Writers and Depression: An Interview with Psychotherapist and Author, Philip Kenney

Philip Kenney LitReactor Interview

Writing is an oftentimes lonely calling. As if the rigors and challenges of modern publishing and making a living off one’s writing wasn’t enough, writers often fight many silent and sometimes crippling battles in their minds. So often have we heard the creative-as-depressive or just a little bit “crazy” debate: Do the truly brilliant artists require a bit of mental instability to craft brilliant art? And often the idea of the “crazy” or “mad” artist is romanticized by young writers finding their voice and literary path.

It may be safe to say writers and other creatives are more sensitive than others. From my own experience of working with writers, an experience echoed by countless others in the industry, the more self-critical the writer, the better the work. To a point. There is a major difference between the nagging self-critic that pushes the writer to improve their craft and a more debilitating voice that renders the writer emotionally paralyzed. How does a writer know which voice to listen to? Are writers more sensitive, more connected with their muse or is something more serious going on? Where’s the line?

Portland based author and psychotherapist, Philip Kenney, shares why he began writing to wean himself off the anti-depressant drug, Prozac, and shares how writers can differentiate between a bit of healthy self-criticism and something more serious. Kenney shares how writers can deal with depression, anxiety, and more.


In your author bio on your website, you say you fell into writing as a means to wean yourself from prescription anti-depressants. How did writing help you deal with your depression?

Actually, it’s a little more mysterious than that. I was detoxing from an experiment with Prozac and feeling worse than ever when I woke up one glorious summer morning with anxiety clawing at my belly. Only this time there was a poem attached! Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to write it down, even though I’d done very little writing prior to that morning. It was a beautifully terrible poem.

At its best, self-criticism seems to drive individuals to revise and polish work. At its worst, it can torment and paralyze one’s efforts and completely distort the self-portrait beyond recognition.

About that time I came upon William Stafford’s poetry and books on writing. He started every day by writing a poem. I began that practice and wrote a poem nearly every day for ten years. From the start, I felt the daily writing practice infuse my spirit with a vitality that had been lacking. We often speak of the benefits of a creative life, which are many, but I tend to think of it as a thriving connection with the deep unconscious self that is so generative to the psyche/spirit. To this day, my feeling of aliveness is near its best when I am immersed in a writing project.

Writers spend a lot of time in their heads and sometimes that can be dangerous territory. Fear and anxiety tend to settle in and really mess up the works. What are a few ways writers can deal with issues caused by fear and anxiety?

Dangerous territory indeed. This is a complicated and important question. Anxiety is a terribly broad subject and the causes are many. Let me mention a couple. There are the fears and anxieties of the head and there are the fears and anxieties of going deeply into the unconscious heartland of the psyche.

The problem writers face, I think, is that they are constitutionally very sensitive individuals. As such they are extremely vulnerable on two fronts: first, because of this sensitivity, they are susceptible to over-stimulation and emotional states of flooding that can overcome the capacity to regulate such strong affect. This can lead to major anxieties on the one hand or dissociative states on the other. Secondly, because of this pronounced sensitivity and perceptual attunement, artists internalize so much of the world, including the unwanted parts, that, again, the system is overloaded and anxiety is created that strains the ability of the self to manage. If an individual has a history of emotional hardship, or traumatic experience, that vulnerability is amplified and lasting impressions of the world and the self, colored by the trauma, are stored in the mind.

I think Salinger said it took him an hour of writing to be honest with himself. To me that speaks to the resistance and anxiety we so often feel sitting down to write. That is, to delve into the deep unconscious and to bring it forth into the public world is threatening. Yes, it’s frightening. A host of unknown, and known but unwanted, feelings live there. Writers, like all people, are deeply ambivalent, at the core, about venturing into these territories.

The best way I know to deal with intra-psychic fears is through a good psychodynamic therapy. A good therapy helps to illuminate the stored beliefs and feelings of the past that create such anxiety. In such a therapy, it is possible to uncover and release what has been experienced and held in the body.

