On Depression and the Creative Process

A thoughtful essay on mental illness from tryingtowriteit got me thinking about my own mental state of affairs. I’d been meaning to write something about this for some time now.

Depression has been a part of my life for more than 20 of my 40 years. Half my life, really. Whether it’s been mild depression or serious bouts, depression is an unmistakable aspect of my being. I won’t, however, let depression define me. Not at all.

My personal life has been brutal lately. I don’t want to go into gory details about what’s taken place in my life over the past 12 months. This isn’t the time or place for me to reveal myself so openly, but I will acknowledge, and own up to, the facts: I’ve made some conscious choices in my life recently that have caused a lot of hurt for people that are near and dear to me, people I love. People I should have done a better part loving. And not hurting.

The past 12 months have been an emotional rollercoaster, a juggling act of emotions and thoughts and actions that I fear I’m not mentally equipped to handle properly. One refuge for me has been writing. The novel I’m currently working on – a pseudo fabulist fiction piece about a superhero who comes to the realization that he’s not so heroic – is sort of a mea culpa, an outlet for me to examine choices I’ve made in my life, and how those choices have formed who am I and what I want to do with my life. Writing has become greatly important, urgent, even. Forgive me for the hyperbole, but I get the sense that I’m writing as if my life depends on it.

During this period that’s been taking place in my life recently, I underwent a manic phase unlike any I’d ever undergone before in my life. Even though I was in a self-destructive mode (again, my apologies for not going into further detail here), my writing has never been better. My writing has never been more focused, more muscular. It became clear to me, finally, that after so many years of dabbling with the idea of being a writer, that I more than anything wanted to live the writer’s life.

For a four-month period, my writing was relentless. Ideas were forming quickly before my eyes. I found the words were simply pouring from my pen, and I felt no urge to self-edit. Even better, the Doubt Monster wasn’t rearing his ugly head anymore.

I felt like Bradley Cooper’s character in the film Limitless. What if a pill could unlock your brain’s potential for learning, for creativity? Mania was that pill, along with the circumstances that were driving my mania. The future, my future, was mapped out in front of me. I could see myself as a writer. Finally.

Composition-style notebooks and PBR…ah, the writer’s life!

Fast-forward to this very moment, and my writing has sputtered. I’m no longer writing freehand. I’ve forced myself to outline my novel (a necessary evil, of course). I’m using Scrivener to help me organize. But the truth I’m dealing with right now is that the depression phase I’m going through right now is stiffing my creativity.

Or is it?

The depression phase has had a silver lining: I’ve been able to slow down and give greater thought into what I want my novel to read like. The first draft of the manuscript, forged during the emotional high of mania, is chock full of snappy dialogue and scenes I’ve written that were full of energy, concision, and clarity. But there was no real plot that connected everything together. It was as if mania was simply willing my story into life; how it all pieced together was of no concern. Funny enough, my novel’s making more sense to me, now that I’m in the midst of a depression that’s keeping me up at night and filling me with dread and anxiety.

I’d love to say the manic phase is the phase I’m desperately craving right now, if only to kick-start my writing again. But what I’m missing is the high. And that’s a stupid thing for me to be missing right now, because creativity will always come to function no matter what my mental state currently is. I made the mistake of confusing the “high” with creativity, when in fact I’ve sometimes been at my most creative when I’m at my lowest.

I’m learning to embrace my bipolarity. I’m learning to live with what either mania or depression will do for me, in terms of my creativity. I’m learning to understand the signs, and what those signs mean for me. And I’m learning that maybe, just maybe, my bipolar disorder will make me a better writer.


15 thoughts on “On Depression and the Creative Process

  1. Interesting reading, mate. I am a writer who also has Bipolar. Hit me up on Twitter if you want – @daniel_l_baker. Good luck mate

  2. Hello – here from IWSG and glad I found you. I too have bipolar disorder – my brother had it and died, his daughter and my sister also have it. If I allowed myself to live in regret for all the serious errors of judgement I’ve made, I’d still be living each day fighting the urge to kill myself. I no longer get massively high or low – at least, not to the point I used to. I found the best coping strategy to be self knowledge (no, no hippy tricks) just learning my triggers through tragic experience, and using my personal resources; my family – and like you – my writing. I made some excellent friends online – they get me more than any I made in life, which sounds sad I realise.

    Oops, I’m rambling. I do hope you feel better soon and that your writing refuge reveals magic. 🙂 X

    • Hi Shah. No, you’re not rambling at all…I’ve got you beat on that!

