Thursday, October 08, 2009

Goodbye for Now, My Friends
I've enjoyed writing this Write Out of Depression blog for the last three years. It introduced me to many of you fascinating readers. It saw me through the writing and publishing of my book, Writing through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen, in June, 2008. And I hope it has provided some information, encouragement and intriguing writing ideas.

Now, however, it's time for me to move on to other things. I am working on a new book! I'll also continue to speak at conferences on mental illness and on writing, and to lead my writing group for people with mood disorders at Stanford.

Please go to my website to learn about me, my book, and my schedule. You can also email me at: From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading and for your comments and contributions. Goodbye for now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

TO WRITE: The Animals in Our Lives
To my great sadness, an important member of our household died this weekend: Our cat Onyx grew very ill and had to be put to sleep. Onyx was 21-years-old, ancient for a cat. As her name implies, she was black, and though she had a problem being overweight at one point in her life, she had become very thin and weak and had numerous medical issues.

As we drove home from the vet's office, my husband and I reminisced about the little furball she had been when we got her at eight-weeks-old, how she and her sister loved to sleep inside our shoes back then, how loudly Onyx could purr (you could hear her across the room), how she loved to be combed and have her ears rubbed, how in her shy period she would scramble under our bedspread when she heard the doorbell, how she would cheerfully (and loudly) great us, and how we all loved each other. I also recall how comforting it was to hold her on my lap when my depression pressed down on me -- perhaps she is what got me through sometimes. My heart aches for this long-time friend, but I am glad for her long and, I believe, happy life.

Play with this. . .
Do you have, or have you had, a pet? What does s/he mean to you? Is this creature a comfort when you are ill? How? Write continuously for 15 minutes on your pet, or your first pet, or another animal you've had a relationship with.

Friday, July 31, 2009

TO WRITE: Is There a Book in You?
After giving a talk at the recent national NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) conference about the healing aspects of writing in the treatment of mental illness, it happened again:
I was approached by several people who were interested in writing a book to tell the tale of their illness. Boy, do I know that feeling. I think that for some of us it's an innate reaction to the bizarre and hellish symptoms we've lived through and may still be facing. We want the world to understand us, to validate us, to stop stigmatizing us, and we want to process our own tale to make better sense of it for ourselves. I included parts of my own story in my book Writing through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen, and I'm now working on a memoir about the spiritual aspects of mental illness. It's healing for me, that's certain.

Whether or not you are inclined to write about yourself, many people feel there is a book in them that they'd like to write before they die. Do you want to record a family history for your grandkids? Detail all you've learned about a hobby or career? Chronicle a historic period you lived through?The following exercise is taken from Writing through the Darkness. Let yourself think big and go deep.

Play with this. . .
Imagine you were to sit down at the kitchen table and start writing or typing your first book. What would it be about? What would you really like to say to the world and leave behind in perpetuity?

Then consider this: What does your book topic tell you about what is important to you? Does your enthusiasm for writing about the ocean suggest you might want to spend more time at the beach? If you felt inclined to write a memoir, what events in your life would you like to get on paper?

Monday, July 20, 2009

TO WRITE: Things Worth Saving
Why do we all get attached to particular physical objects? Whether it's an expensive car or a smooth stone in your pocket, nearly all of us feel a connection with certain items. Some of us even have trouble not "glomming on" to everything that comes our way.

With firestorm season beginning in California (not to mention the ever present threat of an earthquake in these parts), I wonder just what I'd save from my home if only given a couple of minutes. And how would that list expand if I had more warning?

After playing that mental exercise, I wonder how those priorities affect the way I look at my possessions in general. For example, why is it so hard to be ruthless when cleaning out a closet or drawer of old things that I don't use or care about, but which might be useful "someday"?

Play with this. . .
Writing quickly, jot down the items you'd save if you only had a few moments to get out of your home. (Assume that all people and pets are already safe.) Then enlarge your list to what you'd take if you had a couple of hours to pack. Next, write continuously for 10 minutes about what these lists tell you about how you live day-to-day and what you might like to adjust... Could properly backing up your computer leave you calmer? If you really treasure those old family photos, would you enjoy framing and hanging a few? If you discover that a certain book of poetry is very dear to you, do you want to make it a habit to read a page before bed each night?

I realized that I could give old t-shirts I haven't worn for years to Goodwill and that I'd love the empty space they left on the shelf. I also discovered that some of the meaningful greeting cards I've received and saved over the years would look great on my bulletin board and remind me of their kind words. Some things really are worth saving.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

TO WRITE: Going from Bad to Better
I left the blogosphere for a number of weeks recently due to some unexpected health problems, and I'm very, very pleased to be back. I'm also relieved that my problems were not of the mental/brain variety -- not only are those every bit as miserable, in my experience, but they are my personal nemesis, my challenge, my dark hole. No, I had gall bladder problems, including some complications, hospital time, and surgery. And I'm fine now.

