Fear and Loathing – living and writing with depression and anxiety

Every time I rest my fingers on the keyboard, poised to type, a negative rationale tells me that my venture will end in one of the following ways:

Like this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or, one and then the other.

Inability to put words on a page, or keep them there long enough to turn words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into manuscript drafts, drafts into redrafts and redrafts into a world-dominating kick-assery of a novel, plagued me for over a year. With no end in sight, I reassured myself that I was merely experiencing a rather extended episode of writer’s block.

I’ve been to various writing seminars over the years, and the Q&A section invariably resulted in panellists being asked how they overcome writer’s block. Responses ranged from ‘I don’t suffer from writer’s block’ (which left me marvelling at their wondrous brains) to ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block (which…just…let’s move on…) to ‘just write’. Although the irony of the last response had me grinding my teeth, it left me with the only practical option—I had to slug it out. The secret of mastering this mad-capped approach seemed to lie in establishing a ritual, so every night after work I turned on my computer, cleared some desk space, cleaned my room, made a hot chocolate, watched one episode of Buffy (sometimes one and a half episodes, sometimes two), sat back in front of my computer, checked the time, turned off my computer and went to bed feeling excited and assured that a good night’s sleep would result in the following evening being a mind-blowing success. GUESS WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN?!

After coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t immerse myself in my own work, I decided to make it my mission to become immersed in the Melbourne literary scene. Among other things, I attended the 2013 Reading Matters conference, a two-day professional development conference hosted by the State Library of Victoria and RMIT, which focused on ‘crucial and emerging issues and trends in youth literature’ (Want to find out more about the conference? Check out http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/event/reading-matters.). Two things resonated with me long after the conference finished. The first was my awkwardly pathetic conversation with Garth Nix. He asked me whether I was a teacher or a librarian. Searching for a response, I became what I can only describe as disconnected from myself; my critical self stood beside Nix and laughed silently as I tried to explain that I was a YA fiction writer, but that I hadn’t written anything in a while, well, a year, but that I really was a writer, but not a published author. After asking for my name, Garth told me it was great that I was a writer, he was looking to seeing my novel published in the near future, and that I should keep writing. He handed me my signed copy and I hurried away.

Look at it, isn't it glorious? Well, autograph, not my photography skills.

Look at it, isn’t it glorious? Well, the autograph, not my photography skills.

The second thing that struck a chord occurred during one of the Q&A’s. I can’t remember which panel it was, but, as per usual, an audience member asked the panellists how they dealt with writer’s block. One of the panellists made reference to the writer and depression, but said it was separate from writer’s block and the conversation moved on. I was not ready to move on.

I have endured bouts of depression and anxiety since my early teens. For most of my young adult life I assumed that was the way things were—I was and would forever be a paranoid pessimist whose mind was often flooded with so many layers of unending and undecipherable self-loathing thoughts that they became indecipherable, leaving me with nothing but a heavy numbness in my head. Writing allowed me to immerse myself in characters and stories far removed from my own reality. But, in 2010 my mother died and the grief process turned into a bleak and intensely paranoid state of being that endured long after the first anniversary of her death, and in the midst of it all my writing stopped. Completely. I assumed that I was experiencing grief that would pass at some point, but still made an appointment with my GP. She gently pointed out my family history of anxiety and depression (putting a name to what I previously assumed were aspects of my personality) and then she said something that blew my mind—‘you shouldn’t have to feel like this’. I saw a hypnotherapist, counsellor, psychologist and psychiatrist, all of whom helped me realise (well, maybe not the hypnotherapist) that what I had been experiencing all these years, even prior to my mother dying, was not, and did not have to be, a part of my personality. I learned to identify when I was on the verge of a high anxiety episode, or when I was falling into a state of depression. With their assistance, I put tools in place to combat negative thoughts with positive, rational self-talk. This doesn’t mean I always win. I am a work in progress. What it does mean, is that while depression and anxiety do not define who I am, I have accepted that depression and anxiety will always be a part of my life that I need to manage.

