Depression feels like a constant uphill battle. I’ve suffered from depression for most of my life, and it seems whenever I learn a new way to cope, depression adapts and gets stronger like some antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria. As a creative person with goals and high hopes for myself, I find depression especially crippling.
There are days when it’s hard enough to convince myself to brush my teeth, let alone write 1,500 words. On the bad days, I’m an immobile slug and the good days are obscured by wondering when my depression will inevitably return.
When I can’t bring myself to shower for days, I’m disgusted with myself. When I can’t bring myself to write a few paragraphs of my novel, I feel like a failure. My depression likes to trap me in a downward spiral of self-flagellation. It tells me I’m a fraud, that I’ll never be successful and everything is pointless. It likes to pose as a philosopher, as a realist, as the only thing looking out for my best interest. It’s a liar.
I’d like to talk about a few ways I cope with depression as a writer with ambition. I hope you find this advice useful. I’m not a therapist, I haven’t studied psychology. I’m just a writer who tries to write.
It might take you longer to accomplish things
Depression is a thief. It steals your energy and your time, and you can never get that time back. It might feel like you’ve wasted time while you’ve had to recover from an episode, or when you slept for 14 hours but you had planned to wake up and go for that jog and achieve that word count. You beat yourself up because you should have been stronger. You should have more self-discipline.
You are not going to be able to spring out of bed and take on the world on your low days. This is something that’s hard to accept, but it’s reality. Don’t beat yourself up for it. It’s not your fault. You can still accomplish your goals, you will just have to be patient. You can’t run in the Olympics with a broken leg. No one would expect you to.
I know it’s difficult having this invisible burden. You can call out of work with a broken leg, but you can’t call out of work because you’re depressed. You have to lie and say it’s the flu, or food poisoning, or some other socially acceptable illness. And missing a day at the office is one thing — missing a day of writing is something else entirely. It’s personal.
When you’re depressed, things will take you longer. But remember this — even if writing that book takes a year, you’re still writing a goddamn book. Not a lot of people can claim that. You might feel behind other authors, but don’t compare yourself to them. Wait until you’re feeling better to get competitive. Your depression will pose as constructive criticism. It’s only destructive and you have to wait for it to pass before you can be objective.
Self-Maintenance is the best prevention
You can do everything right and depression can still decide to crash your party. However, it’s less likely to do so as often when you take preventative measures. Some of this advice is pretty standard, but I hope I’ve added enough to help you see this standard advice in a new light.
All advice here hinges on knowing your true intentions. You’ll need to be able to tell when you’re genuinely out of commission or when you’re just making excuses. It’s hard, and sometimes depression will make some convincing excuses for you to not get off the couch. Meditation helps, mindfulness in thought, action and speech helps, and analyzing your current condition in the present moment helps. Get to know your thought patterns and signals from your body.
Sometimes you won’t know if you’re down for the count or making excuses until you try to do something. For example, you may have very low energy, and not feel up for writing. But what are you preserving your energy for? What could possibly be more important? Half of the battle is showing up. Open up your laptop or notebook and write 100 words. If you can’t write any more, at least you tried. If you open it up and burst into tears, then stop.Try again later.
I know — you’ve heard this a million times. When I’m depressed, I dread walking a few feet to the bathroom. How can I expect to force myself to exercise? I made it easy for myself. I got a cheap exercise bike and put it in front of the television in the living room. I bike for half an hour and read, or find something on Netflix. I found a nice trail near my day job, so on my lunch I go for a 20 minute walk when it’s not raining.
Sometimes you’re not going to be able to get on the bike, or get on your feet. It’s acceptable not to so long as you genuinely try. If you just can’t get out of bed, then try again later. I recently tried to do some pilates. Imagine a mother trying to dress an uncooperative, exhausted toddler in the middle of a tantrum — that was me trying to move my depression ridden body. So, I get it. Sometimes it just ain’t happening. Forgive yourself so long as you tried.
As a writer, you probably sit a lot. Take a five minute walking break every thirty minutes if it’s not interrupting an awesome flow. Get a table to put over your exercise bike and set your laptop on it so you can write and pedal. Go for a walk when you get stuck on a scene.
Another typical thing you hear. Ask me to cook when I’m depressed, and I’ll react like you asked me to lift the refrigerator over my head single handedly. I don’t have the energy on a good day, let alone a bad one. What I’ve found works is having easy, healthy food around. Bananas, apples, green juice. They’re ready as is. I bought a bunch of frozen veggie burgers and it takes 3 minutes to heat them in a skillet. It’s not an awesome diet, but it’s better than fast food every night.
My mood is affected by what I eat. When I eat like shit, my body feels like shit, and my depression flares up. When I eat well, I begin to feel well. It’s not a cure, but it helps steady my moods. A cheesesteak might make me feel good for a few hours, but once that pleasure wears off, I’m left with my bad mood.
Writers seem to be obsessed with coffee and tea. I recommend no caffeine after 2pm. If you’re like me, you’re chronically fatigued, and caffeine seems to help. It isn’t helping. You might need your 10 hours of sleep a night. Caffeinating yourself to stay awake when you should be asleep is just as bad as oversleeping when you should be awake.
This may be my most important point. For a creative person, output is an essential part of self-maintenance. It’s just as essential as drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and trimming your toenails. You have to write or you will be miserable. Work it into your schedule just as you would a shower or exercise. Try to work up to a daily routine, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.
Sometimes you’re just going to be out of commission
This is the hardest fact to accept for me. I have a lot of ambition, and I beat myself up knowing I’m not living up to my potential. I have gotten lost thinking about what I could have accomplished if only I had the motivation when I needed it. It isn’t a helpful mindset, and it only helps my depression win.
During one of my low points, I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. Sometimes you’re just going to be out of commission. You can berate yourself all you want. You can try to bribe yourself to get up, you can even resort to threats. You can remind yourself that you’re a grown ass adult and you have responsibilities and rent to pay. Your depression doesn’t care.
Ultimately, you either write your book or you don’t
Your depression doesn’t care that you have a book to write. And time doesn’t care that you have depression — it will keep moving forward with or without you. You have the same 24 hours in a day as JK Rowling.
No, it’s not fair that you have what feels like this handicap while normal people around you can keep up good hygiene and somehow maintain a healthy social life while juggling a full-time job. But fairness was never something any of us were entitled to. You didn’t ooze out of your mother’s womb, get slapped on the ass, and get thrown into a world where everything is organized to be fair.
The way I see it is, I will have to live with my depression and accept that it’s most likely a permanent resident in my life. I can convince myself that I am a victim and give up, or I can suck it up and adjust my lifestyle for this unwanted guest. Fighting against the reality of depression is like someone with a sprained ankle insisting on taking the steps instead of the elevator, or someone with type II diabetes eating ice cream because, by god, they should be able to enjoy the things healthy people enjoy.
We fight against depression because we don’t want it. We want to be cured. That may be possible, but right now, it’s not our situation. We must adjust and take the elevator. We have to put down the ice cream. We don’t get to enjoy the things healthy people enjoy, and we can resist that fact and try to do what they do all we want. If we do that, we’ll keep getting the same unwanted results. I know, it’s not fair.
A sprained ankle or type II diabetes are more visible and understood by people as needing to be cared for. Depression is highly misunderstood. People might tell you to get over it. This is why it’s all the more important to take care of yourself, and take yourself seriously when others may not. At the end of the day, the pressure to ignore your depression and “get over it” is self-imposed. No one is in your home holding a gun to your head and telling you not to treat your symptoms.
Ultimately, you either write your book or you don’t. Those are your only two options. You can’t help that depression slows you down, but I’m determined not to let it stop me, and I hope you are, too. You have a story to tell. Depression can’t change that.