27 January 2013

Little Stabs at Happiness, or: Writing with Depression

I've had depression for as long as I can remember (even if there were times in my younger life when I didn't realise it) and I have always wanted to write. It's been a constant depression, rather than bipolar, which has been worse at some points, especially during sustained hot weather, than others, but which has always present. In my early thirties, I've had to grudgingly accept that everything I've tried - trying to pull myself out of it, numerous periods in counselling or psychotherapy, anti-depressants - will not dispel it, and the best I can say is that by now I better recognise the symptoms of particular severe bouts, and that I've managed to arranger my life so that there are very few people around me who are not understanding.

(Rightly or wrongly, I feel bound to clarify that I never thought or intended transition to be a panacea for depression - more that it would make it easier to manage. This has proved the case, and I wrote about the relationship between my gender and mental health, which is ultimately a separate issue, here.)

I realised that I wanted to write during the worst depression of my life, during Years 9 and 10 at school, when I would tell anyone who'd listen that life was fundamentally pointless and that nothing could change this. Not many would listen, certainly not for long - it wasn't until I got to sixth form that I read Camus, Sartre, Kafka and others who would help me to articulate these feelings, and the realisation that there were authors who had shared this outlook provided tremendous comfort. Then, I decided that the only way I could find any meaning would be in trying to make material conditions better for people, as far as possible, and that I was best equipped to do this through writing.

So writing became a tactic against negativity, despair and defeat - it was never hard to find inspiration from the cultural or political climate, but nor was it uncommon to feel overwhelmed by it, unsure of what to focus on and pessimistic about whether anyone was even reading, let alone if it was making any difference. This feeling has hardly changed as my platforms have become larger, and nor has the unwillingness to take part in public debate that comes with depression - the sense that I will have nothing to say at any exchange of ideas, in person or through writing becomes insurmountable during its worst spells. Even if I am still capable of producing rather than procrastinating, the depression shapes the subject - I am far less likely to offer a view that might prove contentious or tackle a controversial issue head on if I'm particularly down, even though some of my favourite articles were written during severe bouts.

The formation of my aims in direct relation to depression often led me to prioritise them at the expense of my own wellbeing - I'm thinking particularly of the Guardian blog on transition, when friends warned me that putting so much of my life into the public eye could have strange and damaging consequences, but I felt that I was already deeply unhappy, so how could it make this any worse? In the main, it was cathartic, allowed me to feel I'd achieved my teenage goal and was positive, but in some ways it exacerbated the problem, especially as it brought me into contact with many people who had found that discrimination had shaped their lives in very sad ways. After several years, unable to shake this feeling that short-term successes always faded into long-term failure, I had a mini-breakdown in December 2011 and had to stop writing for a couple of months whilst I sought more counselling and thought about where my work, and its underlying motivation, had taken me.

So I still can't say if writing makes my depression and anxiety better or worse: I can only conclude (in true History graduate style) that it does both, providing an outlet for and alleviating some sadness whilst constantly keeping it at the surface, often facilitating conversations with like-minded people which can be inspiring or despairing. The drive that it gives during better periods means that I can be very productive, which keeps giving me reason to live; at other times, I feel unable to work at all, each day that passes without a word making me more anxious, the cycle rapidly spiralling, disproportionately affected by the most minor failures or rejections, this fixation often preventing me from pursuing any other action that might improve my mental health (such as taking a holiday, or even a walk, or taking time to cook and eat properly).

Even now, for all my familiarity, it can be weeks before I become aware of it, although I find that keeping a journal helps me to monitor my feelings, tracking heightened periods of depression or self-absorption, and means that I don't stop writing entirely. It's not going to go away, so right now, this is the best solution. Speaking about the subject helps, though, and having raised it on Twitter recently, I was heartened by the number of people who felt able to say that they were exploring a similar relationship, which a range of responses - it gives them ideas and experiences, they lose motivation, sometimes they create a lot (and then have to edit heavily) and at others they cannot write a word. All things I can identify with - how about you?


  1. I certainly recognise the symptoms, but I'm no writer. Without doubt it has been a blight on my life.

  2. I definitely relate to the double edged sword of having it both serve as am outlet and a constant reminder. I've written songs during younger days that are about relationships or emotions that felt good to get out of me & articulate, added to which is the boost that feeling creative gave me... But it's also maybe the reason I don't perform as much as I'd like - that feeling of reliving and re-experiencing them when I sing.

    Hmm. Interesting. Expression, to me, does feel very much as you said, both cathartic but with the possibility of exacerbating something I generally try to fight in different ways.

  3. Hi Juliet,I've forgotten the name of the person, but their theory, and this is contemporary, is that if you're not unhappy at the moment, given the state of the world and all its bigotries, there is something very wrong with you. That made me feel so much better about being a depressive type, and made me think maybe I am, amongst other things, very, very sensitive..
    I self medicated a lot on alcohol and food during my adolescence and 20s. ..my family did not understand me at all, but I found AA in 1997 and the structure and support network of it has really helped the depression. It is somewhere that accepts me as I am and where people talk really openly about their stuff, with clear boundaries and parameters so it isn't toxic for others to listen to. I have found counselling problematic as the dynamic between me as a 'sick person' or mal functioning person and their 'normality', as though 'society is right', really gets in the way of the talking cure. The good thing about AA and OA, is that we are all silently admitting we cant cope with life as we were and so don't feel patronised or disempowered by the process of opening up.I don't like the idea of taking anti depressants but I accept that at times they can help when I have had severe bouts.
    I do generally find that helping another AA person or anyone in need for that matter, has really helped me to stop the insularity and the focussing on and self obsession with my own problems and stops the isolation straight away....it also makes me feel better about myself that I am helping another..
    I came to an event in Brighton a few months back ....a screening of some 1970s films related to Glam, an event which you (very inspirationally) hosted/spoke at.I found it really mind blowing and effecting and I definitely want to find out more about transgender film and the influence on early 70s culture. I also loved what you were wearing! A black satin, double breasted dress. I do feel happiest when making something, drawing or painting, writing poetry: I believe it is a higher state of existence, even a sort of communion with a higher level of existence...and it is essential..we must keep doing it.