Authors and DepressionThe saying goes, “Write what you know.” I am an author who has suffered depression most of my life, though I was long unaware of it. After being diagnosed and treated for it these past ten years, I believe I can now speak with some authority, though I do not have a degree in health sciences.
Here are some authors who have suffered depression (by no means a definitive list): Samuel Johnson, John Keats, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Hans Christian Anderson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Guy de Maupassant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, William James, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Winston Churchill, T. S. Elliot, Anne Sexton, Agatha Christie, Tennessee Williams, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., J. D. Salinger, Woody Allen, Anne Rice, Bob Dylan, Amy Tan, J. K. Rowling.
Just looking over the list will likely give you plenty of ideas on some possible ‘causes’ of depression. Born in dire poverty? Orphaned? Alcoholic parents? Horrific diseases? Lost loves? Brutal and lingering post-traumatic stress from wars? The pervasive abrasion of a culture of hate on a sensitive soul? Political exile? Loss of religious faith, or faith in any institution at all? A tragic accident taking years of recovery?
Regardless of the causes of depression, I feel there are two specific reasons why writing and depression seem to go hand-in-hand. First, what other legal methods can tortured human beings pursue to release horrific burdens and devastating offenses to their soul? Very few. Joseph Conrad’s vivid atmospheres were painted with the gloom and pessimism of his subjective life, like many of the authors mentioned above. William Blake’s poems not only burgeoned with mystical symbolism, he infused many of his personal beliefs in elusive allegories, chock-full of rebellious notions on the authoritarian attitudes of science, religion, and even of marriage laws, fueled by mystical visions and a childless marriage. And who could deny that any philosopher’s views of how life is, or how it is supposed to be, are based directly upon the inconsistencies they see around them, trying to organize them to make sense, once and for all?
Writers have things to say, not all of them pretty, but nevertheless they feel an internal pressure to expose their insights. And writers suffering depression, daily clawing their way out of the maelstrom, battling demons in what I dub The Silent War, must acknowledge their existence, must make their mark, lest they be swallowed up by the darkness with no hope to claw their way out. This leads to the second reason being an author is so often associated with depression, and I am uncertain how many other authors with depression will resonate to it, but it is the only understanding I feel I have personally made that I’ve seen nowhere else.
I think of it as The Paradox. Everyone knows the body affects the mind — fever, alcohol, etc. The expression ‘mind over matter’ tends to make you think of telekinesis, hugely regarded as a scientific impossibility, so most people do not analyze the expression for meaning. Yet, is that not what living in a body is about? You think, “I’m thirsty,” and you get up and head for the kitchen. Your thoughts drive your will, and your body usually obeys. Our minds command our bodies in subtle and surprising ways, too. The Placebo Effect springs to mind, but consider this — if someone were to tell you that your best-beloved has just been killed in some tragic way, you may be in a bit of shock at first, but the tears will start, you may drop to your knees, and you may suffer a depressive episode that lasts months to years.
The Mind-Over-Matter-Over-Mind Paradox doesn’t stop there. Think of every human-created item you possess, the house you live in, your society, religion, and government. They were all once simply ideas. Humans use their minds to control their environments all the time, whether they be direct physical environments, political environments, or psychosocial environments. If you are not perfectly content with all those environments, the disappointments niggle at your mind. You may disapprove of many things that offend your soul. And some changes might do more than offend you; living in a war zone can produce profound psychological and nervous damage. Shell-shock, PTSD, or even knowing yourself to be a warrior in The War on Drugs (on either side!) affects you physically from psychological stresses that can build up to actual nervous system disorders.
This is what I believe happened to me: I worked in an environment in which I pushed myself every day to be ‘on my toes’, ready to react to confrontation or combative situations at every moment. From this vantage of time and understanding, I personally feel as if I kept my body pumped with adrenaline for seven hours straight, every day. Adrenaline triggers the fight-or-flight response, for perhaps 20 minutes of explosive action, and it does not get metabolized all that quickly. Forcing myself to live on adrenaline for so many years, forcing myself to achieve X, Y, and Z despite my depression, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I had a nervous breakdown. Utter alpha-female superbrain egotist that I was, I spent 1 1/2 years off work and tried it again for another 2 1/2 years, which culminated in a second nervous breakdown.
