When I was seventeen I started crying, and I didn’t stop for almost ten years.
I had become a vegetarian a few years prior to this, and my newfound “consciousness” quickly consumed me with infinite compassion for every creature I saw. I couldn’t take a step through my backyard without thinking of the anthills I was crushing deep under cover of grass. I stopped lying languorously in the sunshine, stopped picking through the blades in search of four-leafed clovers. I practically stopped going outside altogether. I stayed in my room where I, a human, the worst kind of creature on Earth, couldn’t hurt anything. I skipped school (a LOT) and wrote long (and terrible) manifestos about how the Black Plague was probably a blessing, “because, like, look at all the humans it killed.”
The detrimental effects caused by my presence in the world had crippled me. Lambs died for my family’s dinner. Children in Cambodia made my shoes. If I were to litter, I ran the risk of poisoning a little bird that was unable to distinguish my trash from something delicious. When I (rarely) ventured into town I saw a commercialized wasteland, a city full of felled trees and a strip mall containing a building that housed both a McDonalds and a Taco Bell. The world was full of unmitigated horrors.
And so I wept, like some weird kind of Appalachian Lady Madonna. I cried at breakfast, I cried on public transit, I cried myself to sleep. Meanwhile, my grades plummeted and because I had no friends to turn to anymore, I wrote poetry. I also journaled sporadically, mostly about my distaste for the suburbs, mainstream media, and the mall. Sometime during my adolescence I had a flicker of literary success with my first poetry publication. The poem was about an estranged friend’s death from playing Russian roulette, and as with everything else in my life, I immediately felt guilty about it because I had profited from his death.
And so I lived in cycles of moderate to extreme misery for a decade, never thinking that there might have been a difference between compassion and depression, and that I had crossed the line between the two years ago.
Here is what I have learned about mental illness:
1. It happens to a startlingly large portion of creative types, especially writers.
2. It destroys my ability to concentrate on a specific task for longer than 15-minute spans, which prevents me from finishing many things (e.g.: the “book” I’ve been “writing” for three years).
3. It also chips away at my confidence, which makes me unsure of everything, from the font I’m using to how my scarf is tied, and maybe I shouldn’t go write in a public place to get some air and a new perspective because then people will look at me, and maybe I’m not good enough to get an MFA, and maybe not trying is better than trying, because then when I fail I know that my best might have been good enough because (ha!) I didn’t try my best in the first place.
4. It doesn’t make me a “better” writer.
Depression doesn’t make anyone better at anything, but such is the myth of the creative personality. My parents have admitted that they never pushed me to seek professional help because I was, “…sensitive, creative, and we knew you were different. You were writing all the time and that’s just how writers are. You know, Virginia Woolf had depression.” Yeah, well, Virginia Woolf also filled her coat up with rocks and walked into a river, Mom. And the truth is that I actually wasn’t writing all the time. I wasn’t even writing some of the time. Everything was pointless: The sun was burning out, the oceans were acidifying, somewhere there was a starving child or abused kitten or stranded polar bear on a melting ice floe and all of their suffering was greater and more valid than my own. So why write about anything? Why would anyone even get out of bed? It was only when my mood randomly lifted that I could keep my thoughts focused long enough to see the worth of writing a story or poem, much less bring myself to actually write one, and because of my depression I have an embarrassingly small body of work that is worth its salt.
This lack of creativity and focus isn’t uncommon for the depressed writer. During the decade when David Foster Wallace was medicated for his depression, he produced what is arguably the best writing of the 90s—but when he abruptly stopped taking his medication in 1997 he produced nearly nothing, dropped to 140 pounds, and eventually hanged himself on his patio. Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven. Anne Sexton drank a glass of vodka and left her car running in the garage. Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Richard Brautigan: They’re all dead by their own hands. But why do we keep romanticizing their misery? Why does their sadness become spectacle?
I don’t have an answer for that. I think that the reasons behind the human fascination with someone who is a “hot mess” or a “psycho” are the same reasons that we rubberneck at car crashes or gawk at transvestites. (Because we have no manners, maybe?) But I can let you in on a trade secret, at least: I’m a writer, and I don’t want to be miserable. And I highly doubt that any of those writers wanted to be miserable, either. I think that the misconception that someone has to be clinically insane to be an artist is B.S. There is nothing chic, bohemian, or profound about sitting on the floor of your writing room in a mess of papers, dirty sweaters, and unfinished stanzas, weeping until your eyelids swell up.
For an incredibly accurate portrayal of life with depression, I recommend that you check out these comics by Allie Brosh: