The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘depression

How long do you want to keep writing and creating? Is your body and mind up for the journey? Writing is one of the few professions that can be practically age proof. There’s one big caveat though—we can write well into our senior years only if we respect our bodies and keep them as healthy as we can.  Joanna Penn, noted and successful indie author has teamed up with Dr. Euan Lawson to write The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term. And, it promises to be a new standard on this topic.

Aching back? Chronic pain, sleep problems? Anxious? Sugar cravings? Penn and Lawson tackle many physical and mental health issues that beset writers, including difficult ones to talk about like depression, loneliness, anxiety and challenges with chronic pain.

Like in her other book: Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey (which I also enjoyed), Penn posted a survey on her blog and asked writers to share their triumphs and challenges with staying healthy. And, they did–over a 1,000 writers responded, detailing their struggles, triumphs and tips.

In the past several years, Penn has been open about her debilitating migraines, chronic lower back pain and managing the emotional ups and downs of creative work. Some of her long term solutions have included taking up yoga 3-4 times a week, using dictation software and taking daily walks. I’ve been inspired to see how positively the changes she’s made have benefited her.

What really works in this book is their combined experience. They expertly weave together insights from their own journey and useful snippets from survey respondents. What’s the science on rest, standing desks and ergonomic chairs? Lawson’s got the answers and does a fantastic job of making the science and medical research accessible.

What’s it about: Getting you to think about ways you can keep doing what you love for a long time; prioritizing your health as part of a long term sustainable career as a writer, cultivating a healthy author mindset

Structure: Several chapters are co-written, some chapters are individually written, reflective questions and resources at the end of each chapter

Style: Extremely personable; scientific information presented in a way that is fun to read

Topics: a personal journey to a pain-free back, writing with depression and anxiety, the active writer’s mindset, loneliness and isolation, a letter to sugar, strategies for the sofa bound, tools for writing, dealing with imposter syndrome, perfectionism, developing writing routines, ways to revise

Inspirational Nuggets:

There is a risk that any book about health can get preachy, but this is not a book about denial. It is not necessary to live a life that would make a monk weep. We are not aspirational ascetics, denying the flesh for the greater holiness of the written word. This is not an exhaustive book covering everything possible, but we hope it will help you feel less alone in your journey toward wellness. It is about empowerment. It is about sustainability. It is about making change that will help you become a healthy writer for the long term.

Healthy Writers Need Healthy Connections:

If you want to be a healthy writer, then you should spend as much time addressing your social networks and your social isolation as much as anything else. It needs to be on a par with giving up cigarettes, sorting out your sleep, losing weight and getting exercise.

Jumping into Facebook doesn’t count. In fact, there is mixed evidence about the impact of online social media and its effect on loneliness. One study among postgraduate students found that increased use of Facebook was associated with loneliness.

The inability to do what everyone around me was doing made me feel even more worthless than the illness already did (from a chapter written by Dan Holloway on writing and mental health issues):

And if I ever admitted to my writing friends that I was finding it hard the classic retort would come back: “We all feel like that.” People who say this mean well, but it is such a damaging thing to say. The thing is, when I say I can’t put pen to paper, I don’t mean I’m finding it tough. I don’t mean I need tips to unlock the words. I don’t mean I need prompts or-don’t even go there-a better plan. I mean I can’t. I physically cannot make the words appear. You wouldn’t tell someone who couldn’t use their legs that we all find it hard to stand up, just because sometimes you’re tired and don’t feel like it. It’s time we stopped making the same gaffes with mental ill health.

Sort out your sleep

Many writers surveyed for this book talked about sleep. There were suggestions for developing routines at the end of the day and recommendations on avoiding screen-time. There was a recognition that depression, anxiety and work related stress had a big impact on your sleep.

In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker collates studies that show sleeping less than six or seven hours a night can impact your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, disrupt your blood sugar levels, increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, and contribute to psychiatric conditions including depression and anxiety.

So clearly it’s an important topic for writers.

Bottom line: This is a definitive guide for encouraging writers to make sensible and long lasting changes for their health.

I consider myself pretty healthy. I work out 4-5 times a week, watch what I eat and meditate several times a week. I came to this book feeling like I knew a lot about healthy living. This book, however, opened my eyes to the many things that I had taken for granted.

I have been lucky. I haven’t had much back, neck or wrist pain. But, I don’t want to take any of that for granted anymore. I saw that I was cutting corners on getting proper rest, working in not very ergonomically friendly ways, and ignoring good rules for taking breaks from work.

After reading this book, I felt inspired to take even better care of myself—especially now that I turned fifty.

I have implemented a few things right away (like getting a riser for my laptop), and recommitting to using my dictation software more often. The bigger lifestyles changes like getting more rest are long-term projects.

Not to be morbid, but when I face my demise, I hope that I’m very elderly and in a chair writing. I have better hopes of going that way by making investments in my health now.

If you pick up this book from Amazon, please consider using my link below. I am an Amazon Associate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Here is the link for the paperback.

 Here is the link for the e-book.

Affirmations-366Days#212: Writing can feel isolating. I reach out and allow my writing community to support me when I need it.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

Amy Ferris is an author, screenwriter, editor and playwright. She is dedicated to helping women ‘awaken to their greatness’. I know her through shared online writing communities and her incredible ‘this is what I know this morning’ Facebook posts that serve to inspire, uplift, instigate, provoke and set people’s imaginations on fire. Here’s an example of one of her posts that began the year:

this is what i know this morning.
post coffee
pre wine

all that crap we hold onto, that swirls inside our head, that reminds us over & over & over every mistake we made, every wrong turn we took, every bad choice we made and/or slept with/dated, reminds us that we’re broken, useless, unlovable, undesirable, all that crap that swirls repeatedly, relentlessly is not the truth. it is not the truth. most of the shame & the guilt we hold onto, carry around is not even our own. all that crap is old & stale & more than likely was told to us by folks – friends, family, ex’s – who didn’t like themselves enough, or love themselves enough to want us to be huge, or happy, or successful.

so today is a great day – a balls-out fabulous day – to kick that shit to the curb, say goodbye & farewell to all that noise & chatter & crap that keeps us small, invisible, in the background, keeps us at arms length. keeps us from believing in the greatness & beauty & awesomeness of our own lives. keeps us from standing tall, standing up, speaking up, making a ruckus, strutting our gorgeous stuff, wearing our scars like stardust, and our flaws & imperfections like beauty marks.

today is a really good day to leave your permission slip at home – declare your worth, & fall madly, deeply, crazy in love with yourself – because the world is all yours.

all yours.

go for epic.

Yeah, Amy rocks. She tackles difficult issues with humor and a precise ferocity. Her subjects include women’s experiences being shamed, menopause, and depression. Her memoir, Marrying George Clooney: Confessions from A Midlife Crisis debuted theatrically (Off-Broadway) in 2012. Ruth Pennebaker of The New York Times called her memoir “poignant, free-wheeling, cranky and funny.” Amy co-edited, along with Hollye Dexter, an anthology DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small. She has contributed to numerous anthologies including: He Said What? The Drinking Diaries, Exit Laughing, and The Buddha Next Door.

I recently discovered that Amy will be coming out soon with a new anthology from Seal Press about depression. Her story of what brought her to tackle the topic of depression is inspiration for us all. I’m delighted to welcome Amy Ferris to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

-Tell us about your forthcoming anthology 30 Shades of Blue. What inspired this book? 

This book, anthology was inspired (unfortunately) by robin williams’ suicide. it was such a full-on horrific shock to everyone, and i thought, i have to do something. I must do something. I have to write something. a friend of mine, who is manic-depressive, sent me an email, and all she wrote/asked (in the email) was, did you ever try it? and of course, i knew instantly what she was asking me. yes, i had tried to kill myself when i was young – a teenager. i was so sad and so unhappy – so miserable – and i wanted to die. and so, after robin williams killed himself, her email, coupled with his death, made me think about how many people – millions upon millions – suffer and are affected by suicide, depression, emotional instability. bipolar, manic depression, PTSD. i literally whipped together a book proposal within 24 hours, and reached out to about 30, 35 friends, acquaintances – writers, authors, artists, musicians, politicians, health workers, veterans, and even some local teenagers who were suffering from depression – asking if they would consider contributing to a book like this, to share & tell their story… or share someone else’s, and a good 95% said yes immediately, and SEAL PRESS bought the anthology within a week. a great publishing success story. i am thrilled to be doing this. over-the-moon. i hope it saves lives and nurtures, and nourishes many broken hearts and souls.

