Thursday, April 28, 2016

Writing, Depression, Logan and Me.

Writing, Depression, Logan and Me.

'A tortured soul has moved on. I hope he finds the peace he couldn't attain here.'

Those were the only words I could find to say on the morning after I learned of my friend’s death. I wanted to say more, to write an emotional tribute or something, or maybe just scream the words ‘Why did you do it?’ to the heavens, but nothing seemed right, nothing felt right.

As word spread, our mutual friends spoke in barely audible whispers and informed the rest of the local and Facebook communities of his death. Stunned, we simply told one another that depression had finally taken him, but I hated saying that. I didn’t like giving depression that much power, as if it were a monster, a demon lurking in the darkness waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting, breaking their spirits until suicide seemed the only answer. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to give the depression that took my friend credit for claiming another life.

But that is exactly what depression is, a demon drawing us down into the darkness when we’re at those points of being the most emotionally and psychologically venerable. It exhausts our supplies of the mental fortitude that keeps us willing to fight and drains the will to live right out of us. It is something that always sits, not in a corner of some dark room but in the back of our minds, tucked away in some shady section of our brains and constantly whispering words of doubt and despair.

While some folks - the lucky ones - never hear the voice or have that blessed gift of being able to laugh off the negative thoughts, others are not so fortunate. The demon preys on our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and tells us there are no options, no escape from the torment except the final one.

My friend was a writer, like myself. In fact, we’d met at a writers’ critique group in Nashville, ten years ago or so. His attitude toward writing, as well as toward life in general, fascinated me. He wasn’t the type to whitewash his opinions, especially about his given art form, which he was passionate about. While most in the group would diplomatically find ways of overlooking the errors in a particular piece being critiqued, he would tell it like it was. With a determined (if not the occasional grimacing) expression, he’d flip through the manuscript pages, making scores of red pen marks on each page as he exclaimed, “This is crap, this is crap, and this is mega-crap.” Then he’d always hand the papers back to the writer and follow up with positive comments. And always ended his critique with, “This has promise. You have promise, keep working on it.”

And a decade-long friendship took off.

My friend Logan appeared to most as a tall and imposing figure, with long ‘hippie’ hair, at least one Wiccan or Pagan talisman dangling around his neck, and on most days wearing a beaten and battered RUSH t-shirt. There were some who, shortly after his death, described him as the strong silent type. They talked about him being hidden away from his friends and suffering in silence alone with his depression. One blogger wrote about the masculine silence, that notion that real men never speak of the ailments that afflict them, physically or mentally. For those who knew him best, that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, Logan was just the opposite.

Logan quiet often spoke about his depression to his friends. In fact, the idea for an upcoming book on this topic originally sprang from a conversation between Logan and the publisher, Tommy Hancock. Logan and I often spoke of the various treatments he’d tried, some conventional and some not so much. Medications, relaxation, and stress relief, along with some drug treatments, were discussed, mulled over, and in some cases, tried with some or little success. That silver bullet that’d cure all our troubles never came to be.

He suffered, knew others that suffered, and wanted to bring attention to the issue that seems to afflict so many fellow writers. And while he spoke a lot about his own struggles to those who’d listen, he, more importantly, could recognize the symptoms in others and would always offer an ear. That was one of the great strengths in our relationship - he knew that I have had my own on and off struggles with depression.

For creative folks, especially writers, depression can be a debilitating illness that strikes at the very core of who we are and what we do. It saps the imagination, leaving us with the inability to move forward with our tales. It dulls the sharp edge we need to carve something good from the jumbled mass of incoherent thoughts and ideas. This is the case for most artistic folks, but for writers, there are other factors that attract the demon and allow its claws to dig deeper into the flesh of our psyche. While anyone can suffer from depression, it seems to hit artists harder and more often. Nothing could be more of a nightmare for a creative person than to have that artistic spark extinguished.

The factors that can trigger an episode, if that is the correct term, can come from many different directions - poor sales, harsh or mean critiques and reviews, or the inability to even break into the publishing world. Sometimes, it feels as if we writers are attacked from all sides with negativity. So many people telling new and aspiring writers that they’ll never succeed. So many folks saying that you’ll never finish your first book or never get it published. And what if you make it? Then the struggle to match your first success comes into play. The writer suddenly needs to pump out more and better work, just to prove that their first book or works weren’t just flukes.

