Writing Through Depression
“On an afternoon in September of 1994, I sat by myself with a razor blade in my hand. Outside, the weather was hot and still. But in my head a storm raged. Dozens of disordered voices howled in the wind of that storm. Most of them were of the opinion that my work had no value; that I would never succeed as a writer, and thus would never realize my most cherished dream; that the pain of my existence had made me a liability to myself and to my family; and that I would be better off dead. Luckily, the voice I heard most clearly as I held the razor poised above the veins of my wrist was that of my young son, asking me to think about what his life would be like without a mother. I put the blade down and cried, unable to do what I had intended, but finally convinced that I was seriously ill and needed help.”
The above quote was the beginning of an article written in 1995 by Nancy Etchemendy. I could have written it, replacing the razor blade for scissors and the young son for my teenage daughter who found me standing at the kitchen sink. I had actually pressed the opened scissors into my skin. A little more pressure and a quick slice, and my suffering would have ended. My daughter saved my life.
The dictionary defines writer as “one who writes, especially as an occupation.” That’s it. A single line.
But for depression, there are 8 definitions. Psychologically speaking, the dictionary defines depression as “a psychotic or neurotic condition characterized by the inability to concentrate, insomnia, and feelings of sadness, dejection, and hopelessness.”
All of the above characteristics have been with me for most of my life. Why then did I decide to become a writer? In a business where rejection is certain, you’d think I’d steer clear of that stress. But when you have a creative mind, even depression can’t stifle the plots, characters, and everything else that goes into writing a book. It did, however, make it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
When I started writing in my late 20s, the ideas flowed, and the pen burned up the paper from the speed at which I wrote. I wrote long-hand. No computer at the time. I could write at least two full-length novels a year (including doing the research) while researching and gathering ideas for two more. It was non-stop. I worked on plot and characters in my sleep. And I remembered it in the morning and wrote down the details while they were fresh in my mind. My three daughters were young, and I wrote when they were at school, at lessons and doctor’s appointments. Depression wasn’t so hard on my concentration, and life didn’t seem so complicated back then. That was in the late 70s.
The doctors had labeled me painfully shy when I was a teenager. In my 20s, apparently it was all in my head. I lived with that diagnosis until my early 40s when I finally found a female physician who told me I suffered from clinical depression. I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. There was a term for what I felt nearly every day.
During those years prior to my diagnosis, it became increasingly difficult to write and to come up with creative ideas. But writing was therapy for me. It focused my mind on something more than what caused any number of my depressive episodes. I had even written through a traumatic experience one year. About fifteen years later, I pulled out the book and couldn’t believe how angry my characters were to each other, how down and depressed the entire story was. Yet writing it helped me through a physically and emotionally rough time.
Psychologists found that writers suffer from depression more than any other group. In a study Kay Redfield Jamison wrote about for the Scientific American, “….her study population met….criteria for manic-depression or major depression at a rate far greater than chance. ‘In fact, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people.’”
There was a landmark study written by Nancy Andreasen and published in a 1987 issue for the American Journal of Psychiatry. She had taken 30 members from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and compared them to a control group. She discovered that “80% of writers had an affective episode at some point in their lives, compared to 30% of a control group.” And while “37% of the writers had suffered from major depression, two of the 30 writers killed themselves during the course of the 15-year study.”
Writing is a solitary effort, but I believe it is responsible for keeping many people who write sane. Whether we find an outlet for our troubles from writing on paper or typing directly into the computer, our creativity can see us through the worst of times. I can’t say that everything I wrote while depressed was all bad. I actually had some good, publishable stories. Yet there’s always that fine line between soundly sane and teetering on the edge in a writer’s mind. Perhaps creative people are just more sensitive.
Whatever I’ve been through in my life, I have an entire writing community who often lift my spirits. Writing is the key. No matter what the future holds, as long as I have all my faculties, I’ll be writing. And, of course, my husband and daughters were always—and still are--there for me.
Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or someone close you can confide in. The important thing to remember is to seek help. I am so grateful I did.
Note: I go in-depth into what brought me to that point in my life when I tried to slice my wrist during a weeklong blog about my writing life at Novelspot, November 15-21.
Available now from Jannine:
AND THE NOBLEMAN, book 1 in the Sisters of Destiny trilogy.
Look for the re-release of book 2 in the Sisters of Destiny trilogy, CHARLOTTE
THE GYPSY, from DCL Publications in 2011.
Three psychic sisters separated at birth; will they discover the secrets of their past?
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