Social Anxiety, Depression, and Writing

Sometimes the worst thing about suffering from mental illness as a person harboring artistic ambitions is the banality of the whole business. At best, being riddled with neurosis seems like something to add to your list of writerly credentials. Mostly it’s a tired narrative. At least, that’s how I feel when I try to imagine myself as others see me (something I do far too much, thanks to said neuroses).

Oh, great. You’re some kind of tortured artist. How boring.

(Complaining about how cliche it is to be a depressed writer is also an unforgivable cliche.)

Especially since my perception of my talent is that I have very little of it. Some. Not enough. Not enough to outweigh the fact that I only write in fits and starts. When I’m in just the right mood where my desperation to practice and improve my craft is enough to overcome the fear and the inertia. Or the rare moments when I have genuine inspiration.

An embarrassing admission: it’s a disappointment to me how unpicturesque, and uncompelling, my mental health issues are. There’s nothing poignant or darkly beautiful about being depressed. I haven’t become unable to eat or sleep; I haven’t wasted away, become pale or thin like a Victorian consumptive; I haven’t gained insight into the human condition. I’m not mysterious, quiet, tortured. I’m just dull, dull, dull. Nobody would know I was sick if I didn’t mention it, which I don’t like to (even while entertaining shameful Hollywood-tinged baroque fantasies about finding a friend who begs for me to pour my heart out to them).

Instead, I disappear from my own life for months at a time, and then come back when it’s become more unbearable to be so lonely than it is to face what I can’t help but see as the scrutiny of my friends and acquaintances. I don’t try to hide my condition, but don’t elaborate on it either. Because really it’s just a list of ridiculous complaints.

Explaining that I’m almost always exhausted. Explaining that my attention span seems to get shorter and shorter as the years go by. That I struggle to express myself. That my vocabulary is shrinking with my memory (it took me 10 minutes to remember the word ‘inertia’ a few paragraphs up). That sometimes I’m so damn worried about how I’m coming across, I don’t listen to other people the way I should. That I’m worried I’m becoming a worse person, but that worry itself is what’s making me so selfish, so unbearably image-focused.

Unfortunately, all the things one has to do to launch a writing career these days align with those things that set off my social anxiety. Twitter, Facebook, message boards, WordPress — they’re perfectly calibrated Anxiety Production Engines. Social media is like a giant Skinner Box designed to condition me to satisfy my worst narcissistic desires. You know. Compose a poem, post a comment, tweet a ‘clever’ observation, cross your fingers, wait and pray for the likes to pour in, feeling like you might shatter if they don’t ever come. Going back, re-re-rereading what you wrote, analysing it, wondering — was it good enough? Did you put it right? Will people like you? Will somebody affirm your worth today? Or will you curl up in bed and try not to cry while you remember every awful, humiliating thing you’ve said or done since first grade?

There are plenty of days where you do get plenty of likes; plenty of praise… and you still can’t fight the nagging feeling that people are lying to you, or there’s something underhanded about their compliments. Or that you’re bothering people by posting at all. And you consider that it would be best for everyone if you just retreated back into silence. Because, really that’s what you do best.

Not sure what I’m trying to accomplish by writing this today. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said more eloquently by a thousand others.

I’m trying to be an active member of WordPress and the NaNoWriMo forums who contributes useful things, genuinely, out of a desire to share my passion with fellow writers. That’s who I am deep down, I think. Or who I was, once. But most days I feel so removed from my genuine self (if such a thing ever existed) that I feel I’m playacting at being that person. That there’s something unforgivably false about the way I interact with people.

I keep telling myself that if I just push through I’ll get past my fear. Put myself out there. It’ll get easier. I’ll develop relationships with enough trust and genuine regard between us that I won’t need to have… this gap… between what I feel and how I express it. But the more I participate in these online communities, the more my anxiety mounts. Every day I wake up and feel like more of a fraud. I don’t have enough perspective to distinguish whether that’s true or not, but I’m convinced that everybody I talk to and can see right through me, to all these glaring flaws that I’m not even aware of, despite how vigilantly I monitor myself for anything objectionable. It’s that very desire to please that, I’m sure, in the end, gives me away…

I know the pattern I go through, and I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve defeated myself before July’s even started. By the time it gets here, I might be at the point that I can’t bear to open my computer because I’m so sick with shame for imposing myself on others.

I guess I’m hoping my getting these thoughts out there I’m purging the poison in my system. Maybe having put them into words, they’ll lose their power over me, some of which comes from their vagueness; their unspeakable, unnameable quality.