In my case, I’d wanted to start writing many years before I actually did but didn’t because I listened to those around me. Phrases like, ‘don’t bother, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ Or, ‘there will be time to write when you retire, right now you should concentrate on making money,’ or, ‘we know this is just a phase and you’ll never really finish an actual book.’ I felt like family and friends were constantly bombarding me with negativity. Every time I tried to talk about the books in my head, stories that increasingly grew restless, wanting to escape, I was met with blank stares. That was why having a friend who also wrote became such an important factor in my writing career and proved to be the best way for me to battle the demon. I didn’t feel alone in the battle. I had someone in the same boat who understood my problems.

For Logan and me, the constant attempts to write, produce something new and fresh, and to find a home for our stories in the publishing world became an unofficial and seemingly never-ending struggle. Each year had its own ups and downs and we counted on one another for support and help. When Logan began sinking down into the dark places because of his writing, I was there to pull him back to the surface and he did the same for me. Sometimes, it felt like a see-saw, when one of us was in a good place and the other was not. But our see-sawing teamwork kept each other from dropping too far into the darkness - for a while, anyway.

There have been multiple occasions over the years when I’ve considered giving up on a writing career. Every few months, when I get a royalty check or an indication of my book sales, I wonder why I am bothering to waste years of my life on something that only a handful of folks will bother reading. Logan would always remind me that even the big names in writing started off small, that everyone makes mistakes, and that everyone can succeed if they stay positive.

There was a dark time for Logan in 2012 when he stopped writing and had all but given up. I, along with others talked and encouraged him to get back to it but nothing seemed to help. Then good fortune struck for me later that year. A publisher who’d taken my first novel agreed to let me edit two anthologies.

Okay - in all honesty, I’d pitched two ideas for short story anthologies, not thinking they’d pick them up. I ended up getting tapped to be the editor and put the books together. The themes of the books, steampunk superheroes and werewolves, were right up Logan’s alley.

Without a second thought, I picked up the phone and called, insisting that he submit stories to both collections. Knowing the quality of his work, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind. I knew I’d be happy with what he’d produce. At first he was reluctant, to my surprise. He didn’t seem thrilled at the opportunity, but, as the idea of actually having his work in print and his name in the credits sank in, his attitude changed. In quick succession, he banged out two great stories and then put on his editor’s hat and volunteered to help me edit. With the number of stories that came in for the werewolf collection, the publisher decided to produce twin volumes, so I went from editing two books to three. Personally, I started feeling overwhelmed and, without missing a stride, Logan jumped into the fray to help me, snatching up stories and in customary Logan fashion exclaiming, “This is crap, this is crap, this is … oh, this one is good.”

I had worried at first about whether Logan would come back from the depths and write again. For many artists and writers, there is a point of no return when it comes to their creative nature. Once reached, they doubt their abilities so much that they give up completely and attempt to find solace in other endeavors. That creative spark gets snuffed out. But having a real chance to see his stories published worked and brought him back to life. His attitude changed and the purpose that all writers have, that need to tell stories, didn’t just resurface - it exploded out of the dark waters of self-doubt on to multiple pages in multiple books.
Logan didn’t just jump back with a couple of stories. Instead, he threw himself back into creating, churning out story after story and getting himself a contract for his first book. And nothing made me happier than to see my friend succeed.

The act was repaid in kind, however, a couple of years later when it was my turn to start a downward spiral in my personal and writing world.

In 2014, the demon came after me. In January of that year, I lost the woman who’d raised me. Lu Lewis may have been my grandmother, but she was the only one there for me during the majority of my life. My mother disappeared from my life when I was very young, followed shortly afterwards by the death of my father. Losing the person who’d always been my rock felt like a sucker punch to the kidneys. Then two more events in February pushed me down even farther. First, the woman I’d loved for a couple of years decided that our time was over. Secondly, my new novel was released with the first review denouncing it as the worst-copyedited book in history. As it turned out, the publisher had mistakenly uploaded the wrong file, the unedited version, to the printers. After a year and a half of work, my new book, which was to become a series that’d I’d hoped to build a writing career on, had been trashed by critics, not because of my mistake but because of someone else’s.

Thing is, uploading the wrong file issue with my second novel wasn’t new for me. A different publisher had done exactly the same thing with my first book. And they say that lightning doesn’t strike twice. HA!

Stunned, shocked, and traumatized by everything, I just sat back and stopped working. “What was the point,” I figured. If I could spend months or years on a book only to have it screwed up, ruining any chance of it being a hit, then why bother? And it wasn’t just a one-time thing. This was my second book and with both novels that same thing had happened.

