Depression is a funny thing.
Well, not really. It’s actually quite miserable. But as a writer, depression does strange things to you—and to your writing.
I’ve had to deal with bouts of depression and anxiety my whole life. When I was in my teens I believed that when I got older, my hormones would quit raging and everything would be ok and I wouldn’t have to deal with the barrage of mental chaos. Well, I grew up and it was still there. It took me 24 years to accept and realize that this was just part of who I am, and find ways of controlling and managing it.
Mental health issues seem to come second nature to writers. I sometimes wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemmingway ever had a happy day in their lives, or if Cormac McCarthy stares into his bowl of Fruit Loops in the morning and sees only despair. Of course I’m being facetious, but I have a feeling that grappling with internal struggles like depression and anxiety and self-doubt ends up being the fuel that sustains the writer’s—the artist’s— flame. Writing is cathartic, and is like bloodletting for emotions. So by using depression and anxiety as a tool, we can find ways of managing and dealing with these issues.
In the darkest times of my life, I’ve found some of my best writing. When I was in my second year of university, my Grandpa passed away and everyone on my Dad’s side flew to Ontario for the funeral. At the time I was going through a bit of an existential crisis. Throughout my life I’d occasionally worry about the end of the world—whether it was through Judgment Day, meteors, the sun exploding, black holes, you name it. And around this time I began wondering, if the world was inevitably going to end, what was the point of doing anything? And not only that, I encountered theories online that claimed to know the exact date the world would end by deciphering codes supposedly hidden in the Qur’an (of course, this was later debunked). My time in Ontario was somber. I hadn’t been there for over a decade, and lost contact with many of my family over there. And I wondered if this would be the last time that I would see them. Death was on my mind a lot. I was surrounded by it.
To cope with my depression and anxiety, I wrote. I wrote a story where the world knew that the world was going to end—and soon—but no one knew exactly when. “The optimists said it would happen in a few weeks, the pessimists said a few days, and the realists said any time,” I wrote. The narrator and his family were going to Ontario for his grandpa’s funeral. The narrator, a depressed teenager, reflected many of the issues I was facing at the time, but as he came to terms with his limited existence, and that “It’s never too late to do some good in the world,” I was able to work through most of these issues. I was able to find closure on nearly a lifetime of worry and anxiety by facing it and by writing about it.
Unfortunately, depression and mental health issues are still stigmatized. There’s a perception that people with depression are ungrateful, but that’s not always true. This leads people who live with depression to feel that they are strange, odd, unusual, and this makes them feel even more alienated than they already are. This strangeness is something I’ve felt firsthand, even more so as a Muslim convert and as a Muslim writer. But I’ve accepted that it’s part of who I am. I may never fully “overcome” these severe bouts of depression and anxiety, but I’m learning how to deal with them. And one way of doing so is through writing.
By writing my feelings into the story (not necessarily writing about my feelings), I am able to better rationalize and understand how I feel. And I’m sure many artists feel the same, regardless of the medium of their art. I find that doing so is the most proactive way we can deal with our trials. By channeling depression and anxiety into art, we can take our suffering and weave it into something positive.
“I once asked Grandpa if the creek went on forever,” I looked over at Dad, and saw a calm smile on his face. “He said to me ‘No, it ends, just like everything else. But if it didn’t end, then there wouldn’t be a creek. There would just be a pond or a lake. Nothing more, nothing less.’”