Writing Under the "Black Cloud"

Writer Karyn Dougan
Category: Writing

I’m afraid to be honest about my experiences for fear of sounding flippant or causing offence, but I’ve genuinely found my anxiety to be useful for my writing. While anxiety can be different for each individual, most can relate to the strange way it can manifest. Mine is a fully-fledged voice, and it likes to talk. It’s fidgety. It makes me do things. I find myself cleaning the flat to an inch of its life. Moving furniture. Building cardboard dividers to organise dusters. However, it doesn’t take much time before it inevitably crescendos and prevents me from doing anything. What starts off as a harmless bit of cleaning ends with me being unable to walk through a store with my fiancé.

Anxiety turns simple things into an excruciating experience. It can stop you from boarding a busy bus or train. The thought of answering the phone is a Herculean trial. A trip to the supermarket bombards you with impossible decisions, heightens money worries and threatens any self-confidence you have left. This was the inspiration for my story Aisle 10. I exaggerate and twist reality, but the fundamentals of the character’s experience are based on my own. After performing it, someone approached me and asked if he could have a copy.

It is difficult and exhausting, but when I manage to get a story out of it, it feels like I’ve won a battle

‘This has happened to me and the wife so many times and now I get it,’ he said. ‘If I showed her this she’d say: Totally. 100%.’

I was the first time I felt that I had really achieved something.

Writing is a way for me to take my fears and hold them under a microscope to help me see the holes in my anxiety’s logic. It’s a cathartic process. It is difficult and exhausting, but when I manage to get a story out of it, it feels like I’ve won a battle. Depression, on the other hand, is a different beast.

Once, when I was fighting yet another threatening “black cloud”, my fiancé asked me to try and describe how I was feeling.

‘You know those charity coin things at McDonalds that spin the coin around? It’s like I’m always walking around the edge of one of those. When it starts, I feel myself slipping down that spiral and I need to constantly fight against the momentum pushing me towards the black hole.’

He encouraged me to write about it.

When I wrote Spiral, I fully intended it to be about depression. I wanted to write about that hinging moment before I would fall into the vortex of emotional and physical comatose. I wanted to give it a voice and then confront it.

In the end, the story became something different, a common and frustrating occurrence writers will know intimately. Despite all your plotting, all your pushing and prodding of characters, sometimes a different story will find its way out. I found my anxieties once again forcing themselves to the front, demanding to be heard.

Why can’t I write about my depression in the way I do with my anxieties?

Even writing about the struggle to articulate that black cloud is like tiptoeing through a minefield. It’s the Candyman effect: say “Depression” in the mirror three times and it will appear. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was fourteen and I still don’t know my triggers after twelve years. I’ve written for various online and print magazines about mental health. I’ve travelled to give talks across the UK. Why, then, can’t I write about my depression in the way I do with my anxieties? Both are very real and disabling illnesses. Neither is easier than the other.

Perhaps I understand my anxiety a little bit better than my depression. After years of working on mindfulness, I can avoid a panic attack or overthinking myself into a black hole much better than I used to. My writing helps me to understanding what I’m thinking and feeling. I still haven’t found a coping mechanism for the depression. I’ve experienced it from both sides, studied psychology, read extensively, listened to other people’s experiences and yet I still don’t really understand what happens to me when the depression hits. I want my writing to help me with my depression in the way that it has helped me understand my anxiety. Perhaps being a young writer means I haven’t yet learned how to force my depression into a shape or voice I can work with. While my anxiety is a loud, unrelenting voice, my depression sits coiled in the dark, ready to strike whenever I try to confront it.

As a writer, you want your work to reach out to readers and make a connection. I think this is why I often write about my experiences and my anxieties. That idea of someone, somewhere being able to say, 'Totally. 100%,' makes you feel less lonely during those times you’re trapped in your own head with that fidgeting voice or the threatening black cloud on the horizon.


If you've been affected by some of the issues raised in this post and you'd like to talk to someone about them, here are some organisations that can help:

The Samaritans are a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide.

Phone: 116 123 or email: jo@samaritans.org or find your local branch here

SAMH is Scotland's leading mental health charity that works to make sure people are talking about mental health. To find out about the services they offer:

Phone: 0141 530 1000 or email enquire@samh.org.uk

Mind provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. To get in touch:

Phone: 0300 123 3393 or email bluelightinfo@mind.org.uk

Karyn Dougan

Born in Falkirk, Karyn Dougan has performed her work across the UK, sharing the stage with some of her literary heroes (such as Janice Galloway and Liz Lochhead) and has taken her work to Europe, performing in Greece and Italy. She has written for The List, The Skinny and The Bear, and has worked in almost every section of the book industry as a proofreader, editor, reviewer and bookseller. In 2016, she received the Callan Gordon Award. A graduate of Stirling University, she now lives in Glasgow and is known for being "the cheerleader of Scottish literature." She is a writer of prose, poetry and all things wordy.