The last several blog articles from The Scriptors have touched on the anxiety of publishing, the emotional upheavals that come with transitions in writing and in life, the need for inspiration to fill the creative void, a book release with themes about depression and suicide, and how common depression is among creative types. When the death of Robin Williams hit the news a few weeks ago, I was devastated. I was all prepared to write an article honoring him and discussing depression, but found out Andy Brokaw was already working on that topic. It was at her suggestion that I write a companion piece for it, anyway. At first I thought it might be overkill, but now I’ve decided I have something worth contributing to the theme before moving on. Or … maybe I should say, “Listen to my story.”
I had a rough childhood. While this is not the time or place to go into detail, it’s important because I was about twelve when I realized I didn’t smile as much as other kids. Maybe I’ve been fighting depression as early as age five, or maybe it hit me during that twelfth year when I was crystal clear about something being wrong with me. Either way, I’ve been coping with it for most of my life, and by age fourteen, I had tried to kill myself three times. I have almost tried once since then, as an adult. Two of those early attempts were via asphyxiation … the same thing that killed Robin Williams.
There are only two celebrity deaths I’ve ever actually cried for because of the personal loss that I felt considering how much that person’s work influenced my life. The first was John Lennon. The second was Robin Williams. So, I cried not only because I had been a huge fan of his work since the days of Mork and Mindy, but because I had “been there; done that”. I can’t tell you what his exact thoughts were while he was struggling with himself in his final moments, but I have a pretty good idea what they might have sounded like, and I can tell you exactly what it’s like and how it felt. It’s amazing how universal the lies are that depression whispers into your mind, regardless of what your individual problems might be. The difference is that he succeeded where I failed. My age and ignorance were what saved my life. His maturity and experience were what enabled him to end his. Had he failed, he might still be here. Had I succeeded, I would not.
If there is anything good to come from our loss of this brilliant man, it was the fact that it jarred people into conversation. You see, Robin was excellent at wearing masks and pretending everything was okay. It’s hard for some people to believe such an outwardly happy, indeed spastic, individual could be “chronically sad.” But the fact that he took his own life highlights that problem—depression is not sadness. It’s not a bad mood or a bad attitude. It’s an illness. It’s a cancer-like disease that erodes your sense of self and your love of life from the inside out. He once likened his life to that of a hemophiliac running through a razor factory. That’s a good analogy for depression. Everything around you cuts you to the bone, but you have no ability to stop bleeding. And since no one else sees the wounds or the blood, people tell the depressed person to “Get over it,” or “Get help.” But when you’re bleeding out that much, you’re too weak and unresponsive to help yourself. When you’re in that depressive episode, you don’t have the strength or the skills to swim to shore. You’re already drowning. That’s my other favourite analogy for depression: it’s like drowning.
Did you know that depression has physical as well as mental symptoms? Your body feels heavy, sore, and fatigued. Your mind gets foggy so that you can’t think clearly. Voices start telling you what a failure you are, that the daily struggle just isn’t worth it. Pretty soon you realize the only way to end the despair is to stop caring about anything but ending the pain. And that’s when thoughts of suicide can turn into action. Imagine drowning or bleeding to death every day. Then maybe you’ll understand what it’s like to have this mental illness.
In discussing this (openly like this), I have had so many friends and family speak up about their own dark experiences with depression. For some, I was aware of their struggle, either because they told me in the past, or I recognized the symptoms. But others know how to put on a smile and sound positive to mask it, in hopes that no one will notice, or because the show must go on. Then we wonder en masse why we’re so shocked when they take their own lives. I’ve found it’s better to remove the mask and be honest about it. Robin knew this because he spoke openly about it, too. That’s the only way you’ll get the help you need is to let other people know that sometimes you’ll need someone else to hold you and keep you from sinking while you endure the depressive “seizure” until you can recover and get your strength back. Slapping a, “Snap out of it; you’re being emo again,” on it won’t help. In fact, that sends a message to the depressed person that he is, indeed, a failure because he’s annoying you. It’s better to offer to be available to wait with him through the episode until it passes and he can think clearly again. It may take time for the episode to pass, but with the right treatment, depression, like other chronic conditions, can be managed and possibly even go into remission.
Meanwhile, it’s freeing to talk about it and realize you’re not alone. That’s the other thing this conversation brings into the spotlight—the fact that this illness is so incredibly common that our silence and misunderstanding makes no sense. We need to talk about it in order to understand it better, for the sake of those who suffer from it, and for those who don’t because, most likely, they know someone who does. So, I want to talk about it. I want people to understand it’s not a case of the blues. Recognize it for what it truly is: a chronic disease with mental and physical symptoms that can kill as surely as any cancer.
