Writers, Mental Illness, and Addiction

Writers, Mental Illness, and Addiction

By Andrew Scott 07/28/17

Creative people worry that their essential spark—that which makes them artists in the first place—will disappear forever, or at least be hindered, if they seek chemical relief for depression or anxiety.

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Depression and anxiety can sometimes lead a person to pursue writing, but the act of writing itself—and the life of a writer—can also be the impetus for depression or anxiety.

Like everyone else, writers today can address their depression and anxiety in numerous ways. Treatment options are omnipresent. It’s impossible to watch a TV show without encountering pharmaceutical commercials, after all. Novelists and poets, however, sometimes cling to romanticized notions of the artist-in-pain, even when that pain is often (though not always) treatable or manageable. I think about the many famous authors who might have been helped by today’s advancements. What if instead of drinking themselves to death, such authors learned more about their depression, anxiety, or whatever else was really underneath that urge to self-destruct? What if F. Scott Fitzgerald had talked to a good therapist, or told his doctor he’d like to learn more about Zoloft?

Chicken or egg: Depression and anxiety can sometimes lead a person to pursue writing, but the act of writing itself—and the life of a writer—can also be the impetus for depression or anxiety. A writer’s work is mostly solitary, after all, with much time spent living in one’s head. “Writing is a pursuit that requires constant reimagining of the same things, over and over, and it's this same circular thinking that revs up my anxiety,” says James Scott, author of The Kept and host of a podcast about books, TK with James Scott.

“It's also odd to me that writing, this lonely job, is then paired up with the modern act of ‘being a writer,’ which includes doing public readings, interviews, and the like,” Scott continues. “I had not read my work in public since elementary school until maybe two years before my book came out. I was in my thirties, and I knew I had to get over it, and I did, to some extent, with practice and desensitization and drugs.”

Perhaps writers move heaven and earth to carve out time in which to write, or struggle to make writing part of a daily practice. Doesn’t that add pressure to the act of creation? All a writer has to do in those fleeting minutes they’ve allotted for themselves is figure out how to use mere language to conjure something out of nothing. No biggie.

Why bother writing if it’s so hard, or if it risks such negative effects? Sometimes a work itself can be instructive to its author about his or her mental health. Susan Woodring’s 2012 novel Goliath opens with an important community member’s suicide. “It wasn't until I finished writing the book that I fell into a terrible depression,” Woodring says now. “I believe writing Goliath gave me a place for suicidal ideation: it protected me until I was ready to deal with everything. I think that writing Goliath may have saved my life.”

The relationship between the creative act and mental health is often unclear. Creative people worry that their essential spark—that which makes them artists in the first place—will disappear forever, or at least be hindered, if they seek chemical relief for depression or anxiety. Their writing, along with the fragile identities they’ve clung to for years, could seismically shift. Losing control can be a frightening prospect for almost anyone, of course, but especially for writers who might know a few things about omniscience and plotting the lives of characters.

Nathan Graziano, a fiction writer and poet, says, “I’ve never opted for SSRIs because, in some strange way, I feel like [anxiety and depression] are a part of me, an invisible appendage. I’m not sure I would write at all without them. At the same time, I'm not sure how long I can live with them.” But Graziano also admits that while he sometimes loses whole work days trying to stave off panic attacks—sometimes with “a very unfortunate tendency to self-medicate”—some of his most productive periods come when he writes only for “genuine catharsis,” trying to figure out what he’s feeling without worrying about the potential for publication. For him, that lends itself more to poetry, most of which “never sees the light of day.”

In a recent New York Times piece, novelist Julia Fierro directly addresses this common worry among writers who struggle with depression or anxiety and haven’t sought help. Fierro, who stopped writing for eight years because of the effects of her anxiety, says she is “more myself than ever,” now that she takes Zoloft, and she is “able to tap veins of creativity and insight I never knew existed, once buried under the clamor of anxiety.” On social media, writers and readers widely praised Fierro’s honesty and courage in the piece. There’s little to no shame associated with admitting one’s depression or anxiety today, and it certainly doesn’t lead to anything like career suicide.

But in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s case, it basically did. He wrote about his own mental health struggles—not that he used that term—and alcoholism more than eighty years ago for Esquire, which serialized “The Crack-Up” across three issues in 1936. Today he, like Fierro, would be praised for his candor. Terry Gross would invite him to Fresh Air. Back then, though, the admission cost him opportunities. He died four years later.

In his essay we find one of Fitzgerald’s most quoted lines: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” He tried his best. He knew he was on a self-destructive path, that the reported 39 beers he might drink in one day were at odds with the genius his peers—even Dorothy Parker, who seemed to hate everyone—witnessed in his work. In the end, he did not retain “the ability to function,” or even survive.

If he’d had better options, we now wonder, would Fitzgerald have died so horribly young? Several times, his friends urged him to join a new sobriety group called Alcoholics Anonymous, which began in 1935, a year before Fitzgerald published “The Crack-Up.” Help was available, even that long ago. He might have taken a few steps in the direction of salvation. But, ever the go-alone novelist, he scoffed at the idea of group therapy. “I’m not a joiner,” he said.

Writers today, perhaps because of the rise of graduate creative writing workshops, hear much talk about “writing communities,” wherein struggling writers learn more about their work—and themselves—through conversations about the work’s strengths and weaknesses, which might sound somewhat familiar to those who’ve attended AA meetings. Writers in the 21st century don’t have to go it alone with regards to their manuscripts—or their mental health.

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Andrew Scott is the author of a story collection, Naked Summer, and the editor of 24 Bar Blues: Two Dozen Tales of Bars, Booze, and the Blues. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American ReviewGlimmer Train StoriesThe Writer’s Chronicle, and other outlets. He lives in Indianapolis. Find Andrew on Twitter.

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