Writing, like any artistic endeavor, is fraught with mental health pitfalls. This has always been the case, for as long as we’ve cared enough about artists to learn of their personal lives. Some of this is due to the uncertain nature of the business: fortunes rise and fall quickly, ambition is rarely paired with reward, and the snipe-hunt for respectability and social-standing is most often tied firmly to non-creative fields. And some of this is genuinely linked to root level mental health: your brain making too much of the sad chemical, and not enough of the happy chemical.
In recent years, many prominent members of my genre have admitted to their struggles with depression, and I’ve seen it cut through luminaries in every other aspect of my life. I am now reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, only to discover that Capain Merriweather Lewis (the explorer of Lewis & Clark fame) suffered from severe depression that most believe led to his suicide. In my squadroom, the biggest poster is for the suicide hotline (the next biggest one is for an upcoming retirement party, in case you’re curious). So, yeah. It’s everywhere.
And we’re talking about it, which is great, because it reminds folks that they’re not alone, which is how most folks struggling with mental health issues feel. Further, it reminds us that *successful* people, people whom we admire, struggle with these issues and *beat* them to the degree where they’re able to go out and do the things we admire them for. There’s a word for what that kind of example provides: Hope.
But hope isn’t enough.
Sometimes, my agent will critique a manuscript of mine with the notes: “This isn’t working,” or “punch it up here.” I smile and thank him for his comments. Then, I hang up the phone and scream “WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN!?” at the screen.
Then, I calm myself down, and write him an email asking: “Could you be a bit more specific? Can you offer me any suggestions as to how I can punch it up?”
It’s the same thing here. Because when I look at all the folks battling depression and anxiety who are brave and honest enough to open up about it on a blog, that charge of hope is real and concrete and awesome and it lasts for all of thirty seconds. It’s immediately followed by my solution-oriented thought process which has me screaming at the screen in much the same way I screamed at the phone after hanging up with my agent. Yes, it’s awful. I get it. HOW DO YOU FIX IT. TELL ME WHAT TO DO.
Well, I can’t tell you how other people beat depression and anxiety.
But I can tell you how I do it.
I was diagnosed with “Major Depression, Recurring” and “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” along with PTSD in 2009, but the truth is that I’ve probably been suffering from all of these ailments for a lot longer, and it took the mental health outbrief when I got back from Iraq to pin it down. In that time, I’ve gotten a Master’s Degree, owned three homes, been commissioned as a military officer, been to war three times, travelled the world, published 4 novels, finished on the podium in my sport of choice, stayed in great shape, built a successful, respectful and wonderful romantic relationship, made a ton of friends and met most of my heroes. To sum up: I’ve coped *enormously* well, and there are moments when I look at my own life and I can’t fucking believe what I’ve accomplished. I am not exaggerating when I say that my bucket list is pretty much tapped out.
Some of this has been unconscious. Much of it has been deliberate.
I’ve written before that, at least with PTSD, you can’t fix it. You can only reframe your life around a permanently changed world view. This isn’t precisely true for depression, but the rule is the same. I don’t focus on curing anything. Instead, I focus on my *behavior* and let the actual emotional deckplate come around on its own.
I’ve talked before about how D&D helped me to imagine myself as someone else. When I was a scrawny nerd kid, I pretended to be a tough, powerful Paladin. I modeled my behavior on an ideal, and then, years later, I blinked and saw that I had become it. I use a similar strategy for depression. I role-play a happy person.
Ever see the Madness of King George? Great movie. As you might guess from the title, it’s about a guy who goes crazy. If I’m being fully honest, I really don’t remember much of it apart from some crackpot theories about the color of his pee and a single quote, which is an attempt by the king to explain why his mind has cleared: “I have remembered how to seem myself.”
I never forgot that. I add to it the title of the 1970 Funkadelic albulm: “Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow.”
Except, I reverse it. The truth, for me, is that if I free my ass for long enough, my mind will follow. Focusing on seeming normal may seem to be burying the problem, but it isn’t. This is the thing we all already know: depression lies. It is, at its root, a disease of perception. It’s a brilliant and incredibly convincing monster that is permanently dedicated to ensuring you see the world as way way worse than it really is. There may be people out there who can convince themselves of the contrary. I tip my hat to those competent souls. I’m not one of them.
