Writers are among the top 10 professions most prone to depression. This appears to make sense, in the light of what we know about many famous authors, and other artists. Mental illness and art seem to go hand in hand. To almost compliment one another. Some think that artists need to be a little bit insane to be real artists.
There are many examples of writers who suffered from depression, from Virginia Woolf, through Ernest Hemingway, to J. K. Rowling, and who produced some of the best literature of our time. The Old Man and The Sea will always remain one of the best books I read throughout my 12-year school career, and Harry Potter definitely changed my life, but was it depression that fuelled those writers to create literature that went on to sell millions of copies worldwide and grant them worldwide fame, even years after their death? Or were they, quite simply, super talented, and just happened to have suffered from a mental illness as well?
To be honest, who knows. Finding an answer to this question seems like an impossible task. I can’t really speak for them. But I can speak for myself. Someone who is a writer, and had depression but managed to overcome it.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.”
― Stephen Fry
This post is very long time coming. I’ve been meaning to write about my depression ever since I first started this blog over a year ago. I even have a draft of a post somewhere, but I couldn’t finish it. I cried too much. I don’t really have problems talking about the fact that I was ill, but talking about how I actually felt during all this, that’s not fun, and it’s certainly not easy. And there was always a thought in my head ‘what if my potential employer reads it some time down the line, and doesn’t give me the job because of it?’ (to be honest, if someone rejects me from a job I’m qualified for based on the fact that I had depression at 19 then, well, I think it was a lucky escape for me).
It is tough to talk about the hardest time of your life. And although we’re 350 words into this post already and I’m still dry-eyed, I know there will be tears shed while writing it. It’s been 3 years now since depression departed from my life, but I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about it without emotions.
I normally plan my posts. I have a notebook for this, I got it as a gift. It has a cheeky ‘Thoughts and doodles of an undiscovered genius’ written on the cover. I put the title of each post at the top of a page, and then write my thoughts on what I would like to include in the post. I add little notes, like ‘start with that’ or ‘really emphasise this’. This ‘plan’ guides me through my writing.
This post has no page in the notebook. It probably should, because it’s likely to become a messy stream of consciousness otherwise, but I wanted to write what I feel, let it flow. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to be.
Depression hit me when I was 19. I had just finished school, was about to head to university, and I collapsed. Quite literally collapsed, because lying down on the sofa was the only thing I felt like doing. But I genuinely thought I was just tired. Anyone would have been, after the marathon of revision I had just gone though before my International Baccalaureate exams. Despite the fact that I took to crying when one of my parents asked me to go out to buy something, or the near enough panic attack I had when I was about to go for a conference in Switzerland, I thought it was just tiredness.
“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”
― Ned Vizzini,
I went to Oxford, my dream university, and I was as unhappy as it gets. I struggled to keep up with my reading, I struggled with sleeping, I lost a lot of weight. I would randomly cry. I would cry not-so-randomly before going to bed. I didn’t want to sleep, you see, because I knew that when I woke up another day would come, and I didn’t want that to happen. When I went home in December, I was in quite a state. The word ‘Oxford’ would send me into a land of tears, and the very thought of going back to university seemed unimaginable.
At that point, my family realised that something was wrong, and I visited both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, to receive a unanimous verdict.
I had depression.
“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”
― Elizabeth Wurtzel,
Depression has taken a year of life away from me. There were days when I could function quite alright, but there were also those when, despite the medication, I would only want to stay in bed and cry. At one point, when a crisis hit, I even said that I fully intend not to get up every again.
I took time off my degree (and never came back to it), but I sort of took time off from life as well. I had no energy, I couldn’t make simple decisions, I cried all the time, and my memory was crap. And that was after the diagnosis, after I started taking meds and all that. Before was even worse.
It is a time I generally try not to think about. I was twenty years old, profoundly unhappy, and my therapist was stubbornly pinning every bad thing that ever happened to me on my mum. Which was totally unfair, and annoyed me so much. To be honest, I should probably have changed therapists. Because my mum might not be perfect (who the hell is, though???), but she’s not responsible for everything that happens to me. She ain’t got that power.
My parents always tried to make sure I had everything I need, and more. Great education, after school classes, holidays. They were always proud of me. Respected my choices. Gave me independence but also grounding in life. They were present in my life, and thanks to everything they’ve done for me, I am the person I am now, and have gotten to the place in life I am at. Pinning my depression on them was as unfair as it gets.