-In 30 Shades of Blue, you asked contributors to write about depression, sadness and suicide. Why are these important issues for women to write and read about?

i think suicide and depression is not something you can wish away, or medicate away, or pray away. it’s also not something that should be hidden or closeted any longer. it’s a disease, an epidemic, and it kills more people every year than we even know about or can fathom. and more and more folks – men & women alike – suffer silently because there is so much shame and guilt, and self-loathing attached to it. connected to it. i think – and wholly believe – that the more people come out and talk about it, say it out loud, write about it, offer up their stories – the more courage and clarity it creates. it creates a bounty of courage so others can speak freely about their own pain, and sadness, and their own depression. i don’t know anyone, not one soul, who isn’t affected by depression in one form or another. there are so many shades of blue. so many. and women go through many layers of depression – beginning with puberty, getting their period, hormonal imbalance, postpartum, and  menopausal. not to mention how many people – men, veterans – who suffer horrifically from PTSD. PTSD is so paralyzing. we need to push the door full out wide open on this subject, and remove the taboo connected with it. and also, assisted suicide. another hot button topic, and one essay in the book is devoted to that.
-This is your second project as an editor. What do you enjoy about being an editor? How was editing this project different than Dancing at the Shame Prom (Seal Press)?


i love editing. i was an editor (and Editor-in-Chief) at three magazines, and i just adored when a piece truly ‘came to life.’ many pieces are almost perfect. polished. truly. just a few little nips and tucks, couple of typos. and some are a bit more challenging. but there are two very important pieces connected with the editing process. one is to make sure the writer’s voice stays intact. each writer has their own unique voice and it should never be comprised. editing is not about losing or eliminating someone’s voice, it’s about enhancing it. and the other piece is having the opportunity to collaborate with the writer, helping them tell their story. whether it’s a piece of fiction, or non-fiction. i think of editing as being a bit like, similar to, midwifery. you’re genuinely helping someone breathe and push. breathe and push. with dancing at the shame prom, that was co-edited with hollye dexter, and we had such an amazing collaborative experience. amazing. and no, we didn’t always agree on what or where needed an edit, but we always worked through the process and that was such a delight. with this book, i’m the sole editor, so i’m throwing out a couple of editing life lines. i’ve already lassoed my husband, ken, who is a grand & great editor (he edits everything i write), and of course, krista lyons – the publisher of seal, who i’ve had the grand pleasure of working with now on four books, and she is the best there is. she is truly a magic-maker, and has become a great friend/sister.
-You are known as bringing both great vulnerability and great humor to the page. I’m thinking specifically of your memoir, Marrying George Clooney. Can you tell us about your writing practice and what enables you to consistently go deep? 


my writing practice is inconsistent. i do write every single day, but i’m not a four or five or six hour a day writer. i wish i were. but, only when i am writing a book can I literally sit down, and write for hours and hours and hours – like ten or twelve hours – and lose myself entirely. it’s such a luxury. like flying first class, or something like that. when i’m not working on something specific, i tend to get very lazy. horribly lazy. and in terms of going deep, yes, i go deep – real deep – because i don’t know how not to. does that make sense? i love going deep. and then going deeper. and then deeper. i’m not talking rewriting. i’m talking plunging. it’s like excavating. and, i am a firm believer that if you’re going to write your story – your truth, then write it full on 100% completely, unabashed. don’t withhold. don’t censor yourself. my family imploded and exploded after i wrote marrying george clooney. Im-fucking-ploded, and at first i was so deeply cracked open, and devastated, and was filled with regret, and sorrow, and why did i do that, write that… but after a few very intense raw therapy sessions, i came to truly understand that my family was going to implode no matter what, it was just a matter of time. and i was the catalyst. and more than anything, truly, i want people to know that they’re not alone. so, when i’m writing about anything and everything in my life, my intent fully is to inspire and encourage everyone to speak up, stand tall. period. and the other thing i found out, and this is huge: most of the shame we carry is not even our own. holy shit, right?  that’s pretty huge. so, yes, write deep, and then… go deeper. and then find an ax, and crack the earth open. and humor is vital. life-saving. dementia sucks, it’s fucking horrendous, but dementia with a side of humor is the real deal. for me anyway. humor and foul language. a great example of someone who is balls out truthful and humorous, david sedaris. i mean, when i read the piece about his sister’s suicide, i found myself snot nose sobbing, and howling, laughing. side splitting. he knows how to tell an amazing story with all the rough scary edges and all the smooth lines. genius. just-like-life genius.

