Then write!”, bellows the doctor.
I’ve gone to see a GP because my body is doing weird things I can’t understand. By then, I’ve been dealing with what he immediately diagnoses as major depressive disorder for some years already.
One of the first things I have to unpack is that the illness has obliterated my writing voice and therefore my livelihood. I’m tied up in knots about it, almost gagged by shame, and struggling to let the doctor into my head.
I needn’t have bothered. He’s no help whatsoever, keeps pushing pills, and reduces me to a palpitating, hypertensive mess on the edge of fainting every time I go to his office.
I take this as a clue to stop seeing him, as my reaction is rather extreme. Initially his assistant puts it down to white coat syndrome (aka fear of doctors), which surprises me as I’ve never had any issue before. After a few visits, she visibly tenses whenever I walk in. What my body does scares her, and me.
And then I realize it is a case of dreading being around a bully.
Yell at someone who has lost their voice all you like but all that’s going to achieve is yet more shame, more distress, and a growing feeling of inadequacy.
If he intended to shock me into action, he failed.
I didn’t go to see him seeking permission to write, I went to see him because my brain was broken and my body was breaking down.
Even an official diagnosis for my mental decrepitude provides scant comfort. I am self-aware enough to know what the matter is with me medically (although the extent of it feels like a slap in the face), but I still have no clue why my writing voice is missing.
Day in, day out, writing is all I can think about.
But every time I open the laptop, I end up staring at the screen, unable to remember how to write. This extends to every kind of writing — even emails are so harrowing I avoid replying to anything unless I have to.
When I do, they are a collection of distant, disjointed words that seem to have fallen at random onto the page. Even though storytelling has been a constant in my life from a very young age, I’ve forgotten how it works.
I can still type, but that’s about it.
My writing voice’s absence looms large, it is omnipotent, affecting every single aspect of my life. Not only do I feel trapped mentally, but my inability to earn a living has catapulted my household into hardship.
Reasoning that I’ll never solve the problem if I don’t understand how it came about, I look to my surroundings and my lifestyle for clues.
It gets very real, very fast, shattering whatever shreds of self-delusion I have left.
For the first time in my life, I see I have no desk. Instead, I’m standing at the kitchen counter, my laptop jammed between the fruit bowl and some baskets full of noodles as the apartment is small. Also, I have no door, that is to say whatever writing I’m trying to do has to happen without any privacy whatsoever. This, too, is a first. Lastly, I sleep on a sofa in the living room at the time, which also makes for fitful nights that are always disturbed.
I’ve already become a hermit and seldom leave the apartment, not even to go get the mail downstairs.
When I’m home, I feel exposed all the time and it’s paralyzing. What’s more, my circumstances have reinforced the message that my craft and my skills have no value whatsoever. Never mind that it has been my actual job for years and that writing is — and remains — a huge part of what makes me me.
As we say in French, writing is my raison d’être, a calling, a vocation, a compulsion, a blessing. And right now, it is also a curse.
All this hits me with such force I keel over and have a breakdown. This is the first time I can clearly feel my whole self unraveling thread by thread, as if parts of me had atrophied and are now falling off.
Thankfully, some swift changes happen. I get a desk, and a door, and a folding sofa half-jammed into a closet: I finally have a space of my own.
My writing voice slowly comes out of hiding after that, tentative, hesitant, and still heavy with self-loathing.
Such is the lot of the ailing creative whose craft is given no value and whose illness isn’t taken seriously, alas. In short, I have no real job and no real illness, and keep wondering whether I’m even real myself.
And yet, I set out to prove I am, not to anyone but me. Most of what I put together is unpitchable and unpublishable as I always stop short of saying anything worthwhile. I hint but can’t find the courage to tackle issues. I’m still ashamed of depression, of having let myself go to such an extent that none of what I’ve ever done matters anymore.
Also, I’m relearning how to feel and not recoil from whatever it is I’m feeling.
Once again, I make mine Joan Didion’s words: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Fear, it seems, is the underlying theme here. I am terrified of the precarious life I lead, terrified of everything collapsing, terrified of suicidal ideation, terrified of losing my skills and craft… just plain terrified.
On any given day, my household is on the brink of one disaster or other. And then it becomes a done deal, I go back to Europe to be by my parents’ side as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer.
For the longest time, “We’re only one missed paycheck away from homelessness,” used to be my husband’s catchphrase, one he uttered more and more often with seething resentment.
His words had about the same effect on my writing as the doctor’s.
The laptop gathered dust for weeks on end until you could run your finger along the top and leave a clean trace.
I still read voraciously; it saved me.
Despite distance, my best friend in England was always in the shadows, providing wisdom on tap.
Since we had met in the mid-90s, he had been holding me together regardless of geography. Although I immigrated to America in 2013, he remained a benevolent presence in the background all the way from England.
He had no doubt I was capable of getting back to writing. Unlike me, the thought of my falling silent forever never once crossed his mind. For lack of a better description, he was that one person in the world who had always believed in me more than I believe in myself.
While he agreed I didn’t need anyone’s permission to write, he mused that I may have been standing in my own way as long as I didn’t let myself express what I needed to.
Back then, I’ve just gone back online under a phony alias and fear exposure like the plague. I do not want my name to be associated with mental illness or with any of the things that cause me to self-combust with shame. I cannot for the life of me imagine ever attending a job interview where I have to account for losing so many years of my life and explain it all away.
This absence of transparency is holding me back, and whatever I manage to write is half-hearted, often hollow.
I dream up a new alias, as if a fictional name change might give me a new lease of life. Predictably, it does not and I realize I’ve just squandered the annual Medium membership my friend gifted me on a ginormous error of judgment.
So I do the only thing I can under such circumstances and email Medium support asking for help and owning up to my mistake. The exercise is as sobering as it is revelatory: I’m back to being myself. I update all my social media with my legal name and get on with sharing as honest a narrative as I possibly can.
Word by word, the process chips away at my shame until I eventually yank my writing voice free from all that was hindering it. I no longer feel the need to hide; I no longer fear adverse reactions; I no longer seek to conceal psychic pain or its causes.
Instead, I’m using the last five years as building material for a new life, one where I hope to never again become afraid of the thing I love most.
I used to think depression was holding my creativity hostage, but it was simpler than that: I had internalized the belief creativity was worthless, as was I.
But creativity is the ability to make something that wasn’t here before, to devise uncommon solutions to common problems. It’s a state of mind as much as an attitude, and all but the most embittered among us are capable of it.
Creativity is the song your heart sings when no one is looking so listen to it, follow the melody, and write the lyrics.
Protect it with your life, cherish it, and it will never let you down.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.