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The Writer and Depression: When Comedy Meets Tragedy

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Mask (Tragedy and Comedy) by Anderson Mancini, Flickr CC

Writers, or artists and creatives in general, seem to be wired differently than the average person. We have the innate ability to feel more deeply; to become fully immersed in the entire spectrum of emotions – from the fiery depths of agony to the glorious heights of ecstasy – then reveal our experiences in such a way that a mere whisper of our happiness, or a whimper from the pain, is as much as most souls can handle.

It’s a blessing that often makes me curse.

Take, for instance, my most recent struggle. I’m not prone to bouts of sadness, but after my mother died a couple of summers ago, my cheerful state of mind steadily declined until, last March, I finally dropped my basket. I slid into such a deep depression, I was unable to write much of anything – hell, do much of anything – for most of the year. It was the hardest period of my life.

I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain

Shortly after her death, I tried to avoid the grief, to soften the blow I knew would come. I joined a support group; it didn’t take. I’m too empathetic. Instead of coping with one loss, each month I lived the heartaches of a half-dozen or more. I lasted about four meetings before dropping out.

I sought paid, professional help and even considered antidepressants, but decided on a more holistic approach: mega-doses of Omega-3’s. I won’t sugarcoat it (or maybe I should have); that was some pretty nasty stuff. By month’s end, I was burping raw tuna and attracting stray cats. We considered other alternatives.

Next came a Mindfulness-Based Therapeutic Lifestyle course to combat the Emotional Logic (“I’m depressed, therefore I must be a wuss.”) that Jan O’Hara discussed so proficiently in her article here [1]. I learned how to breathe. Deeply. And how to do the downward- and upward-facing dog. And be a beautiful lotus flower floating in the stream. But deep inside, I was drowning.

By the time March rolled around, I’d lost all ability to focus; to produce. My days were spent in and out of bed, either under the covers crippled by sadness, or pacing the floor riddled with anxiety. My stomach was a bundle of nerves and I couldn’t eat. I dropped almost thirty pounds. Enjoyment of all things was gone.

When a highly anticipated trip with friends over the summer didn’t improve my mood; when I laid there afterward, broken and spilled out on the hotel floor, unable to move for a week at $300/day; when I truly understood the reason upper floor windows were screwed shut, I knew something had to give. Once home, I ran straight to my therapist without passing “Go.”

She suggested, of all things, acupuncture.

Stick a Fork in me, I’m Done

I thought about it for a nanosecond. Why the hell not? I’m open-minded. Besides, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil hoodoo, but real, authentic, 3000 year-old Chinese hoodoo. The night before my first session, I was on pins and needles.

My appointment was in the medical area of town, nestled in the small section of practices insurance didn’t cover. It looked conventional enough. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe a gold dragon on a red door or something. Some beaded curtains. When I checked in, a young, blonde receptionist handed me a ream of intake paperwork, smiled and said, in four syllables, “Welcome.”

Blonde, American, and Southern. I began to have my doubts, but Dr. Min came highly recommended, was Oxford educated, and this girl was only the receptionist. I guess I wanted the whole Exotic Asian Experience I’d pictured in my head.

The paperwork was typical: general information, lifestyle, medical history, blahblahblah. About twenty minutes in, however, the questions took a turn down the Silk Road I’d imagined, categorizing physical and emotional issues into five distinct elements: Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal. I checked the following:

Thirty minutes later, I finished. A water cooler across the lobby caught my attention, so I strolled over, downed a Dixie cupful and filled another to take to my seat. When I turned around, Dr. Min was standing right there, stopping me so abruptly, my water sloshed her head. I looked down, mortified.

She reminded me of the costume designer in The Incredibles, except with a white coat and Chinese features, but the rest – the glasses, the hairdo, the gap between the teeth – they were all there. I loved her immediately and dabbed her hair with my sleeve.

“你一定是 Mr. Swift.” I had no idea what she said, but it was perfect.

She led me down a winding hallway to a room with a padded table, sat me down, and asked me what I expected from treatment. Frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be happy again? I explained my situation and that, at this point, I was willing to try anything. After she took my blood pressure and pulse, she studied my tongue. “The problem is in your gut…and you drink too much coffee.”

Man, she was good.

She removed my watch and necklace so they wouldn’t interfere with my chi, or life force, and laid me back. Just as she was about to prick me, she asked, “You’re not a fainter, are you?” I scoffed, and manly watched as she stuck twelve needles in strategic points on my shins, feet, hands, and arms, then two more that I couldn’t see in the ultra-thin, there’s-no-meat-there layer of skin on my forehead and crown. If I were going to faint, that would have been the time.

Classical Chinese music plucked softly in the background while a heat lamp warmed my feet. She adjusted one of the shin needles and my toes flopped around like drunken Rockettes, then she dimmed the lights, placed a bell in my hand, and told me she’d be back in 45 minutes. “Think happy thoughts.”

I was a beautiful lotus flower floating in the stream.

The Bottom Line

I’ve had five sessions since then and I’ll have to admit, there’s been a marked difference. My appetite has returned, I’ve gained weight, my sciatica is all but non-existent, and most importantly, my mood has improved tenfold. An old elbow injury no longer acts up, either. That’s not to say my world is all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, but things are much better. I’m much better. I feel more “normal” again.

When considering this topic, I wondered how sharing my grief could be relevant to others, but I did so because, at the 2014 Writer Unboxed UnConference, Therese led a class on Writing through the Big D (Depression). The class was filled to capacity, so there must be a need. If you’re experiencing depression for any reason, know these things:

At the time, you may not be able to write through your pain, but you will always remember and, when able, relive the experience at a deeper level through your characters and your stories. And this, in turn, will resonate all the more powerfully with your readers. After all, aren’t your greatest battles in life their battles, too?

What have been your greatest battles? Have you kept writing? Have you tried new things to find your way? We’d love to hear. (Repeat: You are not alone.)

About Mike Swift [2]

M.L. Swift is a lover of words who squanders away his afternoons arranging them into sentences which, when combined, resemble fiction. He has written articles for Writer Unboxed and The Alzheimer’s Reading Room and, as a caregiver for ten years, is writing a novel based on his experience. He lives in the Florida panhandle with his two dogs, Rameses and Buster, and spends his nights fighting a losing battle to reclaim his side of the bed.

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