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When You’re Not Okay: A Mental Health Checkup for Writers

Flickr Creative Commons: darkday

I ignored the signs for months, convinced the anxiety, crying jags, insomnia, and moments of rage were hormonal potholes on Perimenopause Lane.

In my defense, life has thrown a few curveballs since December. Before I could send out queries on my newly completed manuscript, I came down with the flu. On Christmas Eve. This illness transitioned into a violent asthmatic/allergic cough that remained until mid-March. I lost fifteen pounds (good) but only because I could barely eat or sleep (bad). During this time one of my daughters was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. A few weeks later her best friend received a lymphoma diagnosis. An elderly aunt and special needs cousin moved to Dallas and their new home required a major face-lift. I threw myself into helping them, trying to ignore the lack of response to my initial queries. I later discovered those same queries, unwisely proofread and sent between coughing bouts, contained a glaring typo in the second paragraph.

The ‘I am a complete failure’ refrain began and spread its venom into all aspects of my life until I questioned every decision I’ve ever made. After decades of writing and little published work to show for it, I must be a talentless hack. My daughter would not struggle so much if I’d recognized earlier how crippling her condition had become. My marriage of twenty years would be richer if I’d encouraged my husband’s full involvement and support with the children rather than letting him play computer games while I juggled everything on my own. (To be fair, he involves himself when asked.)

The only glimmer of happiness came when my other daughter discovered that her crush not only liked her back, but that he embodied the word “gentleman” and came from a family who welcomed her into their fold with open arms. Being a romantic, empathic by nature, and teetering on the brink of depression, the temptation to vicariously experience her joy proved irresistible. This high doubled when I saw the adoring expression he perpetually wore in her presence, though over time this feeling was accompanied by a sharp pang of motherly protectiveness. (For him!)

Perhaps I sensed that it was only a matter of time before she’d bristle when teachers referred to her not by name but as the girlfriend of a popular kid, before she’d decide she was too young to be with a boy who claimed (quite earnestly) that he hoped she’d be both his first and last girlfriend. When that day came and she let him go, I struggled to praise her self-awareness and maturity.

It was at that moment I realized I was not okay.

I’m in a place where many creative types find themselves at some point. According to a large-scale Swedish study at the Karolinska Instituet [1], families with histories of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome, drug and alcohol abuse, ADHD, anorexia and suicide are more likely to include people in creative or scientific professions. The study concluded that writers in particular were common among sufferers of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and were almost fifty percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

These statistics are frightening, and they are also a reason that communities such as Writer Unboxed are a lifeline for those who might otherwise suffer in isolation. A community can only do so much, though, especially one with members spread all over the world. It is up to us as individuals to do all we can to monitor our mental health as vigilantly as our physical health.

Bad Days vs. Big Problem

We all have days when we feel low or trapped in anxiety’s web, days when we lack the focus to make coffee, let alone put quality words down on a page. If those days turn into weeks, though, especially if there is no obvious reason behind it, it’s time to pay attention. If negative thoughts have only been prevalent for a few weeks, it may be possible to force a mental shift without professional intervention. Recognizing the problem early may prevent it from worsening.

Are You Sleeping?

Brains can’t function properly without time to recharge. If your sleep pattern or quality has changed, this may be feeding mental or emotional instability.

Are You Eating?

Skipping meals? Eating on the run? Hitting the drive-thru more than usual? This may be taking a toll on more than your waistline.

Are You Exercising?

We all know we should…

Are You Writing?

Writing, for many of us, is a compulsion. A way to speak our truths, confess our secrets, escape into a world we’ve created, a world we control. When words refuse to come, when fear and self-doubt prevent us from opening our manuscripts, we are silenced in a way non-writers could never understand. Since we’ve done it to ourselves, we wrestle with frustration, rage, even shame. If the drought persists long enough, we question our identity, our purpose. This can be a recipe for disaster.

Has Something Traumatic Happened Involving Your Writing?

Did your agent tell you that book of your heart isn’t marketable? Did a contract fall through? Did you receive a cutting rejection? Were your sales poor? Did you read and internalize all those bad reviews?

Are You in a Transitional Stage of Life?

If so, you are especially vulnerable. Post-partum depression, divorce, death of a loved one, sending the last child off to college – all can send people into a tailspin. Men do not have the exclusive on mid-life crises. Perimenopause is no joke and it can last a decade. It may be worth having hormone levels checked, even if you think you’re “far too young for that.”

Do You Have a History?

If you have suffered from depression or anxiety before, you will be more prone to a relapse. More serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia run in families and require continuous medication. Dosages may need adjustment over time.

Do You Need Outside Help?

For more serious situations, the obvious answer is yes. In some cases medication can make the difference between living a full life and barely functioning. If you sense something is wrong or if those around you express concern and urge you to seek help, chances are good you have reached the point where self-care may not be enough. Visit your medical doctor or seek the help of a mental health professional. Some employers offer employee assistance programs that offer a number of no or low cost sessions to get you started on the path to recovery.

Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You are worth it.

What things do you require to maintain a sense of calm and balance in your life? What things throw a wrench in this? What role does writing play in your wellbeing? If you have experienced a breakdown, what has helped you to move forward in your life? (Share only to your comfort level, of course.)

About Kim Bullock [2]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [3], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.