Writing through the fog

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.


29 thoughts on “Writing through the fog

  1. Yesterday was one of those days I call “words like pulling teeth” because it seems like I have to haul them out of my brain one by one. Days like that seem to be a combination of several days of high carb intake (What? Someone’s got to eat the left over Halloween candy!), what feels like insufficient synthroid, poor sleep (apnea + allergies), writing a scene that makes me uncomfortable, and . . . taking a story the wrong way.

    Yesterday, it was mini-snickers and writing a “socially awkward crowd scene.” Once I’d gotten through the worst of the situation, the words started coming a bit faster.

    Which is a long winded way to say “It’s probably not just a single thing, it’s the sum total, and you just added one too many.”

    So try making a list of everything that fogs your brain, and see if you can stay on the meds and adjust other things to get the words flowing.

      1. Bread, rice, and pasta are the worst (for me.) Candy and cookies ought to be avoided, but my main addiction–Pepsi with Real Sugar–actually drops my blood glucose while the caffeine kick-starts the brain.

        Yes, my fingers look like pin cushions from testing. And I have no idea how doctors manage to make sense of all the weird ways everyone’s individual bodies respond to things.

          1. Yeah. They look at the numbers on the chart. Diagnose and prescribe accordingly. I’ve managed to budge mine a little–mainly with detailed charts and because she realized I’d do it my way with or without her cooperation.

            1. Given the tendency to go ‘YOU ARE DIABETIC!!!!!!!1’ despite contraindications (I’ve perpetually low blood sugar, and suffer from crashes if I am deprived of sweet and carbs) I’ve decided that it’s not worth dealing with the doctors on that score. I’ve found over the years that as long as I keep up the sugar (a sip of Coke with the REAL SUGAR OMG, and an occasional bit of candy or cracker) as I go through my day = I’m good. Not “Oh God, I hope I make it across this pedestrian crossing before I fall over!” with vision getting closed in by what visually looks like the old TV static snow, and feeling like my heart plunged somewhere near my feet and got left behind a few feet away…

  2. My own issue is headaches/migraines. I work through the headaches but I will confess that I don’t when I head into migraine territory. When the headaches are bad I research and do other non-fiction work. I’m always behind in my research, so it’s always waiting for me.

    1. Tension headaches, then eye-strain headaches with hunger on top of it. I tend to power through until I’m too queasy to focus my eyes, then have to stop everything for the night.

  3. Migraines, ANY kind of heart condition, hypertension, weight creeping up, carb craving, “high cholesterol”, and especially depression or brain fog: How often do I have to repeat this? GET A FULL THYROID WORKUP. (Do NOT settle for a TSH test, it is useless by itself, and most doctors still use the discredited range, up to 4.5, as “normal” — but by that point you are seriously ill.) Hypothyroidism is *usually* the root of all these conditions.

    If that’s unproductive, test parathyroid (tho the data indicates hyperparathyroidism, which has the same symptom set, is actually end-stage Hashimoto’s thyroiditis = galloping autoimmune hypothyroidism, so be sure to check those antibodies) and coritsol. And be sure to do the tests when you feel your worst, NOT when you’re feeling better. (Hashi can actually cause you to test *hyper*thyroid, if tested when you’re “up”.)

    End-stage hypothyroidism usually involves death from either flabby heart syndrome (aka low T3 syndrome) or dementia, assuming you’ve not yet had a stroke from the associated high blood pressure. Even so, until the final decline it is completely reversible with treatment. Yet most people (and most doctors) resist the simplest treatment available: normalizing thyroid. 80% of people over age 50 have some degree of hypothyroidism due to reduced T3 conversion, yet most doctors never look at this and instead treat its myriad of symptoms, often unproductively (or even counterproductively since some treatments further mess up both thyroid and the trigger for a lot of symptoms, blood calcium levels).

    Thyroid affects *everything*. It should be the FIRST line of inquiry, but is almost invariably regarded as a last resort.

    /very tired of repeating this, but I’ve been-there-done-that and I read the research; the data is scattered all over hell, but taken as a whole is crystal clear. Also, have noted most people who are hypo strenuously resist looking there, and chase every other remedy under the sun, as if the condition tries to preserve itself. You can’t fix a bad foundation by painting the house.

    1. Gad! Your description makes me nervous. I know I’ve never had such a full workup.

      But, wait – I don’t HAVE any of those symptoms. I was experiencing first year med student’s illness-by-horrifying-description.

      What I do have is joint pain. A LOT, lately. Which worries me, as my mother was crippled by arthritis when 30 years younger than I am now.