-I hear that you and Jenna Stone will have a radio show soon. This is exciting news. Can you tell us a bit about the show’s theme? 

oh my god, it’s so exciting, thrilling. it truly is. getting a radio show was – and is – such a big, great thing. the show’s theme is for all women to stand tall and up in their own gorgeous, messy, complicated, exquisite lives. to stop apologizing for being imperfect. to “do” by example, to love ourselves balls-out fully – flaws, scars, foibles, mistakes and all. the radio show will be called, ‘you’ve got moxie’, because, well, we all have moxie. and what we want for all women – and all girls – is to awaken to – and believe in – their own greatness, and their own beauty. to stop taking crumbs, to stop settling for mediocrity, to stop going back to the end of the line and start a whole new line. jenna said something so wonderful the other day, she said we need to change how folks think and speak about being empowered, and empowerment, because so many women believe that empowerment is about being overpowering, overbearing, overshadowing, but true empowerment is about stepping – standing – into our power, not stepping over, or standing over someone to get to our power. i loved that. and that just resonated so deeply.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share? 

write as if no one – not one single soul – will ever read what you’ve written.

yeah, write that kinda balls-out scary heart-wrenching beautiful truthful.

Amy is on faculty at The San Miguel de Allende Literary Festival, on the Advisory Board of The Women’s Media Center, she serves on the Board of Directors at Peters Valley Art, Education, and Crafts Center, and is a founding Board member of the Scranton, PA based Pages & Places Literary Festival. She primarily writes about all things women-centric. While she often feels like she’s in retrograde, she quite enjoys her life, and her fervent wish is that all women awaken to their greatness. She lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with her husband. Visit Amy on Facebook for more of ‘this is what I know’ posts or at her website.

30 Shades of Blue will be released soon from Seal Press.

During an open mike segment of a reading hosted by Marjorie Hudson, I heard M. Todd Henderson read from his new novella, Shifting Sands, about a mentally ill husband and father. I’m always eager to understand others’ insights about mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are challenges that many Americans face daily. I’ve had close friends struggle with various mental health crises. And, as a creativity coach, I’ve worked with clients who struggle with depressive cycles. I also recently interviewed Eric Maisel about his new book on depression. Intrigued by Henderson’s reading and also impressed that he is donating 10% of the profits of the novella to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I got a copy of Shifting Sands. After reading it, I knew I wanted to interview him about his experience with depression and exploration of mental illness through narrative fiction.

How did you come to write the novella, Shifting Sands: His Hell. Her Prison.?

 Other than the ABCs, my first taste of writing was when I was 10. I wrote and edited The Local News, which my Mom, a school teacher, mimeographed copies at the high school for me to distribute. That was before Xerox. The newspaper was actually a combination of school, church, weather, and sometimes international news. It ran sporadically from December 18, 1969 to October 1, 1972. Yes. I keep copies of all the issues and most everything I’ve ever written. They are a big part of me and I can’t seem to part with them.

In high school I mostly read American classics (e.g. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc.) and learned the mechanics of writing. Then I took a creative writing course my freshman year at Indiana University. I won the award for outstanding freshman essay for a story about my Granddaddy’s house. It was a thrill and it compelled me to continue writing throughout college and to submit to creative magazines, including The New Yorker. I failed to publish, but appearing in The New Yorker is on my bucket list.

The next several years I journaled some, but concentrated on my advertising career. Over my almost-thirty-year career I worked for five different Midwest ad agencies, a non-profit, and an international corporation. I wrote extensively – mostly memos, plans, research papers, and direct mail. I also travelled quite a bit internationally (Australia is a must see.) and throughout the US.