      I’ve been fortunate in finding some local resources that have helped me understand that bouts of depression will indeed happen; it’s what you do during those bouts, and how you cope with the triggers, that will help you through those times. Right now, everything for me seems so clouded by guilt and anger and complete sadness that’s it’s hard for me to focus on what’s important. But I keep reminding myself that this too shall pass.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Wow–I can totally relate to your post here. I am also a writer, though I don’t write for a living because my output is so dependent on my mood and I haven’t managed to resolve that for myself in any workable way. However, I love your perspective on the upside of depression when it comes to creativity. While I have now sort of disregarded his book because of all of the fallacies in it, Jonah Lehrer did write about how manic-depression fosters creativity. (http://www.npr.org/2012/03/21/148607182/fostering-creativity-and-imagination-in-the-workplace) He references much of the work Kay Redfield Jamison already did in her great book “Touched by Fire,” but your post reminded me of what I more recently read in Lehrer’s book because of the reference to depressions as a “sharpening of the mind,” as stated on the NPR blog. I look forward to reading your future posts!

    • I’ve read several of Jonah Lehrer’s articles surrounding depression and creativity. I found one yesterday that was quite revealing: Jonah Lehrer Meets Stephen Fry: The Paradoxes of Bipolar and Creativity. It seems to gently refute Lehrer’s assertions regarding depression and creativity.

      I read An Unquiet Mind many years ago. Something about what Kay Redfield Jamison was describing about her disorder made me uneasy, because I saw the very same warning signs. But I ignored them, until recently, when I finally acknowledged that I do in fact suffer from bipolar disorder.

      Thanks for reading, and thank you for subscribing!

  4. Gus, great post.
    Like you and Daniel, I also have Bipolar, though admittedly, it is not extremely severe. Yet, I am currently medicated. Not sure if you have considered this. Most of us with BD are afraid of medication, afraid that we will lose those highs, those wonderful inlets to a level of artistic expression that verges on ridiculous. I was on some meds that made me a zombie, and quickly refused them.

    I was afraid to be medicated again. But, once I was correctly diagnosed with BD, and began meds that actually worked, it was like a veil had lifted. Yes, those highs were toned down, but the lows weren’t as low. I could enjoy myself and those around me more. And, slowly, but not too slowly, the creativity returned. It was different, but more focused.

    I learned I had to train myself to activate my creative thinking, almost like lucid dreaming. Was my writing as passionate? Perhaps not as much, but it was better. Focused, and more mature.

    Sorry for the long post, but I just wanted to share my thoughts. I apologize if you have said somewhere in your blog that your are on meds, I’ve not yet read enough of your posts, so ignore this if that is the case.

    At any rate, keep on keeping on. There are many of us out there, so you’re not alone.


    • I’m on 300mg of Wellbutrin daily. I don’t mind being medicated, as long as the medication doesn’t leave me in a state of cloudiness, or feeling numb. Worse, I can’t stand being on an anti-depressant that absolutely does damage to my libido. Yeah, I know…TMI!

      I also take Klonopin as needed. Thankfully, I haven’t had any of the panic attacks I was having back in late February, when things were spiraling out of control for me. I’m hoping to find the right psychiatrist who’ll help me manage my BD – the last one I had seemed very dismissive of the idea that I am bipolar, but my current therapist agrees fully that I am – and, if necessary, put me on the right medication schedule. But finding a good psychiatrist can be a bit of a hassle where I live. Who knew Charlotte was so crowded with crazy people?

      Thanks for reading!

      • Gus, I totally understand.

        According to the therapist I had, she said anti-depressants were actually counter-productive for BD. She took me off Effexor, and put me on Seroquel 400mg, which is really just a kind of sedative. She said that it is typically paired with a mood stabilizer, but I haven’t needed it. It’s amazing how much I have improved just sleeping through the night.

        Definitely, a good psychiatrist may be able to better tune in the meds.

        Good luck!

  5. Pingback: The Work-in-Progress So Far (Insecure Writer’s Support Group Blog) | Out Where the Buses Don't Run

  6. Wonderful post! I found it very interesting, and similar to some of my thoughts as well.
    I have a bottle of Wellbutrin, but I’ve only taken 3 pills. I hate my crazy, but am so afraid of losing the uniqueness and creative parts of me; that I let my pill bottle collect dust. I haven’t slept through the night in months, and have recently hurt a lot of people I love with my self destructive behavior. I just wanted to say from one crazy to another, that I wish you the best of luck as you embrace your bipolarity and happy writing!

    • Wellbutrin’s been a revelation for me, but sometimes I wonder if I need more.

      The thing about self-destruction that stings is that you end up hurting those you love as well. Sometimes even more. If my tendency towards self-destruction only impacted me, then I could live with that.

      Good luck to you as well, and thanks for stopping by!

  7. Wow! That’s very of you, Gus, to come out and reveal something so intimate. I can identify with you completely, though. I’ve suffered from depression most of my life, too. I’ve finally taken control of that; not letting it define me anymore than I let the people around me define how and what I’m supposed to be. Writing has always been my therapy and refuge. I’ve noticed that we creative types are that way. We seem to be burdened with the scourge of mental illness. I still hate to use that term because it conjures up such a bevy of negative images. Thanks again for your honesty and keep writing.

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