Maybe if I don’t help myself, I’ll at least have helped some person reading this feel less isolated. I know plenty of you who follow this blog must have experienced similar emotions at some point, whether due to chronic mental illness, or just the demands of creating art for public consumption, which can be plenty burdensome in of themselves.

kk, bai

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8 thoughts on “Social Anxiety, Depression, and Writing

  1. I SO resonate with much of what you experience. Going public with my words is a daily business in pain, doubt and a desire to just delete it all! I have been writing for years, but rarely shared. Social media is outside my comfort zone. So, my friend, purge the poison, including that felt shame, and do what you know you need to do to hit July in the right frame of mind to make this happen. Does the journaling help? Then keep at it, whether anyone reads it or not. Is it counterproductive (it is, for me, but that’s just me…)? Go metacognitive here because there is ONE thing I know – your writing is on a higher level than most of what I see out here in blogland. No agenda, no skirt-billowing, just my observation. It is mysterious and decidedly not dull – talk to that child within and tell her that she is on board with this, whether she likes it or not! Why do I read what you write? 1.) You are a good writer; I enjoy your style(s), 2.) Someone did this part for me and it made a difference, 3.) I can fancy myself a part of the process of seeing your success (pure ego), and 4.) You stretch MY writer brain and make me think – always a good thing 🙂 Every time the big D raises its ugly head in my world, I beat it back with a stick. Wait, I have an extra stick… here… go on, give it a swing 🙂

    • Aw, thank you so much — your comments are so sweet and supportive, and it always makes me glad when I see you’ve stopped by, or when you’ve updated your blog– your poems and flash fiction pieces are always so dense with meaning and gorgeous language; it’s a real pleasure when they pop up on my Reader feed.

      It’s comforting to know that you’re plagued with a similarly obnoxious inner critic, despite being clearly talented and driven — but mostly I’m sad to hear you have to go through that!! 😦 It extremely sucks, doesn’t it? ~sigh~ You seem so confident in your comments and posts; you never struck me as someone who was particularly self-deprecating. I’m so sorry 😦 😦 But that just goes to show, right? If someone’s not giving off flashing neon signals of “I’m insecure! I’m extremely uncomfortable right now!” I’ll naturally assume they’re self-confident people who’ve got it all in order, and judge myself poorly in comparison. Which is dumb. And self-centered too :/

      In actuality, of course, we’re never as alone in our struggles as we think we are. It’s not at all uncommon to be beset by self-doubt, but people tend to keep the greater part of their insecurities private, and then fall prey to the illusion of being the only ones the world who feel lost or inadequate. Especially on social media, where we see our friends’ successes, but not the moments in between; the best selfie out of dozens; a version of life that’s been edited down to an airbrushed montage of picture-perfect happy moments… buuut that’s branching off into another set of issues entirely, haha.

      It’s necessary to keep things in perspective. Basically 😛

      What eventually spurred you overcome your fear and start sharing your writing publically? Is there anything in particular that helps keep your insecurities at a manageable level?

      I’m starting to figure out what works for me, I think, through trial and error. Something as simple as keeping a fairly regular schedule makes a big difference. It’s why I tend to thrive during nanowrimo related events. Permission to put aside the inner editor and all that.

      Anyway, thank you again for all your kindness, and dangerously feeding my horrible, horrible ego :O LOL. You seem like you’re doing well; not letting your self-doubt prevent you from putting yourself out there; I hope you continue feeling strong, and beating back the depression/anxiety!

      /awkward internet hug

      • (What a week! I’m terribly behind on responding.) It’s funny, but I would love to just copy and paste large portions of what you have written and turn it back around 🙂 You are close to that July challenge and I am hopeful that it proves fruitful writing for you. I wish I could devote that kind of time in July. As it turns out, I am changing jobs and expect training sessions in late July. I guess I’ll stick to the short fiction for this summer. I feel like it is warm-up for the bigger things on the horizon. So, you asked what spurred me to overcome going public. I have been writing for years, but never shared beyond a small handful of people around me until this past winter when a children’s book hit me smack in the face! It is the first thing I have ever written that I wanted to publish. I am in the blocking phase and hope to start agent queries in the coming months. So, like you, the on-line presence is in part to satisfy what they tell us we need for publication. My stealth introvert hates it, but I keep moving forward. The perceived audience has, I think, made me a better writer, so it has the plus side. Oh, and I reached that 100-post mark recently, too! Thanks for the hug – you make my day and you make me laugh 🙂 We will just keep beating back the crud that comes creeping in those middle-of-the-night moments!

