How Writing Has Helped Me Survive Depression


This article started when I missed a deadline for a post here at LitReactor last month. I told the powers that be that, "Crippling depression hit me and I took a week-long hiatus from life. (How's that for honesty?)" And the powers responded by asking me if I'd be willing to talk about depression in one of my next articles.

This is something that's been discussed on LitReactor before (actually, one of the LitReactor articles I often recommend to people is this article on depression). I would love to contribute in any meaningful way I can to this conversation. I know that many of you (many of us) share this struggle, that it can sometimes feel like getting tossed into a maze without even knowing what we're supposed to be looking for. And I wish I had something more valuable to say. But while I lack world-altering wisdom on the topic, it's simultaneously true that writing has helped me survive depression. And I think that's worth talking about. So ... shall we?

My Once Upon a Time

While I can easily talk about depression in general, I don't really like talking about my depression. It's much easier to pretend that depression isn't a thing in my life except in those not-exactly-rare instances where it's directly relevant. It's a vulnerability for me—less like a chink in the armor and more like revealing that I sometimes lose the ability to walk.

And I don't honestly remember a time in my life when I didn't have depression. I'm guessing such a time existed, but as far back as I have clear memories I also have clear memories of getting drawn into that dark emotional whirlpool. In high school, my solid grades and extracurricular involvement turned into nearly-not-graduating thanks to a major depression during my senior year. The worst of the depressions happen every couple of years, with a more manageable level of depression serving as a near-constant in my life.

I have a great many friends who also struggle with depression, and we sometimes discuss the topic. I recently wrote up my thoughts on why creative people get so damn depressed. Over the years, I've come to view depression less as an adversary and more as a belligerent roommate. I stopped trying to "cure" it years ago. It's just something that's there.

What's Left When Happiness Is Gone

I wasn't happy. I was something much better, much stronger, than that.

My last major depression hit while I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was wandering the British Isles, trying to pay my way through freelance writing, hoping to travel Europe, Africa, Asia, and everywhere else. What happened instead was a breakdown. In the face of depression, being far from home, without friends, isn't ideal. Neither is being in a situation where you're reliant on producing large amounts of written content each day so you'll have enough money to eat and have a place to sleep.

When you're depressed, finding the drive to do anything can be an impossible task. You show up, you do all the right things, and the fire just isn't there. A broad range of emotions are no longer accessible, with happiness often being the most missed. But I remember one day, sitting at a table at the Caledonian Hostel, when I decided I wouldn't write for money. I would write something that I wanted to write. And spent about seven hours that day working on an essay.

At the end of that day, looking at what I'd written, I found I wasn't happy. I was something much better, much stronger, than that. I looked at this thing I'd created, and I thought, This deserves to exist in the world. The universe was a tiny bit better for what I was adding to it. I'd put myself into the writing, I'd cared about it, I'd worked hard at it ... and what I found was a sense of meaning. Even when happiness was gone, I had that. Perhaps meaning wasn't as pretty, but it was far more durable.

Writing's Other Gifts

Writing is an act of desperation,
the broken heart trying to force the pieces back into form,
hoping to find a soul split like a geode.

Writing doesn't help because it's a simple, beautiful, easy thing. It's painful a lot of the time. One of my poems begins, "Poetry is an act of desperation, / the broken heart trying to force the pieces back into form, / hoping to find a soul split like a geode." I feel the same applies to all written work.

There's a degree to which writing is helpful because it's what I know how to do. With my hands on the keyboard, I feel at ease. Typing is more natural than talking for me in some ways, and the mental processes of writing seem to bring in the creative and analytical aspects of my mind in a cooperative way that feels like a mental stretch routine.

Stories may provide an escape, but they also empower us to decide the values of the world we're escaping to. We can affirm our views, build our own sense of meaning, become more conscious and sensitive about what we believe to be worthwhile in the universe. In writing personal narratives, we also get the opportunity to look back into our own past and tell the story a different way. In this sense, writing is a form of redemption: To re-deem is to re-evaluate, to look at something and see it in a new way.

The World Inside Our Skulls

Writing helps connect us with a community. No, not every writing community is healthy, but having others who understand our struggles is vital. These days, my computer background is a home-made wallpaper featuring a Firefly quote:

When you can't run, you crawl. And when you can't do that, you find someone to carry you.

Creating a space for community isn't the only way that writing helps us reach out to people who understand. It's not the only way it helps us fight the lonely. To write is to allow someone else into your skull. It lets you put together all the little pieces of your outlook, your beliefs, and your passions. We put them down in language, the material of thought itself, and we give our thoughts to others. We have the chance to explore their minds in return. It's about as close as we can get to sharing our internal landscapes—and I need that. The world inside our heads can be a terrifyingly lonely place.

Hopefully you know much of this already. Maybe I've been able to give an insight or two. Maybe it's nice hearing from someone else who's experienced something similar to what you're struggling with. And really, I do wish I had better insights to offer here. Writing has helped me approach my own story in a critical way with a sense that I have the power to impact the way the story is told, and that's helped me develop much of the wisdom I do have.

Truthfully, the best piece of wisdom from my time with depression is one I rarely share, mostly because it can sound damned depressing. It's simply this: No matter what else life is, it is still better than lying down to die. It may be a small piece of hope, but it's proved to be a resilient hope—strong enough that I've been able to hold on to it through everything. And so long as I've got that, I can keep fighting to create my life's story.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On September 19, 2013 - 11:27am

Robbie, I appreciate you sharing this. What resonated most was that I also don't really remember a time in my life when I wasn't depressed. In my mid-twenties (I'm forty now), it manifested so powerfully and outwardly that it became the first time in my life that I was hit with the clarity that I've always been depressed. For three years after that, I fought suicidal thoughts and went to therapy and took medication, but it only numbed me. I decided then that I'd rather feel the shit than the numbness, so I flushed the meds and quit cold turkey. I've had several intense episodes since then, but they've been shorter and easier to handle since I've learned tools by which to cope--the big one being writing. Especially in the last five years, I've found the act of writing makes me feel just a little less lonely, and little less without direction, a little more fired up. It's a bitch to live with because the very first thing it does is saps your will to fight, so you have to dig that much deeper. But by digging that much deeper, you have a lot of raw material at your disposal that you can use in your craft. It's what I'm most thankful for, and it is WAY better than lying down to die.

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson September 19, 2013 - 1:02pm

Thanks for sharing this, Robbie. A pleasant (?) surprise since joining a writing community has been learning how many of us struggle with depression and anxiety. It's so much better together.

I've lately been on a months-long slide into apathy: sleeping for sixteen hours at a time, unable to  write anything that isn't rubbish, and not caring about either. It's gotten so bad, I lost my job this week (and that'll do wonders for your mood). It's a struggle to turn around and climb back up. I'm grateul I can count on friends like Dino ^ to be there when I surface. (Hello, dear.)

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago September 19, 2013 - 6:45pm

Thanks for this article. I'm sure it will help many of us, including you.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts September 19, 2013 - 9:05pm

Thanks for the insight. There are some points I think will resonate with a lot of people.

I'm kinda of the mindset that for a depressed person things like moving and breathing are hard enough that writing would seem impossible, or meaningless, or just ridiculous. That doesn't seem to be the general relationship with depression in the writing community. I'd hope there'd be a push to get help, get drugs, do whatever, because the key part here would be the surviving, yeah? If people are able to enjoy writing though then that's at least a step in the right direction.