They say almost everyone knows someone who has either suffered from cancer or has had cancer themselves. I’d say that could equally apply to depression.
My friend, Karen, suffers from depression and has kindly agreed to answer my questions with a frank and refreshing honesty.
Depression is often misunderstood. Unlike a physical illness it may not attract much sympathy. Has this been your experience, and if so, how have you coped?
On the outside, I look normal, I don’t have a broken arm, or leg, or a bandaid to show there is something wrong, and for so long I hid it from everyone except my best friend and my Mum. I’ve had people tell me it is just a state of mind. However in my case, it is a chemical imbalance, and medication does fix it.
Because I don’t physically look sick, people just don’t understand. Fortunately I have had a lot of support from family and friends, and once I started telling people they were interested to know more about it. My depression (and it IS different for everyone) was more of an indifference. I could see something funny, but not laugh, I could see something sad, but not cry, my husband could have been hit by a car and killed, and I really wouldn’t have cared less, even though I love him to pieces. I would get upset and cry over silly little things, like a fly landing on the kitchen table, or a scratch on my leg – really petty things. Going to counselling has helped me to get a better perspective on life, to laugh off the small things, realise that I control my life, not everyone or everything else around me.
How have I coped? Quite well in some respects but not well in others. I have recently had to change medication because it wasn’t working for me. I was getting physically tired after gardening in the morning, or driving the car into town. That just wasn’t right and when I finally went back to the doctor she told me the depression was getting worse again, so changed my meds. I am now on something that works for me, and works with the chemicals in my brain, so that I can finally see clearly again, I am not physically tired all the time, and for the first time in a very, very long time, things appear normal again.
In what way does suffering from depression affect your writing?
My writing suffered terribly, and I sometimes attribute my depression to my writing, because it really came to a head after I lost over 40k on a superb story I wrote, which meant I lost over half of it. I could not look at the keyboard or attempt to write anything for a very long time, in fact it was only last year, with some persuasion from you, Cherie, Laverne and Sasha that I started editing a story of mine, looking to make it fit a particular genre that was being sought. Editing was easy, I could do that, plus change small sections of the story (which ended up being over half of the story) and slowly I was able to get back into writing again.
At the end of last year, I tackled the story that I lost, and it was hard to get back writing it again, but I finished it in January this year. It isn’t anywhere near as good as the original, but I like where it is at, and I can edit it now (I also have it backed up in three different places!) I struggled with depression while I wrote this, because I remembered how good the original was, but I had to keep telling myself that this was only a draft, the next edit would make it better and closer to the original. In a lot of ways there are better bits in it now than the original, but it was hard to recognise those places.
This year, my goal is to start writing again, but without the pressure that I used to put myself under. I want to concentrate on getting my craft back to where it was pre-depression and focus on the positives of my writing.
With my most recent bout, it has taken me away from the computer, but more because I recognised that I needed to get out and do more activities away from the computer, like being sociable and taking part in groups outside of my house.
Do you find you become depressed if you’re not writing – or is it the other way around?
Sometimes I feel depressed because I’m not writing, but that is a pressure I have to take off myself.
Before my depression my life was too structured and I was setting myself up for failure, therefore bringing depression down on myself. Now if I can’t write, I am out in my garden weeding, or tending the veggies, I don’t stress myself out. If I have a problem with what I am writing, I can feel the old familiar blackness coming back, so I remove myself from the situation and work on something else instead. I will come back to it when I feel better able to cope with whatever I am struggling to write.
If you were ever to give advice on how to live with this ailment what would you say?
- DO seek help. Don’t try and battle through, because like me, it might be a chemical imbalance that can be easily fixed with medication. Even counselling works because it gives you tools to cope on those days when you feel down.
- Make sure you have a support network around you of people you love and trust and whom you can confide in. My best friend knows when I am not right because I tend to avoid her, so that is when she will make contact and spend time with me. My Mum rings me every day to have a “check in” make sure I am doing OK. Make sure you have someone you can go to when you can’t cope.
- Always have a plan, but not a rigid structured plan, of how you want your day to go. If I have nothing planned, I will work on “going to the op shop”, or “go for a walk,” something that gets me outside of the house, because you do tend to isolate yourself. If I have a busy day, I break it down into smaller segments. If I have lots of things to do in town, I write a list, and check things off it as I go, it gives you a sense of accomplishment as you check things off.
- Don’t put off things that you should do today – like going for a walk or bike ride, or going to see your doctor. Housework will always be there, writing will always be there. The sunshine on the walk might be different today, or the birds might be singing beautifully – you would miss that if you focused too much on the wrong things.
Can you recommend any books or articles on this topic, that you’ve found helpful?
www.depression.org with John Kirwan, a fantastic starting place to implement changes in your life. And his book, All Blacks Don’t Cry.
Depression is a serious illness. It makes you isolate yourself, separate yourself from the rest of the world. The first and foremost lesson I learnt from this is: “If I don’t look after myself, nobody else will. And I need to make sure that I am able to look after myself before I can look after anyone else.” It was an extremely hard lesson to learn, but focusing on me, and being “selfish” has helped me cope. It will only rule your life if you let it. Get the help you need, get your support network around you, and you can start doing the things you love doing, like writing.
Thanks Cherie for the opportunity to write about my own experiences. I know it is different for everyone, but if someone can read this and understand just a small part, and recognise it in themselves, then I have helped someone.
Karen blogs about writing and depression and lots of other things as well, over at www.catherinemede.com
Photos courtesy of http://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-depression-overview