August 24, 2015

Writing Through Depression

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

At the Romance Writers of America conference this year, I moderated a workshop entitled “Writing Through Depression”. This turned out to be the most moving writer’s workshop I have ever attend–and I’ve attended more than my fair share.

It was not anything like what I had expected. When I first read the workshop description, I anticipated a hands-on hour with applicable tips on writing through depression along the lines of “here’s how you can hit daily word count when you have zero desire to get out of bed.”

Fortunately, I was very wrong (though if anyone has tips on how to do that, I’m all ears). Instead, this was a startlingly vulnerable and frank discussion about depression between the five panelists and the packed audience. Attendees were asked not to tweet or make other social media posts about what was being discussed so that the room might remain a safe place. I have no intention of violating that implicit confidentiality now by detailing personal specifics shared in that workshop, only to share bit of how it influenced me.

What immediately struck me was how many people (mostly, if not exclusively, women) came to this workshop suggesting a high volume of writers suffering from depression. The mythology around writers is one of complex mental health, genius wrapped up in the scads of crazy. Step away from the stereotype and you find that writers are often simply wounded people with something to say and a compulsion to say it. (Though not exclusively; there are plenty of happy, well-adjusted writers. Somewhere.) Here in this workshop was a wealth of writers brave enough to join in this discussion.

I jotted a few things down for personal reference but the atmosphere was so intimate, I quickly felt creepy for doing it. Depression tells you that you’re alone. Depression tells you that no one else has these issues. Depression tells you that no one will every understand what and how you’re feeling. Depression tells you that you’re weak or less than others because you can’t do better or write more, because you’re afraid of failure but unmotivated to work and produce pages or submit proposals. Depression tells you that you will never, ever succeed.

Depression lies. That was the first tenant to resonate with me in the workshop. Depression lies. It tells me all those things and more and I believe them because I’m harder on myself than anyone else would ever think of being, a constant internal barrage over what I should’ve done when my greatest accomplishment for the day may have only been brushing my teeth. Once. “Don’t should all over yourself,” advised one panelist. “Learn to be your own friend,” advised another. “If you wouldn’t say such things to your friend, why are you beating yourself up with it?” You have to recognize, continued the panelist, when you’re having a day when nothing is going to get done. “Stop judging yourself for it. Give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself.” I don’t know about you, but this one is the most difficult for me to get past. Nobody’s harder on me than me.

We live in a comparison society where we’re always looking to see whose grass in greener and how our grass can beat it. “One hundred percent of what you see at conferences or on social media, etc., is perception. Looking at someone else who you perceive is doing better than you.” Guilty as charged–AGAIN.

Overall, I came away from the “Writing Through Depression” workshop deeply moved and with an overwhelming sense of one simple truth: you are not alone. Those women in the audience and the courageous women on the panel were all there to share their experiences, and to shine a light on what society deems taboo and say “Depression lies. We’ve been there too. You’re not alone.”

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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    First of all, I have a massive family background of mental illness. I read through the abnormal psych book with a feeling of familiarity and recognition that most people feel looking through family photographs. The genetic lottery I inherited SUCKS!

    Second of all, science is finding all kinds of connections between the most difficult mental illnesses to treat — schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, and depression and creativity. So I see my blessings as a writer as the flip-side of my brain chemistry curse.

    But there are things that can be done to help. I have treated my depression with a heavy dose of cognitive therapy — which is scientifically proven and aimed at replacing those depressive lies “I’m worthless, I’ll never succeed” with more helpful thoughts, “Let me just sit in front of the computer for two hours today. Let me see if I can write 100 words, and give myself a small reward for doing so.” A great cognitive therapy book that reveals those depressive lies is called FEELING GOOD by David Burns. If you even get through the first two chapters it will radically help your understanding of depression and how to get a handle on it.

    The other way in which I’ve had to adapt my life to stay on top of my genetic curse is through diet. A lot of depressives are sensitive to sugar and alcohol. I’m already a vegan, but getting off processed sugar made a huge difference in my ability to think clearly and control inflammation–which has recently been linked to depression. Exercising daily until I sweat makes a huge difference in my motivation and ability to get things done. It makes the wheels go…

    But if I have a sugar binge over the weekend and/or I don’t exercise for between 9 to 11 days, (yes, it’s happened so many times, I know exactly how long it takes) I often collapse into a heap of TV watching, and teariness. And from that point it’s so very hard to get off the couch and get back into the healthy habits and get work done. But the big point is that a lot of people with depression can control it, manage it, and thrive despite it. As we love to hear in the romance world: there is hope!

    Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authordgdoggett

    Thank you for writing this. It said some things I need to hear to keep fighting this battle. At its worst, the depression even made me feel like less than a writer, telling me that if I was really a writer, I’d write no matter how I felt. It was one more kick in the teeth on those days when just getting out of bed was a monumental struggle.

    Reply to dgdoggett
    • Post authorKiersten Hallie Krum

      Aw, man! You know those memes from writing gods like Neil Gaimen “Writers Write” and La Nora’s “Stop fucking around and write”? How many times have I read those and beaten myself up over the fact that I’m *not* writing? Too many to count. So does that mean I’m not a writer? Of course not. Just like the fact that I’m not yet published doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. It’s an act of will to press on under such doubts, to keep fighting when your brain and even your soul are working against you. Writers write, but they write in a myriad of ways and there is never just one.

      Reply to Kiersten Hallie Krum
  • Post authorCeleste jones

    This is thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply to Celeste jones
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