Neal Asher is one of the UK’s top Science Fiction authors. His work is highly imaginative and can be found in stores and on bookshelves all around the world. He is also very open on his Blog and Facebook pages about his ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. I recently had the honor and pleasure of being able to interview him about his battles.
1) You first mentioned depression in a post (from mid 2006 I think) about the lifestyle transition from manual labor to writing. “It’s something people don’t realize about manual workers who move into a sedentary occupation. You’re fit, you have acquired the eating habits to support that level of activity, and you’re used to being out in the sun, sweating. One problem is that the reduction in exercise, and sunshine, can make you more prone to depression.” Were you talking about your depression at this time, or was this comment just about people in general?
Neal: I was talking about me. I had been prone to it all my life but the lack of physical activity, the sedentary occupation, the lack of getting out in the sun, brought it to the fore. I experienced some bouts of it then.
2) Based on my own battle with depression and anxiety, I would conclude that depression has been a constant shadow over you even before you were aware of it. What was the first major trigger-point for when you first started feeling like you were losing the battle and becoming overwhelmed?
Neal: I was overwhelmed once or twice before my wife died and I cannot remember what the triggers were. However I came up out of these episodes off my own back. I didn’t resort to pills – they just passed. Through this I was aware of being prone to it. Two years and seven months ago I was living the kind of life of which people dream. I was a successful writer, happily married and spent half the year on the sunny island of Crete. Then my wife noticed vaginal blood, even though she had been through the menopause. Thereafter ensued a seven-month nightmare while I watched her die horribly of bowel cancer. Three operations, the last resulting in an ileostomy bag, carrying my five stone wife to the toilet, gallons of vomit tipped down the toilet, trying to move her to get her comfortable and seeing her die right at that moment – you get the picture.
Knowing I was prone to depression I had to do something. I found I could not drink – it just made me lower. I walked from the day after the cremation. For maybe a year I did this every day, 7 miles a day after the first month. I lost interest in writing, reading, TV … well, just about everything. I returned to Crete a couple of months after her death and continued walking there, then swimming and kayaking. While I was doing these things I was okay, but the rest of the time I was a mess. This was all to be expected really. I thought I was recovering but in reality I was walking on the edge of a precipice. Relationship problems the ensuing winter pushed me over for a while but I came back from that. The pressure of another relationship, but a good one, tipped me over again this year. My depression wasn’t the black pit of the deeply depressed, but I did end up with anxiety and panic attacks.
Recent reading has brought home to me that thought the death of my wife screwed me up. It was my negative thinking processes that kept me fucked up. I am fighting that now, and winning.
3) I read somewhere that most writers struggle with depression and anxiety (or perhaps it’s that a lot of people struggling turn to writing?) Is the writing process for you something cathartic, or is it more of an escape?
Neal: It can be cathartic but it depends how you write. If you are writing in that internal negative voice all the time I think it tends to exacerbate problems. You are not blowing it out of your system by raging on the page. It’s like the myth of anger, that if you blow up then that relieves the pressure. No, it doesn’t, it just makes you more prone to anger. Conversely, thinking and writing positive stuff helps lift you. As for it being an escape, yes, if you concentrate your mind on other stuff rather than, again, the negative shit, you are escaping. That is not just about writing but about doing anything that takes your concentration away from chewing on your own vitals.
4) Who/What gave you the courage to talk so openly on your blog about your depression? What have your fans reactions been? Have your friends and family been understanding and supportive? Industry colleagues and associates?
Neal: I talk openly all the time anyway. Even though I am writing the most way out there fiction it’s my contention that one of the best qualities of a writer is truth, honesty. I’m one of those annoying people who will think carefully about my answer to the question, ‘How are you doing?’
My fans have been either positive or silent. It’s brought a lot of them out of the woodwork who have been suffering the same problems. I’ve had many personal messages thanking me for what I’ve written, quite a few saying that I have helped them. This in return helps me. My remaining family are of course supportive, but getting on with their own lives. But as for friends… The problem with coming out of a close inwardly focused marriage is that sometimes you find you don’t have many friends. I have now realised that Caroline and I supported each other and that now she’s gone I don’t have much of a support network. This is something I must endeavour to change.
5) Does blogging about your mental health help? If so, is it the writing itself that is cathartic, or is it the fan response that helps you?
Neal: Blogging about it helps because it helps me see things clearer. This is of course my writing style. When I write a book I don’t know the story or the ending or anything until I’m at the keyboard. It all gradually becomes clear as I write. Cathartic yes, in the sense of me telling myself I will beat this fucking thing. If I sat here writing about my woes and how sorry I feel for myself that would not help at all. Yes, the fan response helps. The support and the suggestions.
