Writers’ Block or Depression?

As a writer who suffers from motivation-affecting mental illnesses that can be exacerbated by stress, it’s important for me to be able to identify the reason why I’m staring at a blank page and feeling like I can’t write. Writing is stressful. My day job is stressful. Living in this country as a queer person is stressful. So it’s possible that my “writers’ block” is early stage depression.

But sometimes writer’s block is just writer’s block. How can I tell the difference? And why do I need to know?

As for how, it usually boils down to how my chest and stomach feel (heavy and acid respectively usually signals depression), and whether the time spent staring at the page leads to distractability (writer’s block) or negative self-talk (depression).

If I’m actually crying, chances are that the answer is depression.

Being able to tell the difference is important because my strategies for adjusting my writing life to accommodate my issues are vastly different. The only way through writer’s block is to power through it. I have to shut off the devices and just sit there until my only choice is to write my way out.  I need to sit down and make myself write no matter how hard it is. But trying and failing to power through when the underlying issue is depression just leads to, you guessed it, deepening depression. I need to walk away and engage in some self-care and when I’m feeling better, the motivation will come back.

And there you have it: the effects of depression and writer’s block are the same, but being able to tell the difference can save tons of time and emotional pain.

Some Recharging Required

I’ve recently posted about writing with depression. It’s no secret that I struggle with depression. That’s deliberate: the openness of some of my favorite authors about their own struggles is something that inspired me to get help when it was increasingly clear to me that I needed it.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that creativity and depression feed on each other. I’ve heard a variety of people, even my doctor, say that sometimes artists want the lows because it gives them something to draw on. I mean, look at all of these famous writers, musicians, and creative sorts who struggle with depression and other issues!

I think that’s bunkum. I write despite struggling with a mental illness, and it’s certainly not helpful to me.

The conventional wisdom is also that writers write every day. But is this true or another piece of bunkum? I’ve often questioned this idea, like I’m sure my dentist questions people who say they floss every day. Must someone write literally every day to be a writer? Or do writers, at least some of them, take occasional breaks to relax, recharge, and prepare for the next project?

I know I do.

This past week, I’ve been recharging. NaNoWriMo is right around the corner. I fully intend to hit the ground running and write if not a full novel, at least 50,000 words. The goal is a full novel; 50,000 words is the minimum. I want to go into October (also known as NaNoWriMo prep season) recharged and ready to kick some ass.

So right now, I’m letting ideas percolate. I’m giving myself leeway to slack off a little. Because this writing career is a marathon, not a sprint, and my brain works best with the occasional break. And I’m trying not to beat myself up too thoroughly for “not writing.”

Writing and Depression

The stigma about depression and medication is very real.  The openness with which some of my favorite YA and non-YA authors have talked about dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness is one of the reasons why I’m making this seriously personal blog post.

I’ve dealt with some amount of depression for a very long time, and counseling that I went to in my early twenties helped me learn techniques for managing it.  Normally, I’m able to handle my depressed moods very well, battle the cognitive dissonance with logic, and function normally.  But a variety of factors, including the recent deaths of two grandparents (one of whom I was very close to) and some other family stuff, have apparently upset my usual equilibrium.

I’ve been bouncing in and out of depressed cycles.  Jared has pointed out several times before now that they have been coming more frequently and each time has seemed to be worse; meanwhile, every time I started to feel better I had convinced myself that I was finally snapping out of it.  I really wanted to believe I was snapping out of it.

In retrospect, one of the things that was holding me together was submitting, revising, and resubmitting the plague novel.  When I finished that, I had a huge moment of ‘what now.’  There is a whole list of things that could serve as ‘now,’ but as I was going through that list, I didn’t want to do any of them.  Writing fell into the other list of things I ‘should’ do but haven’t been doing lately.  This had become a theme in my life–boredom, restlessness, insomnia, and not wanting to do the things I normally find fun and exciting.  Without that thing that had been taking up 2+ hours a night and weekend days it was like a giant gaping chasm of indecisive boredom opened up in front of me.

Meanwhile, I’ve run my blogging buffer ragged.  Resubmitting and generally being depressed have left me without any buffer at all.  Last weekend, when I should have been preparing my Monday blog post, I was dragging myself to social activities in an effort to combat my feelings of isolation and desire to further withdraw from my support structures.  And Monday, I was curled up in bed feeling that familiar crushing weight on my chest, but this time considering how I would kill myself (if I wanted to go about doing that, which I did not), while thinking about how screwed up that whole line of thought was.

I want to be very clear that I didn’t actively want to kill myself.  But this is a HUGE RED FLAG and a boundary that I set a long time ago.  So I made an appointment with my primary care doctor and last week I spoke with her about maybe going back to counseling, since I need a referral from my PCP for my insurance to cover it.  I really didn’t want to, but I made myself tell a couple of my loved ones what was going on to hold myself accountable, so I pretty much had no choice but to follow through.  My doctor very firmly insisted medication because of that whole suicidal ideations issue.  I’m not really sure that it’s working yet, but the act of taking action has turned this into feeling like a forever-slog until something I’m holding out against until help arrives.

And I actually wanted to make this blog post.  Writing out of desire instead of out of a sense of duty is, I think, a good sign.

Brief Combined Update

I missed my Friday update and now my Monday update is going to be combined with the update part. Why, you ask?

A combination of depression and grinding on this manuscript to make up for it.

I’m done with micro-revisions through chapter 23 (of 34). But in the process, I failed to pace myself last weekend, and entirely blew out my brain. I spent several days during the week with my brain going NO NO NO every time I even walked by Scrivener, and forcing it just made me want to go back to bed semi-permanently.

This is why it’s important to know how your mind works when you struggle with something like depression. I deliberately made sure I told the agent longer than I thought I would need so that I could wiggle room if it came to it. After a 2-day enforced break from writing to recharge, I’m again ready to roll. But I’m behind on my own personal deadline by about a week, so off I go!

Thanks, February

Happy first Monday in March.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was in middle school. February is a brutal month for living with depression in the Midwest. We get no sun, it seems like winter had gone on forever with no respite, and it’s difficult to go anywhere or do anything because the roads are covered in snow if you’re lucky and ice if you’re not.

For obvious reasons, this has been affecting my writing. My mandatory two hours a day has fallen by the wayside in the past week. Instead of writing, I mostly just stare at Scrivener and feel like it’s pointless because I’ll never amount to anything and other such cognitive distortion. Or if I’m really feeling bad, I’ll play a video game because I know that I can’t actually make myself work so I might as well not make myself feel worse.

If this goes on into March, I’ll talk to my doctor again. I know what she’ll say: diet (hard to do when you swing between nausea and eating everything salt/fat/sugar without care), exercise (at least I haven’t cut myself off from this, even though I’ve cut back), and better sleep (lololol I’m tired all the time but can’t shut off my brain, routine be damned, I’d love better sleep if I can get it without pills). And if that doesn’t improve it, medication.

I hate taking medication of any kind, even the inhalers that keep my lungs working like lungs instead of sticky bricks, and my reaction to the thought of another daily medication is just “how about nope.” Especially a medication where skipping days creates it’s own unique problems. The good news is that counseling had given me amazing tools for self-awareness, being able to recognize which thoughts and feelings are backed by evidence and which are just my depressed brain being depressed. As long as I’m functional. And I have loved ones who I trust to tell me if I’m not.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure my motivation and feelings will come back with the sun. I’m going to try to keep writing until then, but I also know I can’t force it. I can make myself sit in my chair with my keyboard at the ready, waiting for my mind to start working on technical problems of setting and characterization, and the fact it’s hard will make me question my talents and all the hard work I’ve put in. I can take a break and do “market research” (aka reading), and accept that it’s going to make me slip into serious professional envy. I can do these things, and I have been doing these things, because going through the motions is better than staring off into space. But I can’t make the words and excitement come.

In good news, March will be better. This will pass. It always does.

Revisions and Depression

I suffer pretty frequent bouts of mild depression.  The kind of depression where I just want to come home, plunk down on the couch, and watch something that will keep my brain busy until I can finally go to sleep, which is the only thing I enjoy doing.  I don’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, or do anything.  Half the time I can’t even decide what I’d like to watch on TV and end up just sitting on the couch, bored and indecisive.  It makes it difficult to keep powering through with revisions.

But writing has actually been helpful to recognizing when depression is trying to throw a wrench in my plans.  There are some days where I do really just want to watch TV for a little while.  Taking a break to recharge is fine.  But when it happens three, four, five days in a row, it starts to look like a problem.  And it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t even notice it unless I had revision page goals keeping me on target all week.

I put a stop to it through improved diet, improved exercise, and more sleep.  I let these things slip every so often when I really shouldn’t.  But it’s easy to skimp on exercise.  And it’s certainly easier to pick up fast food than to make dinner, especially when I know I’m looking at an hour or two of revisions when I get home (after being at work where it’s my job to do revisions).  The best way to break a deeper trip into Depression Land is to catch it at the beginning of the path.  Not meeting my page goals has turned into my “STOP: TURN AROUND NOW” sign.