…Why It Should Terrify Us and Why It Will Kill Us
(My face when I forget to take my Depression, ADD, Anxiety, medication Etc.)
This blog is meant to speak to writers and non writers alike. It is in no way meant to dismiss those who have taken their life or anyone having those feelings. If you do have those types of feelings, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak about your crisis. Enjoy.
On any given day, via the internet, I might find myself reading a “Top 10 Amazing Writers Who Killed Themselves” list – recommended to me from a writing forum I frequently visit or a “suggested” post on Facebook.
Don’t worry. Don’t call me freaking out. Don’t send me to see a therapist (I already have a very lovely one!) I’m good. It’s not like that.
Just realize all writers do this. They revel in, swim in the idea of great artists who have come before them and paid the ultimate price for their work – their lives. If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand what I already mean by these first couple of sentences, then you never truly will. You aren’t a part of the club. You don’t have that shiny marquee above you with sparkling words which reads: “I’m depressed but at least I’ve got a good piece out of it.” And guess what? This is a club you don’t want to be a part of. This is the worst club of all clubs.
But if you do understand, if you are a writer (or an artist) who gets just as smug as you might get sad about that oh so inclusionary group of people, then you my dear are part of the problem. I know because I was part of that problem for a long time, still am, and I fight that urge every day to retreat into its devastating membership.
To be fair, if that’s what I want to call it, the umbrella of innovative depression (?) falls not only onto groups of people who self-identify as writers (novelists, screenwriters, poets) but also to anyone who views themselves as a performer. Actors, sculptors, painters, comedians, dancers, hell every bartender that ever lived probably fits somewhere in this creative realm.
Artists, those who flock to creative fields, are proven to have higher levels of mental disorders. They are more likely to suffer from anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, and autism. And writers while being 121% more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder are also nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
But the madness follows the gifted, from Kurt Cobain to Hunter S. Thompson to Robin Williams to Jack London to Virginia Woolf to David Foster Wallace to Anne Sexton to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s, who painted one of the most recognizable and haunting masterpieces “The Scream.” All of these talented creators worked their depression into their songs, their sets, and their sonnets but it is Munch who captured the internal mental threat in its simplicity.
Authors, like Sylvia Plath wrote extensively on the perils of depression and what it does to the human psyche but it can sometimes be a struggle to search for the meaning behind the words; like a needle in a haystack the reward is monumental but difficult to come by. Munch offers a brief paragraph on what inspired “The Scream” and how it played into his mental health.
The inspiration came to him when both he and his friend took a walk along the countryside to stare out onto a sunset.
“The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red. I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.”
It’s a beautiful sentence, and a beautiful painting. Honed as being the honest portrayal of a modern man overcome with angst, it is supposed to be identifiable to all. That’s what makes it so great.
Except that it isn’t. Because angst, sadness, I choose these words as carefully as can be, are not depression.
Munch, was not the representation of a normal worker. He was an artist who considered his paintings “his children.” Overcome by depression and hallucinations regularly, he participated in electroshock therapy. He wrote in his journals about his existence and work: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
This is not the everyday man, but this could be the everyday life of an artist or writer who sees suffering as the only valuable way to achieve some form of success. For it is the writer that often feels a kinship to their mental disorder, loathing it one day but proclaiming it as the ace in their back pocket the next, indebted to it at all times.
But how does it get this way? Is it the chicken or the egg? Did a writer want to write because they were depressed? Or are they depressed because they are writing?
Writing certainly accommodates for an unhealthy lifestyle. Fluctuating work hours and inconsistent pay checks, mixed with utter seclusion, unless you count the characters you create for days at a time can pretty much solidify that E.L Doctorow got it perfectly when he said “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
But writing can stem from the mental disorder too, all before kids can form thoughts on why it is they want to pick up a pen. For many adults writing serves as a form of therapy. For children though, there are hardly as many reasons to point to. Most writers I know, myself included, never used writing as a way to document a terrible moment in our lives, we used it as a way to document our thoughts on it. Everything else came after, once puberty set in. It’s my experience that most writers have been writers for as long as they can remember.
