My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Writing With Depression (Mailbox)

Any advice for writing with depression? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  I'm going to do a quickie today since I really need an "admin weekend" to get control of my mailbox and all the emails for W.A.W. that I'm behind on..]  

Laura asks (paraphrased question–full question below):

I am working on my dissertation, and am wondering if you have any advice about writing with depression. I have imposter syndrome and it is always worse when my anxiety and depression come up. I realize that a lot of people who will themselves to success aren't facing the kind of mind-altering depression and anxiety that I am. When it is really bad, I don't just question my writing, but my value at all, and I can't just snap out of it. Any advice about writing with depression?

My reply:

Trollbrains sometimes fucking suck, don't they.

Hi Laura. I paraphrased your question so that it could fit into the "top of the fold" and a Facebook preview, but the full version is down below.

Your trollbrain, Izzy, sounds like a real turdbucket. You can tell her I said so.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that labels are, at best, the beginning points for understanding the deep nuance and individual-expressions of neurodivergence. When some armchair psychologist tries to make the beginning and end of the conversation "DIAGNOSIS-BAM, now you fit into a box," they are usually not demonstrating anything beyond a wicked lack of understanding and real knowledge.  So I think you have the right idea asking for lots of input, and I'll put out the question to our readers.

My two cents: I've never been diagnosed with anything other than "you were abused and it has messed with your everything," but I go through some pretty wild ups and and some pretty severe downs from time to time, and I have several friends (many writers) who struggle with depression and the way that anxiety and depression can do a wicked combo (particularly if they tag team in a triple threat with imposter syndrome). Most of the advice I've picked up is pretty basic stuff: keep up on self-care, if it's possible to have therapy and meds, keep up on those. Be kind to yourself about your regimen on the days that it's really bad.

But to this I would add some particular insight because, like the subject of the Fleetwood Mac song, I am given to going my own way.

First off, establish a daily routine and stick to that regimen....at least as much as you possibly can. For every day you scrape through that writing, no matter how much you really don't want to, the slog is that much easier when you're less overwhelmed. Sometimes people stop brushing their teeth or taking care of themselves when they're depressed because they're that depressed, and I don't want to trivialize the situation or depression for the people who reach that point. It's absolutely not about sloth and it's absolutely not something they can just "get over." However, for many in their day-to-day struggles, something like teeth brushing might one of the last things to fall away (or that it does is a sign things are really bad) because it is an established habit that is much more rote and routine than, say, hanging out with friends or doing that activity one loves. Getting writing to be tooth-brushingly habitual can help you be able to do it in spite of brain weasels. Maybe it'll take a "nine" to break your routine instead of a "seven," and that's a lot more productive days, year after year. It's not panacea because even basic self-care falls away sometimes during bad illnesses, but it can help to have that routine firmly entrenched and push yourself to maintain it. Be honest about that assessment. (But if you really can't, then be as kind to yourself about that as possible. It happens. It's okay. Think about what you'd say to someone else.)

The other is to honor the moments where things are going well. Hitting your stride with no Izzy in sight? See if you can clear a few hours from the schedule and try to write for a little longer that day. Make the most of the good moments.

But how about everyone out in readerville? How do those of you with depression cope and keep writing, or get back to writing as fast as possible? I will set the comments to a lower security setting for a couple of days and deal with the deluge of spam, so please feel free to contribute for Laura some tried and true techniques you've found over the years.

Laura, you also might want to check the Facebook post for this article. A lot of my FB followers steadfastly refuse to write comments on the blog instead of on the comments FB post itself, and something worthwhile might turn up there.

Just don't read the comments.

Oh shit, I guess you have to. Well, keep a picture of a cute bunny or something on standby.

Full question: 

Hi Chris,

I love your blog and fb posts and it has been really helpful and
encouraging! It gives me a sense of community despite the seeming
black hole void nestled in an isolated universe that is writing a

I wanted to ask if you have anything in the archives or know of any
mentors or role models that talk openly about writing with depression.
I have absolutely evil Impostor Syndrome, I've even named it as a way
to manage it, but Izzy is a cold-hearted bitch. And her existence and
power is manifold when coupled with high anxiety and clinical
depression (which is delightfully exacerbated by the soul-crushing
rite of passage that is finishing a dissertation).

I recently realized that the people around me, that I see powering
through and succeeding don't have the kind of hateful mind-altering
depression and anxiety that can render me useless in the space of just
a few minutes. And the people that I know that do have severe
depression, really struggle.

I know more of us deal with this, I know it's not just me.
Intellectually, I know I'm doing the work and what needs to be done,
and I recognize when Izzy has made an appearance. But it's not just
Izzy. Eviscerating my Impostor Syndrome requires that I first wade
through the seemingly endless quagmires of shit that is Depression -
and let me tell you, that combination is a very very scary one,
because when you're depressed, Impostor Syndrome doesn't just tell you
you're a bad writer, or scholar, it gets much more personal, much more
quickly, using those activities as leverage to convince you that not
just your writing but perhaps your entire life is worthless. It can be
terrifying. One well-meaning colleague recently, probably in her own
frustration with my dissimilar experience, suggested that I try "just
not letting it get to" me. Not helpful. Alienating, actually. But it
made me realize that she doesn't understand this particular obstacle
and that I could use support and encouragement from a writer or
writers that do get it. (I promise I have a good support network and a
great therapist! I just want to convey that my query is about
Depression, and only tangentially Impostor Syndrome, and finding a
writer or writers out there who can genuinely understand this
experience and offer support, encouragement, or even understanding
solidarity that isn't, essentially, "snap out of it.")

