Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The downs and really really downs of depression

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.


Missy Frye said...

As someone that battles depression I can honestly say the correlation between mood and writing is a slippery slope. The joy of writing results in happiness, but being happy about something or some situation doesn't necessarily mean you aren't depressed. Egads! Depression is complicated on so many levels.

This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.

GC SMITH said...

My wife MiMi suffers depression. I never have. Until MiMi was diagnosed and treated life with each other was difficult. That's no longer the case.

I hope, at any rate, you and Carrie had a fine Christmas.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Missy, and you are right, depression is a complex ailment. There are times where I could do nothing and other times it actually seems to feed the writing. I've given up trying to analyse it.

And, yes, Jerry, we did have a nice quiet Xmas. We celebrated it a day early with my daughter (who has another three similar gatherings to attend – poor thing) so all we did on the day was watch TV and kick back. Time enough to get back into the swing of things tomorrow.

Casdok said...

Very interesting, thank you.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Pooh. I'm better at getting things done (even Depressed) when the weather isn't so dern cold!

Beth said...

A very good post, Jim - funny and true.

Jonathan Chant said...

Lord, this made me laugh. It's all so wryly true. Now I must take off my overalls and safety goggles. No more writing for me today.

Jim Murdoch said...

God, Jonathan, have you nothing better to do than wade through my old posts? I suppose I should be flattered. I’ve just had a nice e-mail from a bloke complimenting me on a post from 2010. Nice to know I’m still being read. I know the whole idea behind the Internet is that stuff stays around forever and is always available. What they forget to tell you is that every day several million posts get piled on top of what’s there already making it harder and harder to get to the good stuff.

Having suffered from depression my entire adult life I’m always on the lookout for a reoccurrence. On the whole I’m quite up at the moment. Up for me. Most people looking at me would think I’m depressed but you would know if I was depressed-with-a-capital-d. I worry more about other mental issues these days, my memory especially but not enough to get depressed about it. If it wasn’t this it’d be something else; everyone has something that’s always trying to pull them down.

Perversely my sense of humour tends to improve when I’m depressed. I mentioned this to my doctor a few years back. He had no answer. Maybe it’s the kind of humour I have. It thrives on negativity. I was always a big fan of Les Dawson’s deadpan style. In my last job we used to have an engineer working for us whose face never cracked. You never knew when he was joking and when he was serious apart from a tiny twinkle in his eyes, if you paid close attention.

Jonathan Chant said...

I'm glad you're feeling on the up. Depression is the pits. I too admire Les. Keep well, Jonathan.

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