Turns out that even when writing makes me miserable, it makes me happy

VCCA5Early in the life of this blog I promised that I would never write blog posts about how I’m sorry I’ve been posting erratically but I intend now to post more often. So I will make no promises. That having been said, I have been posting somewhat erratically in the last month, because I’ve been a little depressed, and, frankly, I no longer saw the point. But now I once again have thoughts I want to put on the internet, so here I am.

While being somewhat depressed, I also stopped writing. I can’t count the number of times people have told me to take a break from writing and then come back to it refreshed. It’s probably good advice. After all, I did take a break from writing, and I have come back to it refreshed.

That having been said, the break was miserable and was probably the low point of a low mood. I was pretty miserable for most of February and March, but I guess I hadn’t quite understood the degree to which my circumstances–daily writing; frequent walks; limited social interaction; a controlled environment; plenty of solitude–were regulating my mood. Once I gave up on walking and writing (because I couldn’t see the point) and started playing video games all day (because it was the only non-self-destructive way to kill time), I became really miserable.

Was giving up writing the cause of the even lower mood? Or an effect of it? Hard to say!

Anyway, when I started writing again, my depressed feelings did not go away, but they did abate somewhat. What’s interesting is that I had a major breakthrough in my writing while I was feeling depressed, and I knew I was having it, and I still didn’t feel particularly better! It’s really pretty odd. I’d always assumed it was impossible to write good stuff when you’re depressed, because you need feelings in order to write, but that’s not the case! It is possible, if you’re telling the right story, to make yourself feel feelings at least for the duration of the writing session. Crazy stuff.

Am feeling much better now. Writing is going not-poorly too. Everything will probably fall apart tomorrow, but at least for today I’m sitting pretty!

On a sidenote, my novel is only at twenty thousand words, but I’ve filled up one and a half journals (approx 60k words) and I have an additional 12k words of deleted scenes. Finally I’m writing like a real writer! (i.e. throwing away far more than I use). Part of what I’m doing is exploring the parts of my story that aren’t on the page. For instance, I’ve been writing scenes and journal entries from the perspective of the other characters in the book (it’s first-person, told from only one viewpoint), and it’s really shocking to see that there is a deeper life in this book. The other characters have their own shit going on. They’ve got their own reactions to stuff. And they’ve got stuff going on outside of and in addition to and in reaction to the main plot of the book.

Today when I was writing, I actually thought, “This is fun. I enjoy this,” and it was the first time I’ve been able to say that about writing in a long time.

I still don’t know that the book is very good–I worry that it’s low-stakes, for one thing–but I’m a third of the way through it, and I don’t yet feel the urge to quit. The book IS taking me much longer to write than it normally does. I worked all day today, from 10 to 4 (with a one hour break for lunch) and only got down two thousand words (and the book actually got shorter, because I cut a three thousand word chapter). I’d intended to finish by the end of my residency (May 10th), but I think I’m gonna be working on it at least for the rest of the month.

I hope I get somewhere with it though. This is a tough business. It’s really a killer to work on something and not know if it’s good or if it’ll ever be published, but that’s basically what writing is all about.

I can’t be the only one who found college to be a pretty dark time

Was talking to an acquaintance yesterday about college and about how this person feels nostalgic for college. They’re happy enough now, but they also feel constrained. I joked that nostalgia for college was “the dark side.” Which was a bit facetious. I’m still astonished by how idyllic the setup for college (at least in the upper-middle-classes) tends to be. It’s all the privileges of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I mean, we pay lip service to the idea that you’re there to learn, but if you want to, it’s very possible to get through college with minimal effort.

However, I, personally, do not feel at all nostalgic for college. In fact, when I walked aroiund the old alma mater yesterday, I actually felt a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t overwhelming. I was still able to feel nostalgic. It was nice to reconnect with myself at a younger age, just because I usually feel so disconnected from my past self. I enjoy that sense of continuity. As in, yes, I am the person who once ate hot cookies (and ice cream? Or am I just imagining the ice cream?) every day in the Wilbur dining hall.

But the sense of dread was real. And I was profoundly glad, during my whole walking tour, that I was not in college anymore. Now that I’ve been out for six years, I feel like I can say that my four years in college were unquestionably the darkest time in my life. I had plenty of fun. I made lots of really good friends. I saw and did lots of new things. But I was also acutely miserable much of the time.