So, it would be helpful to hear from some established writer, or even
writers who also identify in this way. Even if we do all of the good
writing habits and the self-encouraging positive things we're supposed
to do, we are still struggling. Perhaps knowing of others' experiences
with this, I (we who live with this reality) can chart a way forward
for myself. Honest to goodness, somedays I feel like Frodo battling
just to get to Mordor (not even just the task itself but the trudging
through), or Brienne of Tarth who is/was also trying not to die while
trying to fulfill her duties.

Thanks so much for your work and for the community you've built!




  1. I feel this. I feel this so hard that usually, I don't even comment on things. I just lurk because, hey, who am I to voice my opinion? It's just like when you're a kid and everybody's trying to boss their friends around on the playground, and you get called bossy and so you stop. But some loudmouth kid pushing his way through the slide line, he doesn't care about getting called bossy. He's going to keep pushing his way through life, yelling his opinions whether they're asked for or not, and you know what? Most likely, he'll get rewarded for it. I'm personally three years in to a crippling writer's block where the fog of self-doubt is so thick that all that can escape are occasional blog posts, and even then, I just post, I don't try to get anyone to read them. Because who am I to want ears tuned in to me? I'm just a person, and not a very interesting or original one. But Laura, the reason we feel these things, like our own insignificance, and the unshakeable weight of existing, and the looming threat of failure, is probably because we're smart, and sensitive, and aware enough to realize that in the cosmic scheme of things, we are very small. These are good traits, but if they leave us crippled in silence, then the loudmouths are the only voices out there. This is what motivates me to try. To keep going. To say something, anything, that isn't the endless hot air that blows from the mouths of people not smart enough to realize they are insignificant. For the sake of our future, Laura, be another voice. A smarter voice. A quieter voice, maybe, because the self-assured and idiotic will always be louder... but if nothing else, get your words out there, so that other, unsure, sensitive people know they're not alone. Most of the time, when I'm experiencing the depths of depression, this doesn't help. Nothing really helps, except time. But you're not alone, Laura. I'm rooting for you.

  2. Thank you thank you thank you a thousand times for this wonderfully articulated question. I have felt these same feelings and actually ended up exiting my PhD program with an MS. (My advisor was a narcissistic asshole, so leaving was the best option.) Hopefully someday I will be able to continue at a different school. Anyways, I don't really have any better advice than Chris gave, so I'll just give you some encouragement: Keep up the fight! I'm rooting for you!

  3. Chris's advices on this are really good.
    I had a period of depression through college, but it took me a long time to accept I had it and start treatment. It wasn't exactly a paralyzing depression, it was more the active self-destructive, life imploding kind. I got better after a year of meds and about two of therapy, but sometimes I feel it lurking around, waiting for a moment of weakness, and I shoo it away with some help from my fiancé, my sister or Harry Potter, who/whatever is closest. Whatever works, right? '^^
    My first years of college were hard, though. I could only get work done when it was a group work (I tend to make extra effort when other people are on the line), otherwise I would get almost paralyzed by self-doubt (on academic and personal worth alike), and would go and do something stupid to justify the lack of work done (and my lack of self-worth, going full circle). If I had heard this advices back then, I would probably had finished college.
    The only thing I could add to what Chris said is that you resist the urge to delete what you write when you get that routine going. I've thrown a lot of drafts away in those years, and I regret it to this day. Delete nothing! It's good that you can identify when Izzy is around. When you feel Izzy is not going to show up for a whole day, that's when you read and edit what you've written. And if you feel like deleting it all at the end of that day, again, don't do it. Give it another chance some other day.
    I hope my experience helps. It's not exactly about writing throughout depression, but to keep making an effort for things that matter while you still can. My treatment wasn't fast enough to save my degree, but it was enough to save my mind and give me a different perspective on life and myself. It's important that you be stubborn and don't listen to that voice that says all you do is crap. That voice is wrong.
    And, to lighten things up a bit… I find this particular comic very helpful when I need to be stubborn against negative thoughts: https://xkcd.com/828/

