In early August, I experienced a medical issue that necessitated a quick trip to the emergency room. I wasn’t impressed with the doctor on duty, who took a very alarmist view of my symptoms and (rather dramatically) announced that she was going to admit me for treatment of a particularly nasty and life-threatening condition. I didn’t believe her diagnosis, and didn’t think she was right, so I refused further treatment that day. I had to sign the obligatory form, of course, acknowledging that I was leaving against her advice and accepted the risks involved. It contained the rather dramatic warning that I risked death by doing so. Having previously risked death in a rather large number of ways over many years, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the official histrionics…
Be that as it may, I began the rounds of visiting various specialists to have my condition assessed and determine what, if any, additional treatment was needed. I’ve been poked, prodded, injected, suctioned, had blood drawn from various places at different times, blown into this instrument, hammered on that one… you know the drill. To my pleasure, most of the ER doctor’s warnings and concerns have been comprehensively disproved. A cardiologist, a vascular specialist, and others have pronounced that I’m not about to drop dead. However, they’ve also told me that I’m no longer a young man, and that as I get older, more and more things are going to start missing a beat, skipping a gear here and there, and generally acting up. In my case, that’s exacerbated by the demands placed on my body in the past (or, as one of my friends puts it, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage!”).
As part of the remedial process, I’ve been put on a couple more medications to add to those I was taking already, and had my dosage of some of the latter increased. That’s where writing comes in – or, rather, doesn’t. I’m now taking six prescription medications once or twice per day, double the number I was taking before. In addition, I’m taking several other supplements, some familiar, some new. As a result, since August, I haven’t been able to write anything that satisfies me – and that’s frustrating as hell.
It’s as if I were trying to navigate my way through what my parents called a “pea soup fog“. Those of you who’ve experienced really dense fog (or the industrial version known as smog) know that movement can be very difficult. You can’t see very far ahead, making it hard to avoid obstacles, and the choking consistency of the miasma makes you cough, splutter and blink so much that your health may be permanently affected. (Pea soup fogs and smog killed literally thousands of people in England up to the 1950’s.) Fortunately, anti-pollution measures have made them largely a thing of the past in the First World, although newly industrialized China now appears to be inheriting them.
That’s a very good visual impression of how my brain’s been feeling on this cocktail of prescription narcotics and supplements. Trying to write is like groping through a mental fog like that physical one. Progress is halting, one’s thought processes are constantly interrupted by the intellectual equivalent of coughing and spluttering, and any attempt at creativity is rendered just plain miserable.
I’m staring down the barrel of a deadline to submit a short story to a friend of long standing who’s compiling an anthology. I’ve done my best, but it feels like my current best is no good at all. That impression may itself be a product of the narcotic fog that’s enveloping me at the moment; but it’s a real fear, nonetheless. I don’t think the work I’m sending him is my best, and I don’t think it measures up to the standards I’ve set for myself, let alone those of the market. I hope I’m wrong, but he’ll have to be the judge of that. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that it may not be good enough for him to use.
I’m also working on (or trying to work on) several novels in different genres. Research and background stuff isn’t much of a problem (as in the research trip my wife and I completed a short while ago); but trying to convert that into plot, and structure, and characters, and dialog, and words on paper… that’s a nightmare right now. I just can’t seem to make the whole thing work. I had a novel I was planning to publish before Christmas, which is more than half complete, but I haven’t been able to do any more work on it (of a quality that I regard as acceptable) for the past three months. It’s intensely frustrating. I’m on the brink of taking myself off the extra medications for two or three weeks, just long enough to complete the novel, then putting myself back on them by the end of November, and hoping for the best. I don’t see any other way of making progress.
I’m not writing about this issue to look for sympathy. I know I’m far from the first person to face the problem, and I certainly won’t be the last. What I’d like to know is, how have you, fellow writers, dealt with this dilemma? How have you kept writing when the space between your ears feels like it’s filled with mush, pea soup, or sundry other dietary unpleasantries? Perhaps, if we share our experiences, we can glean information from each other that will help all of us cope better with such challenges.
Over to you, friends. Let’s discuss this further in Comments.