Skip to content

Crash Recovery – Mental Health And The Writer

Fair warning, there’s going to be a good-sized chunk of icky personal stuff in this post, so if that’s not your thing you might want to stop reading here.

Still reading? Okay. Just remember, you were warned.

The background information is that creative folks in general and writers in specific are much more prone to mental health issues than Joe Average. In fact, the latest research suggests that creativity is effectively focused and channeled mental illness (Still want to claim everyone is creative? Go right ahead and pathologize the entire population).

This is probably no surprise to most of the folks here. The part that matters is what happens when something a bit more intense hits and what to do about it when it does, not least because drugged to the eyeballs is an ineffective and unpleasant way to spend life. As someone who needs the psychoactive drugs to function, I can say with absolute authority that being so drugged you can’t think is better than being at the mercy of the worst your own mind can do to you, but it’s still not something you actually want.

My personal bugbear is clinical depression, most likely caused by narcolepsy, although from what I remember before that I may have been/may still be mildly bipolar. I was certainly a very moody child and capable of swinging rapidly from one extreme to the other without any obvious reason – multiple times a day. Depression and permanent sleep deprivation has damped that more than a little.

Since my major breakdown, I’ve had several crashes of varying severity, as well as a number of declines (where I slid gradually into an episode rather than crashing into it). One thing is constant: when I’m in the pit, writing does not happen. It can’t: there’s nothing there. It feels to me as though the entire system shuts down. I can’t even manage daydreaming in narrative: instead I’ll stare into space with – at best – next to nothing going on between my ears. At worst it’s a battle between suicidal thoughts and denying the damn things.

I’ve identified three broad levels of suicidal thought: the first stage is the generic “it would be better if I didn’t wake up” kind of thing, which is somewhere between suicidal and escape. Next stage is when I start thinking that my death is the best thing that can happen to the people I care about because it will take me and all my problems out of their way. It’s still fairly passive-escape. After that, though, I start planning. The last time I got to that point, the only thing that kept me from acting was knowing that the cats would starve before anyone found me.

Unfortunately, while I’m mostly stable, I’m still fragile, which means a bad enough shock can throw me right into an episode. This happened over the weekend, courtesy the World’s Worst Air Conditioning Installation. Fortunately the worst of the episode only lasted a day (I’m quite relieved to have only had one night of alternating nightmares and thinking I’d be better off not waking up), but I’m still not up to writing, in the sense that there’s no there there. I can reach for it, but I’ll come up blank. This is where the pros call it in or paint by numbers if there are deadlines that must be met. I’ve yet to meet one who’s satisfied by what they did when they had to call it in.

I’m hoping I’ll recover before I need to do that. It will depend on stress levels (involving getting the AC install mess fixed) going down to something less than “nuclear” – a situation not helped by the day job’s tendency to generate its own stress bombs (aka “release day” – my employer has Klingon code that isn’t tamely released, it escapes leaving a trail of battered and bloody software testers in its wake).

In addition, something that tends to get forgotten, mental illness also includes significant and unpleasant physiological problems. I’ve gone from my stomach being so tightly knotted I was nauseous to butterflies, and I’m not “enjoying” permanent headache, but I’m still getting random shooting pain from various locations. I’ve also still got issues focusing on anything. It’s just as well most of my job doesn’t need me to focus that much. There’s a lot I can do while sleepwalking, as it were (and as a narcoleptic, I’m quite capable of sleep-anything – except normal sleep).

Everyone’s specific symptoms during an episode of whichever mental issue is their personal demon are somewhat different, of course. Some people find themselves vividly imagining opening their wrist veins. Others project outwards and go crazy-psycho on whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Others go ‘flat’ and can’t find the energy to care about anything. The part that matters is that once the worst has passed (during the worst sometimes it’s all a person can do to keep breathing) the process of digging out gets going. Because no matter what the cause of the crash, there are things that can make the next one less severe or shorter, or maybe even circumvent it altogether – but it’s necessary to be mostly recovered before trying to deal with that.