So, when the Reading Matters panellist brought up the writer and depression, separating it from writer’s block, I could do nothing but fantasise about racing up onto the stage, hugging the panellist and then shaking them until they validated my state of being by sharing their experiences of writing and depression (On 02 March, 2014, one of the most captivating and engaging panellists from the Reading Matters conference, Libba Bray, blogged about her ongoing battle with depression, which can be found at http://libbabray.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/miles-and-miles-of-no-mans-land/). As weird as this sounds, hearing a writer talking about depression, even though it was only a mere sound bite, was intensely rejuvenating. I walked away from the conference with a renewed sense of hope. Then I procrastinated for a few months. Then I took part in NANOWRIMO 2013 (every novelist should do this. Find out more, and sign up for 2014 at http://nanowrimo.org/), which was much more exhausting than I had prepared for, involved less wine than I expected, and resulted in a re-write of my YA manuscript that was more fulfilling, enjoyable and rewarding than I could have imagined (it also included an insane number of typos and repetitions of phrases like ‘he scratched his head’ and ‘she sighed’, but shut up). More importantly, it was an opportunity for me to be part of the writing community. I shared tales of trials and triumphs with fellow co-workers who were taking part in NANOWRIMO, and I even dipped into discussions in online forums (I didn’t attend any of social events, but aim to work up to it this year). In February I attended The Rag and Bone Man Press ‘What a novel idea’ salon (find out more about their amazing publications at http://www.ragandboneman.org/), where I listened while an eclectic array of artists read their articles or novel excerpts to the group.


Taking it all in at the ‘What a novel idea’ salon. Image reproduced with permission from The Rag and Bone Man Press.

It was inspiring being in a room with creative folks, but the thought of reading my own work was terrifying. Once I finished reading an excerpt from my YA manuscript I celebrated by making a quick exit and, after suppressing the urge to vomit on the train on the way home, met my husband at the train station and promptly burst into tears the second after he asked, ‘So, how was it?’

While not easy, getting actively involved in the writing community is the best thing I can do for my own writing and my ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. Listening to artists talk about their hardships proved equally as inspiring to me as listening to them talk about their successes. Maybe I won’t ever be a published novelist, but I’ve benefited greatly from hearing the ups and downs of other writers, and I hope that blogging about my own journey as a writer fumbling through (and hopefully, at some point, thriving in) the Melbourne literary scene will help other like-minded artists (I promise my posts won’t all be as dreary as this!).


Anyone who is struggling with depression or an anxiety condition can talk to a trained professional at beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

4 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing – living and writing with depression and anxiety

  1. Thank you for your honesty. I’ve questioned the writers block thing myself. I’ve gone through stints of frustration at not having the ability to produce writing; this after having years of producing a great deal of writing and have modest success along the way. I started to wonder if my writing comes in waves. I tend to go on writing stints that last several years, and then hit a few years where I produce very little, but to come back and go into several more years of writing. This has happened for me since I was fourteen-years-old, so I wonder if it’s a pattern. I just recently, about two months ago, went into another wave of writing. I’ve just recently come off a three year stint of not producing very much writing. Not that I didn’t produce any writing, but what came out was slow and often forced. I’d have a good writing day every few months but nothing consistent, as I once had. But here recently I can’t seem to stop writing. I’m writing like I once had, with an obsession that’s unstoppable and I don’t understand exactly where the energy comes from. It’s odd.

    I guess I’d like to suggest looking at some patterns, maybe that will help. It helped me get through my blocks and better understand my individual process. We’re all different so we engage with the creative process differently.

    I hope that helps in some small way. Good luck with the writing, and keep putting yourself into that creative space and trust it will happen.


    • Hi Oscar,

      Thanks for your post. It’s great to hear you’re riding a wave of inspiration and writing!

      I realised recently that I can combat some of my negative self-talk by hand writing, instead of typing on the computer. As soon as my creative flow gains momentum to the point where my thoughts are faster than my crappy and mostly illegible handwriting, I jump back on the computer.

      Best of luck with your agent hunt!


  2. I love blogs. I love that you are blogging. I love it when you talk.
    Depression is a jerk, and I offer my unconditional support whenever it’s getting on top of you.
    People who say there’s no such thing as writer’s block are really bizarre – what, just because you haven’t experienced something, it doesn’t exist? I didn’t see snow until I was 29, but I was still pretty sure it was real.


  3. Pingback: A shout out to fellow income-deficient Melbournian writers   | Liz McShane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s