Dolly Parton once said: “If you want the rainbow, you have to put up with the rain”.
I love this saying because I think it completely sums up the idea that to really appreciate something good happening, you have to have suffered in some way first. “No pain, no gain” as they say.
And so I believe it is with depression.
Oh no. The D word. What’s she doing writing about THAT? This is a site dedicated to her writing journey. Surely she can’t be going to write about depression? The imaginary illness which no one really, actually suffers from .
Well yes she is. Because I believe, without depression, I would never have started writing a novel.
I have debated for a long time whether or not to blog about, what still seems to be a, taboo subject. However, recently reading two other writers’ blogs on the subject, I have found the courage to do so. What I have to say is, in parts, quite personal and so, in many ways, painful to share with, essentially, the whole world. But by not acknowledging it we create even more fear. I also hope that what I have to say here is helpful and hopeful for others. You don’t have to agree with what I say, I write from only my own experience. The nature of depression is after all, as with most things associated with humans, an individual experience.
As I say, if I hadn’t suffered from depression I don’t think I would ever have started writing my novel. Now I am not saying that when a person is in the vice-like, debilitating state which depression can hold you in that they suddenly find inspiration and begin writing and creating wonderful, poetic stories, songs or whatever else. But, and I can only speak from my own experience, I have found that the mental state depression can put you in leads to an awful lot of introspection and heightens certain neural pathways which in turn has led to creativity.
I have read, and hold the belief, that creative people are more likely to suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness. However, I can’t help but wonder if it is depressive people who tend to be more creative because of this introspection which forms part of the illness. A chicken and egg situation if ever there was one. Does our nurturing and environment and genes make us creative, and so more prone to depressive episodes, or do these factors make us depressed and so more creative?
Again I can only speak for myself. I consider, with hindsight, I have always been quite a depressed, inward looking, deep-thinking person. From a very young age. I always felt different and as though I didn’t belong to society. These feelings have never left me. I don’t think I was born massively creative, I think I needed an outlet for my thoughts. Some people write songs, some paint or draw, some become comedians, some people act and others write. I chose writing. It started with diary writing. I have religiously kept diaries from when I was around 16 years old. I still have them all. I have notebooks full of random thoughts, poems, musings. No one but I has ever seen them but they are there and they give me a giggle or lead me to shed a tear from time to time.They are also there because I always held belief that one day I would write an autobiography or my memoirs. As my memory is shocking for remembering details I have had to keep them for this reason.
I have found that when I am in a low or a more depressed mental state, I invariably write more in my diary, I write more in my notebooks. Yes it may be maudlin, but it’s often far better, far more poetic than anything I write when I am feeling great. But no one wants to read maudlin autobiographical prose or poetry. So how does this help me write a book which I am going to expect children to read? Well allow me to explain.
I am lucky enough to have only suffered one really debilitating depressive episode. It was 4 years ago and it was the most horrendous time in my life. (Is that too dramatic? Horrendous? No I don’t think so. It was a completely confusing, bewildering time for me and so far, the worst few months of my entire life.) I had experienced smaller episodes before and was prescribed medication (which I tried but due to awful side effects of uncontrollable rage, did not take any more of.) However, I had experienced nothing like this episode. An episode whereby, for the first time in my life, I actually thought I would rather die than endure what life had to offer. (And if you had known me at the time you would have said “And what on earth have you got to be depressed about?” You would say that now. In fact we could say it to everyone in western society because, let’s face it, our first world problems are so trivial in comparison to the everyday struggle for survival of our third world counterparts. But thoughts on this could form a whole book, let alone a blog post.)
Anyhow, during this particular episode I didn’t attempt suicide. I certainly thought about it. A lot. I even stood on top of a bridge overlooking a very busy road once and imagined jumping. Now I have a terrible fear of heights so I can’t have been right to have stood so close to the edge looking down! I think what stopped me going through to the full act of attempting suicide in any form was down to the fact that I had some extremely insightful colleagues at work who showed me a doctor’s surgery door before I got to that point. Nevertheless, I suffered from awful anxiety to the point I couldn’t go out of my house at times and I had to take some time off work. When I was in this really depressed state I did nothing. Nothing at all. Other than cry a lot and hate myself. I didn’t write about it, I certainly didn’t keep my diary. I couldn’t find joy in anything. Not even food or drinking. I remember the doctor asking me if I’d been drinking alcohol (as obviously it is a depressant and they advise you not to drink ) and replying that I wished I could enjoy a glass of wine, but I couldn’t even do that. I lost half a stone in weight in the space of about a month and I woke every morning at 4 am and could not sleep again. The more I felt like this, the more I hated myself for feeling like this and for being so weak. A vicious cycle had begun.