Part of what works for me is being the kind of insane stubborn that flat refuses to give up. I might drop the bundle for a while when I get hit by an episode, but after that I’ll pick up and try to claw my way back. And I’ll do whatever I need to to get there. Even if it means learning how to think again (of course, it helps that when you look up “stubborn” in certain dictionaries you find me and my family tree there). I also vary the methods I use to deal with the symptoms. When it’s really bad, I engage in forgettery – doing things that don’t require much thought or energy but lock up all my attention so I can’t think about wanting to not be alive (oddly, I’ve never wanted to die but I’ve been in states where dying seemed the best of a really crappy set of choices). As I get more able to focus, I do low-stress, easy things that will give me some kind of sense of achievement. I try not to push myself too far, because that can crash me again. If I do have to push, I’ll clear off the plate of everything else, so that I’m compensating for it elsewhere. It’s an odd kind of balance, but it works for me.

Every writer builds their own set of tools to get out of the pit – because staying in the pit is not an option. It gets deeper, and eventually someone who stays their loses the ability to climb out.

17 Comments
  1. “The background information is that creative folks in general and writers in specific are much more prone to mental health issues than Joe Average.”

    It’s difficult to break something you don’t ever use.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      You might be onto something there!

      June 7, 2012
  2. You could not pay me enough to be a teenager again. I did outgrow the worst of it. But thirty years later I still remember thinking what a relief simple non-existence would be.

    Zen hugs. Or kicks if that works better. Pass the kicks on to the AC guys.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Both work. Watch for gruesome redshirting of HVAC contractors in the next (yet to be written) ConVent book…

      June 7, 2012
  3. TXRed #

    I’ve developed a seasonal spring-time depression due to a series of unrelated events over the years. It starts with a lack of energy in January, improves in February and March, then re-builds into near constant anxiety well into June before it quits. I tend to do a lot of research during the first part of the season, as a way to get something done that does not require creativity of the writing sort. Once April starts all I can do is take things one day at a time. Thanks be, I’m no longer suicidal like I was for much of High School, but running at Defcon 2 for three months really wears you down.

    Somewhere I have a voodoo doll that can be customized (A/C repairman, office manager, dissertation supervisor, contract lawyer, the annoying kid at the supermarket) if you want to borrow it.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Oh, that seasonal thing sounds horrendous – although it sounds as though you’ve got a decent handle on managing it, as much as can be done.

      It does wear you down, though. Plays merry hell with the immune system, too.

      I appreciate the offer of the voodoo doll – I’ll be indulging in writer-voodoo in the form of malicious redshirting when the time comes.

      June 7, 2012
  4. This one hears you, and having been there, I would echo most everything what you’ve written here.

    “. . . because staying in the pit is not an option. ” Isn’t that the truth.

    It takes courage to bare one’s soul and proffer up the tools and tricks of a set that are often marginalized, or even out-right NOT spoken of. Until next time.
    Dan.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Dan,

      The way I see it is it could help someone who’s there now to know that they’re not alone and other people know. That’s reason enough to speak. I don’t see it as particularly courageous – possibly because it never occurred to me not to.

      And yes, those who’ve been there know. Take care.

      June 7, 2012
  5. Hi, Kate. Now you’ve gone and proven yourself wrong and written an article:) See – you are writing!
    I hear what you say and my heart goes out to you. It’s tough when you feel like your own mind and emotions are the enemy. These days my own suicidal thoughts are coming monthly rather than weekly, which is improvement. I have also managed to ‘disconnect’ from them so that I see them as something separate, rather than being overwhlemed – which is great.

    All the best, mate.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Rambling, anyway.

      It’s very difficult when your own brain and emotions betray you.

      May those suicidal thoughts get further apart and the good days more common.

      June 7, 2012
  6. I don’t have those kinds of problems, for which I am eternally thankful. My son-in-law is extremely bipolar, and there are days when he just doesn’t function, even with medication. That doesn’t mean I’m not “insane”. SANE people don’t think of ten different ways to wipe out half the Earth’s population, most of which would work. Or some of the other things I’ve come up with. I don’t see myself executing any of those plans any time soon, but I DO think of them.

    My problems are physical. I have severely abused my body over the past 65 years, and I’m paying for it now. Don’t get me wrong – most of the things I did were fun, or necessary, and sometimes both. I wouldn’t “undo” them for anything. But there was a price to pay, and I’m paying it. Chronic pain is a pain! Medication sometimes helps…

    I’ve known quite a few very talented people. Many of them did have emotional and mental health problems. Three of them committed suicide, and I’m sure a couple of others tried. My heart breaks each time I hear about their latest episodes. I do what I can to help. That’s about all I can do, but it’s also something that, when asked, I HAVE to respond to. I’m here for whomever needs it. I can listen, and I know how to pray.

    June 7, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Mike,

      I respect those who can function without medication. It’s not an easy road no matter which way you end up traveling it, and if we don’t hold each other up at need… Well.

