I gave a talk to my chaplaincy group at college the other day about what it’s like to have depression. I’ve been sick all week, so it wasn’t the most coherent of chats, and thankfully it was very informal and relaxed. I am always happy to answer questions about depression and what it looks like for me, as I feel that if I can at least contribute to peoples’ understanding of it, then it will have been worth something.
One of the things I talked about was the loss of things that give you joy, and I’ve been reflecting on that a bit more since I gave the talk. It took a long time for me to realise that two of those things for me were reading and writing. Well, I kind of understood the reading thing; depression can make it really hard to concentrate, and I know my mum talked about being unable to even read the newspaper when she was going through a period of grief.
It took longer to come to terms with the writing thing. Writing had been part of my identity for so long, and expressing myself with words was what helped me sort out my thoughts and emotions. It came easily and what came was reasonably polished straight onto the page, even without editing.
I definitely took that gift for granted.
When the creative writing slowed to a trickle and then eventually dried up, I didn’t want to admit it. I thought “I’m just being lazy” or “I’m just stuck on this stupid novel”. People would lovingly try to encourage me by telling me how much they looked forward to reading my book, how much they loved my writing, how talented I was. But I wasn’t writing. Can you be a writer if you don’t actually write? If you suddenly have no love for the written word? If the thought of finishing your novel fills you with dread, rather than elation? If you think you have nothing to say that anyone would want to read?
I didn’t want anyone to know this. I didn’t think they’d believe me anyway. But especially when I was standing up in front of people at events like The Faithful Writer and giving writing advice, what a charlatan I’d appear if they knew I couldn’t actually write anymore!
I’d say that every writer goes through periods like this. But it took me so long to link this with my depression, to see it as a symptom of the black dog’s presence in my life. That my joy was being stolen.
The decline in my writing seemed to coincide with the ascendancy of my graphic design skills. It’s almost as though I lost the ability to express things in words, so found the immediacy of images more suitable. I have struggled with feeling confident in this area too, thinking “I don’t know what the rules are”, “I never learned this stuff”, “someone’s going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing”. But I realised the other day when I saw some books I’d designed for sale in a bookshop that I was actually proud of my work! Seeing them on the shelf alongside other books for sale made me realise that my work stands up well. And suddenly those negatives can be seen in a more positive light – “I don’t have to stick to any rules”, “I can make this up as I go along”, “I taught myself how to do this from scratch!”
I think I am getting better. Very, very slowly. Each day has its own challenges. But the fact that I can be proud of my work and positive about my skills is a huge turning point.
Maybe one day the words will come back too.