  2. Hello,
    I don’t know how I should respond to your post without sounding weird, but I’ve also experienced very similar things. I think that sometimes it’s good to have a friend or two who you can talk to whenever you experience depression/social anxiety. Writing things down (like in this post, hopefully) or just thinking things through and not doing anything else can sometimes be helpful for me. But what I do when I have a lot of social anxiety is that I throw a small soft ball around until I feel like I can relax, or if it’s warm I can take a walk. Sometimes when I’m depressed it cheers me up to go outdoors and do something with my family or friends, but obviously they aren’t always available or understanding. I suppose the way everyone deals with their mental illness is different, so I’m sure you have your own ways,

    As for not being able to remember words straight away, I think that’s a common thing for anyone, including writers, so I would hope you don’t scold yourself so much for it. Many writers only find the perfect style and vocabulary after many drafts so I would just try and get something down for the first draft and not worry too much about the quality. I know you’re saying you don’t think much of your skills, but that might stem from low self-confidence in general and/or very harsh standards for yourself, which is not uncommon in artists, especially if they have mental illnesses (my favourite director has depression and always downplays his skill).

    I think, if going on social networks a lot makes you anxious, sometimes it’s probably good just to keep away from them and take a break. Especially since the competitive nature of the Internet is very damaging. Also comparing yourself to cliches of other writers can be quite unhealthy, especially if those cliches are base off romanticising mental illnesses 😦

    Anyway, I hope you find away to manage your mental illness, especially since you seem to be going through a tough time.

    I hope you feel better soon.

  3. Hi. Thanks for your message — it was so nice, and helpful, and totally, definitely not weird at all 😉 It means a lot that you wrote this, because obviously I know as someone with social anxiety how difficult it can be to leave comments and the like.

    It seems, from reading this and some of the posts you’ve written on your blog, like we’re pretty similar temperamentally, beyond the anxiety and depression-related issues we have in common. We deal with our illnesses in similar ways. Going for walks, getting outdoors, chilling out with friends, having someone to laugh and joke around with — if something’s going to lift me out of my malaise, it’s usually one of those things. I also like getting lost in an absorbing piece of fiction. It’s by far the best way to tune out my own persistently paranoid inner-monologue 😛

    Do you ever have trouble distinguishing which parts of yourself are the “real you” and which parts are the depression warping your personality? A difference between myself and some of the other people I know with the illness (people who are sunny, upbeat, active types when not suffering from their depression) is that I can’t clearly delineate between the two, because my core personality has always been a bit moody and introverted, even macabre. You know, I was the kinda teenager who read a lot of Poe and Plath, and spent my free time thinking about DARKNESS and THE FRAILTY OF THIS LIFE, etc, etc. (lol) This leads me to tend to blame myself for the things I feel and do as a depressed person, because I don’t think I can safely say, 100% “that’s the depression talking”. Instead I’m like… maybe I’m just a self-pitying, joyless, lazy person. Does that make sense?

    I don’t know where I even got the sense that you might relate to all this — it’s just an intuition I got from the way you express your personality in your writing, I guess… the themes your novel’s focusing on, the kinds of books you read and what you take away from them, bla, bla, bla.

    But anyway, you’re totally right about the competitive nature of the internet. I tend to keep well away from the worst parts of this, if I can, but since I’m a naturally competitive person (not satisfied unless I’m The! Best!, chuh) it gets to me even when I’m “in circles” with nice people who are far from the bitchy, negative, self-promoting egomaniacs I’m so wary of. Hmmm. It’s hard sometimes to distinguish what’s a valid form of “self-care”, and what’s me just indulging in my avoidant tendencies.

    Ramble, ramble, ramble…

    On a different note, have you ever read any of Yukio Mishima’s work? Based (again) on your writing style and thematic preoccupations, I think you might really enjoy him.

    Hope you’re doing well ❤ I'll probably pop by our cabin soon… but I have trouble with the character limit, bwahaha. As you can see, I'm not so great with brevity. A wonderful trait for winning nanowrimo, bad for… everything else 😉

    • Hello, thank you for your reply and sorry for the late response (there was something wrong with my wordpress).

      Yeah I agree, sometimes fiction can do amazing things. I can be swallowed by ennui but became lit up by a piece of fantasy. I’m glad you have ways of dealing with your depression/social anxiety, since it can be quite scary when one doesn’t.

      I won’t profess to have experienced exactly the same things as you do with not being able to disinguish your ‘real’ personality, but I can understand what you mean. I don’t think that you should be so harsh on yourself, since the your ‘self’ being influenced by and not being influenced by depression is not a black and white distinction, rather it is more likely to be a matter of degrees in terms of how much depression is influencing your behaviour/thoughts at one point in time. Therefore you shouldn’t blame yourself and perceive yourself negatively even if you aren’t 100% sure that it’s “the depression talking”. Furthermore, you should be kinder to yourself as you are dealing with depression and that can take its toll on you sometimes. Plus, when you have depression you might be inclined to see yourself/your behaviour in a more negative light, which definitely happened to me when I had the worst part of my depression.