If you have never suffered, this is what depression is like. There is no joy. The world is dark, even on the sunniest of days. You cannot stand to be around yourself which is why you want to die because how else do you escape your own thoughts? You feel completely alone and isolated. You don’t want to be alone because you know if you are alone the irrational thoughts will race around your head uncontrollably. But because you don’t want to inflict yourself on others,you don’t, and so you feel even more lonely. The best way I can describe it is as though your mind is detached from your body. I felt as though I was floating above my body and watching my life happen rather than participating in it. It is the oddest, most scary sensation to endure. For endure is all you can do. Or at least that is how it feels.
Depression is not getting up on a Monday morning and feeling a bit down about the fact you have to go to work. This is so often how those who have never had the misfortune to encounter depression think of it. “Well we all get down, don’t we? You just have to get over it.” Yes you do have to try to get over it but someone telling you to get over it won’t help you get over it.
So how did I turn this wholly negative experience into something positive and ultimately life changing. How did I get over it?
Firstly I took the Prozac prescribed. Yep I felt like I would be branded ‘mental’ but so what? After about five or six weeks, the medication started to kick in. I began to read again and tried to understand what had happened to me. Then I received some counselling and most importantly signed up to an online CBT course and stuck to it. To cut a long story short I identified my triggers and set about changing and taking control of the aspects of my life which I felt I had no control over and eventually went back to work. I have, thankfully, not suffered a massive bout of depression since. However I still get nervous that I may suffer again in the future. I am still a very introspective person and I have all too frequent occasions when I have an overwhelming fear of life and an overwhelming urge to disappear into a black hole. But I have learned to live with this particular personality trait of mine.
So the point of this blog, as it is about my writing journey, is what?
Well it is to say that since that one awful period I have found something new to keep really awful depressive episodes, like the one of four years ago, at bay. And that thing is writing my trilogy. Because the absolutely great thing about writing a fantasy book is the fact it provides me with a total escape. For me it provides more escapism than actually reading, more escapism than watching television and sometimes, when the world you live in seems to be falling apart or you feel you cannot cope with it, then a parallel world in which you can totally immerse yourself and have complete control is, for me at least, the best form of medication I have found. Aside from the fact the act of writing can immerse you far from the madding crowd, the fact I now have something to aim for – a goal – is what is probably the main medicinal benefit.
Although I didn’t start writing Prophecy of Innocence when I was in the grip of, or even recovering from the major depressive episode, it was another smaller, near episode – about 2 years ago – which spurred me on to really continuing with the project I had already very loosely started. I felt the symptoms of anxiety and the loss of control creep up on me after a particularly stressful month in my life. I could feel I was heading towards the deep abyss of depression and I knew I needed to do something to get out of it. I knew what had triggered it and because of my CBT and counselling from 2009 I also knew I had to find something to keep the black dog at bay. Depression is often summed up by a feeling of loss of control over one or many aspects of your life. What had gone wrong was out of my control and so I felt I needed to regain control. But I had to find something else which I could control. So writing a novel it was.
I took myself off to the depths of Scotland where I spent a long weekend on my own writing and gathering inspiration from the landscape. Once I started I couldn’t stop. And although I still felt sad, the feelings of anxiety and fearfulness which had started to creep up on me, began to disappear. I had found something new to aim for and I enjoyed it. I had hope. I wasn’t depressed. I had escaped it because I could obtain joy from something again.
As a result of all this I consider my tendency towards depressive episodes a positive thing in may ways. When I’m feeling low I can look inward and feel things far more acutely than at other times. I can then take these acute feelings and turn them into thoughts and words I wouldn’t normally be able to articulate. I am not saying for one second, I would ever want to go through what I went through in 2009 but I am glad now it happened. I grew from the experience and learned about my triggers and how to deal with them.
If I hadn’t gone to the bottom I’d never have had to climb out to reach the top. If I hadn’t had the rain, I definitely wouldn’t have the rainbow now.
Life for most people is a mental struggle. For those who suffer from depression it is more of a struggle. But it can be embraced, if you know how to control it. And I have learned that it is me who controls my depression, not the other way round. What I would say to anyone who suffers from depression is TALK about it, if you can. although I know this is often the most difficult thing to do. It was and still is for me. Try and TELL someone, anyone how you feel, especially if you feel suicidal. Get medication and do something positive to change whatever it is you feel you lack control over.
If you had diabetes you would take your insulin and manage it. Depression is a mental illness which thankfully can be controlled. It is possible to live with it. It is possible to find the rainbow after the rain.