Was it Always Thus? // Writing and the Black Dog

I’ve been wondering about writing something on this for a while, but haven’t been sure how much to say, or what might be wise. But I thought it might be helpful to others to open the door just a crack and see if there’s some light that could get in on what’s a terrifically difficult and often very dark and complex place.

Perhaps I don’t need to say very much, so I’ll start with just this: I’ve long been aware of the creative relationship I have with depression. Which is to say – it’s a bastard thing to suffer, but I’m not sure I’d want to be without it. Why? Because the time spent walking the black dog – as Churchill put it – appears somehow to bring something to the page.

I’m not going to go into any details – I don’t think there’s much point as I’m pretty sure people who know know anyway, and it’s no badge of honour either (which I know can happen). Plus it’s not something I suffer from very badly, and I’d be happy just to shut up and get on with it, but the reason I wanted to write something is that I see it in other writers, other speakers and public figures, and wonder if it would help to get it out in the open a bit, because, to be honest, there’s still a stigma around the issue, which is surprising, given the prevalence of it. Surveys show that writers (and teachers – great, double whammy) do tend to suffer depression more than others… but feelings are mixed about whether they would would want to be without it.

Anyway, may be I’m dumb to own up, and may be people just don’t want to talk about it… but if you did want to  – anonymously if need be – then feel free to add comments/links etc. I don’t really have any answers, but I think it’s possibly even worse in the ‘Christian’ world because there’s such a pressure to be shiny-happy people who’ve got Jesus to sort it all out. Well…that didn’t work out so well for me, so you’re not the only one /-)



13 responses to “Was it Always Thus? // Writing and the Black Dog”

  1. I think people need to talk about it and not deny that its a condition that people suffer from, much like any other condition. I’ve had depression on and off (on at the moment) for the best part of 20 years. I’ve been to church, not been to church, and I recognise what you say about the shiny-happy people thing. Didnt work for me either.
    I think that its prevalent in all creative types. I’m an artist, and I know others who suffer too. Maybe that’s what makes our creativeness exist *shrugs*

  2. I think it’s absolutely essential that we start talking more about being a depressed Christian. I have been under the cloud of depression for years and really struggled with my faith. I have in fact written a book about depression and being a Christian. It’s called “Angels in the Wilderness – hope and healing in depression” and is published by Redemptorist Publications Hope it might offer some helpful thoughts.

  3. I don’t know anyone who speaks more eloquently about this issue than Parker Palmer: http://www.soundstrue.com/podcast/parker-palmer-living-the-undivided-life/

    At the same time, I am deeply grateful for Julia Cameron’s push-back in “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” (http://amzn.to/uF5iOT) that we don’t have to sink into drama to be creative — which is not to say that we always have a choice due to neuro-biology, etc.

    Thanks also for your good work in general. “Other” is nearing the top of my “to read” pile!

  4. Daniel Robinson

    Not sure that I would follow every point of the following, but it has made me smile:

    Dear Lady Georgiana,

    Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done, so I feel for you.

    1st: live as well as you dare.
    2nd: go into the showerbath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold.
    3rd: amusing books.
    4th: short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea.
    5th: be as busy as you can.
    6th: see as much as you can of those friends who like and respect you.
    7th: and of those acquaintances who amuse you.
    8th: make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment.
    9th: attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
    10th: don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best.
    11th: compare your lot with that of other people.
    12th: avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence.
    13th: DO GOOD, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
    14th: be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
    15th: make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant.
    16th: struggle little by little against idleness.
    17th: don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
    18th: keep good blazing fires.
    19th: be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
    20th: believe me, dear Lady Georgiana, Very truly yours, Sydney Smith.

  5. Brooke Moore

    Nothing worse than being around shiny happy Jesus people who are ignorant of depression when I’m in the depths. Thanks for your post. Always appreciate discussion and awareness of the topic, especially within the Christian world.

  6. Dear Kester. Brave of you to own up. I’ve been there too, now and again. I like the Sydney Smith advice above. Hang in there! and thanks for being honest.

  7. Both my parents suffered depression and I have too for a long time. My mum in particular had a hard time with church, which she loved and was committed to, but when she was low she felt she was being told give up on things like reading novels and watching TV when what she needed was to distract herself from thinking negative thoughts. But I always felt her illness separated her from what she should have been rather than being positive… Don’t know, it’s difficult.
    I try to write stuff about both caring and suffering depression and anxiety on my website: http://www.anamcaraspirituality.org – there’s a big rant about toxic church coming out very soon!
    Much sympathy to you and thanks for raising this, it is vital we talk about it.
    Sonya x

  8. thank you very much – you’re certainly not alone – there too go I – so you’re not dumb to bring it up at all

  9. Thanks for writing this. I, too, get depressed (and I am a writer and a teacher) and I try to talk about it for the same reasons you say. The trouble is, people are so afraid of feeling sad or bad (or having a friend feel down) that they rush to try to “fix” you. I’ve learned to add the standard disclaimer “I know what clinical depression is, and that’s not what I’m talking about” and even so, some people just want you to take pills (or stop bring honest) so they can keep on pretending everything is great. I don’t like being depressed but it has been a place where I’ve grown tremendously in my relationship with God, and from that, grown in my writing in ways I wouldn’t have expected. The “aha” moment for me was when I realized that Jesus had not only suffered on the cross, but also lay dead and helpless in the tomb – a perfect image of depression – so he knows what I suffer, and is with me in and through the darkness, not pretending it doesn’t exist.

  10. I’ve been following the artist Hazel Dooney on her blog for sometime – she’s suffered from pretty severe depression that peaks and troughs at various points, including a particularly nasty one that resulted in her being hospitalised and unable to work for a while. I think she’d be of the school that says depression is a hindrance.

    FWIW I suffer from Depression’s evil twin, Anxiety, and when I have dipped into depression I find neither particularly helpful to making work. There’s a myth of the creative genius that I think this idea comes from. When I’m in trouble, painting is the last thing I want to do. In fact I’d go so far most of my best work has had nothing to do with my patches of piss-poor mental health (of which there have been far too many), I work better and am more successful when I have a clear head.

  11. Do you know that point 1 of Rev Sidney Smith’s advice was really ‘Live as well and drink as much wine as you dare’. I notice the wine part is being omitted from current depression sites. Wonder why!

  12. Martin Trivasse

    Thank you for raising this issue. I am a teacher, a would-be writer and a depressive, although I’ve been wonderfully depression-free for most of the past four years. I think it’s extremely difficult to generalise about the link between creativity and depression, because depression itself is such a varied rattle-bag of phenomena and causes. However, I suspect there is a strong correlation between depression and honesty, exploration, experimentation, reflection and authenticity. A critical aspect of my depression and my recovery has been the overwhelming need to understand what’s going on, and to be honest. Perhaps this opens the doors of creativity a bit wider than would otherwise be the case. If you’re impelled to be honest in your soul-searching, then perhaps you’re also impelled to find the artistry that most honestly expresses the journey of being human. Maybe the appalling nature of clinical depression inspires a more brutal and desperate effort to express truth as you see it, because self-delusion, false comfort, trivialising the condition or running away from it are all anathema to someone aching to cope with their illness.