      This appears to be caused by mis-use/accident. From the symptoms, I think I’ve screwed up my ACL. I’m seeing the doctor later today, and will likely receive a referral to an ortho guy. This will likely be complicated by the fact that I’m shifting my Part C Medicare in January.

      Oh, joy!

      This is not directly affecting my writing, but it’s making it very hard to rest or sleep comfortably. I manage to get to sleep, but wake up suddenly, as a result of a movement triggering sharp, intense pain. I can’t get to sleep again until I get meds, and they have time to take affect.

      One wonderful thing – it’s Election Day today, and we will cease to have political ads, phone calls, and flyers in the mail after today.

      I can’t wait!!!!

  4. Well, there I went into the spamtrap again. Second time for the same info. Even WordPress wants you to be sick. /waves hands in frustration

    1. *Adjusts Moderator hat* Reziac, you are starting to overdo it. Please stop. Once a month is more than sufficient to warn all of us about thyroid problems and how critical the thyroid is. This has been that once-per-month for November, 2018.

  5. Helps me to see that I’m not alone with the fugged head while on medication schtick. As we say over here, misery loves company. 😉

    Also your account puts mine into perspective, as I thought it was really odd that I can do research and stuff, but the whole plot thing and write seems tied into my emotions, which are as flat as a pancake.

  6. A friend of my son, who teaches in Beiping, told me that the particulates in the air NEVER exceed 250ppm. That’s the most the CCP will allow to be published.

  7. Been there, hate that. In my case it wasn’t medication but nausea — five long weeks of feeling pregnant, which would be giving Sarah the wife of Abraham a run for her money. But, brain fog. Inability to think about anything except not throwing up. And a conviction that whatever words I did manage to squeeze out were worse than worthless.

    Showing the WIP to a beta reader helped to remind me that the value of a scene is not directly proportional to the way I felt while writing said scene, something you’d think I would know by now.

    What I don’t know, and likely never will, is what caused it. I’m not sure that it’s better to know the cause, as you seem to do; the temptation to dump the medications must be both overwhelming and life-threatening.

    On the bright side, while it was going on the medical fraternity ordered so many tests that I am now assured that every single organ and bodily function is operating perfectly. Which, given the mileage, is rather surprising.

    Have you talked to a pharmacist about your current medication mix? I’ve found pharmacists much more helpful than doctors in identifying which meds, or combinations of meds, can make you miserable in surprising ways.

  8. I’m now up to 15 pills a day plus an injection before breakfast. Most of these are for the express purpose of clearing my brain. My problem now is the fact that I’ve thrown my back out 3 times this year and can’t sit still long enough to get the words out. And standing is worse. I have to keep reminding myself that this, too, shall pass and the words will come eventually.

  9. I have some familiarity with various intensities of brain fog. One of the tricks for recovery is making sure one is managing everything one should be managing.

    Fog intense enough to cause a degree of impairment may also screw with assessment of the impairment. I’ve made both the mistake of working when I’m loopy enough that I take forever producing garbage and of not pushing when I could get good work done. Quality of one’s own writing is notoriously hard to judge. Sarah has written of periods where one’s writing ability has improved, and one’s assessment is that is has declined. Get an objective outside assessment before concluding you ‘Must Do Something’.

    Fog management is partly experience.

    There are some possible medical interventions. I may have the spoons another day to email you about what really helped me, if you want to hear about it.

  10. I just wish I were getting good sleep instead of lots of vaguely disturbing dreams. (Not nightmares, but there are certain horror elements to them.)

      1. Oh, I mine my dreams for content. I read so much that I occasionally dream in coherent narrative, even. It doesn’t help me get rest, though. (To give you an idea, yesterday’s Vaguely Disturbing Dream involved your typical alien-taking-over-brains-through-edibles dream. And Alton Brown. Who I had to dissuade from eating the mushrooms.)

  11. Overmedication, and bad medication interactions, are some of the biggest medical dangers as soon as one hits middle age. There was a dermatologist who used to blog about his practice, and about half of it with his elderly patients was caused by known side effects and interactions, which other doctors had not bothered to find out.

    1. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve got a cousin and a couple acquaintances who are pharmacists, and all of them mention spending time checking over prescriptions for possible interactions with what patients are already taking. If they didn’t do that, some people (primarily but not exclusively older Americans) would be paying with their health, or even their lives.

  12. had trouble when warming up, and had trouble when I was dry on my work — fortunately, no real writer’s block when I got warm or switched to be fresh. . . yet

    The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Flaherty, may be of interest.

  13. As we discussed, I think TOS is right, and so are you. The meds interactions are what is doing it. The question is, what’s actually helping you and what isn’t, and how to determine that.

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