So, I haven’t posted on this blog in almost a year now. Truth be told, I haven’t been writing much at all since I left college. At first I just wasn’t happy with what I was writing, and then I started having trouble even wanting to write or seeing a point in it at all. It was harder to motivate myself to read, and actually difficult to experience immersion in fiction. I just reread the same sentences over and over and then set the book down. At first I was guilty and ashamed about this. I hid it and felt like an impostor. Shame turned to self-loathing, and then to a detached realization that I didn’t matter enough to hate myself.
Over time, I just disconnected from my identity as a writer, along with almost every other part of my identity. I stopped caring about myself and almost everything else. It felt pointless to even want things, let alone to try to achieve them. It took too much energy just to go through the motions of every day life and my only goal became getting through each moment as easily as possible and letting time pass me by until I eventually died.
Back in March 2014 I wrote a post about redefining writer’s block. I called it “Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt” and described it like this:
Writer’s block has absolutely nothing to do with not being able to write. It is the horrible suspicion that everything you’ve ever written and might ever write is completely useless. It is the growing shame of knowing that because you’ve poured your life into a single skill and you can’t even do that… you are effectively nothing.
A writer’s block isn’t about not being able to write, it’s about crippling self doubt to the point that you hate yourself and feel shame about all your life’s efforts.
That time in my life wasn’t quite as extreme a low as the one I just worked through, but looking back on it, that still sounds pretty bad. This whole writer’s block thing is clearly about more than just writing.
I’ve gone through a lot of therapy since I wrote that earlier post. I’ve started seeing both a therapist and a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with depression. For a long time I just assumed that low energy coupled with chronic sadness, isolation, and self hatred were just aspects of who I was as a person, so I neglected seeking help for it. I really thought I didn’t deserve help, whatever that means.
At my lowest point I couldn’t connect to anything outside the present moment and didn’t feel like a real person at all. The world was genuinely blurry; I couldn’t focus on anything. I didn’t care about anything. Nothing mattered at all. It was like a dream where if the room I was in changed entirely into a different location before my eyes, I wouldn’t be surprised because it was all just background.
The sense of detachment is hard to even describe. I remember one instance of driving up to Oswego in a rainstorm where there was no visibility. All the cars were pulling over and I was driving with my four-ways on because I couldn’t see where any of the lines on the road were. When I was finally able to get to the side and park, I looked down at my hands and noticed my fingers were shaking. I remember thinking, huh, I must be afraid right now. Good for me, that seems like an appropriate reaction to this situation. It was like my body knew the emotions I should feel, but I could only watch my physical reactions to it instead of actually feel it.
The only reason I’m able to write this today is because earlier this summer I finally started taking anti-depressants. I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly grateful I am to have access to medicine. My entire perception of the world and myself has been changing. I feel like I’m alive and that my life has a narrative and direction. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a story instead of at the end of one. I have the energy to care about things again. I have things I want to say. It’s the most amazing feeling.
Not to say I’m completely better. I’m still depressed and I’m still struggling to maintain basic motivation and self-worth, but things have gotten much better since I’ve found a dose that works for me.
I actually didn’t write this post to just talk about myself, though. I wrote this post because I think a lot of writers need to seriously think about what I’m getting at.
Before I was diagnosed with depression, I was referring to my depressive episodes as “writer’s block.” I was defining writer’s block as crippling self doubt, intense shame, feeling worthless, and hating myself. And a lot of people related to that post. It caused alarm for absolutely no one.
I’m not saying that every time writers experience writer’s block or feel insecure about their work it means they’re mentally ill. But what I am saying is that a lot of writers suffer from depression or other mood disorders.
In college I wrote a research paper on the subject.
In one study of writers in Britain, researchers found mood related mental illness in 38% of writers as compared to 5% in their control group (Piirto, 12-3). One of Kaufman’s studies in 2005 which included 826 writers from the fourth century to modern time and presented evidence that there were greater instances of mental illness specifically among poets (Pourjalali 25-27). Another study including 2,000 writers from America, Turkey, China, and Eastern Europe concluded that, on average, poets had a shorter life expectancy than other writers, and non-writers (Pourjalali 23). One particularly telling study was led by Andreason at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The study included thirty writers of the faculty, with the control made up of people of varying occupations including hospital administrators, lawyers, and social workers at an average age of 37. They followed them for fifteen years, showing the control with 30% having shown symptoms of bipolar disorder and 80% of the writers showing the same. By the end of the study, two thirds of the writers had sought help from a psychiatrist and two of them had killed themselves (Piirto 13).
[…] the study “Explaining Premature Mortality Across Fields Of Creative Endeavor” demonstrates the risk of this connection [of writers and rates of mental illness]. This study states that creative writers die up to nine years shorter on average than their peers in difference disciplines (Cassandro 806).
If you are a writer and you are finding yourself experiencing writer’s block, please make sure that those aren’t actually symptoms of depression. There is this romanticized notion of writers as being introverted and isolated, staying indoors all the time, being sad all the time. Most of the jokes we most enjoy are deeply self-deprecating and draw on our insecurities about our value as people. It’s very easy to just shrug off depressive symptoms as just a personality trait.
But this is serious. Depression does not make you a better writer. It doesn’t make your writing more interesting. It’s not romantic or dramatic or intriguing. It’s just a quiet rotting of your person. It just eats you alive, and if you let it go on long enough without treatment you won’t be able to write at all anymore.
I really do think that in my experience, writer’s block is the inability to find meaning in anything, a lack of motivation, and a lack of self-worth. I don’t know if that’s what other people are feeling, but with the high rates of illness in the writing community, it might be.
In my last post on writer’s block, I suggested trying to cure it with encouragement, compliments, love, and reassurance from friends. My heart was in the right place, but I was wrong. Sometimes it can only be cured with therapy and medication. Take care of yourselves.