January Blues

by J.D. Rhoades

First off, I want to thank everyone for the birthday wishes
sent to me here and elsewhere in the last couple of weeks. They were greatly appreciated—and
greatly needed.

See, my birthday notwithstanding, January’s always  a
tough time for me. I don’t know what it is exactly. Maybe it’s the cold weather
(Yeah, I know, it’s colder where you are. Thanks for the information. I’m still freezing).  Maybe it’s the bare trees. Or the fact that everything
seems to be colored gray, black or brown. Post-holiday let-down may have something
to do with it. It’s most likely a combination of all of the above.

Whatever the cause,
January’s the month when every regret, every fear, every hurtful word ever said
to or by me, every failure, every humiliation and
embarrassment, comes to roost on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. And those
bastards are heavy.
 

I am not, as you may have surmised, a barrel of laughs in
January.

But here’s the thing: I feel like hell, but I’m writing like
crazy. I finally got a handle on the main character in my current work in progress, and it’s taking
the book in a new direction that I really like, one that’s a lot edgier than before. When I can
grab the time, I’m blazing through a thousand-plus  words in
an hour and a half. There are pages and pages of notes in my notebook about not
only the WIP, but a half dozen other ideas for other projects. I’m throwing off ideas like sparks.

It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. When I wrote The Devil’s Right Hand, I was tremendously depressed that my
first book had sunk without a trace. I was in a funk. But the words kept flowing.

Nor am I the first person who’s noted a link between
depression and creativity. There’s the long, long list of great writers and
artists who suffered from depression: Hemingway, Van Gogh, Woolf, Tolstoy, etc.
(This is the point where the black bird on my shoulder whispers “you ain’t
them”).

Psychologist Eric Maisel wrote a book called The Van Gogh
Blues
in which he theorizes that artists tend towards depression because, more
than other people, they look for “meaning” in their lives, and when there’s not
enough of that, they have a “meaning crisis” which brings on depression. He
doesn’t explain, however, why depression can actually seem to stir creativity. (Or
maybe he does. I gave up on the book after a chapter in which Maisel used the word “meaning”
thirty-two times on one page. I don’t see the efficacy in replacing depression
with severe annoyance). Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison theorizes that many creative people actually suffer from bipolar disorder. So when I answer the question "Why do you write?" by saying "mental illness," I’m only half  joking.

A few years ago, I actually did seek professional help and
went on medication for the depression that was, at that time, eating me alive.
I don’t remember much about that time, which worries me. I do remember that it
was shortly after I gave up the Wellbutrin that I started writing creatively again after not doing it for over 15 years.

This leads me to the inevitable question: Would I trade blissful happiness for
not being able to write as well–or at all?

So what about it, fellow ‘Rati? Do you think you write
better when you’re depressed? Is there something seeeeriously wrong with us? Or is it just me?

22 thoughts on “January Blues

  1. Patti Abbott

    My birthday is January 1 so I know how your Januaries are very well. Right on top of the holidays, it’s a real curse. I write best when I’m not worried. Worrying is my curse more than depression. I can worry about nearly anything. Today it’s whether mold is growing on our basement walls. Medication smooths it out but it does inhibit creative thought. Plus the year I was on constant medication has been wiped from my memory forever. Did I actually see the movie Homicide that year? No memory of it.

    Reply
  2. billie

    I do believe there is a connection between creativity and mood disorders. The fluctuation of mood seems to offer better access to creativity, for whatever reason.

    There are a few psychiatrists around who specialize in treating mood disorders in people who pursue creative endeavors and/or don’t want to be as robotic as a Stepford wife.

    I turn into a potted plant on antidepressants but have found that classical homeopathy helps tremendously with no adverse effects. Albert Ellis’ rational emotive therapy techniques can also be very useful in learning to turn off the inner dialogue that exacerbates the extremes.

    Great topic for a dreary month. (although, ironically, my most intense months are May and October – for me, January is nicely neutral and quiet, and I love being able to see the bones of trees and shrubs).

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That Kay Jamison book is required reading for all artists, IMO. I recognize those bipolar symptoms in myself, nothing over the top, but it does seem to be an occupational hazard and I think the more we can learn about mood cycles, the more aware we’ll be of the chemical component to some of our feelings.

    I think writing actually acts as a tranquilizer for some more extreme feelings… like meditation, it puts you in an egoless spot. Writing may be the symptom or it may be the cure, but extreme mood swings seem to be part of the package.

    All that to say – Hah. No. You’re not alone.

    But be aware when it’s worse than usual and SAY SO, because depression is nothing to play around with, and we love you, Dusty.

    Reply
  4. Bryon Quertermous

    There was a book before The Devil’s Right Hand? Interesting…

    I was on anti-depressants for a while and they helped for a long time and then they started making me worse so I gave them up and try to exercise and keep myself in order naturally instead. I don’t know that I write better or worse when I’m depressed, but I do know that the mood swings and emotional explosions make for great material and inspiration.

    Reply
  5. Christa M. Miller

    I don’t know if I was depressed or simply unhappy and lonely when I was a teenager/young adult. I do know that it wasn’t until I found real happiness in life – exorcised the demons that were holding me down, started doing things for myself rather than someone else – that I started to write successfully.

    I would not want to go on antidepressants unless I was a danger to myself or others. I just don’t like the idea of having my feelings suppressed. I can’t write when, say, I’m fighting with my husband (thankfully rare) – but I sure as hell want to be able to go back and draw on those emotions when I write characters who experience them.

    Happy Belated, Dusty. Glad you’re productive, anyway!

    Reply
  6. pari noskin taichert

    Mood swings, yes.

    But when I’m down, only exercise gets me out of it. I can’t write because I feel paralyzed and the editor within becomes a cruel judge of anything I create.

    JD,Do you derive any pleasure from your bouts of productivity and creative floods? Can you focus on that? On the fact that you’re transforming despair into reams of marvelous stories?

    I sure hope so.

    And, I also hope your new birthday year will be filled with so much success that you’ll HAVE to call on the blues rather than them visiting you unwelcomed.

    Reply
  7. billie

    This is probably stating the obvious, but… exercise causes the brain to release the same chemicals the psychotropic medications are trying to emulate. So for anyone who suffers any level of mood disorder, exercise plays a key and often critical role in creating a natural balance.

    If you add in an exercise that is also pleasurable, the benefits are just that much better.

    Reply
  8. PJ Parrish

    Hey JD,This is not meant in any jest: But could you have Seasonal Affective Disorder? This is caused by decreased exposure to bright light (in winter months in northern climates) Researchers don’t understand why but they do know brain chemistry (especially seratonin levels) are affected to the point that some folks have dibilitating depression. The incidence of SAD increases the farther you get from the equator. (Wonder if this explains why Sweden has the world’s highest suicide rate?) I had a good friend in northern Michigan who had this and found relief by sitting in front of a special light lamp every day for 20 minutes.

    Doctors are starting to find out that some people in southern climates (Like here down in South Florida) get it in reverse during our summer and fall months because it’s so damn hot we don’t go outside enough. Which probably explains why I go into a funk every November, like clockwork. (which coincidently — or not! — is my birthday month.) Oddly enough, I get hyper-creative in November as well.

    Hope you feel better.

    Reply
  9. JDRhoades

    Thanks again for all the good wishes, friends and for letting me know it’s not just me. PJ, I have definitely considered SAD as a possible cause of this.

    Pari: I do derive some pleasure from it. Mostly though, writing distracts me from eying the .38 on the bedroom shelf or gazing up at the ceiling light fixtures wondering if they’ll hold my weight.

    Obviously, though for most of you, exercise is the key. An exercise I also find pleasurable…hmmmm….

    Reply
  10. Tom Barclay

    Dusty, glad you’re looking into SAD; my wife has it, and it’s ferocious. There are lots of other seasonal whammy factors from her past around the holidays, and SAD’s the frosting on the feces torte.

    BTW, lock up the freakin’ revolver; nothing short of a shotgun will be much help with a home invasion, anyway.

    Reply
  11. Patti Abbott

    If you think it’s SAD, the light screen can really help. You put it near you for half an hour a day and its light produces serotonin. Costco sells them and it’s worth the price. That and drugs and therapy.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    Dusty, if we weren’t able to access our moods, recognize that we fluctuate, we’d be crappy writers. I’m glad you’re talking about being down. Acknowledgment is power, as cheesy as that sounds. It takes balls to say you’re depressed and want help. You have a lot of people who love the hell out of you, and are there for you anytime you want/need anything. Keep hanging in there, keep writing, and reread the Jamison book. It’s a reminder that as bad as things are, they can always be worse.Love you, sugar.

    Reply
  13. Fiona

    Dusty, if you try the light box, make sure you use it early in your day–never after lunch–or you will screw up your internal clock and it will be difficult to fall asleep at night. Then you will have insomnia along with SAD, which is AWFUL.

    You might try borrowing a light box from a friend–or sharing it for a few mornings—to see if it helps you before you spend the money.

    Reply
  14. Stacey Cochran

    My theory is that emotions are the way our bodies regulate and steer us. When I’m depressed, I usually recognize that I need to do something… exercise, schedule a TV show guest, book an event at a store, sign up for a conference, write.

    But when the depression first sets in, it’s hard to recognize that that’s what’s happening. Usually a day or two of distress-bordering-on-agony are enough to 1) get me off my ass so that I do something to pick myself up, or 2) irritate my wife bad enough that she kicks me in the ass so that I get up and do something.

    I just always try to remind myself that no matter how shitty I feel emotionally, I’ll find a way out of it.

    I’m with you, man. Hang in there. And I’ll see you at McIntyre’s in a couple of weeks.

    Reply
  15. toni mcgee causey

    I’ve been traveling, so am late to comment, but happy belated birthday, Dusty.

    I’m the same way with January. It’s so bleak and I’m used to the green–it just depresses the hell out of me. Many years ago, though, I learned how to trigger endorphins through other means (easy stuff–bio feedback, humor fests, rage therapy — yeah, that one’s fun — deep breathing, etc.)… and it helps me get through the bleakest days. Sometimes the winter makes me feel smothered, exhausted, and I have to consciously battle against it.

    On the upside, something about not having the beauty outside (the green, must have green!) forces me to turn inward and ends up helping me be more creative. I just had a major breakthrough on two different stories. Weird month.

    Reply
  16. Zoe Sharp

    Sorry to come so late to this one, Dusty. Weird, because I started off writing something about this for my last post and just couldn’t get the words into the order I wanted in time. I’ve stood on the edge and looked into the pit and wondered, too …

    And sometimes, when you’re down there, you don’t *want* to find a way out. That’s often the most scary thing about it. If you had the energy to do something about it, you wouldn’t be depressed.

    But, you have a lot of friends. If you need us, e-mail us an SOS and we’ll send your best reviews back to you. One at a time. In big letters.

    Reply

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