Don’t Get Me Down: Reading and Writing Depression

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In September 2008, David Foster Wallace stepped out onto his patio and did what most of us occasionally imagine doing, but hopefully never go through with. The world media brought his suicide to our attention soon after and, within a few months, two last days of accounts appeared in major American magazines. As I later obsessed over DT Max’s “The Unfinished” in The New Yorker, and David Lipsky’s “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace” in Rolling Stone, both detailing Wallace’s depression and death, I found they had quite an effect on me. It was a different effect than from other reading I’d done, a curious soothing as I came to the end of the articles and the end of Wallace’s life. It’s a feeling that now scares me shitless.

Condensing his life into 10,000-word mini-biographies made Wallace’s struggle with depression and eventual suicide seem like a smooth transition. But depression is anything but smooth. It is flat. It’s as close to catatonic as you can get without being in a coma. So if the writing here is flat, that’s probably a good thing, or at least somewhat honest. To write about depression in electric, page-turner prose is disingenuous, untrue to the experience, and is a persisting problem with writing and depression. Put simply, it’s really fucking hard to get this illness onto the page. And, as both Max and Lipsky noted, it’s something Wallace never did. He wrote a lot about depression, but never directly detailed his own suffering. So what makes me think I have any right to? Why should I expect someone to be interested? What do you care if I ate a whole jar of pickles in one go?

In November 2008, two months after Wallace’s death, but before I’d read the Max and Lipsky pieces, I was due to give my first academic paper. It was on novels and short fiction that dealt with the events of September 11, 2001, for the aptly themed Creativity and Uncertainty conference at the University of Technology, Sydney. I was depressed, not with the theme – although it certainly could not have helped – but with the pressure I was putting on myself to be a writer.

In the 48 hours before my presentation, I wandered the cramped streets of Sydney, trying to figure out how I could edit the essay to the level that I imagined was expected of me. I stayed up until 4 am without changing a single word, scared as I was by the whole situation. After all, there’s no progress like no progress. On the morning of the conference, I panic-attacked and, consequently, experienced my first near-blackout from hyperventilation. I was using my girlfriend as a sounding board – between sobs – going from I’ll do it to I’ve probably got to pull out to I’m never writing another word ever again and I’m never coming back here again and I’m going to go out of my way to never see any of these people again. I was desperate, but I was also determined to pull myself together for the session before mine, in which novelist James Bradley was to give a paper on the links between creativity and depression. I was keen to crawl into the room, thinking it might say something to me in my current condition, but I was frozen in the corner of a communal space on campus, wrestling with my mind to stop the spread of anxiety. In other words, I was suffering from the very symptoms Bradley was likely to outline. At the time, I was aware of the irony but, as is often the case, couldn’t pull myself out of it.

The anxiety on that particular day stemmed partly from the public speaking side of the conference and partly from being programmed alongside PhD students and professors, myself having only just finished my undergrad degree. In any case, it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced feelings of that intensity. I had suffered the same steeply depreciating sense of self when writing for publication. The writing of prose – essay, fiction and memoir, in particular – can be an incubator for depressive moods more than other forms, in that it invites long periods of seeming inactivity, obsessiveness and over-analysis (analysis paralysis, as my mother so succinctly puts it).

Poet Les Murray made this incubator idea clear in his regularly reprinted (again just last year by Black Inc.) Killing The Black Dog—the title of which referred to Winston Churchill’s pet name for his major depressive episodes. Murray wrote, ‘I cut down on writing prose pieces because they were more liable than poetry to be infiltrated with the colours of confusion and obsession.’

When I wrote prose, the same thing always tripped me up: trying to succeed in writing beyond realistic expectations. The desire to be above the level that I was could stop me from progressing on a draft entirely. I would be halted mid-sentence, with little else to do but stew on why I’d stopped. In the slowed-down process of revising work with editors, depressive moods prevailed. I couldn’t bring myself to email them on some days and would get up each morning frightened that the deadline – with the hard finality of the word pressing down on me – was one day closer, or worse, one day behind me, unmet. I would finish multiple drafts, but the piece could never be good enough, never up to the exacting standards that I, like many young writers, had invented for myself. I would stare blankly at the computer, the Word doc refusing to edit itself. Individual sentences would make sense, but the whole would be irreversibly tangled.

Bradley’s essay was eventually published in the Griffith Review, under the title Never Real and Always True, a quote from Anton Artaud used in Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. I read its black details on a particularly sunny, clear-headed afternoon. I read it again out loud to my parents, and we hummed with the collective recognition at certain details. And we weren’t the only ones. Bradley’s piece had been cathartic for many, some leaving comments on his website to thank him for his honesty and insight.

Most writing on depression, however, doesn’t achieve this. It fails to move beyond Churchill’s ubiquitous black dog personification and a listing of the usual casualties: Woolf, Hemingway, Plath et al. Yet, in the lexicon of manic depressive writers, the ones who survived it are the least likely to make the list. Graham Greene, for example, suffered manic depression and lived to be 86. He is rarely mentioned among writers with the disorder, save for playing Russian roulette on his lonesome in his early twenties.

Bradley’s essay is important, not just because it skips these clichés of writing about depression, but because it engages with the realities of the illness while relating a personal take on it. And it was Bradley who inspired me to describe my own depressive episodes. I know I’m not alone – in the experience and the writing of it – and that makes it both easier and harder. The statistics, like most statistics, are scary.