All of this got me to thinking. . . what pulls you through when you are ill with mental/brain or other physical illness? I was blessed to have a supportive husband and insurance that covered most of the expenses, and I lucked into good doctors in the hospital and the OR. But I realized too that, despite a lot of pain, I wasn't as flustered as the staff seemed to think I'd be. The thing that left me on an even keel was all the depression, psychosis and suicidal times I've been through. I know what pain feels like. I have gotten through before, and I'll do it again. Mental illness has toughened me.

Play with this. . .

Writing continuously for at least 20 minutes total, describe a time you felt seriously ill in any way. Then describe what treatments, people, creative outlets, past experiences, rituals, mind-sets or other factors helped you through. Did you just need a certain amount of time to heal? Did hope or sheer determination help?

Finally, how can you apply these tools the next time you feel significantly depressed? It may be useful to keep a list of these resources in the back of your notebook or another safe place to refer to later. When you need such a tool, write about it for 10 minutes first to remind yourself how it feels, reengage with it, and plan how to put it to its best use.

Monday, April 06, 2009

TO WRITE: Making Lists

Keeping a to-do list usually gives me a sense of comfort and efficiency; I know I'm probably not forgetting anything and I can prioritize my tasks and work my way through them. Plus it's a great feeling to check items off as I accomplish them.

But I've found many other uses for lists too, including in my writing and teaching. Lists are a wonderful way to get your mind to open up and search for possibilities that it hadn't noticed before, including writing topics. For example:

  • I sometimes ask students to write on a particular color (say, purple). If you don't know where to begin with such an assignment, try making a quick (don't overthink this!) list of things that are that color (lilacs, bruises, a stripe in the rainbow, a few people's eyes). Then choose one item and begin your writing with that. You may find a story about the fragrant vines in your garden or a memory of a childhood injury comes to mind.

  • When you want to approach a very large topic such as beauty or democracy or depression, jot down a list of related words first. For depression, I might come up with: medicines, loneliness, lack of joy, supportive friends, ECT, writing, sleep problems, work issues and more. Now begin with one of these listed topics. If the one that interests you right now is still very broad, you may need to repeat the process. The specific words and ideas you come up with in this way allow you to make your writing more meaningful for you and your reader, and they are a great way to start creating a lengthy piece.

Note that I've indicated that you should write your lists quickly. This is a time to really let your mind wander freely and brainstorm. If you're not sure why you thought of "jellybeans" when you looked for associations to "depression," put it down anyway and move on to the next item. After you've written your list for several minutes, you can look back at what this means; perhaps your sister brought you an Easter basket to cheer you one spring when you were low.

Play with this. . .
Here's an exercise from my book, Writing through the Darkness:
Quickly make a list of at least 25 things you're good at. They might range from kissing. . . to reading a map. . . to doing rocket science. Then choose one, large or small, and write for 20 minutes on that skill. Who taught it to you? What's the secret to it? Do you love doing it? How could someone else learn it?

Monday, March 02, 2009

TO WRITE: Conversing with Depression

Let's continue our theme of writing dialog from the last post. I find it very powerful to deliberately have talks with other people or things in my mind, and especially to write down -- quickly and continuously! -- these interchanges as they happen, when unplanned, unexpected words, ideas or memories often appear as mysterious gifts.

I regularly imagine and record conversations with my own depression. More than simply reflecting on how I feel about being depressed, it lets me interact with my concept of the illness, get to know it, and get to know myself better.

Play with this. . .
How do you envision your depression or other troublesome emotion or situation? For example, is it a tornado that swirls around you? A monster that threatens from the closet? A black hole, a thief, a feeling of falling, or some animal like Winston Churchill's "black dog"? If you're not immediately sure, take about three minutes to quickly jot down at least five possible identities for that constellation of feelings, then re-read your list and choose one.

Next, writing quickly and continuously, create a dialog between yourself and your image of your depression. What have you always wanted to ask it about where it came from or what will make it quiet down or leave? What have you wanted to say to it in your times of anger? What does it want to tell you? Write this back-and-forth for 15 minutes. It may give you some clues or help resolve a little bit of your relationship with the illness, and it's a wonderful way to remind yourself that you are not your depression!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

TO WRITE: She Said, He Said
Many professional fiction writers claim that writing dialog is one of the toughest tasks they face. While making those back-and-forths sound convincing is important, dialog is also crucial because it is a place where the writer's imagination is laid bare. Good dialog offers new information and uncovers the nuances of a relationship. It doesn't beat around the bush.

