Depression and Writing and Imposter Syndrome

I’ve been thinking about writing this for awhile, but haven’t been ready. I’ve decided to take the plunge.

Apparently I have depression. (I’m going to come back to the ‘apparently’ in that phrase). I used to work in a toxic work environment where I was constantly gaslighted by colleagues and the administration. I was an easy target, because I didn’t have a huge ego and I tended to be more apologetic. Also, for seven years, I was working toward tenure and I watched two colleagues in my department get shafted for going against the grain, and one time when I wasn’t invited to the department meeting in which one colleague was discussed, I was told “we didn’t invite you because we knew you’d support him and didn’t want you to risk you tenure.” Yes, overt threat. Another time I was told if my evaluations didn’t come up, I’d have to be let go. This after I’d been out for pregnancy leave and one of my colleagues, angry at the fact that I had the gall to leave detailed daily course activities and assignments (I thought this was helpful), told my students that my syllabus and approach was crap. The result of that was that all the students showed up in my office telling me my class was garbage, I was doing it wrong, demanding too much, and I had no choice to change it or face (illegal) sanctions from my department.

It didn’t help that I suffered from Imposter Syndrome. “First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

My first instinct is to point out that I’m not a high achiever. But if I were to look at someone else, I’d say with the same qualifications, somebody else would have been a very high achiever. I’ve BA, MA, and a PhD. I’ve written and published in my academic field and I’ve been a successful professor. I achieved full professor rank in approximately seven years. I had a sabbatical in my 14 years at UMW. I have published 13 novels, with two more coming in the next three months. I have two children and a solid marriage (married 25 years). I am a pretty good cook, I’m a good friend, a good writer, and a good person.

I say that, but squirm in doing so and I would readily argue or not say those things under just about any circumstances. It wouldn’t be the bragging factor. It would be the Imposter Syndrome. Even with depression, I can’t claim to fully have it. That’s the ‘apparently’ from the first sentence. I even have Imposter Syndrome when it comes to illness. I’m not really that bad, that sick, and, and depression only exacerbates IS because at its core, depression makes you feel like a failure.

But let’s go back to my history. Toxic work environment that got progressively worse. The depression started setting in during the last few years at UMW. I started becoming short tempered with my family, I wanted to isolate, I slept a lot–when I wasn’t having insomnia. I cried and my stomach was constantly in knots. There was more. My doc put me on citalopram, which helped with the anxiety elements. But while it took the edge of, it didn’t really tackle the depression issue. I’ve always been a pretty happy-go-lucky person. I didn’t sweat the small stuff. Only as time went on, I started sweating everything.

Finally we moved and I left that job. Immediately I felt better. Part of it was living out of constant winter. Part of it was just not facing that toxicity. Then my son got ill. For a year and a half, he went through innumerable tests. He suffered horrendous bouts of vomiting and incredible pain. He started having psychogenic non-epileptic seizures. He was given a ton of medications that did no good. We saw so many doctors. Finally we got a diagnosis and a program of treatment. It worked. It wasn’t instant. By the time his two-year sick anniversary rolled around, he was doing really well.

I was not. With the relief of seeing him improve, I started sinking down. I still don’t want to call it depression. It didn’t feel as hopeless and dark as I’ve heard ‘true’ sufferers endure. But there’s a spectrum and it was very difficult for me and it is depression. I just don’t like suggesting that I was anywhere near as someone who really suffers. Back to Imposter Syndrome.

Writing is a profession particularly susceptible to IS. Writers see bad reviews and internalize them. Good reviews don’t make near the impact they should. We doubt ourselves constantly. We constantly think what we write is crap. We always worry. Add into that the fact that many of us don’t make a living wage, then money stress starts to grind at us. It’s easy to constantly doubt your abilities, even after you have published a lot of books.

Depression rides IS like a racehorse. You tell yourself to suck it up and deal with it. Stop whining. Stop crying. Just do it, for goodness sake. It’s not life and death. Why can’t you just pull your shit together? Then you feel the need to hide how your feeling. And that need only contributes to your internal understanding that this is shameful and should be hidden. If anyone found out, they’d know you were a worthless piece of trash.

Oh, and did I mention that changing hormones can mess with all of that?

So there I was, totally submerged in IS and depression, and unable to see it. I knew that this wasn’t me. I went in for my yearly physical and I guess I must have mentioned something. The doc suggested Wellbutrin. I balked. She called in the prescription and said try it and see if it made a difference. It was a beginning dose.

