Care and Feeding of the Psyche by Elizabeth Mitchell

Last Round Dawn Montgomery revealed her struggles with burnout, which lit up a yellow flag in my mind.  Kait’s first post this Round connected burnout with depression, which turned the flag red.


I completely agree with Kait that burnout is a half-step away from depression, a condition that has plagued me for several decades.  Although the particulars are different for each person, depression does not manifest as most people assume.  Often people are surprised that depression does not always involve “feeling sad.”  It is normal to feel sad about many situations: death, divorce, dissention. Also, it is not sufficient to fight depression by “cheering up.”  For me, depression is a black hole, sucking everything into it, giving nothing back.  Nothing is worth the effort, nothing feels good, nothing tastes good.  It is, as William Styron entitled his book about his depression, Darkness Visible.


Both Dawn and Kait offered great advice on dealing with burnout.  I have some further suggestions.  Often, the most basic needs are the first to hit the skids. I’ve forgotten about them in the grip of the muse, or when facing a deadline, but far more when I am depressed.


First, sleep well.  As a chronic insomniac, I will sing the praises of decent sleep forever.  Sleep restores the body, replenishes the well of writing ideas, and often sets the muse free.  Sleep disturbances, and the attendant fatigue and irritability, are hallmarks of my depression.


Second, eat well. Take the time to prepare good food and eat with awareness. Having made a real meal will pay dividends in avoiding mindless eating, or eating fast food dreck. If you have a family, meals can also provide a social connection. If you are eating alone, read something enjoyable, or think of pleasant things. A change in appetite, either a loss or an increase, is another of my symptoms.


Third, get cleaned up and get dressed.  I was amazed by all the NaNo participants who were proud of not showering for days at a time.  Really?  When I stop taking care of myself, the red flag turns into a railway crossing, with bells and lights blazing.  I know then that I am slipping into the Slough of Despond, and need to take major corrective steps.


Fourth, get out of bed or your chair and move.  The human body was not meant to sit in chairs at all, especially not for hours at a time.  The more I resemble a three-toed sloth, the more depressed I am.


Following close behind the physical needs are the emotional, mental, and social needs.  These are trickier than some of the others, because balancing the pull of social media and the loneliness of writing is a struggle for most of us. Also, I think these vary from person to person.


Connect. Some of you may not need the contact, but I do. When I start to hibernate and withdraw, it means I am sliding back into depression. Spending time with people is important. Yes, our significant others and children have to let us close the door for some uninterrupted writing, but when I stop connecting with them, I start writing lifeless prose. You’re too busy?  So are we all. Take a ten minute break to connect.  It’ll refresh and nurture the human. If you feel guilty stepping away from the craft, then connect within the community.


The range of interests and strengths in the ROW80 community is impressive. The basic principle of ROW80, acknowledging you have a life, means many participants will listen to your gripe or whine, will share joy or sadness along with writing advice. If my experience is the norm, you’ll soon forget that you’ve never met these people in person.  The ROW80 Facebook page and #ROW80 sprints on Twitter are great for feeling connected.  If you need visual contact and don’t live near anyone else, there are several ways to have face time through the computer screen.


Second, find the mental and emotional space where writing works for you. Too often I hear writers compare themselves to others, in envious tones. Writing is not one-size-fits-all.  Find what situations and habits work for you. For example, I find ritual very important in setting time and space aside for writing.  Music?  Candles?  A particular pen or chair?  A time of day or night?  Whatever the combination of things may be, keep experimenting until it works, and ignore any advice that does not work.  Defining and fulfilling your needs will preserve your sanity, as well as your muse.

14 thoughts on “Care and Feeding of the Psyche by Elizabeth Mitchell

  1. So much great advice here! I’ve experienced depression too, and it’s a whole-body thing that’s hard to explain. It’s well worth take care of oneself to avoid that “black hole” and stay in the light. Which leads to better writing! 🙂

  2. Great post, Elizabeth. I always find it interesting that the simplest of things can help us to feel better and they are the first things we tend to forget. Perfect reminder for this Monday morning. Thank you.

    1. It amazes me, SJ, but it is the little things that slip away. Even if one is not prone to depression, letting things slide is often a sign of being stressed out or extended beyond one’s limits.

  3. A great post, Elizabeth. As a fellow writer who’s also struggled with depression, I appreciate the reminder to take care of ourselves by eating and sleeping well. Taking care of ourselves helps us avoid falling into the black hole of depression and also helps us recover when we find ourselves sucked in. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you, Elizabeth. I’ve been struggling to pull myself out of that black hole for months now. Finally seeing some light. These are great suggestions for combating depression.

  5. Depression has been a part of most of my life, which I really did not appreciate until I was almost 60 years old. It has made a huge difference. In particular, I, too, recognize my depression signs/warning bells. I know I must take action, which will vary depending upon myriad circumstances, or yes, it will be the Slough of Despond.

    Your thoughtful post helps anyone who knows depression as well as those whose loved ones know it. You do not gloss over it or make it simple. You make it human and in that, there is always hope. Wonderful post, Elizabeth.

    1. Thank you, Karen. So many people do not know they are depressed, often because the signs are so different from “feeling sad.”

      I’m glad you know your warning signs–that is 90% of the battle for me. Take care!

  6. Another “SiC” (Sister in Craft) here who has lived with depression and can relate completely to your description of the illness. No… it’s not just a funk or something to just “pull yourself out of it”.

    Your suggestions for dealing with it are excellent. A hot shower, especially feeling the warmth of the water washing down your scalp can be rejuvenating. Exercise is a natural mood booster (and who doesn’t love their daily dose of dopamine?). Even if you are chair-bound, doing some stretches and isometric exercises can help some. Yes, getting words on the page is important for the writer…

    …holding one’s self together to finish that book and the next one and the next… that is more important than trying to get that extra 500 words on a particular day.

    The spirit of a writer is a precious thing. It should be handled with care. Glad you’re taking care of yours 😀

    1. Thank you for sharing how you deal with the beast, Eden. The isolation is sometimes the worst–that crazy-making feeling where I sometimes tell myself that no one else needs or wants to know how I’m feeling.

      Take care of yourself, too, SIC.

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