My NerdCon Stories Talk about Mental Illness and Creativity

Okay, so I want to share with you three brief stories of bad times in my life.

First, it’s July of 1998. I’m living in a town called Moose Pass, Alaska, and after a breakup, I sink into a depression. I find nothing enjoyable, struggle to get out of bed, the usual. It’s at once utterly boring and absolutely excruciating. Depression, Sontag wrote, is melancholy minus its charms.

I spend my days working at this gift shop slash ice cream joint, selling dream catchers and hunting knives, and then at night I return to this bunkhouse, where I lay in my sleeping bag, and try not to think this one particular thought. The thought goes like this: I use my key to the gift shop to sneak in there, after hours, then use the smaller key to open the glass display case. I take out this one hunting knife, with a handle made of elk antler, and I stab myself repeatedly in the gut.

I don’t want to do this — I am not, thank God, suicidal — but I literally cannot stop thinking about it.

Quick side note: I did not realize this at the time, but what I was experiencing is called invasive thoughts, and everyone has them, but people with OCD, which I did not know I had, often find their invasive thoughts unmanageable. Being able to properly contextualize these thoughts makes them somewhat less terrifying, but at the time I felt sort of like I was experiencing some kind of demonic possession.

Eventually, I leave Alaska, and shrug the whole thing off as a kind of extended fever dream. When I think about it, I’m able to tell myself that, you know, the sun never set that summer. That would make anyone crazy.

Now journey with me to October of 2001. I’m living in a small apartment on the near north side of Chicago, and for the last week or so, I have been unable for some reason to eat food, so instead I’m drinking two two-liter bottles of Sprite per day, which is the approximate right number of calories to eat but still not an ideal nutrition strategy.

Also I’m spending a ton of my free time on the floor of the linoleum kitchen of this apartment. I come home from work and lie down on the floor with my two-liter bottle of Sprite, just kind of lying on my back and looking. I look at the places where the linoleum is peeling, and at the green parabolic rectangle of the kitchen window through the Sprite bottle. I look at the bubbles inside that bottle clinging to the bottom, trying to hold on, but inevitably floating up to the top.

Lying on the floor, I try to read the book I’m supposed to review for my job at Booklist, but my brain can’t turn the scratches on a page into words. Two weeks into this, I try to quit my job. My boss tells me to go home to my parents for a couple weeks, get some help, and watch the movie Harvey. My parents get me to a psychiatrist. I start taking medication and also watch Harvey — one or both proves effective, and two weeks later I’m back at work.

Wait, but no. I’m making it sound like I was well then got sick then got well again, with only a magic pill and a great movie in the middle. But of course it wasn’t like that. For years, I feel terrifyingly fragile. I smoke cigarettes compulsively — sometimes fifty or sixty a day. I struggle to socialize, to keep my apartment clean, to take out the trash. I get better slowly, and while I’m getting better I often feel like I’m not, like it’s descending again. But it doesn’t, really. Until it does.

Last story: One year ago, Minneapolis. Nerdcon Stories. I feel it coming like that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem describes it: The chill is in the air, which the wise know well and have even learned to bear. Night fall fast. Today is in the past. Blown from the dark hill, hither to my door, three flakes, then four arrive. Then many more.

For a couple months, I am a passenger in my consciousness. It’s terrifying, in a horror movie kind of way, to be unable to control your thoughts — Man can do what he wills, Schopenhauer said, but he cannot will what he wills. I am unwilling. I can’t think straight — I can only think in swirls and scribbles. Words don’t make sense. At times, I can’t read even off a menu. I feel useless. In 1998, I felt possessed. Now, I feel that I am the demon, clinging to a self that is at its core no longer mine.

Mental illness is stigmatized, but it is also romanticized. If you google the phrase “all artists are,” the first suggestion is “mad.” We hear that genius is next to insanity; we see Carrie Mathison on Homeland going off her meds so that she can discover the identity of the terrorists and save America.

Of course, there are kernels of truth here: Many artists and storytellers do live with mental illness. But many don’t. And what I want to say today I guess is that you can be sane and be an artist, and also that if you are sick, getting help — although it is hard and exhausting and inexcusably difficult to access — will not make you less of an artist.

So, okay. Here’s the thing: The Alaska Implosion happened because I did not yet know what was wrong with me. The Sprite Debacle happened because stuff happens, because sometimes when you have a chronic illness you get sick. And last year happened because I went off my medication to try to write a novel, because I bought into the dangerous romantic lie.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that, but yeah. I hadn’t written a book in years, and I felt desperate to write something. I blamed my medication, so I decided that to write, I would go off of it. Let me tell you what I wrote during the Alaska Implosion: Nothing. Here is what I wrote during the Sprite Debacle: Nothing. Here is what I wrote during the collapse of last year: Nothing that made sense.

In the end, I feel that romanticizing mental illness is dangerous and destructive just as stigmatizing it is. So I want to say that, yes, I am mentally ill. I’m not embarrassed about it. And I have written my best work not when flirting with the brink, but when treating my chronic health problem with consistency and care. Thanks.