Monday, January 6, 2014

All the Feels: Writing and Depression. Remembering Ned Vizzini

Ned Vizzini 1981-2013
At some point during all the pomp and circumstance that is preparing for the holidays, I happened upon a tweet from John Green expressing condolences to the family of Ned Vizzini, an author whose book IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, I mentioned in one of my recent All the Feels posts. I never knew Ned personally, but among the things I knew about him is something I relate to both personally and professionally: a severe and long term battle with major depressive disorder. Ned shared some of his own experiences in the aforementioned semi-autobiographical novel, including the process of recovery, which can be long and ultimately exhausting. In the end, Ned surrendered to his darkness, along with 90% of completed suicides in the United States.

It goes without saying that, as a global society, we are not doing enough to intervene in depression. But what does that have to do with the writing life?

A lot, as it turns out. Particularly if you write for teens.

Depression is something many teens deal with--1 in 10 American adolescents will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder before their eighteenth birthday and that doesn't include those that go without diagnosis and treatment.

Despite this, when they are diagnosed, many teens don't know what depression "looks like." They think of emo kids and cutters and think that these are the only faces of depression. I think that's one of the things that drew me to IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. Craig, the main character, doesn't look all that different from most teens. He's trying to do well in school, taking big tests, meeting and liking girls. He's not goth. He's not a weed fiend or a drop out. He's a smart kid who gets overwhelmed by life and doesn't really know how to cope. We need more stories like Craig's. Stories that deal with the darker side of adolescence in a way that doesn't glamorize or overwrite it.

And what about writers? Are we more likely to be depressed than the average adult? There aren't a lot of concrete statistics to support this in the last couple years, but prior to that, the consensus was "yes."

And there certainly is a lot of anecdotal evidence. A lot of our most noteworthy predecessors spoke to their own experiences with depression: Hans Christian Anderson, Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Franz Kafka, John Keats, Herman Melville, Spike Milligan, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Amy Tan, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Wurtzel, just to name a few.

What we do know is that writers with depression are more likely to attempt and complete suicide than the general population.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which being that this is an often isolative, inconsistent, and emotionally taxing field in which we toil. For the most part, writing is something we do alone. The pressure is often something that falls directly on our shoulders. And at times it's personal and gut-wrenching work. Some of the best writing comes when authors attack their own personal demons. But this can be a costly process.

There are also logistical factors--mental health coverage isn't required of insurance companies, even under Obamacare, making it more difficult and expensive to get treatment for depression than, say, diabetes. And because we work in isolation, we don't always face the same real world consequences if depression impacts our work. For example, if we're writing as our sole source of income, we don't need to drag ourselves out of bed and into the office at 8am every day (something exceptionally challenging for people with the amotivational symptoms associated with depressive disorder.) We don't always have the readily available social coping mechanisms of befriending coworkers and getting out of our personal environments that often exacerbate depressive symptoms. So it's easier for us to get and stay depressed than for lawyers or doctors or teachers, etc.

But worse than that, is that depression is sometimes considered par for the course in the writing life. People expect writers to be moody, isolative, dark, flat people who live in their heads rather than the real world. A lot of the stereotypical/expected symptoms are also the expected behaviors of someone who sits alone at the computer spilling out their word guts and making other people cry for a living. Thus, for many writers, symptoms of depression are normalized. This is how it's supposed to be, and I'm supposed to be able to deal with it. It's not something I need to seek help for.

But sometimes it is.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you or someone you love is experiencing depression.

You don't have to accept depression as normal for you. If you're feeling depressed, it's probably not something you enjoy. And that is something you can do something about.

Getting help for depression doesn't automatically mean medication. There are a lot of different ways to treat depression, and you'll never know all your options unless you ask about them.

Getting help for a mental health issue doesn't mean you're crazy. Depression is not all that different from Diabetes. Both are medical conditions caused by the organs in your body not creating sufficient chemicals for your body to be able to function nominally. And you wouldn't live with diabetes without seeking medical consultation. So why do that with depression?

Suicide is never okay. Ned left behind a wife and a son, a brother, and parents who loved him a lot. And a lot of confused fans who thought they could look up to him when combating their own difficult feelings. The harsh reality is that he was a good role model and his books saved lives. Then in mid-December he made the ultimate bad choice. And he can't take it back.

So what does this mean for our community?

The awesome thing about writing in the twenty-first century is that we have a community. We have critique groups and online writing communities, conferences, blogs, and twitter. We get to do our solitary job in a slightly less isolated way.

That means that we can check in and check on each other. If one of your CPs or friends on Twitter is talking dark endings about their own life stories or expressing any of these warning signs, be the person who asks if everything is okay. Ask if they need someone to talk to. You may be the only person who does.

Depression can be a fatal disease, but it doesn't have to be. And as a community, we can do better. As a society, we definitely can.

My thoughts, prayers, and deepest condolences go out to Ned's family and to other families who are dealing with similar tragedies. The holidays are hard. Life is hard. But it's worth living.

There's always another story to tell. 

Dannie Morin is an author, blogger, and freelance editor. She's currently contemplating seeking help for her social media addiction. In the meantime, you can find her on Blogger, Facebook, Goodreads, & Twitter. If you've got suggestions for a future All the Feels post, contact Dannie via the contact form on her blog. She is repped by Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.


  1. Powerful. Thanks, Dannie. I think it's important to promote the idea that writers are SO MUCH more productive and creative when they're taking care of themselves. The idea of depression may be romantic to those who aren't fully aware of the catastrophic effects, but the reality is far from it. My heart goes out to Vizzini's family.

  2. Thanks for writing this Danni. I'm re-blogging on my site and encouraging my readers to spread your words. I agree depression is too easy to deny for the reasons you point out. I admitted my depression to myself about 5 years ago. Only recently have I gotten serious about writing, and for me, the writing acts as an outlet and has helped a lot. Also getting active in the community gives me a deeper feeling of self worth. Trying to give more, one day at a time.
    Thanks again.

  3. This makes me so sad. I'm currently reading Ned's book (based on your recommendation in your earlier post) and I didn't know he'd ended his life. I think it's important for people to recognize that all of us are affected by depression--whether it's ourselves, people we know, or people (like Ned) we wish we'd known--and that all of us are responsible for helping those who suffer from it.