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.