How Struggling with Mental Illness Helped Me Find my Voice as a Writer.
The hardest part of writing is always formulating the beginning, creating a staggering picture that encapsulates the soul of your work. Much of my writer’s block has not been due to a lack of creative ideas, but due to a lack of confidence; how can I coherently express my thoughts if the introduction to my works are subpar? How can I captivate my (hypothetical) readers without providing a crystalline image that leaves them motionless with bated breath?
Like most writers, I’ve spent too many nights exhausting my creative juices into unfinished drafts that, consequently, crawled their way into the recycle bin. Eventually, I stopped writing altogether; if I couldn’t push through something as fundamental as an introduction, then what business do I have in attempting to complete my work? I had lost hope.
But this isn’t about the writing process — this is about mental health, otherwise known as the demon in my brain who zapped away my confidence and, in return, handed me a stack of medical bills and a handful of pills. As my mental stability deteriorated, so did my confidence as a writer. As I dug deeper into my own grave, my aspirations of becoming a writer grew forlorn and distant. I had intended to make myself into a household name, but instead, I ended up becoming a cliché.
My process of going from Point A to Point B is a story for another time. As for now, I’m presently at Point C: the crossroads of stability and instability, recovery and relapse, wellness and illness. With the help of my therapist, I’ve greeted my demon at the juncture and attempted to push it onto the other side of the tracks; however, mental illness is not so easily swayed. While most days I’m considered to be “highly functioning,” there are often times where my body feels like a heavy weight in my bed, and it takes every ounce of strength just to lift up my feet and place them on the cold ground. Those days, the demon has won. Those days, I crawl back into bed and hope to some higher power that tomorrow will be a better day.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been struggling with mental illness — however, nobody tells you when you’re young that your behavioral traits, feelings, and proclivities are the result of a medically-diagnosed condition. At that age, you’re simply “acting out,” “running on hormones,” or “socially awkward.” I was experiencing clinical depression before I even knew what depression was, and I had assumed that my feelings were normal: everyone had them, right? Everybody had that stereotypical, dark cloud over their head that infiltrated their pores until their very existence was a metaphor for sadness. Right?
It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I realized that my feelings were abnormal; my behavioral trends were, in fact, symptoms of an illness; and my own mind wasn’t supposed to be my enemy. It wasn’t until I began speaking to my therapist that I realized my demon was the culmination of my past experiences with a small dash of a genetically-predisposed serotonin imbalance. I was, in essence, the embodiment of the “perfect storm,” and until I came to this understanding, I assumed that my infamous writer’s block was simply the byproduct of inadequacy. I assumed that I was incapable of writing because I already passed my prime; I surpassed my 15 minutes of fame by the age of 25, and I could not get that back.
Whatever qualities of which a writer was composed — stubborn diligence, a dedication to the craft, a rigid routine — I had lacked; I was a fraud.
As a result, I attributed my lack of motivation to the idea that I was just a bad person pretending to be a writer. I propelled myself under the illusion that I would one day write the “perfect” novel without any preparation whatsoever. Six years passed without scribbling down one creative thought; later, I found out that psychologists call this anhedonia, a medical term describing the deprivation of pleasure in things once found to be enjoyable — yet another symptom of depression that I misrepresented to be a character flaw.
Soon thereafter, I taught myself how to declaw my demon piece by bloody piece, dipping its nails into solemn black ink and molding its wretched screams into raw prose. I wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve learned a lot about mental illness and its destructive nature upon a person’s self-image. Mental illness has the terrible habit of turning our fears against us, rendering us victim to our own (often irrational) thoughts. Although I was aware that my journey toward healing was far from complete, I was comforted by the thought that my fear of writing was just a side effect of untreated mental illness. Suddenly, my inadequacy as a writer was the result of a complication which was as corporeal as much as it was resolvable.
Not only was my crossroads demon something tangible, but so was my self-diagnosed impostor syndrome. I could encase my insecurities into one living vessel and observe them through the glass like a specimen in a science experiment. My demon attempted to claw through the glass to break free of its cage, but with steady hands guided by my therapist, I dissected its flesh until it no longer cried out in pain. Black, charred membrane began to bubble over and heal until it resembled pink scar tissue, and I was flooded with a sense of liberation. I finally felt free.
All of a sudden, I approached writing not with disdain, but with the warmth associated only with the reuniting of a long-lost friend. An empty, white page didn’t fill me with dread any longer. And although I still have doubts regarding my own diction, like any self-defeating writer does, I no longer fear the possibility of failing to meet my own expectations. Much like my therapy sessions, often the only way to pinpoint the root of the problem is to accelerate forward in spite of the pain, allowing your emotions to momentarily consume you, and then releasing them back into the endless void. Your emotions become a part of you, and in that coalescence, you gain deeper insight into the essence of how you came to be.
I’m not going to sit here and shroud the truth: I still struggle with my mental health on a daily basis, and I experience the Bad Days just as often as I experience the Good Days. I scrutinize interpersonal conflicts with no clear rationale, wreaking havoc on my relationships; I endure erratic mood swings with often meaningless triggers; my thinking patterns are often black-and-white, vacillating between two extremes; my self-identity is fragmented, leading to indecision and confusion; and I struggle with the prosaic complications of depressive disorder and panic disorder. I am, by no means, a recovered survivor of mental illness.
Nevertheless, I am en route to recovery — despite the demon perched defiantly on my shoulder, despite the stigma that exists against warriors of mental illness, and despite my own doubts and fears. I am a fighter.
So, what does this mean in terms of my aspirations of being a best-selling, albeit agoraphobic, novelist? It means that as long as I remain committed to my treatment plan and consistent with my daily medication, I actually have a chance at weaving my ambitions into a reality (whatever interpretation of reality I have, at the very least). It means that as long I remain motivated and caffeinated, I have the option to tell the world my story. And above all else, it means that I’ll be accorded the opportunity to become a voice for those whose voices are not yet loud enough to break through the fog.
For the first time in over a decade, I want to be alive to bear witness to my work’s impact upon my audience. And so should you.