When I’m depressed, I often do (some of) my best work.
Not creative work, but work work. Work that requires less mind and more brawn. If that exists on the computer.
I write (and think, but more on that below) for a living. My ability to write well is key to my livelihood. If I couldn’t write, I’d not be where I am today.
When I’m depressed, I can edit. Track changes is one of my very best friends during a depression. The sense of accomplishment I feel when I correct subject-verb mismatches, use the thesaurus to swap repetitive words and and cut run-on sentences in two? Formatting citations? Awesome.
I pat my self on the back as I kill my darlings and cut all fluff.
But when I’m depressed, I can’t think. So I can’t revise.
Editing is not the same as revising. Editing looks for mistakes. Revising looks for improvement, improves cadence, corrects logical and emotional gaps. Revising allows for storytelling and persuasion.
Editing is easy. Revising is hard.
To revise, one needs to think. And when I’m depressed, my ability to think is in the toilet (Cliches anyone?). My thoughts all run together very slowly, such that I feel like my mind is swimming through mud. The physical sensations in my body and the emotions in my heart trample rationality. While that is good sometimes, it’s not when you are trying to write a legal brief that you want to be both well-written and legally sound because you are creating the law. Really. Law that affects people’s lives.
The number of times I’ve had to revise a draft order these last two weeks not due to editing but due to giant mistakes in thinking? Unacceptable.
On top of that, when I’m depressed, I can’t speak. When people read what you’ve written, they aren’t just doing it with their eyes, but also with their ears. They are speaking to themselves as they skim your words, and if it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t written right.
But when I’m depressed, my words get caught. My pride at my ability to speak in public without using “um” is horribly bruised when I’m too slow, where my thinking is delayed and then my voice is jacked up. I can’t revise the words on the page because I can’t hear them correctly. From the page to my eyes to my brain to my ears — something is off, like a derailed train. The connections are missed.
I can’t remember. My memory is sharp only to this morning. I can’t remember what was real about yesterday because it seems like a dream. Only in a dream am I still here, awake, moving, breathing. If the bad I feel today is less than the bad I felt yesterday, then I cannot understand how the bad of yesterday allowed me to be here today.
I’m supposed to breathe. Take deep breaths to get back into my body, to feel grounded again. But I can’t do that, because deep breaths make me feel too much. On the surface, in shallowness, I can tread water. If I breathe too deep, all the sadness, all the pain, all the grief comes up as I exhale.
I need to be writing scholarly works and legal documents. I can’t be all up in my feelings.
So what to do? I went through this cycle many times when writing my dissertation and doing law school. There is no choice but to just ride it out. Edit the hell out of some stuff. Hold off on revising as much as possible. Speak only when necessary. Write everything down. Read the newspaper – novels or actual literature is too much.
But do go back and read the stuff you wrote when you were well. Marvel at how well its written, how nice it sounds. Remember that you were once a good writer.
And you will be again.