This is Part 1 in a series on depression in creatives.
Note: I wrote this article to raise awareness of low-grade depression, which many people don’t recognize in themselves. I am an author and creativity coach, so I wrote it particularly for writers and artists, but these signs could apply to anyone ~ I believe we are all creative in one way or another.
There are many causes of depression; in my work I focus on people’s needs to create art and to make meaning, and on how to deal with the depression that arises when those needs go unmet for whatever reason.
Let’s play a little word association.
When I say someone is DEPRESSED, what comes to mind?
You might think of someone who:
- Looks or acts sad most of the time
- Cries often
- Can’t feel any emotions (positive or negative)
- Can’t get out of bed or leave the house
- Can’t work
- Can’t take care of themselves or others
- Thinks or talks about suicide
That’s what severe depression can look like, and it’s a terrible and potentially deadly illness. Most people would notice those signs, realize something was wrong, and hopefully get some help.
But depression has many different faces and manifestations.
I was one of the walking depressed. Some of my clients are too.
We have many of the symptoms of clinical depression, but we are still functioning.
On the surface, people might not know anything is wrong. We keep working, keep going to school, keep looking after our families.
But we’re doing it all while profoundly unhappy. Depression is negatively impacting our lives and relationships and impairing our abilities.
Our depression may not be completely disabling, but it’s real.
10 Signs of Walking Depression
“I once read that succumbing to depression doesn’t mean you are weak, but that you have been trying to be strong for too long, which is maybe a form of denial. So much of life happens somewhere in between being okay and complete breakdown—that’s where many of us live, and doing so requires strength.” ~ novelist Matthew Quick
Walking depression can be hard to recognize because it doesn’t fit the more common picture of severe depression. But it can be just as dangerous to our well-being when left unacknowledged.
This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive or to diagnose anyone. But these are some of the signs I’ve observed in myself and those I’ve coached:
Nothing is fun. You root around for something to look forward to and come up empty.
You can’t find flow. Working on your creative projects feels like a grind, but you keep plodding away. There is research that shows that neuroticism (the tendency toward negative moods) is associated with lower rates of flow.
Your energy is low. Maybe you’re not getting enough rest because you’re too anxious to sleep, or you’re trying to cram too many tasks into a day, or you’re punishing yourself by staying up. Whatever the reason, you are effin’ tired.
You feel worse in the morning and better at night. I remember explaining this to a friend, who found it mystifying. In the morning I felt the crushing weight of all the things I had to do that day. In the evening I was temporarily free from expectations and could enjoy a moment’s respite.
You have simmering resentment toward others. Sure, you’re still doing what everybody asks of you, but you stew in anger the whole time. You are jealous of and bitter toward people who look happier than you feel.
Your self-talk gets caustic. You say nasty things in an effort to shock yourself into action. You use shame as a motivator.
You feel distanced from people around you. It’s hard to have genuine, intimate conversations because you have to keep up this front that you are alright.
You deprive yourself of creative work time (the artist as sadomasochist). This helps you exert some control and stirs up feelings of suffering that are perversely pleasurable. Also, taking on new projects that prevent you from writing or making art lets you prove to yourself that you’re still strong and capable.
Jen Lee has coined the term Dutiful Creatives to describe those who are inclined to take care of their responsibilities before anything else.
“If life were a meal, you’d consider your creativity as the dessert, and always strive to eat your vegetables first. Pacing and knowing how to say No are your strengths, but your creativity is more essential to your well-being than you realize.” from Jen Lee’s Quiz: What Kind of Creative Are You
You notice a significant mood change when you have caffeine or alcohol. A cup of coffee might make you feel a lot more revved-up and optimistic. A glass of wine might make you feel really mellow and even ~ gasp! ~ happy. (That’s how I finally realized that I was depressed.)
You feel like you’re wasting your life. Some people have a high sensitivity to the inherent meaning in what we do. Creativity coach Eric Maisel calls this our “existential intelligence.” If our daily activities don’t carry enough significance ~ if they don’t feel like a worthwhile use of our talents and passions ~ then soon we are asking ourselves, “What’s the point? Why should I keep going?”
Why is it hard to admit that you have walking depression?
You may recognize many of these signs in your life but still be slow to admit that you are depressed. Why is that?
Because it feels presumptuous to put yourself in that category when you’re still getting by. You feel like it would be insulting to those who are much worse off than you. You may feel like you have no real reason to be depressed.
Because your pride and your identity take a hit. You have to admit vulnerability and allow that you are not the all-conquering superhero you thought you were.
Because you realize that you and your life need to change, which feels like more work piled on your plate.
Because you are admitting your own responsibility for your unhappiness and that can trigger self-judgment.
Because you might uncover grief or anger at those around you for not seeing and taking better care of you.
What to do, what to do?
I’ve posted another entry about how creatives heal from walking depression, and here are the highlights:
- Make use of medication and other physical treatments.
- Do therapy.
- Practice gratitude.
- Make connections.
- Reduce your responsibilities.
- Spend time creating.
- Change your thoughts.
- Develop a meaning practice.
- Change your life.
These steps are simple to say, not easy to do, so make sure you get as much support as you can.
Important: If you are in dire straits, please contact your doctor or visit the International Suicide Prevention Wiki to find a hotline near you.
Pilgrimage of Desire: a path out of walking depression
My life’s work is to help writers and artists recognize their depression and find healing by making their creative work a priority.
One of the ways I do that is by sharing my own story of depression and recovery in a memoir called Pilgrimage of Desire. The book is interspersed with coaching questions and exercises, which help readers take their own steps toward happiness.
As a young adult, I longed to make my mark on the world as a writer. But after university, I got sidetracked by all the demands of ordinary life.
Soon I joined the ranks of the walking depressed. I was working, volunteering, and looking after my family, but I was also desperately sad.
I found the path out of depression by following my desires—to write, to travel, to become a mother and a creativity coach. Eventually I left ordinary life behind. My husband quit his job and we sold our house and headed out on a trip around the world with our kids, aged five and three. I thought I’d found my happy ending, but there was more to the story …
Do these signs ring true for you? Have you ever been depressed and kept on walking?
I invite you to share your own experiences in the comments. When you do, please be kind to yourself and others. Kindness is the watchword. To keep this space safe and helpful, I remove comments that are unkind or invalidate other people’s experience of depression.
Hundreds of you read this post every day, and the comments that you leave are heart-breaking and heart-lifting. I can’t respond to every comment, but please know that I read each one and send you my love and hope for healing. Keep letting us know that you’re there. And if you feel like you want to hurt yourself, please get help right away.
Photo credit: Oleg Sidorenko