Columns > Published on September 19th, 2013

How Writing Has Helped Me Survive Depression

This article started when I missed a deadline for a post here at LitReactor last month. I told the powers that be that, "Crippling depression hit me and I took a week-long hiatus from life. (How's that for honesty?)" And the powers responded by asking me if I'd be willing to talk about depression in one of my next articles.

This is something that's been discussed on LitReactor before (actually, one of the LitReactor articles I often recommend to people is this article on depression). I would love to contribute in any meaningful way I can to this conversation. I know that many of you (many of us) share this struggle, that it can sometimes feel like getting tossed into a maze without even knowing what we're supposed to be looking for. And I wish I had something more valuable to say. But while I lack world-altering wisdom on the topic, it's simultaneously true that writing has helped me survive depression. And I think that's worth talking about. So ... shall we?

My Once Upon a Time

While I can easily talk about depression in general, I don't really like talking about my depression. It's much easier to pretend that depression isn't a thing in my life except in those not-exactly-rare instances where it's directly relevant. It's a vulnerability for me—less like a chink in the armor and more like revealing that I sometimes lose the ability to walk.

And I don't honestly remember a time in my life when I didn't have depression. I'm guessing such a time existed, but as far back as I have clear memories I also have clear memories of getting drawn into that dark emotional whirlpool. In high school, my solid grades and extracurricular involvement turned into nearly-not-graduating thanks to a major depression during my senior year. The worst of the depressions happen every couple of years, with a more manageable level of depression serving as a near-constant in my life.

I have a great many friends who also struggle with depression, and we sometimes discuss the topic. I recently wrote up my thoughts on why creative people get so damn depressed. Over the years, I've come to view depression less as an adversary and more as a belligerent roommate. I stopped trying to "cure" it years ago. It's just something that's there.

What's Left When Happiness Is Gone

I wasn't happy. I was something much better, much stronger, than that.

My last major depression hit while I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was wandering the British Isles, trying to pay my way through freelance writing, hoping to travel Europe, Africa, Asia, and everywhere else. What happened instead was a breakdown. In the face of depression, being far from home, without friends, isn't ideal. Neither is being in a situation where you're reliant on producing large amounts of written content each day so you'll have enough money to eat and have a place to sleep.

When you're depressed, finding the drive to do anything can be an impossible task. You show up, you do all the right things, and the fire just isn't there. A broad range of emotions are no longer accessible, with happiness often being the most missed. But I remember one day, sitting at a table at the Caledonian Hostel, when I decided I wouldn't write for money. I would write something that I wanted to write. And spent about seven hours that day working on an essay.

At the end of that day, looking at what I'd written, I found I wasn't happy. I was something much better, much stronger, than that. I looked at this thing I'd created, and I thought, This deserves to exist in the world. The universe was a tiny bit better for what I was adding to it. I'd put myself into the writing, I'd cared about it, I'd worked hard at it ... and what I found was a sense of meaning. Even when happiness was gone, I had that. Perhaps meaning wasn't as pretty, but it was far more durable.

Writing's Other Gifts

Writing is an act of desperation,
the broken heart trying to force the pieces back into form,
hoping to find a soul split like a geode.

Writing doesn't help because it's a simple, beautiful, easy thing. It's painful a lot of the time. One of my poems begins, "Poetry is an act of desperation, / the broken heart trying to force the pieces back into form, / hoping to find a soul split like a geode." I feel the same applies to all written work.

There's a degree to which writing is helpful because it's what I know how to do. With my hands on the keyboard, I feel at ease. Typing is more natural than talking for me in some ways, and the mental processes of writing seem to bring in the creative and analytical aspects of my mind in a cooperative way that feels like a mental stretch routine.

Stories may provide an escape, but they also empower us to decide the values of the world we're escaping to. We can affirm our views, build our own sense of meaning, become more conscious and sensitive about what we believe to be worthwhile in the universe. In writing personal narratives, we also get the opportunity to look back into our own past and tell the story a different way. In this sense, writing is a form of redemption: To re-deem is to re-evaluate, to look at something and see it in a new way.

The World Inside Our Skulls

Writing helps connect us with a community. No, not every writing community is healthy, but having others who understand our struggles is vital. These days, my computer background is a home-made wallpaper featuring a Firefly quote:

When you can't run, you crawl. And when you can't do that, you find someone to carry you.

Creating a space for community isn't the only way that writing helps us reach out to people who understand. It's not the only way it helps us fight the lonely. To write is to allow someone else into your skull. It lets you put together all the little pieces of your outlook, your beliefs, and your passions. We put them down in language, the material of thought itself, and we give our thoughts to others. We have the chance to explore their minds in return. It's about as close as we can get to sharing our internal landscapes—and I need that. The world inside our heads can be a terrifyingly lonely place.

Hopefully you know much of this already. Maybe I've been able to give an insight or two. Maybe it's nice hearing from someone else who's experienced something similar to what you're struggling with. And really, I do wish I had better insights to offer here. Writing has helped me approach my own story in a critical way with a sense that I have the power to impact the way the story is told, and that's helped me develop much of the wisdom I do have.

Truthfully, the best piece of wisdom from my time with depression is one I rarely share, mostly because it can sound damned depressing. It's simply this: No matter what else life is, it is still better than lying down to die. It may be a small piece of hope, but it's proved to be a resilient hope—strong enough that I've been able to hold on to it through everything. And so long as I've got that, I can keep fighting to create my life's story.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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