The advertising business is definitely exciting, but it’s also extremely intense and high stress. After I got married to Lori and we had our two sons the stress doubled and I ended up with high anxiety and low depression.

Ultimately, I left the advertising business, resumed journaling, and published my first book. Just. Like. That. Well, maybe it was slightly more involved. Much of my journaling was while I was in the dark- unrelenting- clutches of depression and anxiety. I wrote extensively in blue and black Moleskin journals about the effect of mental illness on myself, my family, and our friends. It was the lowest part of my life.

Then my novella emerged. Shifting Sands: His Hell. Her Prison. was born out of my journaling, yet it’s not autobiographical. I chose to write fiction for a few reasons: fiction is my forte, fiction provides room to speculate and embellish, and fiction is simply fun.

Why did I write Shifting Sands? In the end I wrote this story to assure my family, my friends, and my readers that when in the depths of despair they will always have hope for a better tomorrow. Perhaps I was also trying to convince myself.

What is your favorite scene in the book and why do you love it?

I love this scene from the book and really enjoyed writing it. At the lowest point of depression, the main character Scott T. Walters, runs from his responsibilities and drives to the North Carolina Outer Banks.

“Scott hitches up the pop-up camper to his ‘91 Ram pick-up, and heads east on Highway 64. He plans to stay at the KOA in Rodanthe for a few days. Maybe take a drive to Buxton. Or on to Ocracoke by ferry to see the wild ponies. Salty, clear air welcomed him at Whalebone Junction where the truck turns south onto Bodie Island, and crosses Oregon Inlet on a narrow, high-flying bridge alongside gliding pelicans and gulls and onto Hatteras Island.

Scott pulls into the KOA, eases the camper into its site next to the twenty-five foot dunes, and settles in. He has brought along seven bottles of cab, two six-packs of PBR, chips, cheese, salsa, eggs, and bacon. Scott takes his customary first-day-back hike over the dunes and up the beach toward the new Rodanthe pier. It’s a three-beer journey. As it is early in the season, prime sea gifts that waves have tenderly carried and placed on the sand—angel wings, sand dollars, sea stars, and a rare intact horseshoe crab—remain scattered along the beach long after high tide. Amongst all the loot ghost crabs scurry to and fro rearing back with front claws raised in defensive mode as Scott approaches.

This is a familiar stretch of beach for Scott; he walks it at least three times a year. And three times a year the sea oat-topped dunes have a new story to tell. On this go ‘round the dunes tell tales of Hurricane Dennis. Dennis came ashore two times. On the first visit, he danced a slow graceful waltz with the dunes. They inched this way and that till they all rested fairly close to where they took their first step. The second visit was a herky jerky two step. Moving this way and that, the dunes found themselves uncomfortably closer to the breakers with their sea oats tossed to and fro like a bad hair day.

From a front row seat on the dry side of low tide, Scott scans the waters for live sea critters. Out a bit over the water, a grouping of three brown pelicans in a row skims the valley of a swell, looking beyond their reflections for a meal underneath. The most famous pelican to fly over these waters was black and larger than life. Legend has it that the black pelican scanned the shore and the sea from the Core Banks to Corolla, searching for those in peril. Many a survivor described a Black Pelican guiding their ship to safe waters. The savior hasn’t been seen in recent years, but most ship crews and locals believe he will return one day.”

This is my favorite scene because my soul can be found in the Outer Banks. In its salty perfume, its sea oats waving to me from atop dunes, its sand pipers scurrying to snag sand fleas, its breakers washing the top of my bare feet, and so much more.

What does your writing practice look like?

My writing practice starts with journaling. Most days I journal off and on in my pocket-sized Moleskin.  Mostly I journal about interesting people or events as well as dialect and interesting word uses. At the end of the day I rip pages from the small journal and tape them into my large red Moleskin (my color of this month). Then I usually journal more about pocket-sized entries. Since I fill one to two large Moleskins a month, I spend some time in completed journals adding notes, highlighting key thoughts, and entering the best ideas into my current project.

