I missed IWSG this month (whoops), but it was because this post was too important to just whip out on short notice, so here it is (I'll totally post a real Insecure Writer's Support Group next month, I promise).
Trigger warnings: Depression and Suicide
I’ve been thinking about this one for a while now. I know that in the aftermath of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain a lot of people were struck by how such successful people could be struggling with depression and mental health, so it’s time to talk about it.
First, so you all know what you’re getting into, the credentials. I am not psychologist. My SO has a masters in psychology, but today we’re going to be talking almost entirely about my opinions and epiphanies about mental health and how it relates to publishing and/or success. In that vein, I’ve had some pretty big successes. I have also had some pretty impressive failures. I feel like I’m in a pretty good place to talk about my own experiences having finally come to terms with many of them. Grab your blanket and a beer, and gather around. This one ain’t pretty.
I have spent a large part of my writing career (really my whole damn life) with this idea that if I can just get through this part, I’ll achieve success and the hell I have been slogging through will have all been “worth it.” Other variations go something like this: I’ll be happier once I have an agent. Or: I’ll be a real writer when I’m published. Or “Once I sell enough to be marketable, everything will be okay, and I’ll be happy.”
These are all variations of the “I’m not happy now, but if I work hard on this external thing, I will be happy in the future.”
This is a LIE.
The reason this is a lie is because you are uniquely you. As in you are always you. You are the same you after you finish your first draft, after you sign with an agent, after you publish your book. You will always be you. I’m sure there are people who are now very curious as to what I’m talking about because, of course I would be me with a book deal. I would be me with or without a book deal. And for you lucky folks, I’m pleased you graced my post, but I suspect you aren’t my target audience. I’m talking to the people who harbor in their heart the secret desire that “things will be better when.” You lot know who you are. I know because I count myself amongst your ranks. (If this isn’t you, feel free to keep reading. I bet you know someone who has this particular world view, and this might help you understand them.)
Now, it seems like this is pretty simple stuff, but believe you me, in the realm of depression (and, quite frankly, ANY situation where you have feelings that are misaligned with what society tells you), your brain just makes shit up. I’m going to focus mostly on depression because that is the monster I know, though I could talk AT LENGTH about having feelings that are misaligned with societal norms (it’s complicated, so one thing at a time).
The first concept I want to explain about success and why it has nothing to do with happiness: You are 100 percent the same person with or without a book deal. I know this seems really simple. Of course you are the same person, right?
My brain has been telling me for decades that I will FINALLY be happy if I:
1) Lose weight
2) Get a book deal
3) Get an agent
4) Sell a ton of books
5) Live in a big fancy house
I’m sure, for those of you who have the benefit of seeking therapy, you can see why there might be a mismatch in what my depression tells me, and the reality of the situation. Let me use a watermelon as an example.
I’m a watermelon. I present a thick green skin to the world, but inside I’m sort of a soft, squishy material that leaks if pressed too hard. I have never been happy with being a watermelon. When I signed my first publishing contract, I sort of expected to do a Sailor Moon transformation sequence and come out the other side a more exciting kind of fruit. Maybe I’d suddenly be an orange, or a banana, or a pear. Turns out, a publishing contract was a little more like a T-shirt and a little less like a Sailor Moon transformation sequence. So there I was, a watermelon with a publishing contract. This did not magically make me happy.
At this point, most people would very rightly realize that they didn’t get the magical transformation sequence because there is none, but for the few, the proud, the suffering from depression, we think that the reason the magical transformation sequence didn’t happen was because the success marker wasn’t big enough. To power a whole transformation, one needed MORE. Okay, so readjust the success marker. Now it’s making the New York Times list.
But when Watermelon me makes the New York Times list (I haven’t mind you, but I have been number 4 on Amazon, which is similar). This should definitely have enough juice in it to power the magical girl transformation.
And once again, it’s like I got a T-shirt (and a very plain one that doesn’t even have writing on it) not a magical girl transformation. Once more I am disappointingly still a watermelon. And again, most people would recognize the flaw in thinking, but when you are in the moment, when you’ve been fed the idea that if you work hard enough anything is possible, one of the things you start to believe is that outside markers of success will transform you into a satisfied, happy, version of yourself.
And the thing that hit me the most about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain was that they were at the literal top of their fields. There are no higher markers of success that they could have achieved. None. Seeing their tragic deaths helped me realize that they may have suffered the same problem I do. There is no magical transformation. That’s not going to happen. I started as a watermelon. I cannot be anything but a watermelon.
It has been a very sobering summer to look around and realize that happiness is not a thing that can come from the outside. If success could make people happy, then highly successful people (like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain) would not commit suicide. I’d always pegged my happiness on my success, and now it is glaringly clear to me, that no amount of success will ever kick off the magical transformation where I mystically become the unicorn I’ve always wanted to be. I’m a watermelon.
As you might imagine, this is deeply personal. I only talk about this because I see so many people who are clearly hoping—PRAYING—for the magical transformation sequence, and it makes me sad. You are you. And no amount of success will change what and who you are.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t benefits to success (paychecks, etc.), but the biggest problem I see most people have is struggling with the fact that you are EXACTLY the same person you were before. In short, everyone says it, but it is all too true: success will not make you happy. There is work that needs to be done on you as a person, and no one can do it but you. No amount of success will ever be enough. To paraphrase the immortal words of John Candy in Cool Runnings “If you aren’t enough without it, you will never feel like enough with it.”
I know. Simple, right?
Don’t confuse simple with easy.
If you need someone to trade words with, you can reach me at renarocford (at) gmail dot com (I’m slow to respond, so please be patient). Don’t forget, there are people who want and need you in this world, and the Suicide Prevention hotline number for the US is: 1-800-273-8255.