I've been reading a bit about Depression. I don't really need any advice on the subject. I've been depressed for years. I can do it standing on one leg, but I don't usually feel like standing on one leg when I'm depressed. I've learned to live with it. I've learned to joke about it. I can't pretend I understand it but then my dad spent years trying to figure out what exactly triggered my asthma and all he ended up with was a long list of often contradictory entries.
Of course, finding out I was a depressive, the next obvious thing to do was become a writer. It's not compulsory, one can write when not depressed, but it does look good on the CV. The statistics speak for themselves. A study carried out by Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, showed that 38% of a group of eminent British writers and artists had been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75% had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been hospitalised. I wonder if she's every ever thought to do a similar study of comedians?
The reasons are manifold; Ian Hocking wrote a good article back in 2006 which is worth a read. I certainly don't feel like listing all the symptoms here; it's depressing.
What I do have to say is that I don't think Depression is enough of a reason not to write. It can be for a bit, and when I'm very bad, all I'm fit for is to sit in front of a television screen and watch whatever follows the last thing I just watched. But that doesn’t last forever, usually only a few weeks. After that I'm still depressed but I can function. And that's as good a time as any to start writing. Let's face it, writing is easy. By that I mean the physical act of writing. A pencil and a scrap of paper and you're off. You don't have to go anywhere special, wear protective clothing, engage with people or risk embarrassment.
In a study of 1,005 prominent 20th century individuals from over 45 different professions, the University of Kentucky’s Arnold Ludwig found a slight but significant correlation between depression and level of creative achievement.
Interestingly, in the same article the opposite point of view is proposed by Cornell University’s Alice Isen, who argues that positive affect (good emotions to you and I) promotes creativity. I'm not saying that they can't, but when I look back on all my years of writing, there's little you could call happy. I'm often funny, but nothing you'd want to laugh out loud to. And even my love poetry, what little there is of it, is tinged with sadness.
Depression, though, is not all being down in the dumps. Far from it. There are highs and lows. Granted the highs are not exactly dizzying and the lows can be crippling but there is flux. Part of you wants to wallow. Part of you wants to get better. Ambivalence is a barrier that needs to be broken through but it is also apparently something that creative people can capitalise on. Have a look at Christina Ting Fong's study into mixed emotions and creativity here.
Creativity depends in large part on novelty, and because novelty is largely a function of cognitive variation, anything outwith the range of normal experience that increases variation is likely to increase the probability of creativity. That could be falling in love, losing your parents or getting made redundant from that job you hated so much. There are instances that will back up all three arguments above.
The question that I don't have a university professor to answer is whether writing causes negative affect or if negative affect is a causal factor in someone being a writer. I suspect it's both. I think that most writers are broken people, but let me tell you about those three years when I couldn't write; they were awful. I had jobs I enjoyed, plenty of friends and family around me, and a decent income. I had achieved everything I set out to do. I had my own home, a car, albeit one that broke down more than I liked, I had an attractive wife who loved me, and the respect of my friends and work colleagues. And I was "as unhappy as a fool with sense and no heart," to quote fellow depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky. Unhappiness is quite different from depression. I wasn't writing. As far as I was concerned the guy who had all this wasn't me.
Then we lost/gave up everything and began again from scratch. But I was writing. I was happy in my misery. I'm not saying I didn’t make some of the same mistakes this time; I've had jobs I've enjoyed but took up too much of my time; made friends with a lot of nice, if not exactly literary, people; found another wife that, for some strange reason, loves the hell out of me because I'm a writer, but I've never stopped writing.
I had a friend who once wrote a poem about what you get when you pull a carnation to pieces to see what makes it a flower. You might get your answer but where did the flower go? Understanding is a luxury. Most of us get by with plain ol' knowledge. I know I can write. Not understanding the hows and whys is nothing to get depressed about.
This may seem like an odd blog to post at this time of year but even in an un-depressed state, the holidays are stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, cleaning, decorating and entertaining. We often have to cope with relatives whom we rarely see, don't particularly enjoy spending time with and never seem to have anything to say to. And no matter how hard we try we can't seem to recapture the wonderment we felt as children waiting for Santa. If that's what's it's like for the rest of us, then what about those who have to contend with all of this on top of being depressed? When you are depressed, it's like Dante created this special circle of hell all for you. The thought of even attempting any of this holiday stuff while you're depressed is daunting beyond belief.
Have a read at what Zsuzsa Tóth has to say about Xmas and how it affects her at pigeon post it and spare a thought for the thousands out there just like her.
All said and done, I hope all of you get through the festive season in one piece and I'll see you on the other side.