Ididn’t choose to amass so much material about the repercussions of depression on a person’s life.
But after major depressive disorder incapacitated me for five years, stole my writing voice plus livelihood, and left me to hold my own hand, writing about it all is how I’m getting back on my feet.
The last five years were a huge steaming pile of excrement so can I use them to grow a new life, word by word?
This is what I asked myself last July as I set out to document how the illness worms its way into every single aspect of your life.
In my case, illness and hardship kept me trapped in America for years on end and nearly cost me my relationship with my family in France. I’ve been trying to make amends since flying back to Europe at the end of December but it’s an ongoing, arduous process.
My father felt I had abandoned him and was very angry with me for the best part of three months; my mother remains desperate for attention. What’s more, Stage IV cancer is killing my stepmom, depression is killing my marriage and my finances, and I need to figure out how to remain in the EU so I can be present for my parents even though I live in the US.
In short, I have oodles of self-replenishing material to draw from.
But although I live on the edge of collapse, I fight illness by planting words, day in, day out, and tending to my pages garden.
“Depression is taking up all the space in your writing, it’s always there,” a well-meaning friend once remarked.
The fact that it is chronic may have something to do with it.
While I haven’t lost the ability to turn my hand to almost anything, my daily life is very much about keeping the illness in check while I go about doing everything else.
It’s inevitable my writing should reflect this and embracing radical honesty means I will neither occult nor hide how much I struggle.
When I committed to getting back on my feet through the power of my keyboard, I knew it’d be both a challenge and a messy process.
But the more you expose it in print, the more depression relaxes its grip on your psyche.
It’s a very curious thing. Articulating my experience is frequently painful but whenever I do it, it lets me breathe for a while. Gardening is both meditative and relaxing, so is writing sometimes.
Sure, it doesn’t smell of roses but hey, this is the material I’ve got so it’s the material I use.
Having a chronic illness means it is wont to bleed through your work.
I did choose to give it center stage when I realized I could apply my vocation to the material I had to try and pry minds open with a pen.
When you humanize pain, especially something that is concealed within your head, it becomes relatable.
Chronic illness is a lifelong tango with a moody dance partner you constantly fight for the lead. As this dance happens within the privacy of our own cranium, no one else knows what’s going on unless we mention it.
Also, hope is the most effective tool in managing mental illness. In that sense, every word I manage to commit to paper is a sign of hope I’m sending out into the world.
Every word you read means resistance; the act of writing itself it is defiance made manifest.
Because depression tends to affect every aspect of one’s life, I started writing about love, relationships, and even sex.
But everything always comes back to this immutable illness that seems to oversee my every move, watching me like a hawk, ready to pounce.
And pounce it does, regularly. Through a combination of stress, lack of sleep, and overwork, I do crash quite a lot, something that is difficult to explain to others.
Since starting to write again last summer, depression has been the thread that runs through my work.
As I reconnect with parts of my identity the disease had temporarily rendered inaccessible, the fabric of my life is changing from monochrome back to technicolor.
For example, reactivating my Portuguese and going back to living a trilingual life has improved my wellbeing no end. Most days, Portuguese is a shield against depression and the antidote, a strong link to a former self who was capable, creative, and resourceful.
And it is bringing me back to life.
While this may sound a little weird, here’s a practical example. There’s no depressive funk of mine that survives heavy doses of Portuguese electro-pop, even if I have to play albums on a loop for several hours a day.
And music helps my words grow. Not only does it keep me focused on my work but it’s doing wonder for my Portuguese vocabulary too!
You are never your illness, it is just something that happens to you.
While writing about depression won’t bring back the five years I lost, it might just turn them into something useful.
Sharing your experience in print can go a long way toward helping you gain perspective and offer you — and those you write for — a modicum of respite.
While depression has a way of eroding the self and disappearing people, creating something out of psychic pain is a way to transform it, even transcend it.
So why not plant words and watch them grow? After all, wildflowers bloom even in the most inhospitable of soils, against all odds.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.