Hi there. I don’t know who you are. You might be a friend of mine, in which case you already know a lot of what I’m going to say today, at least in the first half. I promise I’m going somewhere current with this, not just rehashing old complaints; stay with me if you’ve heard this one. You might be a complete stranger; if you are, I hope you won’t think I’m a Debbie Downer when this is done. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled random crap ASAP.
Why do I say all of that? Because I care way too much about what people think of me. Even if I haven’t met you, I don’t want you thinking that I’m depressing, stupid, or God forbid, dull. Why does it matter to me? If I knew that and could fix it, I think it would solve a lot of my problems- at least the ones that fall under the bold, capitalized, underlined headline of capital-D DEPRESSION. (No underline? Really, WordPress?)
Depression. An old enemy, but one that’s been a part of me for so long that I don’t know who I am without it. You could say it started about ten years ago, when I went from an incredible academic record (if I may say so) in my first year of university to having to leave in November of my second year because I was forgetting to go to classes, I couldn’t remember a damned thing I learned, I was tired all of the time, and I didn’t know why I was constantly crying over nothing. Because I was failing (except for English and Philosophy… go figure). But it goes back farther than that. It goes back to perfectionist tendencies it seems I was born with. Even when I was a child, I never wanted to try something if I didn’t know I could do it right the first time. I never crawled. I didn’t say my first word until I could say it clearly and be understood (“shadow,” if you’re wondering). I didn’t ride a bike until I was eight because… well, you get the picture.
And I’m hard on myself. All of the self-esteem lessons in the world could never be enough to drown out that recording that plays on a constant loop in the back of my mind: That’s not good enough. You’re not good enough. Why do you even bother trying? If you show that to anyone, they’ll know that you can’t do it. If you try, you will fail, and you will never get another chance. You will feel terrible; you will be rejected. Just forget about it.*
It’s a lot to fight against. Now, whether that voice is what causes depression or whether the chemical imbalance in my brain changes my perceptions just enough to let that in, I don’t know. But I think that most (if not all) of us capital-D Depression sufferers have that voice in our minds, in one form or another. If you’re reading this and you can say, “Well, get over it, ignore the voice, tell yourself something positive,” I envy you, and I hope you never know what I’m talking about.
There’s more to it, of course. SO much more fun stuff! Insomnia for some unlucky folks; something called non-restorative sleep if you’re like me. The experience of knowing what Atreyu and Artax felt in the Swamps of Sadness, having despair sucking at your feet and sticking to your body, fearing that you’ll go under- because some of us do.** Not knowing why any of it’s happening, thinking that you should be able to just throw it off like a moth-eaten mental overcoat and trade it for something a bit snazzier. The shame that still lingers in telling people that you’re on antidepressants, hearing the “happy pill” and Prozac jokes. Those are great.
Yeah, about those happy pills. There’s a reason so many people go off of them, only to crash back to a level lower than they were experiencing before. Those pills that can help so much, especially while you’re learning other ways to deal with the negative thoughts, can cause side effects that are as bad as the disease. I was on one that made me crave carbohydrates to the point where I gained 10 pounds (er… maybe 15). The next one made me fall into an anesthesia-like sleep thirty minutes after I took it, but it helped… until it suddenly stopped helping, and everything fell apart again. The third attempt (because it’s really no better than a trial-and-error process) helped so much that I was on it for a few years. Sure it made me emotionally flat (not great when you’re having babies, but pregnancy made everything worse- a story for another day) and nearly ruined my marriage because I had negative interest in… well, it was bad. The fourth one, though, this seems to be the one that works for me, and I’m trying to get down to a low dose.
Am I happy all of the time? Absolutely not. But I can laugh again, and I can cry when it’s appropriate. My imagination is back, and I can write again- and that’s important. Writing lets me accomplish something, lets me have that thrill that I only get from reading over something that I wrote and actually being able to say, “you know what? That’s good stuff right there.” It took me two years, but there’s a finished novel in this computer (and on a USB drive- I’m not stupid). It’s been written, ripped apart, revised, re-written, re-read, edited and polished until it was ready to show people. The fact that I’ve stuck with it and accomplished a big project based on no motivation but what comes from inside of me makes me more proud of myself than I ever was getting A’s in school. Because that was easy, until it became impossible. This was not easy.
Writing helps fight back the thoughts that ask me why I’m bothering. When I’m lost in my own world, I don’t hear them so clearly. When I’m editing and solving problems all by myself, I can tell them to shove off and let me do my work. … but now it’s done, and making a decision about what to do with it has brought the downer demons screaming back into my head, making up for lost time as they pick at my brain like hideous monkeys searching for positive thoughts to eat. Just letting people read what I created was a huge thing for me; it shouldn’t be so, but letting people judge my work feels like letting them judge me.*** I’ve had a very positive response from the first person who read the whole thing; I don’t expect that they’ll all be like that, but it was a good way to start.
But do I leave it at that, or (when I’m sure that this thing is the best it can be), do I try to take it further? Writing a query letter is proving to be a huge challenge, and the voices keep whispering that it has to be perfect; it’s my only shot. And they’re not entirely wrong, at least for this one book. Agents and editors are insanely busy, and they don’t owe me their time or attention.
The risk of rejection (of my work, not me, but it’s so difficult to remember that) is huge. But if I don’t do it, what happens? Well, I get to go back to my wonderful world to write the next book; I’ll do that no matter what happens. But to stick my baby, this thing that I’ve nurtured and tended and shaped and pruned (oh, the cutting that there has been!) in a drawer isn’t an appealing prospect. Worse is the thought that I’ll never know, that I’ll look back at the end of my life and go, “you know, I wish I’d at least tried. I could have done something great.”
You know, writing this has helped a lot. Remembering the swamps of sadness wasn’t pleasant, especially given the emotional rollercoaster I’m on right now (“This book is awesome! No, it sucks! But somebody loved it! But there’s no way anyone else will…”). I just need to decide whether my fear of rejection is greater than my fear of regret.
And I’m laughing at myself right now. One of the main characters in my story has to decide whether she’s going to take a risk, step out of her comfort zone, and chase her dreams. Maybe I just need to follow her lead.****
*For anyone who’s not familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy, I’ll add that just being able to name those thoughts, to identify them and separate them from the murky waters they swim in is a HUGE thing. You can’t fight what you can’t see; when you see those thoughts for what they are, you can start to argue with them. Best thing I’ve learned from all of this.
**If you’ve never seen The Neverending Story… I don’t even know what to say about that. Go get it. Now. Go.
***I suspect that not feeling this way is part of developing the “thick skin” that people talk about; I’m working on it.
****Footnotes are super fun, aren’t they?