To face the fear of venturing into the deep unconscious I recommend sitting in meditation. Nowhere is the repressed material of the unconscious more accessible than in the hours before dawn when you sit with yourself. I find this a great aid to writing as well. There are two helpful forms of meditation. One is known as mindfulness meditation, which is awareness training and helps to create some distance between the observer and the thoughts and feelings arising. This helps us to see the endless movement of thoughts and emotions in and out of awareness as simple phenomena and not as permanent fixtures of our personality. The other type of meditation is better known as meditation on the Self, or being. In this radical practice, the focus is on a sense of presence, and or, being, as the source of our existence. With practice, we release painful identifications and travel further into our identification with being itself, where anxieties have little hold on the mind.

What’s the difference between a slightly nagging self-critic and something more serious? What are the healthy boundaries and when should a writer seek professional help?

One is a mosquito. One is a horse fly. You know the difference when you feel the bite. The writers and artists I know and work with move along this spectrum with some regularity. I think we all know both poles and at given times experience the heat of self-ridicule in a very painful way. Didn’t Virginia Wolfe denounce her writing abilities in her suicide note? Sadly, these voices can take on such authority in the mind that any recognition of one’s goodness and talent are driven from the stage. At its best, self-criticism seems to drive individuals to revise and polish work. At its worst, it can torment and paralyze one’s efforts and completely distort the self-portrait beyond recognition.

When the negative attacks persist and create enveloping feelings of inadequacy, stifling anxiety or despair, it’s time to get some help. No less a writer than Rainer Rilke refused psychoanalysis on the grounds that he’d rather be subject to his demons than risk losing his angels. I’ve never known this to happen. In my experience, the demons are not eliminated but diminished in power and authority. The relationship of the psyche to those forces is altered, making them less potent. Moreover, the angels have more room to fly and flourish when the weight and contraction of the pejorative self-talk is lifted and released. I believe in therapy as much as I believe in writing and meditation.  

What are some productive ways writers can deal with these challenges when they can’t afford a therapist?

First off, ask around about rates. There are many therapists, including myself, who offer a sliding fee schedule based on resources. I like to work with artists/writers and have at times lowered my fee to $25 or $30 to enable someone to enter therapy who really wants to work.

Nelson Mandela was right when he said our biggest fear is of our own light. Many of us are so used to contracted states that expansive, intimate openings can be every bit as frightening as the ravens in our heads.

Second, there are a number of ways for authors to help themselves. No less of a traditional authority than the Harvard Medical School Newsletter recently came out with the headline, “Meditate, don’t medicate.” Meditation is a proven way to help ground the psyche and quiet the mind. Though not the first time you sit down. That first time you can expect your mind to jump around like a frantic monkey. Don’t stop, or try to pacify the monkey, just keep sitting, and watching with curiosity.

Exercise is the best anti-depressant. Especially if you don’t fall into the American trap of over-doing it. Walking can be a writer’s best friend. I walk several times a day and find countless tiny moments of inspiration and images to include in my work. Try yoga. Not so much the Americanized version, which can cause more contraction, but a yin practice or one that helps promote release of tensions and relaxation.

As we talked about earlier, anxiety and fear build up tensions that when accumulated increase the vulnerability of the self to states of overwhelming feelings. Another way to help with these feelings is to journal every day. Try to go into the feelings, not run from them, and write with abandon whatever enters your mind. Most important, is to guard against isolation. Find opportunities, and there are many, to find contact with others in a way that allows for the intimacy of a shared understanding of the agonies and ecstasies of the writers life. If all else fails, get yourself a dog. My pooch is my salvation on many a dismal day.   

After publication, writers are usually faced with a new set of challenges – fear the work wasn’t good enough, fear of negative feedback and bad reviews, fear of all the attention and sometimes fear of success and the challenges success brings. How do you suggest writers who’ve managed to successfully publish address those fears and anxieties?

Yikes! You’re talking about me! I just published my first book and I can tell you the feeling of vulnerability is quite intense. Waiting to hear reactions to the book is the worst part, even though I know for myself I often buy a book and it may sit on my desk for as long as a year unread. These silences allow plenty of time for the evil doubts and whispers to build to a roar. “Not good enough” is the common denominator for most of the accusations I hear from writers. Which translates as, “I’m not good enough.” “Not smart enough.” Always the same refrain, not enough. These self-indictments are so convincing, aren’t they? Really, who can argue with them? And, of course, they often lead to fantasies of public exposure, stage fright and fears of humiliation. Sound familiar? Of course some writers are natural performers and love an audience. Their anxiety may center more on whether they’ll be understood or sufficiently loved.