      As for myself, I’m not particularly good at spotting more subtle effects of depression (probably since I have ended the worst period of my depression so it’s difficult for me to tell if I am still depressed), although social anxiety affects me in ways I can clearly pick up. I think it’s not uncommon for people’s ‘real’ personality to intersect overlap with their behaviour when they are affected by depression. I’ve also been quite quiet and introverted for most of my life, so when I was depressed very few people noticed. I think that when I go into a period of deep depression, it totally consumes me so there isn’t really a question of there existing another not-depressed self (although this is debatable). I am often unable to perceive the distinctions between my real and ‘depressed’ self since I tend to perceive the structure of my personality differently from time to time (e.g.: whether my nihilistic thoughts actually compose a part of my ‘core’ personality or not). I can understand why that overlap makes it difficult for you to distinguish between your ‘real’ self and that severely influenced by depression, although I don’t think I’ve experienced this problem to the extent you have (although perhaps because I don’t think about it, strangely enough). I think no matter what, take care and be kind to yourself. And hopefully if your friends/family are aware of your depression then they will be kind even if you say something or behave in an unpleasant or unintended way.

      As for your macabreness (not actually a word) and interest in dark literature and thoughts, I think that’s something we share. I think you’re a very insightful person to be able to have guessed many of our similarities despite the fact I don’t have much on my blog. I’ll definitely look into Yukio Mishima’s work (I love getting recommendations that I know will probably good, since it’s quite uncommon to find literature I will love. I really trust your tastes 😉 since they’re quite similar to mine), although I probably won’t be able to read it immediately since I’m quite busy, but hopefully it will make a nice holiday read for this summer.

      Being competitive is pretty damaging for me too, since I am currently in a very competitive environment where everyone around me has to live up to high expectations and make important life choices at the same time (although at least we can empathise with our mutual suffering). Similarly, I find it hard to get rid of the judgemental me even in situations where the person has done nothing wrong to me. Hopefully being in less competitive environments will help. And I agree, sometimes it’s difficult to draw a line between self-indulgence and self-care, but I suppose some form of self-care is better than none.
      Hope you’re doing well too 🙂

  4. I’m going to give you a more thought out response to this when I’m on a computer, as opposed to a phone… but I want to tell you that this is so well thought out and eloquently put. As someone who also suffers from damn near crippling social anxiety at time… I can tell you that, though it’s good that you’re trying to push through it, sometimes you do need to take mental health days. You aren’t alone in these feelings – and it’s okay that your disorders aren’t some kind of poetry; just keep on keeping on, and know that you are never alone in these feelings. You seem like a fantastic writer, just from the way that you phrased these thoughts, and I’m sure that you’re going to help someone who reads this – I know it helped me.

  5. I feel that most of the supportive, helpful comments have been made already (that’s what happens when I get too busy and must catch up on reading my favorite blogs, I suppose). So I just briefly wanted to say that I felt a connection to this post. I have social anxiety, but it can sometimes fade into the background of bipolar symptoms. I am a strange, morbid person, and I think I would be that person without any disorders. I sometimes try to figure out if I am feeling actually depressed or if I am calling it depression when it is just who I am being expressed in a socially unacceptable manner. I don’t use any social media except WordPress usually, and I mostly post things under the assumption that no one will read any of it. I am genuinely surprised to get comments, hardly believing anyone would take the time to write a comment to me. Or even to like a post. And writing comments to others can sometimes fill me with fear. I overanalyze what I say, hoping no one takes offense or misinterprets.
    Basically, I can relate. And I would never think of your posts or comments as an imposition. In fact, I find your blog is much easier to feel “comfortable” in, when I comment and read. You seem to be an interesting, intelligent person. I enjoy reading your blog and hearing from you! And you are very talented. The sheer force of your talent in writing is obvious, and if it is the result of character flaws within you, I can see something quite beautiful in that. What we go through mentally isn’t pretty to us. The art I create isn’t ever good enough to me, it isn’t ever what I imagined. Maybe it isn’t meant to be. If we could see the beauty, we might not spend so much time creating it for other people to see.
    I didn’t mean to start rambling, of course, but I love the honesty of this post. I sometimes read your work and cannot imagine ever reaching your level. To me, your talent is far above what I could do. I have to remind myself we are all different. We all have our uniqueness that cannot be compared. Thank you for this post!

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