Writing Through Depression
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
“For it would seem – her case proved it – that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.” –Virginia Woolf, Orlando
As I write this, my limbs feel remarkably heavy, a little like I’m trapped beneath the protective lead lined apron at the dentist as he takes my x-rays. Outside, the sky is blue, sun streaming in clear and bright—normally such a morning fills me with a swell of possibility, a kind of effervescent feeling that I can do anything. I’m something of a natural optimist, always believing in the solution, the promise, the hope. Except for a few times a year, when the depression that lurks below the surface of my busy mind escapes, like a slumbering beast suddenly awakened.
I’ve noticed it often arises in the lull periods that happen after a furious work load. As a self-employed writer and editor, my work life is sort of feast or famine, or at least, big fat feast and modest meals. It’s hard for me to turn down work, and when I’m under deadline—most recently two book deadlines—everything gets sacrificed to the cause of getting it done.
This year, I expected something of the post-holiday crash, I just didn’t expect to crash quite so hard, or for so long. Usually only a week at most in the making, deep into week two the depression was still wrapped around my ankles like heavy weights. The dishes stacked up. The piles of paper I’d normally start going through at the New Year remained stacked. The receipts for my taxes were still stuffed into their plastic envelope, nowhere near sorted. Some of the goals I was sure I’d be jumping on with intensity felt like boulders to scale.
Texting about it with one of my best friends the other day, she reminded me: “Go write it out. That always works.” She knows me well. While people often express amazement at what seems to them like my prolific nature, what they don’t know is that writing is also my anti-depressant. I’ve filled hundreds of journals since the age of 8 when I began writing in earnest (I’m 40) and while this just seemed like a constant in my life, something I took for granted, in the past few months I’ve finally become aware of the function of writing on my psyche. Writing is how I self-motivate and self-medicate. I swear I can feel the release of serotonin in my brain when I get started, the blues parting and making way for a little sun.
I’m certainly not alone in this. Many writers have turned to the page to extinguish and release dark feelings. In some ways art (writing, painting, dancing, etc) is the answer to depression, the reward for the weight of the world, and perhaps the day my dad placed that first purple journal in my hands was, in its own way, the beginning of my salvation from what might have been much worse over time.
I took a break from writing this piece to go have dinner with my husband and son, and when we came home, the blues still not fully abated, though certainly lifted by my family’s company, I had, for no reason at all, the urge to pull a book off my shelf that’s been languishing there for months. Rebecca Solnit’s book of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I opened to a page and my eyes fell on this passage: “…often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms…”
It occurred to me that my blues seem to come into being most when there is nothing to long for on the horizon—meaning I’m so used to structuring my life so that there is a next thing, that I’ve come to do just as Solnit says, to live for that feeling of longing, but not in a healthy way. I can’t profess to have studied the neurology of depression, and I’m no doctor, nor even a psychologist (though I’m married to the latter), so I don’t understand the biological mechanisms of my depression, but I do know how it feels when it’s here, and when it’s abated.
Still, since my depressive periods are relatively few and scattered throughout the year, I’ve been fortunate to find that writing works to ameliorate my symptoms. This is not to say it is a cure, or that I can count on never feeling depressed again, but it gives me a kind of hope that I hold within me one tool that I can use no matter where I am. Without a notebook I often simply use the notes app on my phone to write in a shorthand that I can translate later.
And new research has come along to show that writing does in fact appear to improve one’s mood on a neurological level as well.
I’m less interested in “fixing” my depression as I get older anyway, and see it more as a sign post to take a closer look at my inner landscape, by slowing down and focusing. Writing is the perfect avenue for that.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle, the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free and the forthcoming A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. She is Managing Editor of Sweatpants & Coffee and her essays and articles have appeared in: AlterNet, Brain, Child, the New York Times, Purple Clover, Role/Reboot, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, XO Jane, and more. www.jordanrosenfeld.net