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  7. Laura, I am so close to finishing my dissertation with both anxiety & depression & PTSD, & PMDD, & chronic pain & a full time job & so much more & I still read this article hoping for an answer because it doesn’t magically go away. At least not for me. There are good days. Even good weeks. This is not one of them. I’m so close. I’m so tired. Routine is hard for me. Remembering to do even basic self-care things is hard for me. I have a great memory it’s not that. It’s that they are for me. I’m always last on the list. It takes so much effort not to be. And anxiety & depression are always yelling at me or growling at me & I don’t necessarily have the energy to act louder. So I recommend making lists of all the self-care activities that will help you get to a better mental state for writing. Figuring that out can take time & trial and error. You are worth it. And it can absolutely change over time. Lists and journaling also help get the anxiety and depression clutter out of my brain. If I’ve written it down then I don’t have to worry about it. Finally, find people to support you. Lots of them. I have a coach I talk to monthly. I talk with my dissertation chair, my partner, my mom, several friends. If you can afford it, pay people to help you (like my coach). Figuring out what you can afford and what your time is worth can be very empowering. But if you are struggling financially that is totally understandable and a huge source of anxiety for a lot of people. Know that you are not alone in any of this. If you are writing a dissertation, you’ve written things before. You have something important to say. Other people (your professors) agree that your contributions to scholarship are valuable. You can do this. This is your project, you are the expert. It takes courage to write. Know that every time you write you are being brave. Think about why you want to do this & try to find ways to make your writing feed that why. Best wishes to you on your journey. Amy

  8. I'm so thankful for this question. That she is writing at all is a BIG WIN, keep up the good fight. Thank-you for the inspiration.

  9. I don't have really have any set answers, you know? There's no one right way to cope with this stuff and live your life and fulfill responsibilities at the same time. I've had (have?) debilitating depression, anxiety and PTSD, and I'm a recovering anorexic to top it all off. It's been my life since I was 15, and now I'm in my second year of law school. What Chris has said is great advice, tbh. And I'd add one thing: there are times we fall from our routines. Times that despite the best we can do, we just can't put that one foot forward. On those days especially, be kind to yourself. You haven't failed. You're not sidetracked. In any physical race, any professional can tell you that you don't runat 100% constantly, you pace, you go slow and you go fast alternatively. Be kind to yourself. Start smaller. Make the goalposts closer. You wrote a paragraph? Hell yeah!!! You made yourself breakfast? Amazing!! You brushed your teeth? Omg! You drank some water? Go girl!! These things all matter. I'm rooting for you, I believe in you, I know how much this stuff drains you. Every step you take is monumental, and don't ever forget that

  10. Hi Laura! I also wrote a dissertation while dealing with clinical depression. One of the things that helped me was lowering my expectations for how much I should get done in a day and super rewarding myself when I met my very minimal goals. I aimed for just one hour per day of dissertation work. And when I did an hour, I got a sticker. (Yes, seriously. I had a sticker chart.) Some days that hour would lead to more hours, and other days that hour took me all day and completely wore me out. But it was progress and positive reinforcement every day.

    I also had “dissertation support activities” I gave myself stickers for like going out for coffee with a friend or doing a puzzle on the kitchen table. I guess that’s how I thought about my self-care— it supported my dissertation, it wasn’t just procrastination or avoidance. And so I got rewards for doing it.

    I like that you name your foe-brain Izzy. I named my protector (like a patronus from Harry Potter that I can conjure to ward off the soul-sucking dementors). Nora the grizzly can be fierce but also a snuggly mama bear when I need her. Whatever it takes, right?

    Be proud of yourself for sticking with this work that is too difficult even for most people whose brains aren’t actively working against them. You are incredible!!

  11. Chris' advice to attempt the regular habit of writing is best. In my own case, I also know how difficult even that can be. It DOES help. Often, pushing hard at just typing words if nothing else, helps me. It can even be a way around the depression itself. Sort of. Depression is much bigger than a simple black dog. Try to remember that when it succeeds. Be kind, try to be patient, keep working... Most of all, don't fall into the evaluation trap. That one tries to grab me sometimes.

  12. I have Bipolar Disorder and GAD. The only advice I had not already mentioned is on bad depression or anxiety days, don't be afraid to take breaks to re-center yourself on your goal. Do a meditation for focus, do some deep breathing, do a grounding technique, have a cup of tea or cocoa, recite a mantra or affirmation - whatever helps calm you and center you - and then get back to the writing. I'm a student and a creative writer and taking 20 minute breaks periodically is the only way I can get any work done for either on days where I'm in the thick of my anxiety or depression. With imposter syndrome, remember even the so-called greats go or have gone through it. It's just a feeling. It's not a fact.

  13. Hi Laura, I'm glad you asked. It shows that you realize the depression is the problem, and not you yourself. It helps to keep that distinction in mind. I have struggled with depression my whole life. I can't say that I've overcome, but I can tell you what I think helps me.
    Depression takes a lot of physical energy, so when I have no energy or appetite, I nourish my body by drinking bottled nutrition shakes (the kind they make for elderly people), and plenty of water. Sometimes I just have to gulp it down like a medicine, but I believe it helps give my brain more energy to fight.
    I think of my work, my writing, as an escape. When I don't want to write, I tell myself that if I focus on writing, it will occupy my mind and give me a sense of accomplishment. That really whendoes evenwork for me.
    I suggest the books of Jenny Lawson-- Furiously Happy, and Let's Pretend This Never Happened. You can get them on audio. And also her blog, The Bloggess. She writes about living and writing with mental illness.
    Best wishes to you. Be good to yourself.