Try writing some dialog yourself. Fictional situations and characters sometimes uncover thoughts and feelings you were only dimly aware of, and can help stretch your imagination in new ways.

Play with this. . .
Choose two "characters" who will talk with each other. They may be living people, historical figures, made-up creatures, objects, even places like cities or rivers. Some methods for choosing are:
  • Open a book and place your finger on any part of the page. Then choose the noun (person, place or thing) under or closest to your fingertip. Repeat to choose a second character.
  • Ask someone to name two nouns or two people at random.
  • Choose two body parts. You'd be surprised at what an eye and a liver have to tell each other.
  • Choose two feeling states to converse, such as depression, anger, perfectionism, anxiety, joy, confusion, relief.
Then, by writing freely and quickly and simply "taking dictation" in your mind, not planning, take 10 minutes to write a dialog. The conversation may be serious, deep, focused, silly or freewheeling. Reread what you've written and write for 10 more minutes on how it felt and what it might mean to you. Perhaps this clarifies some conflict you've been experiencing or gives you ideas for other "characters" you'd like to hear converse.

Friday, January 30, 2009

TO WRITE: What Are You Doing Here?
In Chapter 5 of my book Writing through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen (info in profile) I describe benefits that come from using writing to examine your spiritual beliefs -- your understanding of the mysteries of the world around us and inside of us. (No, I'm not writing only to religious people here; it's different.)

By uncovering, defining and fully embracing our beliefs, we spiritual seekers can sometimes find a sense of meaning in life -- or in our depression. Indeed, I have known writing group members who come to feel that there is a reason, or even a benefit, to their depressed experiences, be it to learn and grow as human beings, to develop compassion and understanding, or to assist others in their healing. (p.61)

Furthermore, spiritual searching also carries health benefits. Many studies have demonstrated that people who consider themselves "religious" or "spiritual" or who attend religious services regularly: 1) have fewer illnesses, 2) live significantly longer, 3) specifically have less depression and, 4) have a greater likelihood of remission from depression. Practical applications of such findings to treatment of depression is under study too. For example, meditation, a component of many spiritual traditions, has been shown to be a useful adjunct to treatments for many health conditions, including depression. (p. 62)

Play with this. . .
Choose an issue that you consider what we call in my classes a "Big Question." For example, Who am I? What am I doing here? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? What is love? What is depression? Write continuously for 15 minutes on your question, being sure to include your personal feelings and experiences. Obviously there are no right or wrong ways to do this -- you don't need to hold to any particular belief system.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

TO WRITE: Off to a Great New Year. . . a Bit Late, but Less Stressed
Greetings! Happy 2009 to you. Happy MLK Day. Happy Inauguration Day. Happy Year of the Ox! I have not posted for a few weeks now, which I regret, but I don't think I could avoid it. As we're well aware, life gets hectic for many of us at the end of the year. And we've all heard about the high rate of Christmas-time depressions out there. Well, this year I think I caught that bug.

My depression wasn't terrible; I wasn't immobilized or suicidal or seeing and hearing things that no one else was seeing or hearing, as sometimes happens to me. But it felt like the real thing, not just the blues. I've been tremendously fortunate to have had little depression for the past two years, so this was scary -- the nasty self talk, the ache in the chest, the decreasing interest in things I love, the sadness, that feeling of futility.

But. . . I'm doing much better now. I credit a good psychiatrist and good therapist for this turn-around, as well as my ever present meds regimen, and my serious efforts to reduce the stress in my life. I backed out of some obligations and invitations (and the world did not end), and I'm working hard to change my attitude about the stresses in my life. (I'm Mom to a 1-year-old, and I'm trying to write, to do speaking gigs, to teach and do other volunteer work.) I am taking better advantage of some babysitting help, and I'm working at not waiting until my to-do list is done (it never is) before letting myself read a little for fun. Major paradigm shift.

Play with this. . .
Writing continuously for 10 minutes, take a hard honest look at what is causing stress in your life. You may be trying to overdo it, like I tend to do, or you may be stressed by the lack of structure or busyness in your life right now. Are you feeling a great deal of pressure about trying to regain your health? Are you, like me, putting a lot of energy into being frightened and bracing yourself for the worst when you mood dips even a bit?

Now, part two. . . Write continuously for 10 more minutes about what tiny steps you can take to relieve some stress in your life. Can you relax and have coffee with an acquaintance you want to know better? Can you spend fifteen minutes -- no more -- online looking at job sites if you are seeking work? Can you make your to-do list for today more reasonable? Don't overwhelm yourself with reducing stress -- this is like rushing to get to meditation class (something I've also done). Can you journal it out for a half-hour? Take small actions and congratulate yourself. I believe it's the only way to maintain my own health; perhaps it will help you too.