Therapy and medication are critical, because they get me past the crisis level of depression: the place where you give up and neglect your responsibilities. The place where you tell the love of your life to leave you because you’re not worth it. The place where you stop exercising and eating right. The place where you stop working on your novel or your screenplay. The place where you quit your job because why bother. The place where, eventually, you kill yourself. But all that does is get you to a sustainable and lousy place where you are meeting your obligations and pushing air past your teeth in a world that is permanently coated in shit. That’s living, but I wouldn’t call it a life.
And I want a life. A life is worth having.
And anything worth having is worth working hard for.
So I follow this process:
1.) I give myself a short and finite amount of time to let depression reign. Life sucks. This problem sucks. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Everything is going to collapse. I’m a fraud. I’m worthless. Any depressive knows this routine intimately. I am not a drill sergeant. Nobody ever came out of a depressive funk because someone screamed at them. I am sympathetic and kind to myself, and I lean on a support network of friends and family who are sympathetic and kind to me. When someone stops being sympathetic and kind to me (while still being honest, and I’m smart enough to sniff out BS), I cut them off. But I keep it SHORT, because this first step is not productive and solves nothing other than to give myself a minute to get ready.
2.) I concretize the goal. What do I want here that depression is telling me I can’t do? I want to get promoted at work. I want to write an amazing novel. I want to be a millionaire. I want to be in better shape. I ask myself: “can you possibly accomplish this?” Note the broad framing of the question. It is NOT possible for me to be a starting linebacker in the NFL. It may be *unlikely* for me to make enough money to afford a townhouse in the West Village, but it is definitely POSSIBLE. This is the kind of framing I’m talking about.
3.) I stop whining and get to work. Not because the whining isn’t accurate or justified or real. This situation *does* suck. I *do* deserve sympathy. I have a *right* to be bummed out about it. But the goal I’m setting will only be achieved by one thing and one thing only: work. I write the novel. I go to the gym. I have the hard talk with my friend. I want to reiterate – I am sad/frightened/unconfident/angry/stressed the entire time, but I am *moving* and that is something.
4.) I seem. Seeming is important. Because the truth is that being miserable all the time is a ticket to isolation. Rightly or wrongly, people instinctively pull away from those who are negative all the time. I let it out when I must to a trusted network who is briefed up and ready to handle it, but I acknowledge that this is *my* fight and only *I* can pull me through it. Folks can cheer for me, folks can support me, but no one can SAVE me, and expecting them to will only push them away. Isolation may work for some folks, but it is death for me. I need a circle, even when I feel like I’m not worthy of them, even when I feel all alone in the midst of them. Seeming means putting on a happy face, making jokes, forcing myself to be social, to take my health seriously, to meet my work obligations, to innovate and create and plan and everything else that defines a life. Even when it seems pointless. Especially when it seems pointless.
5.) I keep going. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If worst comes to worst, you slog through another 50 years and then die anyway. That’s a remarkably short time, and you will have all of eternity to be dead. Just suck it up and get through to the end and if you were wrong that seeing the Aurora Borealis or making the New York Times Bestseller list or keeping your significant other company would make it all worth it, then oh well. You get to die in the end anyway. You can do 50 or even 80 years. That shit will go by in a flash.
6.) I acknowledge that my mental health is serious. I have the equivalent of cancer. If I take my eye off the ball, even for a minute, I could die. You don’t skip your cancer medication. You don’t not show up for appointments with your oncologist. I don’t fuck around with that here.
7.) I trust the process and have faith. I can’t control my feelings, only my actions. I have concrete examples of where doing that has created conditions where I genuinely did feel happy and well. The rush of seeing my name in print. The satisfaction of hitting my goal body weight. Resolving a thorny issue with a friend and drawing closer to them as a result. I hold those examples close. I remember them. I trot them out when it all feels pointless.
I can’t promise it will work for you, and while it doesn’t *feel* like it works for me, when I am able to dispassionately step back and look at my life, I see that it does. And it’s liberating in its simplicity. It’s just like writing, or policing or exercise or being in charge or being a good significant other or public speaking or any of the other impossible tasks that I’ve somehow managed to blunder my way through over the course of 41 years.
You have my sympathy. You really do. I’m down in the shit with you. And it sucks hard. But all you can control is the work.
I quote Joe Abercrombie a lot on here, he’s one of the few fantasy authors whose prose is inspirational in my everyday life. That’s the case here: “When you’ve a load to lift, you’re better off lifting than weeping.”
Not because weeping isn’t justified, not because you don’t have the right. But because lifting is the only thing that will that will get you to a place where you can, at long last, set the burden down, and step lightly again.