Writers and Depression
© 1995 by Nancy Etchemendy
On an afternoon in September of 1994, I sat by myself with a razor blade
in my hand. Outside, the weather was hot and still. But in my head a storm
raged. Dozens of disordered voices howled in the wind of that storm. Most
of them were of the opinion that my work had no value; that I would never
succeed as a writer, and thus would never realize my most cherished dream;
that the pain of my existence had made me a liability to myself and to
my family; and that I would be better off dead. Luckily, the voice I heard
most clearly as I held the razor poised above the veins of my wrist was
that of my young son, asking me to think about what his life would be
like without a mother. I put the blade down and cried, unable to do what
I had intended, but finally convinced that I was seriously ill and needed
The name for the condition is clinical depression. During the year of
my recovery, I was surprised yet somehow comforted to discover that depression
is one of the most common human ailments. Almost everyone becomes clinically
depressed at least once. Over half the general population will experience
two or more episodes of serious depression during a lifetime. Statistics
gathered in a recent article in Scientific American* indicate that
the incidence of clinical depression among writers and artists may be
as much as ten times greater than that among the general population. The
incidence of suicide is as much as eighteen times greater. Why
should this be the case? What exactly is depression? And what can we,
as individuals who are apparently more vulnerable than most, do to protect
ourselves from the specter of this often fatal illness?
The most common symptoms of depression are:
- Isolation. Loss of interest in activities
and friends. A sense of being trapped inside yourself. You may develop
an aversion to answering the phone or the doorbell, or to greeting acquaintances
if you pass them on the street.
- A major change in sleeping patterns.
Are you sleeping more than usual, or do you find that you go to sleep
easily but awaken during the night and can't get back to sleep? Anecdotal
evidence suggests that many writers suffer from frequent insomnia. But
if your insomnia gets much worse than usual, this, too, can be a sign
- A generalized inability to take pleasure in
life. This can include loss of interest in food, or obsessive
consumption of it. A secondary symptom is unintentional weight loss
or gain of more than ten pounds in a short period of time. It can also
include loss of interest in sex.
- Inability to concentrate. This can manifest
as a pattern of dropping things, frequent accidents while walking or
driving, and so forth. It can also show up as a feeling of confusion,
or inability to make decisions.
- Loss of hope. If your prospects for the
future seem unremittingly bleak, be suspicious.
- Self-medication. You may be unable to
shake the conviction that you need alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or other
nonprescription drugs in order to cope with life.
Scientists are still debating the question of why writers seem particularly
prone to depression. Some feel that the underlying cause may be genetic.
But it's also possible that the cause is more mundane. Some of the everyday
aspects of writing may contribute to depression.
It takes a lot of courage to be a professional writer, though this fact
is rarely acknowledged. Producing a book, a story, or a poem is emotionally
similar to becoming a parent. We put so much of ourselves into our work
that it's hard to separate ourselves from it, even after we've finished
it and sent it out into the world to be judged by others. So it's easy
to get confused about whether an editor is rejecting your story or you
personally. The steady drum of rejection slips is a part of life for every
writer, even the most successful. The courage it takes to deal with rejections
and keep going may fail us at times. Without courage, we become fair game
Another occupational hazard for writers is the solitary nature of the
profession. We spend a lot of time sitting alone with only our thoughts
for company; it's difficult to get work done under any other circumstances.
The average writer doesn't swim in the luxurious stream of external feedback
that most human beings enjoy. Most of the decisions we make about our
work and its quality we make on our own. There may be periods of time
during which the only feedback we have is a string of editorial rejections.
Even after we achieve regular publication, we must sometimes grapple with
harsh reviews, critical inattention, or indifferent treatment from publishers.
It's not socially acceptable to complain too much about these unpleasant
aspects of the business, so the tendency is to internalize them--to take
them to heart, and believe that they mean the worst. Without frequent
reality checks--perspectives from a number of other people--it's possible
to get stuck in the endless! loop of our own doubts and get further and
further from the truth without realizing it.
There are several things a writer can do to keep depression at bay, or
to dig out from under it once it descends. First, realize that the body
and the mind are an interdependent system. Staying emotionally healthy
is always easier if you feel good physically. My own dance with depression
was complicated by the the chronic pain of a degenerative disease. I know
from firsthand experience that once I felt better physically, the climb
back to a normal outlook on life became considerably easier.
If you habitually overuse common drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, or
even caffeine, make an effort to cut down. (Be careful to withdraw from
nicotine and caffeine gradually, though, as sudden withdrawal can actually
add to depression!) These substances can cause various physical
discomforts ranging from nausea to respiratory difficulties. They can
also contribute to perceptual distortions and mood swings. Pay attention
to your diet. Eating regular, well-balanced meals will make you feel better
in every way. Try to keep regular hours. They don't have to be normal.
But they do have to stay about the same from day to day, and they should
include adequate rest. Last but not least, try to get some aerobic exercise
each day. It doesn't have to be much and it doesn't have to be particularly
strenuous. Even as little as twenty minutes of cycling or brisk walking
daily will benefit your overall health in a big way.
To alleviate isolation, cultivate the friendship of other writers. Having
other writers to talk to can help you keep a healthier perspective. One
note of caution here, though. Be careful about participating in a workshop
or critique group while you're depressed. Inept or unnecessesarily harsh
criticisms can exacerbate the problem.
There will probably still be times when the dark curtain of depression
comes down in spite of your best efforts to stay healthy. According to
Gene Grossman, a family therapist who has practiced for over twenty years
in the San Francisco Bay Area, it takes resilience to overcome depression,
and resilience can be learned to some degree. He recommends several valuable
texts for writers who are learning to cope with depression: Darkness
Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by the renowned novelist William Styron;
Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman; and How to Want What You
Have, by Timothy Miller, Ph.D. In addition to these, I have found
Nathaniel Branden's book The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, and Julia
Cameron's The Artist's Way very helpful.
Finally, if you're too ill to help yourself and the task of fighting
the darkness seems insurmountable, don't hesitate to get professional
help. I ended up looking at that razor blade because I thought it would
be a humiliating admission of weakness if I went to see a therapist. I
had a lot of "good" excuses. It would cause my family pain and embarrassment.
It would cost too much money. The only thing a therapist could do would
be to prescribe anti-depressants, which would probably rob me of the will
to write. I should have asked myself what would hurt and embarrass my
family more, my seeing a psychiatrist or my committing suicide. I should
have realized that drug therapy is just one of many possible paths out
of depression's jungle. And the expense of therapy is not as great as
I feared. Most insurance policies cover at least some of the expenses
associated with treatment of acute conditions such as clinical depression.
If you have no insurance, there are many th! erapists who work on a sliding
rate scale, based on the patient's ability to pay.
There are hundreds of good moments in every single day. Noticing them
and celebrating them on paper is part of what makes us writers. If you
stop being able to see them, take action. It may save your life.
* The article referred to is Kay Redfield Jamison's "Manic Depressive
Illness and Creativity," which appeared in the February 1995 issue of
"Writers and Depression" © 1995 by Nancy Etchemendy. All rights
reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written
permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web
at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL
lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, John, and their son
Max. Her short stories for chidren and adults appear regularly in magazines
and periodicals worldwide. She is the author of four novels for young readers,
Power of Un,
currently available at bookstores and online booksellers.
Her writing earned her a Bram Stoker Award in 1999.