But I digress. We’re not here to talk about my parents.
Depression took a year of my life. A whole year. Just a year.
In a way, I got lucky. A lot of people have more of their lives taken away from them by this awful illness. Some struggle with it their whole life. I only gave it a year of mine.
One day in late June 2014, I woke and it was sunny. And I noticed how beautiful the leaves outside my window looked with the sun shining through them. I looked out of the window and I saw all those colours, and couldn’t stop thinking ‘how the hell did you not notice all this until now?’.
I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was healthy again.
I was officially declared depression-free a few months later, but it didn’t matter. I knew I was healthy. And the healthiest thing I did, a few weeks later? Realising that my therapist didn’t have to be right, and I didn’t have to listen to her. I was in control of my life, and my parents weren’t to blame for all the bad in my life.
Depression changed me, in more ways than I can probably even realise. I will never be the person I was before I got ill. Nor do I want to be. I am kinder, more attuned to other people’s feelings, more ok with myself. Frankly, I owe a fair amount to my illness.
But am I a better writer because of it?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I most definitely am a better writer at 23 than I was at 19. It’s a given. Is it because of the illness I suffered from, though? I genuinely do not think so. At least not directly. Becoming a better writer is a complex, never-ending process. It’s like growing up. You feel more grown up with every day you live, but you’re never done changing, never done growing.
I have grown as a writer because I’ve grown as a person. I experienced more things, I’ve been to more places, I watched more movies, I read more books, I met more people. I learned more about myself and others. But that would have happened regardless of depression. I would have changed and my writing would have changed, simply because I’m getting older and wiser. It’s also a matter of practice. The more you write, the better you become. As simple as. You were always a worse writer yesterday than you are today. Not to mention four years ago. It’s also not depression that gave me aptitude for writing, because I had always been a writer.
The problem with depression, and probably many other mental illnesses (that I can’t really talk about since I’ve no knowledge or experience of them), is that they’re more likely to impede your writing, rather than improve it. Why? Well, scroll back up to where I described how I felt when I was depressed. I was sad, didn’t enjoy anything, didn’t sleep well, or eat well.
Now, how many people do you know that perform well when sleep-deprived, almost-malnourished, and shaking from tears?
Surviving depression might well make you a better writer. But I’d be surprised if being depressed actually did.
“Losing your life is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing is to lose your reason for living.”
― Jo Nesbø
Depression is an illness of your brain. Of course, it affects your body, but it’s the brain that takes most of the beating. A broken leg shouldn’t affect your writing much (though, obviously, it’s hard to sit at a desk with a cast on), but depression will. It affects the part of your body most important in the writing process, after all. Frankly, I don’t remember writing anything during that year. Writing was as low on the list of things to do as possible. Getting out of bed was at the top.
There is, however, something that depression definitely changed about me, and which did help me be a better writer.
Depression was such a terrible experience, that it made me determined to never have to go through it again (though, obviously, I don’t have complete control over that). Which, quite simply, translates to me putting my health, mental hygiene and happiness first.
I am focused on keeping my life low-stress, I eat home cooked, usually healthy meals, I exercise, I go out of the house, I make sure to rest a lot. And those are the things that I think make me a better writer.
Not the fact that I couldn’t sleep properly without medication for nearly a year. Not the fact that I spent countless hours crying. They didn’t give me any cool creative visions or ideas.
Prioritising my mental hygiene means that I am a writer who sits down at their keyboard rested, relaxed and with a cup of caffeine-free tea (or caffeine-full coffee). And I actually want to write.
You don’t need to have suffered from a mental illness to be a good writer. Not having suffered from a mental illness doesn’t make you any less of a creative. Mental illness might change something in you that will influence your writing, make it better. Or it might simply become an episode of your life that is best never thought about.
Depression is a serious illness, that claims many lives every year. It shouldn’t be trivialised or joked about. Depression is not a natural part of a creative process, and shouldn’t be left untreated. If you suspect that you might be suffering from it (or any other mental health issue), or that someone you know might be suffering, please seek help. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of.
If you would like to know how best to help someone who you suspect has a mental health issue, Mind offers a lot of advice here.
If you yourself need help, you can contact your GP, or contact Mind for advice on where to find help. They’re contact details here
Here is also a list of other mental health charities operating in the UK.