      I think the hardest thing about the episodes is the sense that there’s no-one who can or will help. That’s part of why I talk about it when it’s appropriate: I never know if it will find someone who needs that knowledge to hang on a little longer.

      June 7, 2012
  7. JP #

    I’m a bit late to the dance here, but Elizabeth Moon has an essay that relates and supports many of your comments. http://www.elizabethmoon.com/writing-depression.html

    June 9, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Thanks for the link, JP. It’s a very good description of how depression affects writing and why it’s not a good thing.

      June 9, 2012
  8. Kate, I’m relieved in a sense because you wrote this cogent and compelling post, which proves you can and _do_ write even when feeling terrible. But I wish you weren’t having to deal with such difficult stressors, much less the air conditioning issues that never help. (If you’re physically ill, not having working air conditioning is bad enough. Add any mental health issue into the mix and it just gets worse from there.)

    One issue that’s often linked is fibromyalgia (physical pain that’s hard to categorize and treat, but very real) and depression. And because depression is quite common to creative folks — some of the best music in the world has been composed by people who’ve either been chronically depressed (Mahler) or have just had an epiphany due to physical illness/incapacity causing depression (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) — if you have fibro plus depression and are creative, that just isn’t good.

    Mind you, it sounds a lot better than what you’ve been dealing with (the three stages of suicidal thoughts are particularly scary). You have my sympathies and best hopes there, for whatever they are worth.

    Finally, I’m with you all the way that writing fiction while feeling terrible is much more difficult (something I believe is your subtext here) than writing non-fiction. I can write blogs while I’m in physical pain, for example, or if I’ve not had enough sleep, though it takes me longer to do it and it’s a draining experience rather than a joyful one. But I cannot write fiction if I can’t concentrate well enough to get to the right mindset . . . I assume that’s close enough to what you’re dealing with, even though what you have is _far_ worse than anything I’ve dealt with as an adult, that I wish I did have an answer for you other than “hang in there” and “I appreciate what you write, whenever you write it.” (I do, and have, and will. But I know that’s not enough, especially when the world is crashing in around you and you wonder if anything is ever going to go right again.)

    June 13, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Thank you for your support, Barb. It can be difficult when it seems like you’ve hit the Midas touch in reverse (everything turns to shit) – but so far every time I’ve hit bottom either I’ve found a way to climb back out or things have improved enough that I can regroup. I have to believe that’s going to keep happening and even when it feels like there’s nothing left if I hang on I’ll find something.

      It is a lot harder to write fiction when things like this happen. I guess to some extent I don’t see blogging or non-fic as “writing” because I do a lot of non-fiction reporting of data as part of the job. Typing is just something that happens on auto-pilot, and stringing words together in a way that someone else can follow them is also an auto-pilot thing. Telling a story is a bit more challenging.

      Don’t discount your challenges: they might seem insignificant beside someone else, but for you they’re major. You’re allowed to feel good when you can overcome them (otherwise I’d feel like I never did anything worthwhile compared to the friend who’s paraplegic and has a laundry list of other problems but usually manages to be cheerful and optimistic).

      June 13, 2012
      • You’re welcome, Kate. I just wish I knew of a way to help overall . . . I don’t, but I care, and I’m glad that helps a little bit. (Nothing helps a lot when someone feels truly terrible. And what you’re describing fits that category.)

        I think what you’re doing by describing these challenges is important. The only other person I know about who’s consistently talked about these types of issues (from a physical perspective) is Doranna Durgin; she’s made a good career for herself despite her fibromyalgia issues and the depression that’s come with it.

        In my case, what I deal with every day — as you say — can get in the way, to put it mildly. I’m glad when I can do anything on some days, including putting together blog posts (as most of them I do have to think about, at least as far as how to organize it). Writing anything some days is a “win,” and yes, I try to celebrate my small victories as I’m able.

        But writing a clever blog post (as I attempt to do, now and again) or at least make some commentary now and again is far easier than keeping track of a shifting plotline. Trying to clear time so I can write in peace has also been a struggle lately; my best time to write is late at night, but due to circumstances beyond my control, that time has not always been optimal (mostly due to the heat). But it’s a priority to me, one I usually find a way to solve . . . maybe the best we can do in this life is to overcome whatever obstacles we’re able, day to day. And know in our hearts that what we do matters, even if no one can see it but ourselves.

        June 13, 2012

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: