Revisiting: Writing Through Depression

Gaze and Notes

I’ve tried to use the creativity of writing to engage depression, to take away its power and release my mind from its prisoning obsessions. I want to offer a few notes about how these basic elements help in my experience. Each of us responds differently, and what works for me may not work for another. So this is my take, a rough rendering of my truth – maybe it’s like yours, maybe not. There are as many paths to recovery as there are people trying to figure this out.

My imagination is expressed primarily through writing, and it helps distance me from the symptoms of depression by portraying them as different characters intruding on my life. These are my visitors from the theater of depression. I can laugh at them, kick them off stage or manage their movements and cues like the director of a play.

This shows me more precisely how they behave, what influence they try to have on me, as I attempted in this post. Imagining a character, say, who captures how my mind obsesses on painful moments sharpens my awareness and so helps me catch myself falling into that mode of thought. Naming things helps, then, but in a particular way that sets them in motion like friends of bad influence, patrons generous with evil gifts, manipulators of intimacy, perverse alchemists turning gold into lead. I don’t want any of them around. I certainly don’t want to live with them and let them control how I think and feel.

Writing itself is discovery. Ideas, flows of images linked to words, associations of one event with another arrive in mind that come in no other way. Putting the words together produces a guided energy that pushes around the boxes in the mind’s cluttered attic. Suddenly the useful springs out of old packing, and the beautiful emerges from cobwebbed obscurity. A touch of new life puts color into the rush of feeling and memory, and my tense neck relaxes once again.

This verbal and pictured imagination is my drug of choice. But it’s all the more devastating when my mind blanks out for a day or a week. A mental fog and fear take over, blocking not just words but new roads into recovery. I run into detours, closed exit ramps, and have to push on to the wrong destination where depression is waiting. The gas tank falls, a clunk on the pavement, and I’m running on empty.

Maybe I’m squatting and pulling at my flat tire on a narrow shoulder of the freeway, feeling the wind of 70 mile an hour metal tonnage streaking by. It’s dangerous there! A tempting small move, the impulsive decision – it’s all over! That’s what it’s like when the living soul machine breaks, and the language and stories are lost. I’m desperate. I feel I’ll never write again, paralyzed! What am I alive for?

So I force myself back to a notebook or keyboard and write down something, anything to get myself going again. The first post I did on this blog consisted of two journal entries capturing this process – a paragraph naming what I was feeling in order to get going in the morning, and then a report back in the afternoon to say that things had begun breaking well for me the rest of the day. There it was – a self-prescribed dose of syntax like a finger snap in my awareness, a bit of sunlight through fog, a voice suddenly calling my name to startle me into action.

My mind simply awakens when I write. There are so many links to the unexpected – moments in my life I had thought lost, insight about something I’ve experienced that day. The ideas that come are not mental flashes but a slow nourishing rain, livening, raising hope like the smell of water in the desert air. It’s the contrast between seeing shadowy objects in a darkened room – all of them anonymous, asleep, lacking individuality – and then turning on the light to a shock of color and clear space in which each thing takes back its uniqueness and finds again its place in my life and memory.

Writing wraps my soul around purpose and builds a fire-like warmth as self and task become one. I’m on a different wavelength – or swimming in a fluid medium of no resistance. It’s not like a high or sudden rush but rather a deep dive and gliding in an underworld where life seems to start, where there is no barrier between me and what I see. It’s suddenly within me, a part of who I am, not just a thing to be labeled or defined externally. That is a place of genesis, fertility, birth.

As I was emerging from that place once, I had a painful vision of attempting to pull the living quality of experience into words, seeing the original vitality gradually lost as the source of the thought worked its way up through the winding nerves and blood vessels of the body to my mind and then tried to flow out through my hand and the pen it held in the form of words onto paper. But the result was only black scratchings, words that would hopefully evoke a semblance of the original. They seemed like dead shadows, still-born attempts to render a world impossible for words to capture.

The best I can do is use language to approximate what I’ve tried to bring back with me from that underworld. It’ a clumsy verbal dance or charade with crude gestures trying to make things clear. Yet even then it retains a remembered power that strengthens life and intensifies energy.

So the writing experience at its very best and richest has a deeply healing quality that remains mysterious. But there are other parts of writing as well that are more like slow torture. There is the struggle to find a way in when nothing brightens a destination to let me know where to go next. And there is alway a long looking back to edit, squeeze, reshape in order to fit words more cleanly into a structure that lets others – readers – claim when it is written down as a part of their own experience. Does the scene work, does the story connect?

And that is the final piece – the connection with readers, the response, the sharing within a community. That brings in another healing dimension of life. But that’s another story.

What are the ways you follow toward recovery? Do they include writing or other kinds of creative expression? If you blog or comment much, I imagine that writing plays some role in healing.

(This is an edited version of a post originally published in 2008.)

10 Responses to “Revisiting: Writing Through Depression”

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  1. JohnD says:

    irtiza – Thank you for stopping by – and I’m glad you like the design. The theme was simply my choice not my handiwork, but I do enjoy finding images for these stories.

    Stephany – I’m so glad to hear that things are looking up for you and your daughter. You so deserve it after all that you’ve had to put up with. And you’re obviously right that you’ve been traumatized as well by these last few years. Thanks for clarifying the title of your blog – I never did understand that choice of words since there is so much beauty and positive spirit in your blog. But it seems so right as you explain it – a place to inter all that pain. My very best to you!

  2. Stephany says:

    Hi John,

    Yes, writing my blog is and has been a healing process for me, and the reason I started it was to heal and release the intense stories and emotions in my soul from my daughter’s traumatic last 3 years. I realized this last 6 months or so that I in fact was traumatized equally being in the fight with and for her for so long, that now that I can finally say ” I think I am going to make it”! I’ve been feeling more emotional upheavel and it’s been actually difficult to write about it, because of the release of pain if that makes sense.

    It’s why I named my blog “soulful sepulcher”–it’s my deep emotional burial ground.

    I started my blog on a day of freedom from a bad marriage, the day my ex shut the door behind him, I started writing.

    My daughter’s story unfolded, as the last several years went by blogging I had other tragic events happen, and the writing got me through it.

    (Even through the dark depression I had last Spring).

    Thanks for another insightful post here,

    Stephany

    PS–things really are looking up for my daughter and me since September.

  3. irtiza says:

    yes, i’d have to say that to. blogging/writing takes the mind away from depression.

    i loved the pics and your blog design/template.

    peace

  4. John D says:

    Thank you, Jennifer! It means a lot to hear from such a fine writer. I like your description of how writing helps you. It does work on both those levels to clarify thinking but also to pull out deep emotion – it gives me a way to make peace with the past. I couldn’t agree more about the connections with others through this medium. That is so wonderful and something I didn’t expect. Thank you for coming by.

  5. Jennifer says:

    John,

    You have some wonderful imagery here. I love the idea of the beautiful emerging “from cobwebbed obscurity.”

    For me, writing is the best way to connect me back to myself. I use it to discover what I am really thinking, to help me purge anger and sadness, and the build a structure for my thoughts. That was the original point of starting my blog. As time goes on, the connections I make to others via the blog, via the words, becomes more important.

    Jennifer

  6. John D says:

    Thank you, Isabella – I sure know what you mean about that task master, handcuffs at the ready. I think that started in my Catholic childhood when I learned that God was everywhere and knew everything I was doing and thinking. EVERYTHING! I took that very seriously and ever since have had the sense of being watched. And with that comes the conviction that I had better do everything correctly, inside the lines, inside the box. “Anything goes” is a great phrase to keep in mind. Good luck with staying in shape internally!

  7. another beautiful post. i love the depth and elegance of your writing. and so many ideas there, for example, seeing it all as a theatre, and the various aspects of depression as actors.

    one of the concepts that are important to me in keeping my head above water is “anything goes”. the taskmaster who frowns and says, “if you want to write about depression, it has to look like THIS” and “if you want to get over your paralysis, you have to do THAT action, in THIS sequence” is, in itself, a player in my theatre of mental dis-ease (indeed, he/she wants to be the director). there seems to be some sort of internal muscle that can keep that taskmaster out, and i need to keep it in shape all the time and shout out loud, “whatever works, works!!!”

  8. JohnD says:

    Evan – Writing in journals was what kept me going for a long time and got me into blogging. And it remains important to write privately since there is always some level of constraint in publishing. Thanks for your comment.

    Clinically Clueless – Thank you – it’s good to know this strikes a chord. We seem to get similar things from the act of writing. And I agree completely about blogging as an element of healing. I never expected to find such a responsive and caring community online. Your blog and many others kep bringing out new ideas and experiences that expand my awareness and help me see the next steps in recovery. Thank you for that!

  9. John,

    I love how you wrote this and indeed the dialogue between CK and Isabella if facinating and at times helpful.

    For me writing takes me just a little bit away from my emotions and helps me to put into words what I’m feeling. Sometimes, I feel like I just have to write. I usually censor myself much less when I write and I ofter surprise myself at what comes out on the page. For such a long time, I was unable to vocalize my thoughts, feelings and behavior, so writing became very important. It still is…it helps to sort out and focus. Then, the courage to verbalize it to my therapist comes.

    I never knew how much blogging would help in my healing process. Just by being absolutely me without too much inhibition, to support others, to accept comments, to read others’s blogs and to stretch myself in ways I didn’t know that I had.

    Also, I’ve written poetry (a long time ago), fingerpainted, colored with crayons, painted with watercolors and being a visual person made slideshows. So much so, that I started a second blog just to have those available.

    Sorry, to ramble so…I guess expression through writing is very important to me. I’m learning how to be.

  10. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    For me it’s writing too. But journalling – writing for me rather than an audience. So a little different to the way you do it.

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