Perhaps writing and mental health dance around each other unforgivingly as writing becomes the desire to make sense of a senseless world.
For it is through writing that purpose can be found, as often the page for authors is the voice they feel they do not have in their own life. It is my own feeling, confirmed by other writers, that writing has the power to make a writer feel wanted, accepted, and special…all of which are as life sustaining as air itself to those fighting a disease which often tells them they are exactly the opposite: a worthless dirty burden to everyone and everything. It is through writing, a love of beautifully strung together sentences, that writers get their high.
But what are they willing to do to get it? As Munch said, and I reiterated, are depression and writing interlinked, one able to live without the other? Or are writers willing to foster their depression in order to produce beautiful works for others at the expense of themselves?
It was Sylvia Plath who stated “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” In her work The Bell Jar depression is the seam which held her existence together. It is as if she is not quite sure what she would be without it, or rather what her work would be without it.
Other writers share this same question. What would their work be without the complication of feigned mental health? Would it help or hinder them? The question of whether or not they use their disease as a writing crutch becomes apparent.
Not all perhaps, but most (at one point including myself) have thought of it (“it” being anxiety, add, depression, compulsion, etc.) as a necessary evil. Our work would not be as authentic if we did not deal with the turmoil we feel and let it metamorphosize into words on a page.
If romance novels, children or commercial literature are not our forte then the only way to get the work we envision is to live through it. Similar to method acting this creates a very concerning course an author will take to channel a character or mood of a book.
I know, I’ve gone through it before, most recently with Ekland The Journal of Grayson Tyler Mitchell. The book was not light, the book forced me to take a mass murderers suicidal hand and follow him into the dark. If you think that you can write a book like that without being a little fucked up you are wrong. And to write that book well, you have to accept that you will get even more fucked up researching, writing, and ultimately editing the thing. Secluding yourself, as I did, is a giveaway.
If you had come to my apartment those two weeks of creating you would have found a stack of fast food piled high on my kitchen counter, not close to being taken out. There would have clothes thrown in every room, and me sitting at my dining room table, calling it a lucky day if I got to the shower. On any of those fourteen days I was spending up to twelve hours on the internet a day researching autopsy reports and suicide posts.
That might sound simply like the work of a dedicated novelist, and believe me it was. But I worry about other authors who hear this, who will shake their head and give me an impressed look like I reached gold club status. The rest of the population won’t get it or think it’s stupid, but neither of these reactions are correct.
To engulf yourself as a writer is one thing, to romanticize a living situation that breeds depression is another. It can be tempting to surrender yourself to the downward spiral for art but this does nothing but push yourself into an unhappier place while re-establishing that those other authors who “write happy” are inauthentic, they are part of those who developed talent and did not inherit it (which in the writer’s world is kind of saying that you might be OK but you can never be as good as us. So yeah don’t sit with us.)
See in the writing community, suffering is a currency of talent. It’s as if our characters sadness are only as authentic as our own. And this presents itself to be even more terrible when we look to our idols as our inspiration.
Not every creative person kills themselves. Not every creative person has mental health problems. But often us writers focus on the big picture, the people who make every tick of a keyboard (or typewriter) worth it, the end game so to speak if by some miracle we become as lucky as we are talented. And the majority of these people we praise had mental health problems and committed suicide.
Writers like anyone in a profession look up to the people who achieved the ultimate success. Pulitzer, a Newbery Medal, an Oscar. Great engineers look up to great engineers. Great physicians look up to great physicians. I’m not going to name any of those esteemed professionals because I don’t want to embarrass myself, but ask yourself: what does this do for our psyches if the people we hold in such high esteem, our mentors, take their own life?
There is no shame in suicide, but when you as a writer consider that your favorite novelist accepted his Nobel Prize in Literature and then decided to kill himself only a few years later with his “favorite shotgun” you have to wonder what attributes you really want to take away from that person.
Is any work worth the emotional turmoil that a writer possesses as they write it? The only way to answer that question is if you revel in the disease for the sake of the work itself, which unfortunately many do.
Otherwise I will say what every writer might hate me for.
