When anxiety overwhelms you, this is how you write
I’ve been reading Chuck Wendig again, so forgive me if I sound different. My writing tends to be lyrical, somber, perhaps to the point of depressing. His is on freakin’ speed. It takes you on a crazy, wild ride with lots of ups and downs. It’s an adventure, and I want to write like that. My writing is too muted and staid.
That’s the self-doubt talking.
Turns out May is Mental Health Awareness month. I admit, I had no idea when I scheduled my Mental Health and the Writing Life webinar. But lookit that. Kismet did something good, and I got it right. We talked about the ways our mental health impacts our writing and vice versa, and there are a couple writing exercises to help you uncover your fears and then move past them so you can write.
Watch it now:
“Mental health,” we say, when really what we mean is “I fucking hate the way I feel.”
I suffer from anxiety almost all the time. Apparently, Chuck Wendig does, too. So I’m not alone, even though it feels I am.
On my best days, my anxiety is so light as to be unnoticeable. Other days, the damn thing rattles around my brain, telling me how stupid, how pointless, why bother because someone else will always be better than me. It creeps up on me at night and shakes me awake. I gasp for air for a few moments before realizing I’m not actually in danger.
Once a year or so, this stupid thing dips into darker territory and a deep sadness overtakes me. It can last seconds or days or months. Maybe it’s depression? The ups and downs of my own mental health are difficult to qualify. Over time, I’ve learned to think of it as something separate from me. It’s the heavy chain mail I can’t remove, but I know it’s not me. I’ve also learned to keep going, keep moving, keep doing in spite of it. I’m so good at managing my anxiety most of the time no one realizes.
Maybe. Or maybe I’m fooling myself.
Oh God, everyone knows. They can see right through me. They just don’t want to deal with me, because it’s just too exhausting. It’s not worth it. I’m not worth it.
This is how my mind works. It spins itself into a frenzy, and before I know it I’ve tied myself in knots, turned myself inside out and whatever other metaphor you’ve got for the kind of mental gymnastics that happens.
I’m not alone in this, even though it feels I am, because you’ve told me so. You who read, who write to me, who’ve bravely shared your experiences with me. A writer I know describes it perfectly when she says she “likes to visit the dark brambly bits in her head.” I hear it from women who are so unbelievably fucking talented, no one would ever believe they doubt. I hear it from women who have had easy, charmed lives. And from women who have lived through things no one should ever have to know.
Different experiences. Different words. Different people speaking in different voices, and yet we’re all wrestling this dark unknowable creature we call our own mental health, This stupid, monstrous thing gets in the way of everything. Of life. Of family. Of hanging out with friends. Of getting a good night’s sleep. And it damn sure gets in the way of writing.
Words get stuck somewhere between infinite space of creative potential we all have when we’re born and where I am now. I look at my two-year-old Charlie as he interfaces with the world. He explores, creates, touches and never once feels that pang of self-consciousness dragging him back. How lovely it would be to live in that place where there’s no shame at tearing off one’s clothes, real or metaphorical, to show the body parts beneath.
It’s hard to write a truth with that voice telling you things.
You know the voice. The one that’s set up tent inside your amygdala and keeps shouting things at you. You stupid ox moron worthless empty handbag of an excuse for a human being. Go drink yourself to death. You garbage human. Why bother? Or the voice warns us of impending doom. Oh my God, we’re going to die! Everything is going to hell! It tells us someone is saying awful things about us and then supplies the horrible gossip for us to ruminate, chew, chew chew. I’m sure they hate me. I’m not good enough. Why did I do that? I really should finish that short story. Why don’t I pitch more even though I’m sure no editor will ever take my pitches because I’m just not a very good writer.
The voice echoes things others have said to us, too. From the editor who said your work is shit to the client who e-mails You’re not even human. You’re a failure. To the guy on the street who threatens bodily harm because you didn’t smile. Or the friend who offers the tidbit You’re not normal. What’s wrong with you?
If you’re anything like me, you blame yourself.
“But wait,” you want to say. That’s not it at all. Please, let me explain. Understand that nothing you or I say will make a difference. People who cannot see us, will never see us as we want to be seen.
What can you do? Oh, what can you do?
These things have worked for me. Ultimately, you’ll decide what helps you. You can trust your instinct to let you know what’s best.
1. Stop. Take a deep breath. Breathe out. Take another. Do yoga and meditate if that’s your jam. Dance. Run. Move around. Let your body be so busy that it tires your mind from thinking.
2. Write in gratitude. I keep a gratitude journal in which I write only the things for which I am grateful. This isn’t meant to say “Hey, look at the bright side.” It’s just that that sometimes I get caught in a vortex of negative thought that sucks me into a never ending chain of horrible. My gratitude journal breaks that chain and shifts me to a brighter place.
3. Find a good therapist. For talk or medication. Whichever works for you. While writing is a therapeutic process, it does not replace therapy. I know how daunting it can be taking the first steps to find a therapist. Do your best to make that first call. I know it’s not easy.
4. Say no when you mean no. No, I can’t do that. No, I won’t. Do not talk to me that way. No. Set firm boundaries with everyone. It would be a vast understatement to say that “No” isn’t easy. Most people hate hearing no. They rail against it. They’ll fight you. Eventually, the good people quiet down and respect you. The rest can kindly fuck off.
5. Get enough sleep. I am a mess when I don’t sleep, and unfortunately when I’m anxious, I don’t sleep well. It’s a vicious cycle. Do what you need to get enough sleep. Go to bed early. Take naps. One caveat: If you want to take meds, please talk to a doctor first. And please, please don’t drink or take drugs so you can numb yourself enough to rest. That road leads to ugly places.
6. Take care of yourself. Eat properly. Brush your teeth. Take a moment to rest when you’re tired. Talk to yourself kindly. Do for yourself what you think a mother should do for her child.
7. Be angry when you’re angry. Too often, we’re told to calm down, don’t be angry. Why are you such an angry person? Shut that shit down. You are not a bitch. You are not shrill. You are not a harpy. You are expressing a normal human emotion. You have a right to be angry.
8. Write in truth. Gather together those fragments of hurt and place them side by side to tell your story. You can do all the things in your fictions that feel impossible in real life. In your novels and short stories, you can shout, hit, blame, even fly or kill. Anything is possible, and the world is yours.
In your memoirs and essays, tear off the bandages and let people see everything inside. Margaret Cho describes silence as the tool of the oppressor. When you’re frightened, it’s hard to speak. Fear forces you to believe a version of events that hurts you. Whether you’re a sparkle brain with a bright red cane or the girl who grew up homeless or the sex worker who didn’t fight back or any other number of people or identities, when you tell your story, you claim what is yours. When you express your reality, shape it to your will and force fact to behave for your benefit, then that other voice will listen when you tell it to shut up.
When you share your story unabashedly, other people hear, and they, too, will realize they’re not alone.