It’s no one’s fault. Not even my own. I don’t really know what caused it. I don’t think drinking was entirely the cause of the misery (though it didn’t help). I think I just wasn’t equipped to live in such close quarters with so many people. I remember I just felt really awkward, really shy, and really emotionally stunted. I felt like everyone was making lifelong friends and falling in love, and I was in stasis. I had no idea how to relate to people. No idea how to talk to them. Couldn’t understand how to make friends. And the only way I could face people was by drinking. But the drinking then led to more negative feelings and more fragmentation and confusion. And I really lost my sense of self.

In high school, I was relatively happy (most of the time). And I had my friends and my place in the world. I was elected Student Council President, and I was not unpopular. I kind of knew who I was. But in college, I felt completely helpless. I wanted desperately to feel close to people, but I just didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. All I knew how to do was go to parties and drink. But even there, I felt so shy. I’d walk around in circles in the hopes that the constant movement would obscure the fact that I was there alone. I’d stand silently at the edge of peoples’ conversations until I was finally drunk enough to break in. It’s still amazing to me. Nowadays I am so systematic in how I handle my problems. But back then I didn’t even know that being systematic was a thing. I didn’t even know that I had a problem which I could work on and get better at.

I think I was stunned by the environment. The crush of people was so constant and all-encompassing. There was no room to reflect, and no way to take stock. I’m struggling to articulate what I mean when I say that my sense of self was gone, because it’s a complicated and subtle thing, a sense of self. I guess what I mean is that everything was so immediate. I couldn’t even think about next week. I was in triage mode all the time, because each day and each moment brought such powerful waves of loneliness and anger. Part of me is wondering if I’m being overdramatic. But I don’t think so. It really was that bad. And I really did regress and become less capable of interacting with people and making plans for the future.

In contrast, every year since graduating has been great. Even my first year out, when I was jobless and still drinking, was much better than the year prior. a2ef41a19830e7fc4f1c4e03a0df46cc58And although I’ve had periods of depression in the time since college, I’ve always experienced that depression as something strange, something outside my normal mood, and something that I needed to work to address. I feel like in the last five years I’ve done all the things I didn’t do in college: I’ve learned to make friends and to relate to new people, experienced romantic entanglements; found my vocation; and learned lots of new things. It’s been great. You couldn’t pay me to go back.

The fallacy behind ‘depressive realism’

97557-94199Some friends and I were talking the other day (yesterday) about depressive realism, which is the demonstrably true fact that clinically depressed people have a better understanding of life’s odds than non-depressed people. That’s because human beings have a tough time with probability and we tend to consistently overestimate the probability of low-probability events and to discount the possibility of failure in cases where there is a small, but real, likelihood of failure.

For instance, most marriages succeed, but some of them fail. However, few people who get married ever think, “Oh, there’s a chance that this is going to fail.”

The depressed person, on the other hand, allows allows the possibility for failure. In fact, they’re obsessed with it.

Similarly, very few aspiring writers will ever sell a story, much less a book. And even fewer will make any sort of career out of writing. However, while most aspiring writers know that things are hard, they do not have any idea how low the probabilities actually are, or they wouldn’t do it. If anyone really understood what it meant to have a one in a hundred chance of success, they’d go and do something else. Depressed people understand that a one percent chance of success is pretty close to zero. Basically, the odds of success are usually pretty bad, and depressed people intuitively understand that because they think most things are bad.

However, the thing that depressed people underestimate is human resilience. In fact, we all do. How many times have you read a story or watched a movie that ended with the implied conclusion that nothing was ever the same for this person: the conclusion that their life was, basically, over.

We see that movie and read that story all the time.

But it’s not true. People bounce back from most things. Really terrible stuff can happen. Your loved ones can die, you can lose limbs, or you can experience shame and dishonor on an epic scale…and even with that, it’s more likely than not that you’ll eventually find some level of contentment.

So, really, non-depressed people are the beneficiaries of their ignorance. They might underestimate the odds of failure, but it’s alright because the consequences of that ignorance–they’ll suffer more failures in life than they would if they were more cautious–are actually not that terrible.