Dear So Sad Today,
I feel so strongly—beyond all the shit that is depression/anxiety—that I am creative (I like writing). Yet when this shit comes up, whether with the arrest of a depressive episode or with the unease of anxiety—all that creative energy is gone and I either end up crying, fucking, hanging out w friends out of a need to be not alone, or getting sleepy/going to sleep. I read all these spiritual books about the center of your spirit that’s beyond the ego and I hear all these sober people (I just got sober) who talk about it, yet I can’t tap into that. Am I just kidding myself and am not really an artist? I feel like there’s a 5 lane freeway of like 10,000 pages of words in my head and there’s a sixteen-wheeler blocking it all off.
I think the reason I am so preoccupied with the artist label is that if I let it go, I fear I will be nothing, but maybe that’s the first step to making peace with it? I am thankful for my depression because it at least holds the hand of my creativity until I actually try to create then I’m like fuck this shit I wanna be happy. Then I start trying to pursue happiness the way other people do, you know, normally with a healthy balance. But it’s not too long till I have to admit that’s an act or more often it blows up in an obsession/episode.
It sounds to me like you are in need of some space in a few capacities—a space to allow yourself not to create, a space in which to create, and a space that is free from labels like “normal” and even “artist.”
I congratulate you on your newfound sobriety, and also, I feel for you. As a newly-sober person, it’s common to feel an uptick in depression and anxiety, because you aren’t self-medicating your symptoms. In keeping with your freeway analogy, picture yourself like a car, with a ton of shit in the backseat, that has been driving super-fast on a road trip. Suddenly, the car comes to a complete stop and all of that shit that was in the backseat flies forward.
It’s also very natural that you would feel self-doubt regarding your identity. I know for myself that as an addict, drugs and alcohol shaped much of my self-conception. I bought into the “fucked up artist” archetype for years and wrote off my drinking and using as synonymous with being a creative human being. Most of what I was writing was shit—and at many points I was barely writing at all—but as long as I was fucked up, it sort of felt like I was doing something. When I got sober, I was scared I would never write again. I gave myself an entire year off just so I wouldn’t have to confront a blank page with a lucid mind. Looking back, this was the best thing I could have done for myself and I encourage you to allow yourself that space. If writing is in your blood, you will return to it.
The year that I took off from writing allowed me to divest myself of grandiosity regarding the act, and its relationship to my identity. I could just be a human being. It was enough to stay sober and help other sober people. Then, after a year passed, I enrolled in a local writing workshop that anyone could be part of (this was years after I had received a degree in it). The deadlines were enough to give me a bit of structure within the “nothingness” but the informality of the workshop made it so that I didn’t put the existential weight of the world on what I wrote. I committed to one poem at a time. And it was one poem at a time that very gradually, over many years, led me to becoming a working writer.
In terms of the nothingness—that fear of erasure we have if we extricate ourselves from those labels that seem to give us a shape—maybe that is the key to your writing. I personally prefer to read writers who have soaked in that nothingness than those who seem to know “what is what.” Knowing nothing seems like a more profound place to start (and finish! I hope to never believe I know anything, actually) than knowing everything.
I also recommend that you play with the nothingness, a lack of structure, in terms of the physical way you write. As a result of my self-defeating thoughts (depression symptom) and predictions of worst-case scenarios (anxiety symptom), I don’t think I would ever get anything done if I sat down at a desk and said, “Okay, it’s time to write now.” Rather, I write as an escape hatch from living amongst people, an act of rebellion, a thing I am not “supposed” to be doing. I write on my phone in bathrooms at parties, while walking down the street and lost in crowds. I’ve dictated two books in the car in Los Angeles. All of this is to say that writing, for me, is definitely a respite from anxiety and depression, but only when I don’t make it its own accomplishment-focused entity with which to further beat myself up.
Watch: Why Anxiety Is Actually Good for You
Dear So Sad Today,
What does it mean to be “okay” as someone who suffers from mental illness? Will we ever be okay as opposed to “okay.” Is the “okay” state where you’re depressed, feeling like dying every day but living your days out of bed better than feeling every feeling and sleeping because being awake is a nightmare?
Dear Not Fine,
I think it’s up to every human being to say what being okay means to them. I sometimes push myself to perform society’s definition of “okayness,” which only creates anxiety in terms of the discrepancy between my insides and my outsides. While sometimes we act better than we feel and it helps us to get out of ourselves, I don’t know that “fake it till you make it” is a permanent solution. I think “fake it till you make it” causes a lot of us with depression to run around wearing masks. We look at the person next to us and perceive they are “okay,” when in reality, they may be performing too.
For me, “okayness” is less about an outwardly-imposed expectation of what my life should look like and more a question of experience. There have been countless times when I’ve thought my feelings were going to kill me. There have been many periods of anxiety and depression from which I said, “What if I never recover?” And yet, I’ve come out the other side of each of these, thus leading me to believe that there is, somewhere, an underlying okayness underneath an overwhelming not-okayness.
Likewise, I’ve found that it’s dangerous when I’m feeling good to just assume that I’m going to be “okay forever.” Depression is a chronic illness, and just when I think I will never have to contend with symptoms again, I find myself surprised with them.
All in all, I say do “all the things” to take care of your mental health. Make sure there is one person on Earth with whom you are always completely honest. Show up for therapy, and/or a support group to whom you are accountable. If you’re on psych meds, take them as prescribed. Then, knowing that a structure is established in which you are safeguarded, feel free to not get out of bed.