It’s all about balance, one of those things in which there can be an enormous gap between theory and practice, between intellectual understanding and living it. And being someone with a natural tendency to obsess on intricate and specific things for long periods of time (‘tis the nature of writers and editors) sometimes that balance can get radically off-kilter. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.
By this time last year, Swimming in the Ocean, the first novel, a novel it took me ten years to understand how to complete, was out and I was in full tour mode. But by this spring, I was in a mild state of depression, a place I hadn’t been for quite some time. I think it was brought on by a series of things happening concurrently: let-down from finishing the book at long last, tour exhaustion, financial stress, too long and cold a winter, and finding several people dear to me also suffering various stresses. I was seriously considering packing my bags and leaving (Toronto, that is), not that I had any place else in mind. It was more an escapist consideration than anything else. Realizing that no matter where you go, there you are, I stayed.
Things turned very suddenly. For several weeks, I found myself overcommitted to paying work, sometimes juggling three clients simultaneously, afraid to turn projects down, getting up at five or six in the morning to start work, just to try to get it all done. That phase seems to have passed now, allowing me some time and energy to get back to what I’m really here for: writing.
Depression is a low-energy state, a state in which it’s difficult to locate creative energy; too long without a creative fix can send me into severe depression. Being overworked is a high-energy (or high-anxiety) state, a state that, while invigorating, is a difficult one in which to locate creative time. I seem to function optimally when there’s too much going on. I need a great deal of stimulation to keep from getting bored; if I get bored, I also become depressed (something that keeps me away from routine jobs). I think a period of hyperactivity was necessary to snap me out of the state I was in. Since rebounding from these two extremes (both of which had a negative impact on my writing productivity), I now feel like I’ve relocated my centre, my balance.
My psycho-emotional life is a bit of a tightrope by times, an exercise in extremes – anyone who’s read Swimming in the Ocean is probably already aware of that. You may be relieved to hear that I’m considerably less volatile than I used to be. I’ve worked to understand what to avoid and how to explore difficult emotions, which are often necessary to the writing, more safely. Which isn’t to say I don’t go out on limbs anymore; I certainly do, but I usually tie off the safety rope first.
Although statistically people are more prone to depression the more times they experience it, personally I feel that the work I’ve done in understanding my depression has made me more conscious of when I’m moving in that direction and more able to redirect my energies more productively.
Although I have been offered the quick magic of pills to alleviate the symptoms of depression, I’ve always declined. I’d rather develop my own coping strategies, no matter how rudimentary. It gives me a greater sense of control. There’s no denying that antidepressants help a lot of people, but recent clinical evidence, which agrees with my experiential evidence, supports the notion that talk therapy alone can change brain chemistry. Unfortunately, I think we as a society are too busy or too lazy or too disconnected to sit down and do the work of actually figuring out what the problem is and would generally rather pop a pill to feel better, while not addressing our damaging behaviour. While medication can make talk therapy more approachable in some instances, the drugs alone don’t fix anything. They’re a little like putting a bandage on someone’s toe while gangrene is consuming their leg.
I recently heard stats on the rapid growth in the use of antidepressants in Canada. Hopefully this dramatic increase isn’t simply the result of mass-marketting campaigns by pharmaceutical giants out to pad their earnings reports, but I’m not sure what to make of it. If we, as a society, are becoming more accepting and supportive of people with depression and other mental illnesses, I think it’s a good thing and about time too. Denial, the inability to discuss psycho-emotional problems, even among families or with friends, is damaging and has caused tragedies to be needlessly repeated. However, if the dramatic increase in the use of antidepressants points to an increase in depression in our society (and there’s a lot to be depressed about in our world), that’s frightening. Maybe we all need to take a serious time-out this summer, reassess our priorities in life, turn off the news and stop trying to run our lives around the technology that keeps pushing us to produce ever-faster. What have you done for yourself lately?
I’ve gone back to playing the piano, working primarily on Bach Inventions (for now) in an effort to get my hands and focus back. I was surprised at how much better I felt and can’t figure out if it’s the playing or if it’s the Bach (used extensively in music therapy because of the soothing effect of it’s mathematical stability). I felt calmer and more in control. What surprised me even more was that when I got busy and stopped making the time to play, a friend of mine commented on the difference. I knew playing was helping me internally, but it was helping externally more than I’d realized. So I’ve been playing again this week and now that I fully appreciate the point, I shall continue.
This is the sixth summer I’ve been in Toronto and I have yet to really engage with the city. My presence here has just felt too tentative, but that’s beginning to change. This may be the first summer I’ve really enjoyed for a long time. I have tea plans with various friends, have made note of some historical walks, have picked up tickets to see the big Rolling Stones concert, and generally I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open for interesting opportunities.
Now that the mad rush is over, I’m settling in to complete the rewrite of the novel version of Pairs & Artichoke Hearts, the gender-bender romantic-comedy screenplay I wrote in ’96. I like the idea of publishing work in the order in which it was conceived, so I want to complete this project before turning back to the new novel, which is well on its way.
I need to produce, to keep on keepin’ on. It makes me feel alive, most comfortable in my own skin. And maybe someday, if I persevere long enough, the work will provide for me and I won’t have to spread my time and energies so thinly. That would make me genuinely and deeply happy. In this life, we aren’t necessarily rewarded for our efforts, at least not always immediately or as expected, but as a music teacher of mine once said, “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
©Catherine Jenkins 2003