According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year 18.3% of U.S. adults suffer from mental illness of some kind. I personally have been struggling with depression and anxiety for over ten years now. There was a time in my youth that I thought dealing with mental health issues like these made me more of a real artist; that being unwell in one aspect of my life was the price I paid for being able to create beautiful things. It’s taken me a long time to unlearn this very dangerous myth about creativity and mental health and I want to say it once for anyone who may need to hear it: being mentally ill does not make you a better artist! Nor does being mentally well keep you from being a good artist! Vincent Van Gogh produced his best work while he was a self-admitted patient at the Saint-Paul asylum, not when he was battling his demons on his own. The only painting he sold in his lifetime was painted during his period of convalescence at Saint-Paul, as was The Starry Night.
It’s easier to create when you’re well, it’s that simple. But getting well and staying well is anything but simple. So what is one to do? How do you write when your own brain is plotting against you? Below are five steps that I take whenever my mental health is less than stellar but I still want to try and write:
- Put yourself first
Some days, the words are not going to come. A symptom of depression is a loss of interest in hobbies or things that usually bring you joy and if you’re a writer that means putting pen to paper is going to seem impossible from time to time. You know what isn’t going to help? Beating yourself up about it. Putting yourself down about not being able to write when your depressed isn’t going to make the block (in this case, your depression) magically disappear – if anything, it’s going to make it worse. This is one of those moments when you need to practice self-care and put yourself first – not your work, yourself. Walk away from the desk or the computer or the notebook. Do something that makes you feel good. Then try again. Repeat as necessary.
- Don’t self-critique
You’ll have enough voices in your head telling you how lousy you are without adding to them right now. Don’t edit when you’re depressed, you WILL end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you can write at all, focus on putting one word down after the next, not on how they sound.
- Share your writing with others
The instinct when you’re in a depressive episode is to isolate – fight against that. Since you’re not the best judge of your writing right now, share it with others, people you love and trust. Don’t necessarily put the work out for critique, but put it out there for a select few people to congratulate you on. Soak up the good vibes that come your way and gain some perspective on what you’ve created.
- Celebrate the little victories
Doing anything when you’re depressed is hard. Sometimes even getting out of bed is a feat of herculean strength. So if you’re trying to write when you’re depressed, give yourself a big pat on the back for even making the attempt. Every word you write is a big middle finger in the face of mental illness and that’s awesome. Celebrate those little victories; finishing a sentence, writing out a plot outline, having an idea for something in the first place, it’s all worth a round of applause.
- Turn writing into a ritual of self-care
This one takes some time and a lot of practice, but with a little bit of perseverance you can get there. Step 1 in this post was to put yourself first by making sure you’re doing something that makes you feel good. Make sure that writing is one of those things and you’re set for life. Turn it into a ritual. For me, sitting down to write means that I’m going to a comfortable place in my house, a place that I’ve decorated with posters and art that makes me feel good and smile, and doing something that makes my mind feel better. It means sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea. It means turning on some of my favorite music and just sitting for a little while, listening to it. All of these things, plus the writing, make me feel amazing. I’ve turned writing into a ritual of self-care and it’s always there for me when things inside my mind get a little dark and scary.