This is what depression is like for me: I force myself out of bed every day and do the utmost minimum maintenance in life. If I have energy to spare, I sit with my computer to distract myself from the maelstrom. If I have energy to spare beyond that, I do housework or yard work. The way I determine whether I have that kind of energy is if I have not dropped a plate or glass, and if I can stand and walk without wobbling. Let me assure you, nervous breakdowns are PHYSICAL. I could not watch TV or ride in a car with my eyes open for six months because the moving images would nauseate me. And not only was this all caused by not taking care of my depression, it has exacerbated my depression to horrific proportions.
I recently watched a documentary on mind science in which one scientist stated the average adult’s body voltage was 50-100 millivolts, whereas people suffering severe depression have readings as low as 5-7. I did not doubt that statement at all. Imagine waking up from a general anesthetic after surgery, when the nurse urges you to cough to avoid pneumonia. It takes a great effort of will. Not only that, you cannot perceive anything beyond a few feet from your body; it’s all ‘white noise’. Now, imagine every day is like that.
What happens then? You get stuck in your mind. You try to move, you try to tell your body to move, and it doesn’t. Your thoughts spiral: What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do anything? Since you are the authority on your life, and since we are programmed to think there must be a cause to everything, you end up focusing on all the most terrible things that have ever happened to you or that you have ever done, because nothing good could have caused this situation. There is no logic to this, naturally, just the human need to explain things away.
So you cry. Some people cry because they cannot escape their guilty thoughts, no matter how small. I would cry because I could not figure out what was wrong. For a period of about two years, I figured I simply had a brain tumor and would keel over someday. After those two years, I realized that must not be the problem, for I would have been dead long before. The problem is that depression is a nervous system disorder, plain and simple, whether it be caused by environment, trauma, or that mind/matter paradox wreaking its devastation upon you.
You cry because of all the things you want to do, but you don’t have the energy. You cry because you feel worthless because you cannot do anything, for we are raised to define ourselves by what we can get done, what we can achieve, not for some inherent goodness of our existence. You cry because you realize you have no more friends, because you’ve turned down all their advances, all their requests to go here and do that, because all you want to do is lie in the darkness because even lights and colors are painful to interpret, much less doing things in a moving environment. You crave input, yet you fear input because the overstimulation of your raw, weak nerves makes you miss what people say, or stumble over things you didn’t perceive, and they ask if you are drunk or sick or just don’t like them anymore because your behavior is embarrassing them.
Ah, but the computer! The computer is your perfect companion. It is within your perceptual zone. It takes little effort to use. You can control how much input it gives you. You can read a sentence three times if it takes you that long to process the information. You can avoid videos if the images move too fast. You can avoid bright, flashy websites, and if you are interested in such a website, you can take an hour to read one page. You can use your tiny ounce of energy to do productive things. For example, you can write.
You can write at your own pace! You can look over something you wrote three days ago, and rewrite it! You can save every version if you wish, or trash all the old versions! You can edit your manuscript a thousand times! You can improve upon your work, every time you re-read it! If you are a self-published author of ebooks, you can even upload your newest versions, any time you want!
You can even… *the words whisper themselves* earn money. You have probably lost your job by now, so that appeal is undeniable. And you have things to say, important things burgeoning out of that black pit of despair, especially because you’ve figured out a thousand things about your life and your past, though you’ve not yet figured out the depression. Those things you would say, the distillations of your history and experience and spirit and observations, may even help someone someday.
You can even craft them into a story magnificent beyond your own paltry, inexplicable, down-trodden life. You can imagine worlds and people and lives of such richness, they would blind you in your current limited perceptual matrix. You can live as many lives as you can create, and ignore being stuck in a body that won’t do what you demand of it.
You can write stories THAT MATTER. You can MAKE A DIFFERENCE in someone’s life. You can be PRODUCTIVE ONCE MORE and earn a living, no matter how small. You can be a WORTHY HUMAN BEING again. You can be AN AUTHOR.
When your mind can nominally control your body, as in depression, you have to turn away from the sucking maelstrom and reach for life once more. When you are inspired to write, you can use your thimble of energy to reach for vast universes, promulgate them, call yourself an author, and feel like you are living a normal life. The most brutal part of being an author is the rejection, the apathy of others, and the criticism, but to reach for life once more, in whatever form your imagination may take, makes it all worthwhile when you see you have made a sale. And to get a letter from a fan or a five-star review is like getting a brand new life. To someone out there, you exist, you are worthy, and you have made a difference.
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Eva Caye is the author of the To Be Sinclair series, consisting of five published ebooks, three in various stages of editing, and the finale and two prequels as works-in-progress. She lives with her magnificent, understanding husband and two beautiful mutts in Louisville, Kentucky.