It actually did make me feel better. There’s an initial euphoria where you just feel energetic and happy. This felt wonderful. But then I started feeling more anxious, more doubting, more short tempered, and generally returning to the depression. I saw the doc and she said I should try the next level dose. I refused. Said I’d like to see how this played out for awhile longer. It was that suck it up, stop whining, pull on some big girl panties mind set. It didn’t help. It only made things worse, because when your brain chemistry is fucked up, you can’t just tough your way out of it. A week later I called and said, let’s do it. For any of my friends, I would have urged them to treat themselves. I have an illness. It has to be treated for my own sanity and health.

That dose seems to have done the trick. I find myself having moments of short temper and out-of-proportion anger, but it dissolves in minutes. I let it go. I am not nearly as impatient. I’m far more sympathetic. I am more myself. I like being myself. That last one is weird. I didn’t realize that I didn’t like being with myself very much. I didn’t enjoy myself. Now I do. I also don’t beat myself up for all the things I used to. I don’t attack myself.

The reason I decided to talk about this is because of the shame factor, and that urge to hide. To fake it. To wear a mask and pretend that you’re normal, because somewhere you feel that there is something terribly wrong with you. And not wrong as in illness, but fundamentally wrong/broken/failed.  Not quite human. So I’m defying that. I’m saying I have depression and I’m saying that is really what it is. I’m still working on the IS. No medication is going to cure that. But the other . . . I’m more and more myself every day.


  • Adrianne Middleton

    I’m so sorry you’ve had such a hard time. I’m glad you were able to escape the toxic work environment. I’m glad your son is healing. And I’m glad you found meds that work. Depression is really hard.

  • Readerdiane

    Have you had your Vitamin D levels checked? Living in the Northwest it is important to have it checked. I am a glass half full person & gradually I was not. I had mine checked this summer after all our sun-level was still low. I got put on 10,000 iu. It is amazing how much better I feel. I asked about overdosing & my doc laughed, she said I’ll never get there.
    Even when I am sad I bounce back much easier.
    Just a thought…..

  • Denisetwin

    Good for you for getting the help that you need. I could immediately empathize when you said if one of your friends were in your place you would immediately xyz but since it was yourself you couldn’t see it. We have such blind spots when it comes to ourselves. I am glad you were able to make the changes you needed to begin feeling better. Hugs!

  • Leslie R

    I am so glad that you were able to find a medication that helps you, and that they were finally able to find a solution for your son as well. Depression is terrible. And I never really thought about it in that way before, but the Imposter Syndrome and depression combination you talk about makes so much sense. Just today I read another post from Chuck Wendig talking about how depression is an illness and not writer’s block and you can’t just write through it and make it go away. I know I have depression, I’m medicated, and I know it gets worse during this time of year. But I’m still beating myself up for not writing. As though that will actually help put me in front of the keyboard again. Anyway, keep taking care of yourself and thank you for your willingness to talk about this.

    • Di Francis

      I’ll have to look at his post. I decided recently that writing should be fun, and if it’s not fun, I should figure out why not and do the fun thing. If i can’t entertain myself, how can I entertain anybody else? So today, I was giggling madly at some of the things I decided to let get to the page. I don’t know if I achieve that always, but I think I’m going to see if I can do it.

      Thanks for visiting. I read something recently about how fat shaming people does not help them lose weight. (apparently a study was required for that). I think it applies to writing. Shaming ourselves isn’t going to help. Nor is berating. I say sit down and entertain yourself. Write something snarky. Or silly. Or terribly romantic. Or incredibly action-packed. mroe than anything, remember it’s fun. Neil Gaiman said in his graduation address to an art school some years ago, remember to enjoy the ride.

  • Murphy Jacobs

    Depression is a real thing, and there are no gold star levels or depression black belts being handed out. I’ve been struggling with diagnosed depression for…oh, nearly 20 years now, and undiagnosed problems longer than that. Comparative suffering is a rotten game no one really wins, and yet those little brain demons like to bring it up all the time.

    I’ve finally found a combination of medications that help me be in a happy new normal most of the time, and while I still resent that I have to take drugs to be my new normal, I take them.

    Good luck on your journey and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the new books. Just remember when you get to a place where you feel more or less comfortable, it is normal. It’s YOUR normal, and since normal is practically meaningless when analyzed, it’s not better or worse than most other people’s normals. Get rid of that little monster of comparative suffering — at least stuff it in a box — and lots of things are incrementally better.

    • Di Francis

      I resent the hell out of it too. And yet, I take drugs for other illnesses I don’t resent. How idiotic is that? I’m working on it, though. Being public about it.

      Comparative suffering–I like that term. Wonder if I can work that into a book.

      Thanks for the comment!

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