Working Through Depression
By Terry Irving - Author of "Courier" Obsessed With Progress - Featured Guest! There is nothing like the act of writing to bring on a depressive episode. You’re all by yourself, largely cut off from the people you depend on for support. You’re taking an enormous chance with every keystroke—betting that people will like what you’ve written. Odds are, you aren’t getting enough sleep or enough exercise and your diet has simply gone to pieces (I’m personally addicted to apple fritters—luckily I have a wife who supports my habit.) You sit by yourself, stare at the blank screen, and imagine all the possible futures where everyone laughs at you. My personal favorite is not having a launch party because you’re certain no one will show up. Gack, it’s like High School! When you’re feeling like this—well, try not to write in any tall buildings. The point is that you don’t need to feel this way—I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I’ve had chronic depression my whole life as did my parents and all my siblings. I think I’ve got a fair amount of practical experience. I’ve also got a thriller coming out in May, the sequel already accepted for the Fall list, a book that I edited and co-wrote doing fairly well on Amazon, and—just for fun--a paranormal thriller in the second draft. Let’s stop a second and go over what “chronic depression” is for the majority of the population who still don’t understand it. We are not talking about the way you feel when you just got fired—duh, you feel depressed. Nor are we talking about how you feel after your cat dies—you’re depressed. As it applies to the writing biz, we aren’t talking about how you feel when the 60th agent or the 30th publisher has turned you down (IF they even bothered to send you an email)—yes, let’s all say it together, “You’re depressed.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about waking up every damn morning shaking from the night’s dreams of failure, crime, and personal disaster. Sitting on the edge of the bed because you don’t want to get up but you have to because staying in bed is worse. When your 3-year-old toddles up and wants a hug and all you can feel is guilt because you should be feeling good. Finally, when you’re convinced that your book sucks—and clearly your editor, publisher, and critics are stupid because they can’t see it. I’m talking about having so much self-worth invested in your work that you run around pulling off the impossible on a nightly basis so that you can feel good for about 20 minutes and then the self-loathing and the fear that they’re going to catch you out and realize how bad you really are starts up again. Oh wait, that was me during the entire time I worked at Nightline. Won 4 Emmys and a bunch of other stuff but I paid in blood for every good moment. It was like being a junkie. I accomplished everything I set out to do--including the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and Apartheid in South Africa—and all it ever did was give me a short time of feeling normal. As soon as that ran out, zoom into the death spiral of chronic depression. Now, I’m going to have to take a pill every morning for the rest of my life. I fooled you, that one’s for gout. Yeah, I also take a little bit of this and a little bit of that to deal with the other twists in my DNA that make me depressed. I don’t see any difference between the two medications. The drugs they have these days actually work—in my parent’s time, the only drug with any real effect on depression was ethanol, usually bourbon. Drinking will make you less depressed for a little while but tends to have pretty severe side effects, like crashing your car, losing your job, and eventually making everyone in your family hate you. Like I said, I’m no doctor, however, I do have strong opinions. I think you have chronic depression for one of two reasons: you were born with it just like that cowlick that won’t go down on the back of your head, or you were in a traumatic situation so intense and long-term that your brain chemistry reset itself to deal with it. Either way, you’re not going to power through it. You aren’t going to be able to eliminate the feeling by sheer will. You won’t feel better if you win the Nobel Prize in Literature or discover a cure for cancer. On the other hand, you don’t have to put up with it either and, in fact, you’re going to have to deal with it or it has a damn good chance of destroying your life. Yeah, that’s me again. I kept on pulling off miracles and feeling inadequate, working harder and sleeping less, pile-driving through my depression until I finally worked 72 hours straight, traded my camera for a ride to the airport, came home, and checked in for a little quiet time in a hospital ward where they locked the elevator. Try to avoid this, the food in there sucks. On the other hand, all the crazy people knew instantly that I wasn’t nuts, and kept asking me “what the heck are you doing here?” When I wrote COURIER, my first novel, I originally was going to have the protagonist suffer from depression. You know what? In literature--just like in reality--depression is boring. It’s not really based on an event, no one can ‘jolly’ you out of it, you can’t have a dramatic struggle with the demon of depression—it’s just there. I hate depressed protagonists—nothing ever happens! OK, Rick Putnam, the motorcycle driver whose adventures are the core of the book, has PTSD from Vietnam but he’s found a way to deal with that. He ‘dances,’ riding motorcycles at suicidal speed in heavy traffic. That forces him to use every iota of his brain just to stay alive and drives out the demons left over from the battlefield—not for long, but at least for a little while. He’s essentially self-medicating. I guess I can’t recommend doing wheelies at 75 on the Interstate but, I can tell you, you’re