So, I am by no means the first or only person to do this, and I’m sure that others have been far more eloquent on this topic than my baby self can be. But this is an absolutely essential thing to talk about, and given that it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, now seems like a pretty good time to talk about it. So– mental health and writing. Here we go.
I don’t know what it is– whether writing draws in people with preexisting mental health struggles, or writing itself causes mental health issues. Either way, the vast majority of writers that I know (including myself) struggle with mental health. I cannot and won’t pretend to speak to every writer or mentally ill person out there. All I can do is tell you my story, and tell you how I deal with it.
I have major depressive disorder, seasonal depressive disorder (super fun with the MAD), social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD. Hoo boy. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, they’re all pretty common, but they do make existing in general as a functional human being a trip and a half.
Anyways, I’ve had all of my illnesses as long as I can remember, and I’ve been writing for just as long, too. In fact, the only times in recent memory when I’ve stopped writing have been when my mental health was out the window. Whether it was because of a stressor in life which made my symptoms skyrocket (thanks, manipulative girlfriends and fucked-up legal system!) or just a flare-up of symptoms with no cause, my mental health and productivity in writing are inextricably linked.
So– what do I do when my mental health is fucking with me? How do I keep this writing thing up when my brain– the organ that is unfortunately in charge of my ability to write– is screaming no with everything in it?
- Just ignore that I have mental health issues and beat myself up when I’m not as productive as usual.
As you may have guessed if you have any experience whatsoever with mental illness, this method is not very effective. It’s actually extremely counterproductive. And yet, while I know this perfectly well, I always end up starting out with this. When my mood drops and my writing follows, I always start out by yelling at myself nonstop to “just start writing, dammit, it’s not that hard!” No matter how many times I go through this cycle, I always forget that I literally can’t help the fact that I’m mentally ill, and therefore sometimes not as productive as usual. And I don’t really have advice for dealing with that– you just need to try and remind yourself that you’re dealing with issues beyond your control, and sometimes you need to prioritise your health over your writing.
And that brings me to strategy two:
- Take a break from writing to focus on my mental health.
This one is my most advised strategy. If you take medicine, make sure you’re taking it. If you see a therapist or psychiatrist, talk to them about what’s going on, and see if they can help. Practice mindfulness, make sure you’re eating enough healthy food and staying hydrated. And most importantly, give yourself some time to recharge your writing battery. As often as not, my mental health issues are triggered or worsened by burnout, and so the most effective treatment is to distance myself from my work and stress and just relax.
Unfortunately, the real world is not nice, and sometimes deadlines are little fucks that won’t let you take a break. In that case, I like to employ strategy numero tres:
- Write whatever you can, when you can, and do your best not to get mad at yourself for it.
This is by far the hardest strategy to stick to. Some days, I can only crank out twenty some-odd words before my brain nopes out of the whole “writing” thing. It is immensely, painfully frustrating to be writing every day and still not be up to my usual standard of quality or productivity. And again, I don’t really have advice for dealing with it. As impossible as it can be while you’re dealing with mental health issues, if your deadlines are creeping up and you need to meet them, you’ll need to make yourself write as much as you can.
The most important thing to remember when writing during downtimes, like writing during National Novel Writing Month, is that quantity is more important than quality. I usually want to beat myself up over every word I write, because they’re all awful and terrible and the worst thing ever written. But if I want to get anything done, ever, I need to fight that temptation. I need to keep pushing myself to write whatever garbage my brain spews to get it down on paper. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s not nearly as bad as I’m telling myself. And for that one percent of the time, well, that’s what editing is for. You can’t be editing yourself while you write, especially not if you’re dealing with a major mental health downswing.
I’m sorry that this post wasn’t as helpful as it could be, but nonetheless I hope it helped someone. As you may have guessed based on my choice of topic, I’m currently in a bit of a downturn myself, and so as stated above I’m doubting every word I write. So, sorry if this is as garbage as my brain is telling me it is.
This is a tired refrain, and I know you’ve heard it a million times in a million more eloquent ways, but I want to make sure that all of you know that if you’re struggling with mental health issues, there is help out there, there’s ways to live a happy life for everyone, including you, and you can always talk to someone you trust or, if you need to, me about what you’re going through. I hope you’re all doing alright, or if you’re not, that you’ll be okay in the end.
Thank you guys for reading, and as always, just keep writing!