts, who tend to be more sensitive, more driven, more intelligent, more empathetic. And these very attributes are part of the vulnerability. They feel life more acutely.”

- Dr. Frederick Goodwin, Former Director of the National Institutes of Health

As Scott Peck says in the opening line of his book, The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” And it seems, much of the time, it is even more so for writers. It is well documented that creative people tend to be more susceptible to mental illness. In fact, authors are in one of the top ten professions in which people are most likely to experience depression. So it’s not just the high profile writers like Virginia Woolf, William Styron, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, and Emily Dickinson who have suffered with bouts of depression, but also many of us who are engaged in creative pursuits without enjoying fame or fortune. Four of the writers from the above list of six actually committed suicide.

In his book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron describes his personal descent into the despair and turmoil of a depression that included fantasies of killing himself and, ultimately, hospitalization. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven, Anne Sexton used carbon monoxide poisoning, Hemingway a gun, and Virginia Woolf drowned herself in a river. Despite the sometimes fatal outcome of depressive illness, many of us still harbor a romanticized image of the depressed writer, scribbling in his garret, creating works of profundity and great meaning.

Because of the solitary nature of writing and the lack of available feedback, many writers are plagued with negative thoughts about the quality of their work. “Am I really good enough to be published?”, “How can I call myself a writer when I’m feeling so blocked?”, “Can I really make a living at this?” are some of the old tapes that can easily play in a writer’s head. The very nature of the work of a writer tends towards isolation, economic insecurity, self-doubt and lack of exercise – the “perfect storm” for experiencing depression – either mild and situational or clinical, serious and worthy of a doctor’s intervention. When you spend long hours sitting on your own, digging deeply into yourself to create a work of art, self-examination and self-doubt can easily lead down the path to clinical depression and anxiety.

On the other hand, it seems that creative expansion, spiritual depth and increased emotional sensitivity often entail a journey through fear and pain on the way to genuine growth. Therein lies the dilemma – can depression ever be a good thing? While a writer’s gifts often include heightened intellect and creativity, we must be careful not to glamorize the illness of depression or assume that every creative or dynamic person is going to go through the agonies of serious mood swings. There is nothing productive about being miserable and hopeless, and speaking from experience, most of us in a depressed state of mind do not have the motivation or the energy to get out of bed, much less write a great novel or poem. So what can you do if you find yourself slipping into a mild or even severe depression? Here are some suggestions that can help:

• Sit down at your computer and write, even though you don’t feel inspired. There is nothing like constructive activity to distract and elevate your mood.

• Read an upbeat book or watch a funny movie to feel relief from dwelling on yourself and your woes.

• Write out a list of positive affirmations (positive statements about yourself or your situation written in the present sense as if they are already happening).

• Write down ten simple things in your life that you are grateful for. – it is difficult to hold onto fear and anxiety when we are in a thankful state.

• Reach a hand out to somebody else in need – witnessing someone else’s difficulties or pain and doing something to support them can release you from dwelling obsessively on yourself and your own problems.

• Get a massage, take a walk in Nature, listen to your favorite music – do anything that inspires you and makes you feel spiritually connected to something bigger than yourself or your mood.

Don’t be misled to believe depressives have some mystical insight into creativity or that depression (or bi-polar illness) enhances the creative process. On the contrary, for most of us, depression leads to writer’s block, diminished courage, less motivation, less imagination and less resilience to everyday life. Finally, if you experience inordinately long and serious bouts of the “blues”, don’t pick up your pen…pick up the phone and get the professional medical help that will put you on the road to recovery.

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