Asking a depressed person why she’s sad is like asking an alcoholic why she’s drunk. Later, when the depressed person is no longer sad, she is still depressed, just as the sober alcoholic is an alcoholic for always. If you see an alcoholic at a cocktail party, you might wonder why she didn’t stay home. If you see a depressed person trying to be a writer, you shake your head, shut the door quietly, and try not to trip over any empty wine barrels on your way out.
The sensitivity and self-isolation that makes some writers great also makes them, or keeps them, clinically screwed. Not all writers are mad any more than all writers are great, and often the great ones aren’t mad, and the mad ones aren’t great. Still, enough are mad and great in commensurate measure to make the rest of us write off every acquired neurosis as some sign of impending genius. (Cut your cuticles ‘til they bleed? Yeah, better sleep with one eye open, Hemingway.) If male legends from Socrates to David Foster Wallace don’t prove enough, just look into the Sylvia Plath Effect, which pinpoints female poets as the most troubled of our lot—and, perhaps, the canaries furthest ahead in the coal mine. Yes, we who most fear clichés are susceptible to the dumbest one of all, the tortured solitary creative sad institutionalized type. Only one really accurate movie has been made about a writer, I think, and it’s called The Shining.
I can’t say whether I always wanted to write because I was depressed, or was depressed because I wanted to write. Somehow, I must have known that words were the only thing I found worthwhile and were also becoming worthless (although I could not have Cassandra’d how very not valued they’d become, post-Huffington). I know that as an ‘80s baby and a ‘90s child, I felt special and isolated and did not realize those were two faces of the same coin, common among us as a penny: Heads, you’re number one; tails, you’ll never be anything.
When at 21 I was diagnosed with acute clinical depression and given a test tube of Paxil to take, nobody faked surprise. I took the Paxil and I hung out at my boyfriend’s parent’s house, where I felt safe because he lived in the lightless basement, and one day I had a headache and swallowed 60 extra-strength Tylenol. It was a really bad headache, I told the doctor, but it was hard to shrug with all those tubes in my arm.
To my friends I said that, yes, I was depressed, but my depression was no more special than anyone else’s, and I would just… fix myself. I’d failed most of the courses in my second year at the University of Western Ontario by simply not writing the exams, so I got a job and saved money (or said I was saving money, but was really buying a lot of mall clothes and Harvey’s and amaretto sours) and applied to Ryerson for journalism school. I was having difficulty writing for my own sake, and thought that if I could write for the sake of others—or hell, for the money—I might be saved.
The success I found despite dropping out again, after another two years really did save me. I still felt the paralytic anxiety of the white page, but because I needed money and bad, I couldn’t much indulge it. Within a year of beginning my first and only internship at FASHION Magazine, I was working full-time as a journalist, even if I felt more like a fiction writer trapped in a realistic role.
Interviewing people, listening, learning about them: this taught me the empathy I’d lost when, during the worst times, I’d stopped reading novels. I’m not a great reporter—abstract impressions are my thing, not photorealism—but any journalistic effort, no matter how paltry, took me out of the vortex and into the possibilities of other lives. Although I was often self-involved in my writing (I say “was” like you’re not reading this right now), I didn’t have to insert myself; I just never took myself out. Objectivity is often a ruse for arrogance, and I hate the lie of objective “truth-telling.” Besides, depressives are acutely aware of being on Earth’s wrong side, and want you to know where they stand. I have tried—and still try—to be an ethical depressive. I want you to see how I feel so you don’t have to feel it.
I don’t believe you should write what you know, but rather, what you want to find out. Certainly, I wanted to find a way out of feeling useless. That was at least my consolation when I was writing snippy service journalism for FASHION and Eye Weekly, reviewing fashion shows for Torontoist, covering TIFF parties for Toronto Life. I had to first do things that seemed of practical use to readers, and then, gerund by gerund, earn the privilege of writing what I found important, self-wise: things that were feminist, philosophical, thoughtful, whatever, smart.
Writing is now my career and my sole cure and the cold drip at the soft of my throat. I did not take Paxil again. I did not take any of the pills I was prescribed any of the times I ended up in the mental ward at two in the morning, not even when the professionals thought I was not only depressive, but also manic. Partly that’s another symptom of this brain trouble, its catch-infinity: you don’t feel well enough to make yourself feel better. Partly I do think I’d feel better if I took the pills (I know several writers who have, with mixed results). I think I’d feel better by feeling less. But then how could I write? Then what would I do?
In three or four years I don’t think I’ve done nearly enough, and often I add it up and look at the total and see nothing. But I’m alive, right? I’m getting better most of the time. I would rather feel it all, like Fiona Apple, than feel less and have nothing to say. Because I’ve felt that too. Depression, unmedicated, can become its own overdose. It stops cold the emotion, then the words. I’ve tried to start again by taking cocaine and Adderall and writing the shit out of nothing, but uppers are no better than anti-depressants in the end.
If, hell forbid, I become unable to “party” without drugs, I’ll just stop going to parties. If ever I become unable to work with out drugs, I might just stop—what?—living. I guess that’s not the end of the world, but it seems like a lazy way to go.
Sarah Nicole Prickett (Journalism ’06-’08) is a perpetual writer. She writes regularly for the “Globe & Mail”, but also contributes to “FASHION Magazine”, “BULLETT”, “Style.com”, “The New Inquiry” and “whoever else asks.” She is currently working on a lengthy essay for the “Walrus” and maybe a book or two. You can find Sarah’s work at snprickett.com.
Illustration by Jazmin Welch