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.”