Writing Through Depression
You know what sucks? Depression, that’s what sucks. Each day, even in your brightest moments, there’s a gadfly buzzing around your head. Think about going through your life with every experience tempered just slightly of happiness. It’s an isolating task, and one that ensures you are alone in a crowd with the distinct awareness of the divide between you and everyone else.
And in spite of the romanticised ideal of the tortured artist, depression by nature does not necessarily help creativity. Why would anyone want to write or paint or sing when they feel like nothing matters? During those periods of time when I feel the worst I struggle to write more than a sentence. My focus is compromised, my motivation non-existent.
So, when you are living with depression, how do you continue doing those things that sustain your life? I’ve developed a few tricks over my decades of dealing with this illness. Most of them work to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.
While nothing below offers a “cure”, hopefully there is something to help. Maybe the next time you feel like lying in bed for the day, one of these practices will get your mojo back. At least enough to make your morning coffee, and maybe even enough to get back to your work.
If you complete only one thing in the day, make it going outside. For incentive, reward yourself with the promise of not having to do anything else. Simply get out and stroll the colourful mean streets of wherever you live. If you’re fortunate enough to be near parks or natural spaces, go there. Studies have proven the value of spending time in nature, and it isn’t just about the fresh air. Not only does research suggest that “forest bathing” can help boost the immune system and lower blood pressure, it also promotes a greater sense of well-being. The Japanese have been practising Shinrin-yuko for decades as a successful form of active meditation, to the point where it’s even prescribed as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
I would encourage anyone reading this – we’re probably fairly similar in character – to sign up for the free starter kit from the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides to learn more. But I would also stress that following the meditative prescriptions isn’t necessary to benefit from getting outside. Keep your expectations for the day low, and just go. Anything on top of that is gravy.
I’ve got a new habit, and while not exactly related to writing, it ties into the larger picture.
When I leave the house for the first time each day I look into the forest and say out loud, “Thanks for another day.” That’s it. Four words that trigger the recognition in myself that I am grateful.
Expressing gratitude, even if sometimes it feels like a hollow gesture, is the first step towards a good day. Although I may not be feeling very thankful when I take this pause, it reinforces the fact that at the very least, I’m mostly happy to be alive.
I used to keep a gratitude journal where I would write three things each day that I was thankful for. The first few days it was pretty simple. I was coming up with unique and clever items in my life that I normally wouldn’t have given thanks for. But after a couple of weeks I was out of unique and clever things, and my daily lists grew redundant. Of course, I started feeling like I was somehow failing the task, so I stopped.
Giving thanks for something so basic as “another day” sets me up for success. I don’t have to deal with the pressure of trying to come up with new targets of gratitude. This moment of thanks stays with me throughout the day. It isn’t a magic pill that guarantees I won’t sink below my threshold of happiness, but it helps keep me afloat.
Stream of Consciousness
And now, an actual writing tip. With depression, every little task is a chore. As you can imagine, sitting down to focus on a structured piece of writing can be horribly overwhelming. So let’s forget about the structure.
Stream of Consciousness writing is a literary device that has taken on the status of therapy. As it sounds, stream of consciousness allows the writer to simply follow their thoughts. In her article for The Writing Cooperative, Nisha Mody explores the technique in interesting detail. She references research indicating that stream of consciousness sparks both creativity and mental wellbeing.
This is easy to start, without limiting expectations. All you have to do is sit down and begin writing. I prefer to handwrite when I’m practicing stream of consciousness. To me it feels more natural and helps the flow of words and thoughts. Writing by hand also discourages the temptation to edit what you’ve put down. For whatever reason, I find it more difficult to cross out a word than to hit the backspace key.
Okay, you’ve sat down to write stream of consciousness but hot-damn, you got nothing! How do you get started? Where do you find that first thread in your thoughts to turn into words on a page?
Writing takes practice. But that practice doesn’t involve the masterpiece you’re trying to polish. We need to hive off some screen real estate to ramble. There are a number of free sites online that provide writing prompts to get you started, but I prefer Daily Prompts even though it has a small fee.
Again, and you might have noticed the theme, it’s important that the pressures of writing don’t add to your experience with depression. The last thing we need, and that will inhibit productivity, is having the burden of starting from scratch. Using writing prompts is supposed to help free your creative juices. Eventually, you will have brilliant and unique ideas and stories on your own. In the meantime, accept the help.
I really wish that I didn’t suffer from depression. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to deal with that forever pit in your stomach. I’d love to wake up even once feeling like I was the master of my domain and had some certainty over my life.
On the other hand, we’ve been branded with a gift. The character and strength that depression builds is something that is unparalleled. If you and I are able to harness that power, to accept that we are different, the questions and subsequent insight into life can be staggering. And with enough practice, we get to use that insight to build our stories and to humanize our characters with layers of subtle complexity.
Channel what ails you into your work, and the work will be better for it.
Excellent piece! Thank you.
Great tips Kev!