Logan jumped in and talked me off the ledge when I talked about ending my writing career. He kept pointing out that my third book, which had been released shortly after the second, was free of issues, as well as all three of my anthologies which had been successfully released and were selling well. But, more importantly, he pushed me to see that I would hate myself in the long run if I just stopped doing something I loved. After all these years, I see that the last point would be used over and over again by both of us, reminding one another of that fact. A fact that always won out.

Logan’s belief in me kept me from doing something that I’d regret - quitting and walking away from the writing world. But he also kept me from doubting myself and my abilities. While he’d bitch about my use of grammar, word choices, and my inability to ever understand the differences between ‘then’ and ‘than’, he always found the positive in whatever cringe-worthy first draft I inflicted upon him. I found him to be the perfect foil to bounce ideas off of, since I never had to worry that his viewpoint would be skewed, and he did the same for me.

For ten years, he and I danced around our depression. Luckily, we never suffered episodes (again, if that is the appropriate term) together. Instead, when he was in a dark place, I was there to help pull him out. And vice-versa, when he was in a good place, he stood ready to pull me out of the darkness when I started sinking. In reflection, having someone in the same boat of trying to be a writer turned out to be what we both needed to make it in the biz. Well, I should say, we both have been published and both saw some success, but we were hoping that ‘the big time’ was right down the road. We both knew that we had to keep walking to get there and pushed one another along.

While no one has a specific number or percentage, researchers know that writers are more likely to suffer from depression and manic-depression than non-writers. All of the reasons for this are not known for certain, although we have ideas of some things that may trigger depression in the typical writer-type. Like many things in life, we may never know what they all are – what triggers the dark emotions and who is more likely to be effected.

The life of a writer is typically a series of ups and downs. The promise of rewards, riches, and self-satisfaction can elevate the soul. The joy of finishing a first draft of a novel can make a writer’s heart swell with joy and feel like they are on top of the world. And then that feeling can be completely crushed when that novel is repeatedly rejected by publishers or denounced by critics.

These feelings tend to stay bottled up inside due to the lives of most writers. In many creative endeavors, there are multiple folks involved, all of whom are sharing the joys and heartbreaks. In general, they support one another. But writing… writing is a solitary effort. Most writers sit in a room alone as they create their works, rarely interacting with others. This lack of social interaction doesn’t help when depression is creeping in on the writer. There may not be anyone around to share ideas with or who will listen as you vent your frustrations. More importantly, family and friends of writers typically don’t understand the many ups and downs that the creative types deal with. They don’t understand and, therefore, don’t know to look for the warning signs or how best to support the individual.
And social interaction is only part of it. In the course of writing a good tale, a writer can and usually does run through a series of emotions, ranging from terrifying anger to sheer happiness. When in the groove, so to speak, a writer is in the mind of his characters and experiencing their heartbreaks and joys, feeling everything they do. A character can be far more than just something in black and white. Writers pour so much of themselves into their works, into these characters, that, when one is forced to kill off a character, it can be a traumatic experience. A non-writer just can’t understand the connections between a writer and their fictional friends and loves.

Writing about misery, suffering, and death can take an emotional and psychological toll on anyone, especially someone who is already dealing with depression. It isn’t a negative reflection on the individual if they have a hard time dealing with something they’ve written. In some cases, a certain character’s pain may reflect the writer’s own emotional state or delve deep into traumatic events from the writer’s past, dredging up long-buried anger or fear. I know from my own writings that at different points in a story, when the stress or heartbreak levels are high, that my emotions will be effected.

The circumstances around his death are known only to a handful and, out of respect, I’ll keep it that way. Logan and I had been out of contact for a while, with him temporarily living in Texas while I remained in Tennessee. I had reached out before his death, before he chose to end things, but my attempt came too late.

Moving forward, I’ll not have my friend to pick me up when things are down. At the time of this writing, the shock and pain have subsided, the anger over his actions has diminished, and I’m left with a profound sense of emptiness. The tragedy that was Logan’s death brought a lot of folks closer together. We’ve rallied to one another’s side, ensuring that we all make it through, that no one is suffering in silence, and we’re all working to learn more about depression so as to watch for the warning signs in our friends.

And is there a better way to remember him then using his death as a wake-up call, declaring that depression is real and capable of taking those we think are strongest?