not thinking about your troubles when you’re balanced on the back wheel. Back to the writer looking at the blank screen. I think you can do a number of things: Find out if you really are suffering from Chronic Depression or just bummed out. One way is to see if you feel like trash by the side of the highway on a day when the sun is shining and you just got a $25,000 royalty check. The other is to talk to a shrink—the facts are that medication alone or talk therapy alone seldom works but both of them together is extremely effective. Hey, you never know, a professional may just tell you that you’re quite reasonably upset about a lousy review and the solution is to make like Jay and Silent Bob, find the little punk, and punch him in the nose. (NO, don’t do that! That would be a Very Bad Idea.) A shrink may say that you just need to get better at what you’re doing, take a class in writing, hire an editor, rewrite a bit more—whatever. The professional would be verifying your feelings as based on real facts. You might even want to give up the writing biz and take up Mixed Martial Arts or watercolors or something. There are people who simply cannot write as well as they’d like to (Hey, I could be one of them.) There! See how depression works! If a professional verifies that you have a problem, there is quite a large spectrum of possible solutions. You could need something as simple as more exercise, change up what you’re writing about—stop futzing with the Great American Novel and knock out a couple of short stories or a Western—even changing the time or the place where you’re writing could help. If you need some medication, you don’t have to start with something like Ludiomil (which is like doing brain surgery with a chainsaw,) you might only need a light anti-anxiety medication or even some herbal tea to get you over the hump. If you have a kid who’s been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, you can check and see if you have it. If the medication makes you crazy and wild, then you don’t need it. If you barely feel it at all, well, that could be why you only got three sentences written last year. Moving on from there, there is a virtually endless selection of medications and combinations of medications available. No one reacts the same to a particular drug and everyone needs a different cocktail to get them back to normal—and normal is what we’re talking about. Or as normal as possible. These days, I’m taking what I think is about the right medication mix and I’ve been taking it for over 15 years. There are days, however, when I simply don’t believe in myself enough to write a chapter, send a query letter, or stand up and speak to a crowd. The important thing to do then is to try and work out what’s real and what’s just chemical. Am I really a total failure? (Doubtful) Is that whole first section so bad that I need to delete it all and start over? (Probably not and, even if it is, better to keep on going and fix things in the second draft.) Do I really need to work all weekend because I’m facing a deadline or am I just piling up the work to keep from dealing with life (OK, I plead guilty to that one.) The key is to stop taking your emotions as a fixed point in your universe. If you feel lousy, it could just because you feel lousy—not because something is wrong. If you feel fantastic and there’s no reason for it—well, I really can’t address the manic highs and terrible lows of bi-polar but there are similarities. Try to step back and look at the real situation as best you can and ignore the emotions. Usually, if you’re feeling like the world sucks and you just can’t write another word, it’s not real. Keep on writing and see if that works—if it doesn’t go outside and walk the dog, talk to someone on the phone, make a date for coffee. Writers stay by themselves far too much, you need other people around so you can see yourself in their eyes. Odds are, you’re a good person and a damn good writer. Go with that conclusion anyway; it has the benefit of usually being true, and, even if not, it’s far more useful than the alternative. -------------------------------------- About Terry Irving Author and long-time journalist Terry Irving moved to Washington D.C. in 1973 to kick around for a few weeks and never looked back.
In the nation’s capital, Irving started out riding a classic BMW R60/2 for ABC News during Watergate. Carrying that news film was the beginning of a 40-year career that has included producing Emmy Award-winning television news, writing everything from magazine articles to standup comedy and developing early forms of online media. He has traveled and worked in all 50 states plus parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Irving is the winner of four National Emmy Awards, multiple Peabody, DuPont and Telly awards, plus an honor at the Columbus Film Festival. He has produced stories around the world from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square. He worked as a senior live control room producer at CNN, Fox, ABC and MSNBC. He wrote and edited copy for some of the top anchors and journalists in television news including Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Wolf Blitzer, and Aaron Brown. Irving is an active member of the International Thriller Writers and the Mystery Writers of America, and serves as a board member of the Foundation for Moral Courage. Irving is the author of the on-going memoir “On the Road” and the self-help book “The Unemployed Guy’s Guide to Unemployment,” both published in 2012 by Rock Creek Consulting LLC. His debut novel “Courier” releases May 1, 2014 from Exhibit A Books, the crime fiction imprint of Angry Robot Books. It’s the first of several books planned for The Freelancer Series. Irving and his wife live just outside Washington D.C. because their dog simply refuses to live anywhere else.