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Why Writing About My Depression Is Difficult

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and journalist who received the MacArthur Foundation Award in 2015. In a video on the foundation’s website, Coates describes the challenge of writing this way:

[…] The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness, on page, to see your terribleness. And then to go to bed, and wake up the next day, and take that horribleness and that terribleness and refine it, and make it not so terrible and not so horrible. And then go to bed again, and come the next day, and refine it a little bit more, and make it… not so bad, and then go to bed the next day and do it again, then make it… maybe average […]”

In my experience, what Coates so eloquently describes isn’t just the challenge of writing. It’s the challenge of performance, and relationships, and creation of something new. It’s the challenge of expression of any kind. It’s the challenge of life.

Whenever I start something, especially something that may be seen by others, it’s crystal clear to me that the result will not be good enough. I have nothing important to say. I’m not interesting or unique. This will be so obviously wrong that it will be embarrassing.

Now imagine going through this experience of “seeing your horribleness on page” but having that page be about that same horribleness. Both the quality and the contents of the writing lay out for all to see the full extent of your faults. And these are not just faults. This is who you are.

To me, that is the biggest, deepest, most debilitating part of depression. It’s not that your writing is terrible or that some part of you is terrible and your writing reveals it. It’s that you are terrible. You are worthless. Fully and completely and fundamentally. There is no redeeming quality and no temporary relief. You can try to run from it, hide it, fake your way around it, make excuses for it, fight it, strive to be better – but you can never succeed in changing it. It’s who you are.

And so in Coates’ explanation above – what if you get to average? What if you manage to get to a level you’re happy with? Then you have successfully faked it. You have disguised your fundamental flaws sufficiently, and you can temporarily play “normal.” But everyone knows. And so it becomes dangerous to be happy with an accomplishment. It becomes critical to focus on what isn’t good yet and what wasn’t done. Because you are not good enough. And everything you do will reflect that.

And so after a while you start thinking – what’s the point? I’m not getting to any good results anytime soon, and if I happen to produce something halfway decent it will only be a façade, behind which my fundamentally inadequate existence continues unchanged. If resilience is required for the continued refinement of effort and product, as Coates describes, then depression is the black hole sucking resilience out of you. For there is nothing quite as futile as the effort to polish something that has no real value to begin with and is about to be revealed as such. You’re arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I have started writing about my depression hundreds of times with the intent to share it with people. It never feels right, it never feels good enough, and it never feels like it will have value.

So here’s my new paradigm – there are things inside me that want to be said. I don’t know if they will being anyone value, they were probably said before, they may be wrong, they may be boring. I feel that working my way through them may help me. It may help others. It may not. But I doubt it will hurt anyone.

Let’s see what happens.

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Thinkstock photo by shironosov

Originally published: January 20, 2017
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