Alice W. Flaherty states in The Midnight Disease (2005) that writers are ten times more likely to be manic-depressive than the rest of the population, and poets are a staggering forty times more likely. The overriding concern then becomes a variation on the classic chicken-or-the-egg: does the act of writing invite mental illness, or does writing come from some need to cope with it? It’s not as clear-cut as one or the other, but if it were solely the former, who would go into it willingly? And if so, what can we do to make writers more aware of the realities of these statistics? Do you put up a white warning sticker, like on the packets of cigarettes, so that every time you bought a Moleskine notebook or a Uni-ball pen, they would be emblazoned with: Writing May Cause Harm?

This was what I struggled with as I published my first pieces. But the all-important question I should have considered was: if this is going to get me down – like so gloomed out I can’t operate on a normal level – is it really worth doing? It’s something others asked along the way for me, but which I never asked myself.

The reality of writing at a professional level is that the process isn’t exactly cheery. It can, in fact, mimic manic-depressive cycles: The inspiration that comes with an idea takes hold for weeks, bringing with it sleeplessness and excited energy, before slowly succumbing to the turgidity of rewriting and overworking. These were symptoms I first became familiar with vicariously, before experiencing them directly. In 2007 I’d watched Stephen Fry’s popular BBC documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive over and over on YouTube. I read the online transcript of an episode of Four Corners that profiled cartoonist Bill Leaks’ struggle with the disorder. Reading about the life of iconic bipolar Spike Milligan gave me hope in that he suffered ten nervous breakdowns but lived to be 83. This was during my first major depressive illness, when I was especially interested in the “manic” variety of depression, which, with its ups, seemed preferable to the sink-hole that I was set in. There is a danger that depression gets glamourised in reading like this, that to be a great writer you need to experience low moods and that depression can authenticate your efforts. (I know that in writing this piece, there is part of me that is very, very hungry for people’s pity and concession: if you think I suffer depression then you might also think I have the potential to be pretty fucking profound.)

I became infatuated with Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a fictionalised take on the life of poet and manic depressive Delmore Schwartz, shortly before I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Reading the book for the first time at 21, I took Martin Amis’ quip that Humboldt ‘is a very dangerous book to read in your twenties’ literally, so much so that the book itself became an evil omen and whenever I saw it lying around the house – hard to miss, an original Viking hardcover in gaudy bright yellow – it taunted me to open its pages and indulge in its vices. When the titular Humboldt tells Charlie Citrine (Saul Bellow’s barely disguised alter-ego) that he needs a drink before bed to quiet his thoughts, I feared for my sanity, imagining my own ideas spinning like a tornado inside my head.

My psychologists were always beguiled by the language I’d adopted from Humboldt and other depression novels. I’d say I’d been in a funk for three months, for example, to which the psychologist would giggle: ‘I’ve never heard that word used for depression before.’ What have you been reading, I thought, just the textbooks? Through my own reading I felt I’d come to know as much about depression and psychosis and all the rest as they did. I knew the details so well that I sometimes wondered if my manic depression were not, in fact, a fiction.

The details have the weird texture of fiction, at any rate. In my first hypomanic swing I completed an 80,000-word novel in three weeks, experiencing something close to hypergraphia. There’s a comic book super strength in your head when you’re in an upswing of that scale. It was great to finish the work, but the best of it was not exactly publishable and the worst of it failed to make sense on several very basic levels. Plots twisted and turned and didn’t connect, mirroring the mode my mind was working in. There were plenty of bipolar effects that had nothing to do with writing, of course (driving down the F3 at 140km at 3am, for instance), but writing was always the overriding obsession.

Something about David Foster Wallace’s suicide shocked me out of all that. Part of it was because I was beginning to see the effects of my depression on those around me and I was also beginning to seek real treatment. The accounts of Wallace’s depression make all of what I’ve felt feel real in a way that most other writing has not. It is real in a scary way but it’s also real in a very human way. There was a surprisingly common description of altered gustatory sensations in what I read. James Bradley described food as changing taste when he was depressed – he became disgusted by shellfish, mushrooms and Chinese food. Les Murray was pleased that depression had made the taste of cigars repellent to him – it was a very easy way to quit smoking. And Wallace, when being eased onto the anti-depressant Nadril, was warned off eating a menu of everyday foods – cured meats, certain cheeses and pickles. It was this small detail – pickles – hidden within Lipsky’s account, that stunned my parents and me. During my most intense hypomanic swings, I would stand at the fridge and eat simultaneously from a jar of anchovies and a jar of gherkins. It didn’t and doesn’t mean anything to me scientifically – I don’t have a degree in neuropsychology – but it resonates at a deep level when I read details like this. It means that these weird and out-there experiences are more common than you’d think. That’s what I needed to know when I wondered what Bradley would be talking about at the Creativity and Uncertainty conference. If the strange stuff is common, then surely the mundane – the suffering – must be too.

Unlike some writing, it wouldn’t have been very fun if this essay had turned meta-textual on me – if drafting ‘Don’t Get Me Down’ did, in fact, get me down. But it didn’t. I haven’t fallen into a depressive funk because I’ve learnt how to avoid those pitfalls. And here is basically what I’ve learnt: don’t spend too much time on a single draft; communicate with an editor if there’s a problem; don’t compare your writing to that of others; and stick to your medication like glue. I believe I’ve been able to gain these insights by separating the writing and depression. I don’t deny that they’re likely linked in very complex ways, but they need to be approached on their own. The depression is the serious thing that I will always prioritise over the writing. So yes, it’s nice having you read this, but if I’d had to lie in bed for three months for it to happen, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Because as the late Roberto Bolaño put it in an essay, while dying of liver disease, “Illness + Literature = Illness.”

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This essay was originally printed in the Australian journal The Reader.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Sam Twyford-Moore is the co-editor of Cutwater. His writing has appeared in Meanjin, two UTS Anthologies and Vagabond Holes: David McComb and The Triffids. His essay on HBO series The Wire is currently on the list of research materials for the show at UC Berkley. More from this author →