I’m glad you mentioned the fear of success along with the other common fears. I think Nelson Mandela was right when he said our biggest fear is of our own light. Many of us are so used to contracted states that expansive, intimate openings can be every bit as frightening as the ravens in our heads. Breath deep, again, let your light shine and keep breathing. Most people don’t. Practice enjoying expansive states of being. I think many writers struggle with this.

These experiences we’re talking about are tough to bear. What’s to be done? For me the worst suffering occurs when I try to hide from others or myself. Bring it out in the light of day. Talk to other writers. Normalize these feelings as evidence of your humanity not your deficiency. Poke a little fun at yourself. Poke a little deeper and see if there are other feelings hiding behind the fear. Maybe a longing is hiding there, or a desire to be seen, and admired. Give a name to the not good enough soul you think you are and then notice how it shows up on the stage of your life. Say hello. And then sit down and close your eyes and try to find within yourself that pathetic loser you’ve thought yourself to be. Guess what? There ain’t no such critter.

Any last words to writers?

You are precious. I think you are the organ of sensitivity for society, which is primarily thinking only of survival and progress. Because you are that receptor of all that is denied and unwanted, of all that is beautiful and sacred, you are so vulnerable to taking on a multitude of feelings and sensations that can overwhelm the psyche of the best of us. Why do so many writers drink? Why do so many lives turn chaotic and self-destructive? What do we do when our experience is unbearable?

The writer’s life is a lonely one. Some write in coffee shops to avoid the solitude imposed by the effort. Good idea if you can focus. But the experience of being alone with the array of feelings and forces of the deep unconscious is a challenging one. My idea is that writers need each other in a major way. We need to guard against isolation. Isolation fuels the fears and anxieties we have been talking about in this interview. It leads to getting lost in the mind where there are many dark alleys. Find supports wherever you can. Even a few moments can do wonders.

The other difficulty we have is self-recognition. Why is it so difficult to see yourself with some degree of completeness and kindness? I know many an artist who continuously distort and diminish themselves in their own mind. It can be shocking to sit with someone with obvious talent and accomplishment, only to hear self-talk negating most of that reality. There seems to be a crack in the mirror. It isn’t easy to see oneself, the strengths and weaknesses, the familiar imperfections, without a judgment that often spells, B-A-D. Inferior. I try to remember the beautiful patterns made by the cracks in the sidewalk. Practicing kindness is the best remedy.

Speaking of cracks, I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen, who just came to town and is delivering a pretty incredible show at the ripe age of 78. Remember his great lines? “Forget the perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Thanks.


Phil Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons. He did his post-graduate work at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry in British Object Relations. A long time meditator and poet, Phil is the author of four books of poetry, including Hours of Blue and Hymns for the Speechless. He recently published his first novel, Radiance.
 

Image of Radiance: A Novel
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Erin Reel

Interview by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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Comments

Jimmy MacDonald's picture
Jimmy MacDonald January 21, 2013 - 6:33pm

Fantastic interview and insights into a fascinating topic I think too many have come to accept as something that "goes with the territory".

Michael Thomas's picture
Michael Thomas from South Jersey is reading books January 22, 2013 - 11:54am

So awesome when something like this seems to come randomly along and give a little nudge of inspiration when its desperately needed. Great read.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... January 22, 2013 - 1:18pm

Thanks Jimmy and Michael. I'm glad this resonated with you. 

Philip was kind enough to write a guest post that explores the 'good enough' writer for my blog. And of course, you should check out his blog for continued perspective and spiritual/creative/psychological/philosophical insight. Great stuff. 

Kevin Koperski's picture
Kevin Koperski January 22, 2013 - 4:44pm

Thanks for the great interview. I'll probably revisit whenever i find myself drifting too far lost down those dark alleys...

Ashlin Grey's picture
Ashlin Grey from Tennessee is reading Penny Dreadful April 18, 2013 - 3:25pm

Magnificient interview. I think I wanted to cry halfway through the last section.