For writers, there’s this persistent myth that depression and mental illness go hand and hand with creativity. And who can blame them for believing? Whether it be Tolstoy, Dickens, Hemingway or Plath—many of the great creatives appeared to have mood disorders, often ending their lives with either a bang or a whimper. Even contemporaries such as Wallace arouse the faulty assumption that in order to be wildly creative, you must also suffer from some mental illness. For many, the affectionate trope of the pained writer whose mental health becomes a fount for ingenious inspiration is a concrete truth that will not tremble, even when critics argue for the contrary. Because of this, it is unfortunate that many creatives, especially writers, choose to withhold help for their depression since they may view their suffering as an anchor to their creative muse, like some form of asceticism or self-flagellation.
This is false though. While it may be true that writers are more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of the population, depression doesn’t offer anything intrinsically good or better for their writing. In fact, depression offers quite the opposite—it turns off the creativity—and the ability or desire to do anything else for that matter: Like get out of bed, put on clothes, not think of yourself in depreciatory terms—much less write. And, writers want to write. Or, at least, we say we do.
For writers, it can lead to a real occupational hazard with far too many contributing factors: Too much isolation and introspection. Not enough nutrition, exercise, sunlight, sleep, financial and professional certainty. Multiply all that with the popular belief that drugs (yes, prescription too) and alcohol promote imagination, and you’re doing some dangerous algebra with your depression and your life.
From experience, I live with my clinical depression. We’ve had an abusive relationship fraught with a history of hard drug use and alcohol abuse. Eleven years ago, come November, I attempted to end my life by taking all the pills in my medicine cabinet. And, yes, there were plenty of pills and more than enough of the right ones. In all that time, I came up with a lot of ideas to write, but never got a word down. Trust me, there is no transcendent perception that can be tapped from the tree of misery and despair. So why is it some creatives believe that depression is something ‘good’ for them?
Short answer: Depression lies.
It deceives you into a liminal space of dejection and binds you there for hours, days, sometimes weeks or worse. It doesn’t just make you feel miserable. It makes you have no energy so you can’t get your head afloat. Writing, like all things, takes energy. And, when you’re depressed, you can’t write. Or read. Or do the day’s work. Or make decisions (even if it’s what to watch on Netflix). Under depression’s hypnotic spell, all actions are hopeless. Like an invisible louse, it sucks the brave out of you—the courage to do anything, especially write. Then, when depression has you there— in that desolate space— it starts creeping other thoughts into your ear. Whispers of what other people think about you. How you think about yourself. How things would be so much better if you weren’t around anymore…
Nowadays I’m several years clean, happily married to someone other than my depression, and attending the MFA program at UCF for Fiction. I still have depression. It’s never going to go away.
Recently, a friend asked me a question: How can you be successful in a demanding MFA program when you also have depression?
It’s a good question. Any day I can wake up unable to write. Unable to go to class. Unable to do anything. Having depression and joining an MFA program for writing doesn’t sound like a winning combination.
Another short answer: You have to manage it best you can and find what works for you.
For me, the lighter ‘despair days’ (as I call them) just mean that I’m not going to go out and have fun with friends, which gives me more reason to stay in and write—though it’s definitely difficult to focus. It’s the nature of depression. Here are some ways that I manage my depression while in my MFA program. If you deal with depression yourself, hopefully my experiences help you in some way.
- Physical Activity
I supplement my writing and reading time with physical activity, such as gardening or taking walks with my wife. This–along with volunteering in my local community weekly–keeps me active, out of the house, and focused on external factors so that I don’t become too internalized with my depression. I suggest finding something physical that fits best for you. Something that you’re genuinely interested in and sticking with it (or at least trying it out for a time). Also, I would strive to find a physical activity that gets you out of your house or apartment. Playing video games is great for relieving stress but may also end up enhancing your depression in the long run if you’re spending so much time on the couch. An eighty-hour gaming binge on the new Final Fantasy may not be the best thing for your mental health in the long run (or your writing).
- Support System
You need people. And, no matter what your depression tells you (remember: depression lies), there are people in your life who love and care about you. My support system includes my wife (the most encouraging and understanding human being on the planet), our cat, and another handful of friends, family, and even teachers at the university. These are the people I’ve picked out that I can actively talk with about my depression and what I’m experiencing. They are amazing listeners. The great trick about talking through your depression is that it can help pull you out of that terrible liminal space, even if it is for a short time. It’s important to find the right people. Unfortunately, not everyone is properly equipped to empathize with you. Your experience with depression is unique, so you should surround yourself with the best people to help you manage it. Just remember: you may also be someone’s support system, too. Listen.
I’m a believer in professional counseling. However, counseling can be expensive and may not be covered under insurance. Furthermore, perhaps you’ve heard or experienced horror stories involving people who should never have gone into the mental health profession (I know I have). Therefore, finding the right counselor can seem like a daunting task, one that your depression will likely tell you is not worth it.
Yet, as a university student, universities typically supply counseling services on campus. Also, by contacting your insurance company, they’ll be able to provide for you a list of counselors in your area who will accept your insurance and are taking clients. Plus, even if a counselor doesn’t take insurance, many are willing to work on a floating scale based on your income and are willing to work with you. You just need to contact them.
Counseling can be an necessary supplement to help you manage your overall relationship with your depression. Think about it as working with a trained professional who is equipped to observe you from the outside when all you can see is the inside. Because of that unique position, they may be able to offer advice, insights, and management techniques which you had not considered before. And, the better equipped you are to identify your depression, the better you may be to manage it—even during the especially bad despair days. Just remember, counselors are kind of a special form a support system. Find one that works for you. If the first person you go to doesn’t—find someone else.
- Save Money
Depression loves stressors and, for many people, money is a massive one. For writers—especially MFA students who may not have a steady income—the lurking doom of a sudden emergency which requires a large sum of money looms just around the corner. Although not a full solution, it helps to save money. Go to your bank and set up a separate checking or savings account and every week put ten, fifteen, or whatever you can away. Do this regularly and don’t touch it. When an event does happen—a car accident, family emergency, something terrible—you’ll hopefully have a little nest egg put away to mitigate some, most, or all of your loss. We put away money weekly into a few different “rainy day” accounts. Although if you have depression, even a drizzle can feel like a downpour. Save whatever you can.
Although I don’t take medication currently, I have in the past. I won’t speak on this too much, but I recommend that if your management techniques are not helping with your depression then please consult a professional as soon as possible. It may be the case you need medication and there’s nothing wrong with that. From experience, most medications will have some side effects and it’s important to communicate with your doctor regarding them, especially if you’re having an adverse reaction.
Please, please, please do not self-medicate through drugs and alcohol or whatever your pseudo-doctor friend has pills for. By doing this you will only make your depression worse, though it may dull or numb the ache for a while. You will not write well like this and you will ultimately kill your talent—potentially even killing yourself. Again, do not self-medicate.
Though there are several more management techniques out there, these are a few of mine that I use or have used to quell my depression.
I hope that, if you have depression or another mental illness yourself, you post a comment with how you manage your daily life. Also, if you are looking at joining an MFA program, please know that it is possible and that your best self, not your depressed self, is your creative self.
If, however, you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Justin Brozanski is an MFA Candidate for Fiction at the University of Central Florida. He loves collecting books regardless of his wife’s chagrin of having to continually buy more bookcases. When he’s not immersed in reading or writing, he can be found volunteering, teaching, and watching old episodes of Frasier. He also adores playing with his fluffy white cat and sneaking midnight snacks.