Last week’s post was for my fellow fiction writers. Today I’m reaching out to my fellow depressives.
The last few days have been challenging for me. This has been another one of those weeks where I’ve felt like I’m mostly treading water, and not always keeping my head above it. Professional goals seem far away, life feels like a waiting game and I’m angry with myself for not achieving more, faster. Not a particularly constructive or useful way to think, but it’s an easy trap to get sucked into.
This summer, I’m scheduled to teach a new course at our local community college. It’s a course I designed which draws on my two artistic loves: writing and music. The plan is to use classical music – its structures, historical contexts, and creators – as fodder for writing prompts and exercises. The group will have writing time, discussion time, craft talks: the usual components of a writers’ workshop, but with the added element of music as a way to get the creative juices flowing and as a new and interesting world to explore.
At the time I put the class together, it felt like a great idea. Now, though, as so often happens when I put together something of my own, I’m not so sure. It’s too different and strange. People looking for writing classes aren’t looking for something like this. Signups have been slow, I’m not sure if I’ll get enough of a quorum for the class to go ahead, and the goblins in my head are getting loud. This was a bad idea, they tell me. Your ideas tend to be bad. What were you thinking? Nobody wants what you have to offer.
When I get into this kind of place, it’s very hard to get out. If you’re like me, and depression and anxiety are a regular part of life, you know how that spiral can suck you in and drag you all the way to the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Suddenly it’s not just about one challenge, whatever the challenge is. It’s not just about that one goal you didn’t quite make, that one thing you hoped would happen and didn’t, that single bump in the road or disappointment or – dreaded word! – failure. Suddenly it’s about everything you are. The depressive voice, the one that you rationally know isn’t your friend but somehow always, always forces you to listen to it, says things like Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing? How dare you try to create/do/be that thing! And it tells you that whatever you hope to achieve with your life or yourself, you never will.
It’s an ugly place to be in. For me, the worst part of depression is the way it can suck all the wind out of my sails so quickly. On good days, I feel fine. So fine, sometimes, that I think I’ve finally shaken that shadow, I can’t even remember why it had power over me or what that felt like. And then something will happen – the disappointment, the bump in the road, the “failure” – and I’m back at the bottom of the pit again.
What do we do? Of course there are many ways to push back against depression itself. Therapy, medication, exercise, diet, meditation: there are many ways we can build up resistance against that enemy voice in our heads, and many ways that we can work to “fill in” the pit we drop into, so that the bottom isn’t so far down, and the climb to get back out isn’t so steep. Right now, though, what I’m most focused on is the question of what to do with those overarching messages depression can give us. We know depression isn’t our friend, we know it lies, but we’re used to listening to it – we’re trained to listen to it – and it hurts us every time. So how do we counteract that?
For me, the message you don’t have anything to offer is by far the most insidious and destructive. It can take the joy and excitement out of anything I want to do, or am trying to do. It can make me feel like nothing I’m doing is worth it.
That’s where my head has been over the past few days. To work against that, I’m trying a few things:
- I’m reminding myself of all the things I have managed to achieve and accomplish, in spite of what the depressive voice has spent years telling me. I can recommend this. If you’re struggling with those internal messages, you might find it helps to look at your most recent resume or bio. Not because accomplishments give you worth, but because a look at a quick summary of the things you’ve done can remind you of where you started (for me, that was ten years ago, when I first got seriously into creative writing) and how far you’ve come along your path. You can take a moment to celebrate that.
- I’m holding onto my work – in this case, fiction writing – as a way to keep my head above water. Fiction writing can be a welcome escape from depression’s angry messages. When I visit one of the pieces I’m working on, whether to dive in seriously or just to sit for a while with the characters and their situations, very often I find it clears my head. Right now, I’m writing a short story and also very lightly sketching some scenes for a future book. Some of my characters are dealing with intense fears and doubts. Watching them work through those is healing for me. Most of all, though, the process of the work itself, and of engaging with these characters I love, is profoundly helpful. I recommend finding that aspect of your own work that gives you the most joy, and taking a while to sit with it.
- As much as possible, I’m trying to hold onto the “larger picture” of what I hope to do with my work, both as a writer and a teacher. For me, that big picture is using my skills however I can to build bridges between people and help foster communication and understanding. Sometimes an overarching goal can be daunting, and can feel impossible, but sometimes it becomes a helpful thick rope to hold onto when the pit starts to open up under my feet. I’m trying to remember my big picture and think about how, each day, to take one small action toward it. One little bridge, or the beginnings of a bridge, in one particular situation. What is the overarching goal for your own work? How might you aim for one small step toward it today, and another tomorrow?
Depression can make it so hard for us to believe in ourselves and our work. If you’re like me, and you struggle with this shadow every day, today I’m reaching out for you. We can help each other along. We can keep our heads above water.
Photos by Paul Faatz