I’ve been delaying making this confession. Mental health is not an issue many want to discuss, whether it pertains to one’s writing life or not. However, I’m prompted to, due to a visit from an old “friend” last summer. Always an anxious, uptight guy (and maybe a tad controlling), I hadn’t been blind-sided by serious depression since 1973.
The Summer of My Discontent
By the time the academic term at the community college where I teach ended last June, I was burned out—and burned—pretty badly. I’d had a problem student who’d been about as challenging as any I’d had in my thirty-four-year career—and I was more than ready to relax, which meant avoiding what I’d done in recent years: plunging headlong into a big writing project. Like a novel.
Since I quit teaching during the summer back in the ‘90s, I’ve regularly devoted myself to writing a book during my three months off, somehow managing to sustain the project during the school year by writing at least a couple of hours two mornings a week, more during Christmas break. But it’s always been summers when I become immersed, writing all morning or even all day if I wish. Ironically, this seasonal freedom isn’t always a good thing; it can result in a lot of pressure. After the grueling teaching year I’d had, I needed to regroup and recover, take it easy. It was not to be.
Having placed my recently-completed novel manuscript into my agent’s hands in March, I felt I was at a crossroad. For one thing, I decided that if the new book didn’t find a publisher that didn’t require subsidy, one that would at least share the burden of marketing and distribution, then I couldn’t face beginning yet another. I can see now, as I write those words, my barely concealed anger at big publishers for rejecting me; and as everyone knows (except the person in its grip), anger is the root of depression. Also, writing energy devoted to publishing woes is almost always misplaced—but though I know that, I don’t always let myself feel it.
I hadn’t been on summer break a day before headaches set in—not my normal tension headaches but fiery bands and waves that moved all over my head, that had me writhing on the floor pressing an ice pack to my forehead in mostly-fruitless attempts to smother the raging conflagration inside my skull. I consulted doctors, and while I could’ve gotten pain-killers, I wanted to exhaust non-medication solutions first.
I tried homeopathy, even a headache diet. Nothing helped. What an irony: I couldn’t write now if I wanted to; and as the summer (and headaches) raged, I began to really want to. In spite of myself, a new novel was asserting itself, based on a short story of mine, “Two Kings,” that won the Dayton Daily News’ fiction contest in 2008. But writing, formerly a choice, seemed out of the question with the daily pain I was experiencing.
Shelter from the (Inner) Storm
My main relief came from two activities: working outside in the high-nineties, humid heat on a stone walkway in my front yard and riding my bicycle. The former was pleasurable hell; the latter was hellish heaven, depending on my headache pain that particular day.
I’d found a new biking destination: Cedarville. Though a pleasant ride from Yellow Springs to Xenia, then on to the home of Cedarville University, it was mostly Stoney Creek Roasters that drew me to sit, sip, read and write on the lovely curved deck above Massey Creek. Cycling through the mid-day heat to collapse, a sweaty mess, into a chair above the cool water in the shade took me out of myself, and I could transcend my headache for a while, even get in a little writing time.
I spent some good hours on that deck, doing writing exercises, journaling and even tricking myself into writing some passages that might eventually make their way into the new novel I was avoiding. It was paradise. For a while.
I’m no stranger to situational depression, the kind resulting from an idealistic writer/teacher’s overly-high expectations of his students or of disappointment at publishers who either reject my work so fast I swear the mail could not have moved so swiftly—or never respond at all. But as the summer wore on, I was feeling something entirely different: tightness in my chest, a gaping hole in my belly. This felt like death—even deadly—and certainly deadening.
The day came, near the end of August with another school year looming, my last before retirement, when I even lost the desire to use the copious tools in my spiritual tool bag developed during the past decade and a half when I stopped relying totally on myself and reconnected with a Higher Power. Suddenly all I wanted to do was escape, to ride, to get away.
The day depression like none I’d seen in thirty-five years struck, I didn’t even tell my wife (the Big D likes secrets). I flew off toward Xenia, riding for my life. Fear rose in me like a siren, beginning as a distant whine then shrilling higher and higher. With sun blazing and birds chattering all around me, I felt increasingly hollow, empty, purposeless. For the first time all summer, the ride wasn’t making me feel better but worse, a lot worse. Since turning around and continuing seemed equally meaningless, I kept on riding till I reached the outskirts of Xenia.
Showdown at Shawnee Park
As I climbed the last hill, it hit me at last what I was going to do and it was my gut, not my head talking: write. Write on this novel. Within ten minutes I’d made it to Shawnee Park: the swans, the fountain, the fishermen, the peace. I threw down my bike and sat at a picnic bench beneath a tree; I couldn’t get my journal out fast enough. Writing non-stop for thirty, forty, fifty minutes, it was like lancing a boil. Relief, Release. And I knew, for the first time—no, I felt it—that I must write; rather than an obsession or compulsion, for me it’s salvation and grace. In the throes of a depression I hadn’t felt since I was a 23-year-old kid with his entire professional life ahead of him, I knew that I needed to write in order to live.
And live in order to write.
Audience of One
I don’t really believe I was suicidal that day, but . . . pre-suicidal? Maybe. Not an admission I easily make, but there it is. Returning home, I was not the same person. Although an MRI might not’ve been able to record how my brain was different, I knew it was. It had spoken to my soul in a language the soul understood: the language of art, of fiction. Journaling, therapeutic though it is; and blogging, teaching, letter-writing—they give me a charge, but nothing connects all my synapses and loose ends, unites all the parts of me into a fully-functioning, halfway-whole human being like the world of imagined lives. Vital as air, food and sex; as necessary as fellow humans; more pleasurable than coffee, food, movies and music—writing is not just in my blood. It is my blood. Open my veins and words spill out, an alphabet soup thicker and more nutritious than Campbell’s.
My wild ride of summer 2010: migraines to anxiety to depression to revelation. By September, I’d begun a new novel in earnest. Whether it’s published—or even read by anyone besides me—is irrelevant at this point. A truth I’d been saying with my lips now was branded into my heart: only write for yourself, always. The rest is gravy—or cold potatoes, congealed grease. I’m the audience that matters most, the only one who’ll be saved by my writing.
Teachers and healers seem to arise just when we need them. Not long after my experience described above, a spiritual friend recommended The Depression Book by Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher for thirty years. Simple in both appearance and style, the book has had a profound effect on me, especially its four-pronged method of coping with a phenomenon she says we should not resist but accept as an opportunity for spiritual growth. I want to hear Cheri’s voice counseling me gently but firmly the next time “opportunity” knocks.
And finally I benefited greatly from the gentle ministrations of Dr. Brenda Borst, a practitioner of non-force chiropractic adjustments, whose kind, compassionate care may have had a lot to do with my headaches retreating to their former normal, bearable state. So far, no meds.