When the music dies

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn.”

-T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone 

I’ve been suffering from depression for some time, and in the last couple of months it got so bad that my best, most reliable anti-depressant – writing – didn’t work. Which was bad, because the simple anti-depressant of taking long walks on hiking trails is not available to me any more. And writing? Forget it! It hurt to turn on the creative brain. Doesn’t matter why; everybody has different ways of falling into that grey hopeless place, whether it’s illness or tragedy or simply a painful anniversary. Problem was, I’d been using writing as an anti-depressant for so long that I had forgotten there were other tools.

T.H. White to the rescue!

Oh, not directly. It just sort of happened. In a desperate attempt to keep the top of my head occupied with trivia so that it wouldn’t skitter off into reciting the voices of doom and gloom, I worked puzzles, read history, memorized poetry, and watched one heck of a lot of TV. And since I was rather passive about these distractions, the First Reader was able to cajole me into watching Generation War, a series about WWII from the point of view of five young Germans, from the invasion of Russia to the retreat to Berlin.

No, that didn’t cheer me up one little bit! In fact, I would strongly advise anybody who’s prone to depression to stay far, far away from that series. Not only did it leave me mourning the horrors of war, but it brought home the sad fact that my German comprehension skills had decayed to virtually nothing. I guess I hadn’t noticed this earlier because the only German-language films I’ve watched in the last few years have been frothy operettas like The Merry Widow, shows I’d practically memorized. Of course I didn’t need subtitles; I already knew the plots and subplots, the lyrics and even the jokes. Generation War was another cup of Tee.

So… for distraction, and certainly for no practical purposes… I added reviewing German to my list of brain-food.

And it worked.

Racing through online lessons that started with material far too simple to be challenging (because I couldn’t figure out how to make the program advanced-place me) was actually fun. I added flash card programs, a Pimsleur German audiobook (thank goodness that, at least, didn’t force me to start at Level 1), and started streaming German-language movies to my iPad and reading German novels on my Kindle with the (not perfect, but much improved from ten years ago) dictionary feature.

And I enjoyed it.

Without consciously deciding it, I started thinking to myself in a sort of Pidgin-German as I puttered through daily tasks – nothing intelligent or demanding, more like, “Die Katze hat Hunger, sie braucht oh-hell-what’s-the-word-for-kibble? Katzenessen???” That can’t have been the result of just two weeks’ study; I think it was a long-comatose part of my brain coming online again.

Anyway… I began having fun. I remembered how it had been when I first got to college and looked upon the course offerings as a whole glorious buffet of delightful puzzles called languages. Learning languages used to make me happy. And it’s done so again. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Normal people would regard an extended contemplation of German prepositions and their incestuous relationships with German articles as a form of torture. So? You already knew I wasn’t normal.)

I’m still not writing, but at least I am – in between language study sessions – doing research for a new series, and even poking at the research notes to figure out how this or that might contribute to a story.

It’s probably not a universal cure for depression or even for writer’s block. But it seems to have stopped my downward slide, and I’m telling this story because it might be helpful to others.

When the world goes black, you might try, like Hercule Poirot, to activate the little grey cells – not on the terrifying problem of the creative work that’s stalled – preferably on something so useless that it doesn’t awaken those voices of despair. Try to remember some subject that used to excite you. For me, it was learning languages. For you, it might be the later history of the Byzantine empire, or quantum physics, or the relationship of poetic meter to the rhythms of everyday speech, or the influence of Fanny Burney on the novels of Jane Austen. Really doesn’t matter, as long as it gets the brain online again. As long as it gets you back to that place where thinking doesn’t hurt, but rather gives pleasure. As Merlin counseled Arthur, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something…. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

(Image by Oli Lynch from Pixabay )


  1. Ja, Deutsch Spaß sein kann. (Yes, German can be fun.) When I was cramming Polish and Czech last year, it knocked a lot of things loose on the fringes. I kept saying “ah ha!” with Czech because of catching the German and Latin influences beyond just the vocabulary. Making mental links like that seems to help me fight off the Black Dog, as long as I have the energy and time to be able to do the work.

    1. German and Latin influences on Czech? I’ve never studied a Slavic language. Oooh, sparkly! No. No. Must concentrate…

  2. Comes to mind that this has maybe helped me a little through some of the recent bad times.

    “Sure, my learning A and B is garbage. But C reminds me that I used to love this stuff. And maybe I’ve picked up more of A and B than I had realized.”

  3. “And since I was rather passive about these distractions”

    One of the symptoms of depression being utter passivity about most things. I recall when I got by from deployment I was able to drag myself back and forth from work, but between work and sleep I’d just stare at anything mindlessly because nothing mattered. That went on for 6 months before my wife brought in one of her friends from church who was a psychologist and recognized what I had, and started working with me to pull out of it and get back in control. But depression is apparently a lot like alcoholism and drug addiction; if you’re not careful, it’s easy to slip back, and a real bugger to dig back out of.

    I can see using foreign languages as a means of kick starting parts of your brain to get the rest going again. right now I’m kind of bouncing between picking up Ukrainian (one of the nurses in the office is from the Ukraine), or going with Portuguese so I can talk to son one’s girlfriends parents from Brazil.

    1. One of the symptoms of depression being utter passivity about most things

      Oh, yes. One of the things that made writing “Isabelle and the Siren”, where Isabelle is both the point of view AND depressed, such a pain.

  4. Yup, languages are full of sparkiness!

    But learning new hand-skills or movement-skills can also help a lot, because it moves different bits of your brain. Arts, crafts, weird cooking, etc.

  5. I need to keep this in mind. Because thinking has become increasingly difficult and painful over the past couple of years (minor-but-chronic oxygen deprivation will do that), and I need to be able to hit the ground running once I’m out of this situation, not have to slog my way back up through a pit of despair that I sank into when I wasn’t paying attention.

    I’m working on a sewing project at the moment, which is keeping some of the bad thoughts at bay. Maybe I’ll add some languages in there for an extra boost.

  6. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons languages work is because you don’t know all the words for the depressive thoughts in Czech or Mandarin or whatever it is. For me any occupation that is ruined if I don’t think steadily about it for “x” number of minutes helps. Being forced to stop digging even for five or ten minutes is good. And for a mostly useless solution, English change ringing really works because it uses both mind and muscles totally. But in the US change ringing towers are few and far between…

    1. “I’m pretty sure one of the reasons languages work is because you don’t know all the words for the depressive thoughts in Czech or Mandarin or whatever it is.”

      I just had an epiphany (call the news crews; it’s a miracle!). I was far less depressed when I didn’t know anything about depression, or any of the signs of it. And I’ve had a couple of depression-inducing incidents in my life. But I just thought, “Meh; I’m feeling a little down because of XYZ and I’ll get over it eventually, if I keep going about my usual tasks.” And I did. Because I didn’t know what it was.

      I may be a strange person. Possibly. Just a little.

        1. *Contemplates world where I am pretty much normal.*

          “Yeah, I need to not do that.”

  7. Run and Find Out is one of my favorite procrastinators because it fills up the brain pan so well.

    Makes sense that it would be a prophylactic against the Black Dog.

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