Writing with depression and anxiety: help or hindrance?
Mental health issues are talked about far more today than they ever were, and for good reason. Depression and anxiety are a double vortex of sickly, swirling dysfunction that suck you in, pull you under and leave you gasping for breath. Depression and anxiety cause us to take the external – the uncontrollable, volatile, transient events and forces that mark the nature of existence – and internalise them.
They are beasts that bind us and slave masters of the mind that sap our strength, rendering a world of brilliant colour and nuance in stark monochrome absolutes: your friend doesn’t message you back – she must be offended at something you said. It's obviously you that's the problem. You must have messed up or failed in some way. You must be a failure. Or this: everyone in your family has been healthy and well for some time; it must only be a matter of time before that ends.
We’re always on the brink, teetering on the edge of imagined tragedy. In a contradiction that depression and anxiety blind us to we construct laws of certainty in a world we say is full of uncertainty. All good things come to an end. Do they? Who says? Depression and anxiety settle like a greasy film on the watery surface of rationality and prevent rational thoughts mixing with the more worrying thoughts all of us have from time to time, and to which no judgement should be made.
It is completely normal – especially when certain events, such as bereavement or news of national or global disaster, trigger them – to allow dark thoughts to creep in. We are only human, as the adage goes. A healthy-minded person is able to observe those thoughts and let them pass; a person in a depressive and/or anxious state of mind will let those thoughts and feelings linger. They will dwell on them, and perhaps even feed them with additional worries. Dark and worrying thoughts will settle like a thick layer of snow and leave you frozen, inert and suffocated.
Are depression and anxiety a hindrance to the writing process?
If a depressive, anxious state of body and mind holds you captive to disturbing thoughts and feelings, or leaves you in a state of emotional paralysis, then yes, that can be a hindrance to the writing process.
As mental health professionals have told me, it’s not necessarily the occurrence of certain thoughts and feelings in themselves that are the problem, but whether you let them pass or you allow them to stay and take up residence in your mind, that matters. In the latter case, we can be become insular to the extent that we fail to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others. In other words, we can lose our ability to empathise, and empathy is crucial to good writing. It is the ability of the writer to inhabit the worlds of others that etch authenticity and credibility into the narrative.
Of course, there are also the seemingly endless days of feeling unmotivated and uninspired – days of inertia that mock the diaries of the disciplined who carve out a daily writing schedule, whether or not they feel inspired to write.
Can depression and anxiety help the writing process?
If we write through our mental health issues and see not them as fundamental markers of our identity, as if they were a solid and impervious part of our being, but rather as temporal ways of seeing the world, we can utilise them to our advantage. How?
Turn emotions into empathy
Use the insularity to plumb the depths of your emotions and experiences. Then tunnel back out and look for resonance in the world around you. We think that perhaps we are alone in our quirks and peculiarities. Sometimes, the self-pitying tendencies of our nature can lead us into thinking that we are wholly unique in our thoughts and feelings – in some ways, we are. Then again, we’ve all had moments of recognition when listening to friends, maybe even strangers, that it’s not just me. I’m not alone. Chinks of connection break through and we realise that maybe we’re all just navigating our way through a messy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes chaotic, always uncertain existence, and trying to make the damn best of it.
We can use mental health issues to gain a greater capacity for empathy and understanding and write more authentic stories, perhaps more than if we had never grappled with these issues.
Search for the grand narrative thread
In all the senseless suffering that goes on in the world, maybe there is still something beyond us – something worth hoping in and for. Call me an optimist, but it’s my belief that there are values we can all cleave to that grow like branches off a grander meta-narrative to life: love, justice, beauty, truth.
When reading novels by authors like Ian McEwan, who is clearly an immensely talented and intelligent human and writer, and I’m thinking in particular of the novel Atonement, I can’t help but think that the nihilistic worldview that seeps through the pages collapses in on itself. The notion that we write our own endings and weave our own realities regardless or in spite of fact, as the protagonist in Atonement does, is not just bleak; it’s internally incoherent. In the infinity mirror of nihilistic narrative, why believe the story within the story? What or whose story is that story framed in, and so on?
Stories are a vital part of what it means to be human. Our ancestors told them around the campfire; we write them on the pages of books, pluck them from the strings of a guitar or paint them as colours, shapes and forms on a canvas. However, in my opinion, unless they are part of a grander meta-narrative beyond the self, they are ultimately meaningless. Granted, this isn’t a concern if you don’t believe there is real meaning in the universe. Perhaps you aren’t troubled by this, and that’s okay. But there’s a reason why the Harry Potter series made JK Rowling one of the most famous authors in the world, and it’s not solely to do with the magic, wizardry and her beloved host of characters, now a pantheon of literary gods in the minds of HP fans. It’s the theme of sacrificial love – love that’s stronger than hatred and even death. How ironic then that the Harry Potter series was maligned by a minority within the evangelical Christian community, considering that this theme, woven throughout all the books, is central to Christianity.
As I started thinking about writing this post, I wondered if I should write about self-care and bath bombs and pumpkin-spiced lattes. But for those of us who are struggling or who have struggled with mental health issues, these things can just be a plaster on a deeper wound. If they are part of a regimen that works for you, then carry on. Whether it’s medication, cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness, there are so many helpful resources out there. When I sat down to write this post, I realised that what I was really interested in was whether we can use mental health issues to help the writing process. I've no doubt that entire PhD theses could be written on the subject. This blog post is a brief reflection on my own experience.
The truth is there have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have been a hindrance to my writing, and other times when I have used them to propel me into an exploratory journey, an attempt to map my thoughts, emotions and experiences and use them as guideposts to my own story, and then set out to find others beyond my own. Depression and anxiety are not inherently helpful for anything, let alone the writing process. They are beastly and debilitating. However, they can be a catalyst in the writing process if you reach out and get help. Mental health battles are impossible to fight on your own.
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced times when mental health issues have affected your writing in either positive or negative ways? If the latter, what has helped you out of the rut?
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