About three years ago, I was riding the metro when it hit me—a lump in my throat; fluttering heartbeat; difficult, irregular breath.
John noticed immediately. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“Just hold my hand,” I managed, reaching for his. Mine was trembling.
Medically, there wasn’t anything wrong with me during this episode. I was having what anxiety sufferers call a panic attack, a sudden and intense episode of distress.
Ever since I was very young, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. Something like a bad test grade could overwhelm me, bringing each of my perceived failures to the surface of my consciousness, as raw and painful as if they’d just occurred. It could lead to a panic attack, or simply days or weeks where I felt like I was going through the motions, totally numb.
I got my anxiety and depression under control when I began treating my Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions like lectures. For a while I completely forgot about my diagnosis, until I started freelancing on my own three years ago, when it came back in full force.
As mental illnesses, anxiety and depression are deeply stigmatized. Sufferers and even former sufferers, like me, don’t often talk about it. If you don’t already believe it, I’m not going to be the one to convince you that these are real disorders caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. And when you’re trying to start a career for yourself as a writer, these high-running emotions can be devastating and have very real effects on your work and life.
Though nothing will ever completely remove that chemical imbalance, I call myself a former sufferer because anxiety and depression do not affect the way I live my life. However, I know very well what it feels like when they do, and if you find yourself in that dark place, let me validate that what you’re feeling is very real.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with mental illness, from one writer to another.
You are not a problem. But you need tools to solve your problems.
When my doctor told me and my parents that I needed to find a therapist to help me work through my depression, I felt like the world’s biggest failure. Enrolling in therapy meant I was the problem. I was not very smart.
It wasn’t until college that I realized that therapy wasn’t about fixing me, it was about offering solutions to the problems around me. I started bringing a notebook with me to take notes, draw diagrams, and draft emotional “scripts” I could follow in stressful situations. Many of these scripts have become almost reflexive. When I feel overwhelmed, I write a to-do list and then rank it by urgency. When I am anxious about a problem, I write a list of possible solutions. After my panic attack, I began taking a journal on the metro and writing lists to stay calm. Yes, all my coping mechanisms involve writing lists, but this is advice for writers I’m giving here.
You are not broken. You do not need fixing. But your problems absolutely do. Think of therapy or doctor-prescribed medication as tools in your arsenal toward combatting depression.
You can’t write from too high or too low.
One of my favorite pieces of advice about writing comes from Cheryl Strayed. In response to a writer who felt alternately full of herself and guilty, Strayed wrote:
“You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level.”
Depression can be like a domino stack. One setback feels like a million, like if you get one article rejected you’re never going to find work again. Writing while feeling this way is going to lead to work tinged by your own self-doubt, if you manage to write anything at all.
It’s funny how we think the best writers are depressed, because I’ve never managed to get anything done during a depressive episode. Give yourself the time and space you need to write from a neutral emotional level.
Life first, work second.
Which brings me to this—your work is going to suck if you haven’t been taking care of yourself. You need to build a life around your work, not the other way around.
Probably that means a morning routine where you get up and dressed at a reasonable time, eat something, go to your workspace, even if you work from home. Maybe that means doing something to move your body every day, if being active is what balances your brain chemicals (I find it works for me). Maybe that means leaving the house and spending time with friends.
When I had my last panic attack, I was working all the time. I did not leave my house often. Other than watching TV, I did not have hobbies. Now, I make sure to go on a walk or run every day. I signed up for a class and joined a club so I could see more people in a week than my husband and the grocery store cashier. Usually, I forget that I’m living with depression until a mental health awareness effort comes up, which is thankfully more and more often.
You are not your illness.
Why is it OK to label yourself a depressed person, when depressive episodes are temporary? It’s like labeling yourself a broken-legged person. While depression and anxiety can feel terminal, do not use them to define yourself.
I used to think I might “lose” part of myself if I ever stopped feeling depressed. Maybe my writing ability would go first (all writers are depressed, aren’t they?) or my sense of humor. But surprise, I did not become some kind of plastic unfeeling robot just because I began employing coping mechanisms that made me stop feeling miserable all the time.
You are awesome. I know this, because you’re reading my blog. You are a writer brimming with novels and essays and articles and reviews. And no matter what your anxiety or depression is telling you, your ideas are great. Put them out into the world like they deserve.
Photo by Ryan Melaugh