There is no work good enough to ruin your mental health for. One more time. This has taken me years to accept. There is no masterpiece that is worth the lowest quality of your life. I say this as someone who would give up almost everything for my work except my mental health.
Too often we writers believe that anti-depressants, mood stabilizers are the death of our stories. In my case it started off with ADD medication. When I was first prescribed my pills at the age of eleven, I had two aversions to them. Their size. And their effects on my creativity. I caught myself thinking, in middle school, “what if I can’t write as well on them? What if I am not myself anymore and it effects my novels?” (never mind I would not finish a novel until eight years later.)
BUT ALL WRITERS DO THIS. We speak about how pills will ruin our characters, how it will lead us to a lack of depth and understanding needed to get our work published. We refuse assistance. We deny reports of people who claim that SSRIs have helped them. We focus on Reddit users who claim their writing has faltered with prescriptions. It doesn’t have that same “spark” they say, and we run up to everyone and say “see?” because we know exactly what they are talking about. With one post we feel vindicated in our paranoia.
Perhaps they may be right, maybe some medications will stifle whatever we all have that makes us artists. The X factor. But the willingness to not talk about medication at all with the right person or doctor – even to start that conversation on the bare level of asking “could it help me” is irresponsible.
This isn’t to say that all depressed writers should get on a prescription, but this is to say that we all need to stop announcing how wonderful it is when we see another writer cripple themselves in poverty for ten years before they get published, and applaud it as “part of the steps to success,” because yes the average age a novelist sells their first book to a publisher is a few years above thirty.
Speaking and writing about writers who took their own lives gives us a way to understand the trouble similar writers might be having toady, viewing photos of modern day women sticking their head in an oven and photo-shopping it with a black and white filter does not.
Our depression is not a quirky personality traits we can nod in agreement to when people victimize us for acting out the script of an over-emotional troubled person.
And worse, we cannot as writers do it to ourselves. By fawning over the dead in unhealthy ways it perpetuates, not the last by any means, but a huge other problem…needing to rid the world of ourselves if our work does not sell or if we do not believe we can ever achieve the level of success we are comfortable with.
Writing is the only profession where it is perfectly acceptable to say a comment like “well at least I might be good at my job when I am dead.”
Can you imagine saying that in regards towards any other profession? “I’m working my ass off over here, the reward might not come when I am alive but maybe one hundred years from now when I am dead in the ground people will proclaim how great my work was back then, and somehow someway I might be able to know that.”
No wonder writers are prone to depression! The very essence of who they are, how and what they write, is a constant shot in the dark which might not even get slightly recognized.
But other writers understand that, and it is the strength to accept the mental disorders and depression for “the craft” that we need for ourselves. And that’s not easy. Just as pin pointing the disease is not easy.
Writing about anxiety, depression, is what we do. It’s natural for us. Everything from its “living hell” to the following are my own thoughts about the whirlwind of emotions that constantly plague us…
‘I felt as if the world lost color the more I lived in it. As if the flowers, the trees, the sky itself had become as equally as drained of life as my mind had. I often found myself wondering if people were better at lying than I was. Or if they were living in a happier more colorful place. Momentary joy for me was just that – momentary. A beautiful person. A beautiful conversation. It was ships passing in the night, a dark void I could not hold onto. And it was my responsibility, in secret of course, to try to hold onto these instances – to store them in a glass bottle for the day I would need them, when that world was once again a monochromatic existence of my own doing.’
But I suppose the words in this case don’t mean everything, they don’t even mean anything. The steps to stop romanticizing depression start at the center from fellow writers who talk about the problem as effecting the person and not the work, and who pay tribute to writers who have been lost with solidarity not camaraderie. It stops with those who question “lists of writers who have committed suicide” when those lists fail to provide a safe place for artists in need of people to reach out to.
Progress starts with open discussions, being there for another storyteller when they are not just in that terrible halfway point of their manuscript but also when they feel like they lost something once they are done with it, after all it was Truman Capote who said: “finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Because finishing a project can be a wonderful moment for a creator but it can also be a devastating one.
And so there is nothingness in depression and despair in suicide. But there are no pretty corpses. Nooses are not necklaces.