When I’m on a specific project I spend the majority of the time on my Toshiba until the book is in the editing phase. Then the cycle starts all over again.

 Will we see more of your main characters? What’s your next writing project?

Without a doubt, Scott T. Walters will be front and center for my next two works. We’ll follow him and his family as they face new challenges and old foes.

 What’s been your experience of being a self-published author?

I would never have had the opportunity to publish and sell my stories if it hadn’t been for online publishers. So, I’m very grateful that they exist. My publisher, iUniverse was very professional and helpful during the editing and production phases. The process was flawless.

 However, after Shifting Sands was published, iUniverse began to push their added-value services, like marketing, printed copies, promotion kits, design, and publicity. Frankly, I found them to be too aggressive in their approach.

In the long run I consider self publishers to be another tool available to me, like my Toshiba, The Chicago Manual of Style, and my Moleskins. I can use some or all of iUniverse’s service depending upon the project.

 What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?

In my case the key to success is actually two: observation and recording. Look so you can see. Listen so you can hear. Taste. Smell. Pick up on the nuances because it’s often the smallest of observations that are the most telling and interesting.

And, record them into your handy dandy journal (or, sometimes take a photo) for further observation.

M. Todd Henderson was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University’s School of Journalism in 1981. His career includes nearly thirty years in the advertising and marketing business. In addition he served as an AmeriCorpsVISTA volunteer to help fight poverty in his adopted North Carolina. Todd and his family live near Raleigh, North Carolina. Currently Todd is working on his second book which will continue the story of Scott T. Walters.

He invites your questions and thoughts on writing, your work, and his work at

Find out more about Todd and Shifting Sands through his Amazon page

If you’ve ever explored how to develop your creativity, then you’ve probably heard of Eric Maisel. Eric Maisel is a pioneer in the field of creativity. As a coach and therapist he specializes in confronting the psychological challenges of creating. His significant body of work tackles the myriad external and internal dilemmas that creators face.

I met Eric, at a book signing, when I was a postdoctoral fellow living in the Bay area. I knew and loved his no nonsense approach to creativity from his books, so I jumped at the chance to see him in person. He announced an experimental program that he was starting—creativity coaching. His new program was a 16 week, email based training designed to teach people the principles for supporting others to create and explore issues and tensions in their own creative lives. The coaches in training would simultaneously coach volunteers online (screened by Eric), for free. Hearing about this innovative program electrified me and a year later I took him up on his offer and loved every minute of the training. My training was almost a decade ago and it sparked my coaching practice, The Creative Tickle®. His work continues to influence, inspire and surprise me.

His new book, Rethinking Depression, tackles the complex subject of depression and is for anyone that struggles with finding meaning in their life. Do you have a life-purpose vision? And do you engage in self-care? Rethinking Depression “is dedicated to helping readers create.” This book does two important things: 1) challenges the view that depression is a disease 2) provides the reader with a complete program for addressing human sadness.

Following is a short article that introduces Rethinking Depression followed by a Q & A.

Rethinking Depression
By Eric Maisel

There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders” but we have few good reasons to collude with them.

In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression.

Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.

By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood.

What is an existential program? It is people taking as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turning their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence.

Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.

If we can begin to move from the “depression is a mental disorder” model to the idea that human beings must deal more effectively with the realities of human existence, including the realities of sadness, despair, and grief, we will have taken a giant step away from “medicalizing everything” and toward lives lived with renewed passion, power and purpose.

Q & A with Eric Maisel

The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating.  Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?

What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.

If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?

As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?

To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.

How do you suggest people go about creating a life-purpose vision?

You might start by creating a life-purpose sentence or statement. In one great gulp you take into account the values you want to uphold, the dreams and goals you have for yourself, and the vision you have for comporting yourself in the world, and then you spend whatever time it takes turning that unwieldy, contradictory material into a coherent statement that reflects your core sentiments about your life. Your life-purpose vision is the inner template by which you measure life, and it remains that measure until you revise it. When you agree to commit to making meaning you agree to participate in a lifetime adventure. As you live you gain new information about what you intend to value and what you want your life to mean.

Eric Maisel, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Rethinking Depression and numerous other titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francisco. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post and writes for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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