Rethinking the Relationship Between Drinking, Writing, and Depression

glass-of-whiskey-bottle-and-opened-book-on-home-table

This month, a major book on the connection between writing and drinking is set to appear in the United States: The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink.

Here is an excerpt:

“(M)odern American literature is strewn with examples of alcoholic excess: Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner (‘I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach’), Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker (‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’), Ring Lardner, Raymond Chandler, O Henry, Jack London, Delmore Schwartz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (‘Too much champagne is just right’), John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, Patricia Highsmith – the list is long even without including those, such as Hunter S Thompson, more renowned for their experiments with other substances…”

Back in June, 2013, The Guardian newspaper included this in their review of the British edition:

“Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.”

American literary author William Styron has written perhaps the best known account of depression in a writer’s life:

(The following is excerpted from Darkness Visible (1990), which was expanded from a 1989 Vanity Fair article)

“… (A)rtistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of 20 percent of its victims by way of suicide. Just a few of these fallen artists, all modern, make up a sad but scintillant roll call: Hart Crane, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky—the list goes on. …”

“The depression that engulfed me was not of the manic type—the one accompanied by euphoric highs—which would have most probably presented itself earlier in my life. I was sixty when the illness struck for the first time … The storm which swept me into a hospital in December of 1985 began as a cloud no bigger than a wine goblet the previous June. And the cloud—the manifest crisis—involved alcohol, a substance I had been abusing for forty years. Like a great many American writers, whose sometimes lethal addiction to alcohol has become so legendary as to provide in itself a stream of studies and books, I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. … Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.

“The trouble was, at the beginning of this particular summer, that I was betrayed. It struck me quite suddenly, almost overnight: I could no longer drink. It was as if my body had risen up in protest, along with my mind, and had conspired to reject this daily mood bath which it had so long welcomed and, who knows, perhaps even come to need. …

“Neither by will nor by choice had I become an abstainer; the situation was puzzling to me, but it was also traumatic, and I date the onset of my depressive mood from the beginning of this deprivation.”

I believe the popular notion of the causal connection between alcohol or drug use, depression, and writing generally falls into one or another line of causality (often portrayed in dramatic films about the decline of famous writers into alcoholism):

Drinking/drugging => Creativity => Writing => Isolation/Failure => Depression => More drinking/drugging/mental breakdown/suicide

Or:

Creativity => Drinking/drugging => Writing => Isolation/Failure => Depression => More drinking/drugging/mental breakdown/suicide

I have long held a different theory. My personal theory was recently borne out in real-life, when I spent six days in a psychiatric hospital following an emotional breakdown caused by my oldest son’s violent autistic fits, learning of his mistreatment due to those fits at the hands of his teachers and administrators at his public elementary school, and a longstanding estrangement with two of my three parents.

In the psychiatric hospital, I was required to attend group therapy sessions between three and four times each day. I generally shared the room with about a dozen other patients. These patients were divided between convicts remanded from the penal system for treatment of drug or alcohol abuse; alcoholics or drug overdosers who had been sent there from another hospital; and people, such as myself, who were suffering from severe depression, anxiety attacks, or bipolar disorder. I was one of the few individuals who had decided to have myself committed, rather than being committed by an institution of the state or a panel of physicians.

One early group therapy session asked us to use a few words to identify ourselves. Among my words was the label, “writer.” I was surprised to find that, among this random assortment of a dozen alcoholics, drug abusers, convicts, ex-cons, and victims of mental disorders, two other people also freely identified themselves as “writers.” Both were alcoholics and drug abusers. I was unique in that I was not; I had committed myself solely due to depression and panic attacks, not substance abuse of any sort.

This encounter helped support my longtime theory of the actual casual relationships between depression, drinking or drug abuse, and writing. In my theory, the relationships are parallel, not sequential, and are not necessarily shared among all sufferers of depression.

Andy Fox’s Theory:

(1) Depression => Drinking/drugging as self-medication/self-soothing => relief of symptoms (most often temporary)

AND (possibly shared by the same individuals as above, but not necessarily so)

(2) Depression => Writing as self-medication/self-soothing => relief of symptoms (most often temporary)

Thus, in my theory, the experiencing of depression is the root cause of both drinking/drugging and/or writing. Writing and drinking/drugging are parallel attempts by an individual at self-medicating. So writing and drinking are not causal of one another but rather are associated through their common cause of the experience of depression and the need for an individual to self-soothe. I have been very fortunate, I believe, to have been a participant in (2) but not a participant in (1), whereas the two young women I shared my group therapy sessions with were participants in both (1) and (2).

My insight or theory is shared by other persons who have reflected on this subject:

Blogger Ian Ferguson:

“Writing is a physical act, an act that must be performed, for without that act of writing, a melancholy descends like a fine black shroud, a depression of sorts, one that can only be broken by breaking the inertia of non-writing. The ink of the pen is the serotonin for the writer and when the drug is administered, the writer is happy and healthy again …”

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, “Why Do Writers Write?”

“I wonder what a writer’s brain looks like on writing? … (S)cientists should lock 50 contestants in a room and hook them up to brain scanners and blood monitors to better understand what’s happening underneath their cranial hoods. Maybe they’d discover the very act of writing – of being creative – causes the brain to release a flood of euphoria-inducing chemicals.”

I also greatly wonder what a writer’s brain looks like “on writing.” I strongly suspect that the patterns of brain activity which focuses on the creation of fictional worlds, fictional people, and the relationships between those fictional people and their fictional worlds, if charted on a brain scanning machine, would mimic those produced by a runner’s high (or by serotonin uptake inhibitors). The writer’s mind produces temporary effects most similar to the effects produced by anti-depressant drugs.

I first went on an antidepressant back in late 1997, following my divorce from my first wife. I’d had some form of depression since childhood. A few years later I went off it, had some more bad times, then went back on. I’ve stayed on a fairly low dosage between 2004 and 2013, when I suffered my emotional breakdown and had my dosage of Prozac tripled. I recall fearing when I first went onto Prozac back in 1997 that my fiction writing would suffer. Actually, my fiction writing went into high overdrive, and I completed my most successful novel to date, comic horror novel Fat White Vampire Blues, entirely under the influence of my first prescription of Prozac. Even since my dosage has been tripled, my writing quantity and quality have not suffered in the least. Rather, my daily acts of writing, of ordering fictional worlds and people in my head, seem to strengthen the anti-depressive effects of the drug.

Neuroscientists have begun to perform actual research into my insight/theory and are proving it to be right on the mark:

“What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap,’ for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

“In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee,’ their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean ‘chair’ and ‘key,’ this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like ‘a rough day’ are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not. …

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

3 comments

  1. Fritz says:

    This is an amazing essay. You’re dealing here with nothing less than the source of art. The fire that burns in the bowels of the greatest artists is the deep sadness of emotion, and alcohol is just another cure, as is writing itself. I’ve always found comfort in writing, no matter how trivial. Even a mere journal entry changes something important in my heart. Working on a novel or short story transforms me into a different and better person for awhile. I’m a drinker, but I’ve always been afraid to make drinking a regular part of my writing routine. Your thesis means I don’t need to worry, right? The two are on separate tracks? I can drink when I write?

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