And as a writer, I want to further explore this connection between depression and those of us creatives who “slit our wrists to bleed all over the paper” for you … the readers, the critics, the fans of the arts. I’d like to offer up three articles for further reading on the connections between writing and mental health.
1. “Poetry, the creative process and mental illness” by Alex Hudson of BBC News.
Though this is aimed mostly at poetry, I believe it applies to any art. How is depression not like sadness? Well, for one thing, studies have shown that the mind of a depressed person behaves in a similar pattern to that of a schizophrenic. People who suffer from depression will tell you that their own mind sabotages their thoughts with “voices” that attack their self-esteem. We are aware there is no one else there—that it’s our own mind in conflicted dialog—the whole angel and devil on the shoulders bit. But we are under constant attack from our own minds. When that conflict is channeled through art, it bleeds into and becomes part of what is created. This is not just negative thinking. This is something entirely different because we have to find ways to silence those voices before we can even begin thinking positive again. Poe once said, “Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest form of intelligence.” Therefore, since conflict creates art, art has likewise been proven to reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem … which is precisely what the afflicted mind needs in order to heal.
2. “Writing as Catharsis” by Nathan Bransford via his blog.
Bransford is an author who attempted to address the question of whether writing is good therapy. He told of his own personal experience of using his inner turmoil during his divorce to give his characters very deep, real emotions on a completely unrelated subject matter in his book. This is something I can relate to because I go through this with every prominent character in my stories. Just the other day I was writing a scene from Mahntarei’s pov about his background, and while his circumstances are very different from mine, I dared to enter that darkness again to write something for him that would develop him better as a multi-dimensional force in the story. When I finished the scene, I had to wipe away a few tears, but I felt better, both because it was an emotional release for me and because of how much it improved my art. But even with simple journaling, Bransford says, “There’s just something about getting those thoughts out of your head and down onto a piece of paper that clarifies, expels, soothes, and calms.” In his article, he found connections between writing and depression as a means of problem solving, too. Basically, if we didn’t react to our problems, we would never solve them. However, the price of problem-solving is pain. From my personal experience, writing gives me something I can control in a world that often makes me feel helpless to control anything. Writing is currently helping me through an extremely difficult year. If not for my writing, I might not even be able to get out of bed. So, writing is the best medicine I could possibly ask for right now because it allows me to catch my breath and get my feet steady under myself again, all while using my characters to exorcise my demons and figure out how to solve (or how NOT to solve, in some cases) my problems in real life. This is why literature is the study of the human condition. Reading and writing help us see a clearer picture of our own circumstances, even when presented through seemingly unrelated fiction. Literature is a “safe” way to explore all the possibilities and reflect on consequences without actually having to endure some very harsh lessons from experience.
3. “The Psychological Benefits of Writing: Why Richard Branson and Warren Buffet Write Regularly” by Gregory Ciotti via Entrepeneur.
This was written as a business article to argue the benefits of writing in terms of cultivation of self and increased productivity. But look at everything it says about what writing does for the brain, regardless of why you’re writing. It makes most people happier because it offers an outlet for expression and clarity on goals and dreams. It fosters better thinking and communication because it forces you to organize and communicate your thoughts in the most effective way possible. Writing is an outlet for handling hard times, like previous articles suggest. It keeps your brain mentally sharp with age. It gives the writer an enhanced outlook on life with more gratitude. It shuts down multi-tasking so that a singular focus can come into view. It increases learning by making us more aware and observant of human nature and the world around us. (Which reminds me of something I once read about how to have an artist’s “eye” for drawing: art is ten percent skill and ninety percent observation.) Writing encourages leadership, particularly in the field of publishing because you have to take charge, take criticism, and problem solve both independently and as a team member. But even if you don’t intend to publish or show your writing to anyone … write. Write because it is good for you.
So, while there is so much more I could say about depression, let me start by saying writing is a good way to tell your story, directly or indirectly, to share with others or not. It is good for us to go through that process of thinking and communicating with ourselves. It might help others to understand and relate. It is good for your mental health, your creativity, and, apparently, your productivity. Take care that you don’t go in so deep that you can’t come back out. But if you, or someone you know, suffers from depression, wants to be inspired, or is just coping with a lot of stress, doubt, or bad luck lately … if you can’t talk about it, consider writing about it. It’s one way of grabbing the problem and wrestling it down to let it know who’s boss again.
We love and miss you, Robin. Your brilliant creativity gave us so much laughter and joy to make us forget our problems. We recognize and stand in amazement at the kind of strength it must have taken to pretend you didn’t have problems of your own. Rest in peace, and thank you for sharing your funny and touching stories during your brief time with us.