This blog is a bit of an odd hybrid. Back when I set out, I didn’t want to run separate blogs for infinity plus, me the writer and me the everything else, so instead I started this one blog. Looking back, I’m not sure it was the right decision: perhaps I should have kept things separate. But then what’s a blog for if one day you can’t write about publishing, the next about gout and the next interview one of your favourite writers?
That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
So… that black dog, as Churchill and many others have described depression.
A few things have prompted this post. One is an interest in how mental illness might relate to creativity. Another is my own experiences with the thing. And what finally made me write something is a series of unrelated posts on Facebook from friends who are discussing their own struggles with the condition.
I’m not sure if we’re genuinely more open about mental illness these days, or if it’s one of the facets of social media that it is suddenly easier for people to talk. In my own experience, a depressive episode (by episode, I mean a period that usually lasts months) goes through a recognisable pattern: a slow build-up, where you deny to yourself that anything is wrong, followed by the crisis when you break down, and then the long process of piecing yourself back together again, sometimes with therapy, sometimes with medication, and always with a lot of support and help from those around you.
It’s not always been that way: the first time I went to my doctor with depression, it was incredibly difficult (and that initial “I’ve got a problem” is never easy, even after you’ve been through it once). Slowly, I told him what I was feeling and that I needed help. And after all that, what did he do? He just said something like “Life can be like that” – and that was it. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t that “shit happens” response…
Subsequently I’ve been able to get more help whenever it happens, but it’s still incredibly difficult to acknowledge the problem and talk about it. But Facebook’s different: we have an extended network of friends who we don’t see every day; they’re close enough to talk to and share with, but the fact that it’s social media distances them, too, which makes it easier to talk about difficult topics. So, I wonder if people are opening up about this condition earlier, and more, than they might otherwise do? They certainly get a lot of support when they do so. Perhaps Facebook is actually some kind of therapy for depressives?
I also wonder if writers and creative types are more prone to depression than others. Maybe I get a skewed view because my friends tend to be creative professionals. Or maybe it’s just that writers are more able to get all luvvy about their depression: after all, they have the words to articulate what they’re experiencing. And as one friend commented recently on Facebook, as self-employed freelancers, writers also have greater freedom to talk about their depression. If you’re in conventional employment, the stigma of mental illness is still a big concern, and the risk of damaging your employability by acknowledging your illness is high. I’m lucky: in my day job my employers have been incredibly supportive when I’ve been ill, even though I know it creates tremendous difficulties for them, but a lot of others aren’t so fortunate.
According to health.com, writers and entertainers are among the top ten professions at risk from depression, with 9% reporting suffering from depression in the previous year; among men, it’s the job category most likely to be associated with an episode of major depression.
Of course part of this relates to the nature of the profession: we work alone, we follow erratic and often very long hours, our incomes are unreliable and intermittent, we face rejection, we face public criticism and even ridicule from people who don’t enjoy our work or simply have agendas of their own…
And, perhaps, part relates to the kind of people drawn to creative expression. Maybe an element of madness in our make-up gives us a perspective that helps us create. Maybe we need to be that bit different from the ‘norm’ simply in order to pursue our art to levels beyond the point where most people would give up and try something else. Maybe a drop of madness goes hand in hand with that arrogance that makes us want to create and share our creation with others.
It’s a complex thing, but it does appear to me that writers are talking about depression more openly now, which – while it might be dull for many – must generally be a good thing.
So, that difficult thing. That tipping point.
This year I’ve had some of the happiest times of my life, but also I’ve been struggling with a major bout of depression. I’m on medication for it, but the first lot only worked for a couple of months so I’ve just switched. I’ve suffered a lot of side-effects from the medication, including drastic interference with my ability to write fiction. I’m struggling through from day to day, trying not to let people down and yet knowing that I am. It’s not easy.
But at least I’m talking about it.