6) I am also trying to write a novel, but find my depression gets in the way of writing. I find myself too easily distracted and overwhelmed by my kids, pets, noises outside; life in general. What advice could you give me or other writers for helping focus ourselves on our writing?
Neal: Get rid of the depression would be the first one. It is what is hampering me at the moment. Beyond that just write. Don’t worry about the quality, concern yourself with the quantity. Everything is adjustable. Write something every day. This aphorism applies: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you write just one word today you are one word further ahead than you were yesterday.
7) In New Zealand Mental Health resources are stretched thinly, unless you go private. I cannot afford private and have to wait on average six weeks between seeing my counsellor. What is the mental health system like in the UK?
Neal: Pretty much the same. Unless you push for an emergency appointment you don’t get to see a doctor for weeks. Then once you’ve seen the doctor it will take much the same time to get to see a counsellor. I have this second hand from a woman I know who is suffering depression. There’s also the tendency of doctors to stick you straight on pills, which are a sticking plaster.
Everything I have done I did myself. I went to see a doctor on Crete who gave me the pills I had researched on the Internet. I didn’t like their side effects so gave them up and tried meditation. I learned that meditation is just as effective as the pills and have been advancing with that. Because some of the mediations I am using are hypnotic I saw a hypnotherapist in England who put me onto a book called Thrive by Rob Kelly. In this I have learned about stuff like positive visualisation and processing your positives. I’ve also learned about nootropics and how some of them are as good as antidepressants but without the shitty side effects. Phenibut and GABA being two of them. I am learning all the time, trying everything I can.
8) You have been through a lot in the past few years. Who is Neal Asher now, compared to who he used to be?
Neal: Neal Asher now is thinner, tougher and a lot more troubled. He is also finding a lot more compassion for others. He is on a journey of self-discovery that is often extremely painful.
9) It’s coming up two years since your wife passed away. How do you cope with that kind of grief?
Neal: I coped by shutting it out, by shutting down my mind. I think a contributory thing to me stopping writing was that writing involved thinking and I just did not want to do that. I preferred to push my body to a point of collapse to keep my mind numb. It’s a technique, I have learned, of limited duration.
10) Suicidal thoughts or acts are often one of the first images the media conjures up when talking about depression. Have you ever been trapped in such a place of darkness that you have felt this way before? Was it a fleeting experience or was it one that haunted you?
Neal: Yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. I also have the means available to kill myself painlessly and without fuss. I obtained those means for my wife, in case what was happening to her became unbearably agonising. I would have gone to prison but so fucking what? Thankfully they kept her so pumped full of drugs that she was sitting in bed happily chatting to a friend the night before the one she died.
My suicidal thoughts come and go. Within me is the stubborn core that kept me writing for 25 years before I achieved major success. Within me is the bastard who will not give in to this shit. I hope he remains strong.
11) After my breakdown I considered going to church – I knew I wouldn’t believe in anything there, but I was desperate to find some sort of escape, and I envied the people that could sit and pray and pretend everything was alright in their lives. Have you tried turning to any kinds of faith or philosophy to help you through your rough times?
Neal: Not at all. I don’t believe in God or anything supernatural and there is no circumstance that will make me do so. People did wonder if I was getting a bit that way when I started talking about meditation but, even though ‘mindfulness’ comes from Buddhism, it is a way to alter, exercise and reprogram your mind. In fact I have always known that the mind can be altered in similar ways to those in which the body can be altered. I have always said that the mind is a muscle group that needs exercise, while, for example, imagination is one of those muscles.
12) Final question: Motivation is the biggest factor that affects everything else – what advice can you give anyone battling depression who constantly struggles with issues of motivation.
Neal: That’s the bit that is really hard. But I go back to the eating an elephant analogy. Do something, it may be small, but do something. Get the headspace app and do those meditations. 10 minutes in a day, maybe not every day – you may be surprised at the effect. If you write, start writing down positive things about yourself. Try to think positive thoughts. Have positive fantasies – they don’t have to be true. Do something. Get outside and go for a walk. Clean the sink. Have a shave. Do something. As someone once said to me about life: this is it, it is not a rehearsal.
You can learn more about Neal Asher and his works by visiting his blog The Skinner or visiting his website here. You can find his novels at any decent book stores worldwide or order directly from PanMacmillan. You can read my earlier interview with Neal Asher by following this link.