Writing Through Depression—It's All About Sparking Joy

Header images via Xi Xi & Ali Alcantara

I’ve made it no secret, over the years I’ve lived and written for the internet, that I have depression. Some of my first published articles, back in 2015 and 2016, were about life with depression, and life trying to be a writer, and the way those two identities coalesced and often crashed into each other. So I guess it makes sense that I’m finally sitting down to explore what it means to be a writer with depression.

I know I’m not alone in this. In 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 14.8 million American adults experienced a severe depressive episode. This isn’t counting the number of young adults and children who also experience depression, or the people who didn’t report their episode.

My depression manifests itself in many different ways. There’s the acute sorrow and spiral into self-harm and suicidal ideation; there’s the numbness that makes me feel like I’m sequestered from the world through an impenetrable bubble; there’s irritability and there’s exhaustion and there are countless ways that my depression shows up and affects my life.

I’m also a writer. It’s as core to who I am, as fundamental to my identity, as anything else about me. It’s part of what makes me, me. When I’m happy, I write my joy. When I’m sad, I write my sorrow. When I’m bored, I write. If I’m not writing, well, that means something is deeply, deeply wrong.

A lot of what helps me survive as a writer with depression is just giving myself grace.

So how do I write through depression? Sometimes I write because I have no choice—I have deadlines and expectations and people counting on me to write something (like this article). I sit down and I open the blank page and I set my hands on the keyboard but... nothing comes out.

Because sometimes, the only way to be a writer with depression is to take a break.

This feels counterintuitive, right? Like, why would you try to write by taking a break? The thing is, at least for me, depression takes up a huge amount of mental space and energy. If I’m having a depressive episode, just getting out of bed is asking a lot, much less brushing my teeth, showering, making food. Going to work? Even harder. But I do it because I have to. So when it comes to things I don’t necessarily have to do, like writing books that aren't under contract, I sometimes just don’t have the energy for it.

A lot of what helps me survive as a writer with depression is just giving myself grace. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not at all good at giving myself grace. I suck at it most of the time. But I know it’s something I need to do, and I’m hopeful that writing about it here, you’ll realize or remember or learn that it’s okay to give yourself grace, too. Because sometimes all we can do is take a break. It’s easier said than done, especially if you have contracts, but it’s not unheard of for writers to push back book publications because of circumstances out of their control. Depression, so often, is a circumstance out of our control.

The other thing that keeps me going, aside from knowing I can pause if I need to, is finding joy. For me, the act of writing itself sparks joy. It gets me out of my head, my thoughts onto a page and my brain thinking through other people’s problems and concerns—even if those other people are fictional!

Another way to find joy in writing is to indulge yourself. What type of writing brings you the most joy? Is it writing angsty poems, purple, flowery prose, or following a character on a self-indulgent journey? Write that. It doesn’t matter if it’s never going to be published or if you’ll have to cut it from the final product. Sometimes we need to write just for ourselves. That can spark so much joy.

Ultimately, writing with depression is incredibly difficult, and if you’re doing it, I offer you solidarity and a hug and the knowledge that you’re an utter badass. You’re doing something really hard—surviving in the face of depression—and on top of that you’re doing something else that’s really hard—writing.

You’re killing it, even when you don’t feel like it. Keep it up. The world needs your words.

Karis Rogerson

Column by Karis Rogerson

Karis Rogerson is a mid-20s aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn and works at a cafe—so totally that person they warn you about when you declare your English major. In addition to embracing the cliched nature of her life, she spends her days reading, binge-watching cop shows (Olivia Benson is her favorite character) and fangirling about all things literary, New York and selfie-related. You can find her other writing on her website and maybe someday you’ll be able to buy her novels.

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