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Writing With Mental Illness

Photo by Magic_Nick

I can’t speak for everyone who has mental illness, and I’m in no way, shape, or form a medical professional. I can only speak about my experiences with it. I am diagnosed ADHD and bipolar 2, and it has taken me years to finally write this post. (I tried last August, but wound up pulling my punch and writing a more generalized post about anxiety.)

There’s a lot of romanticizing of mental illness by various writers and poets throughout history, either as a necessary element of creativity, or creativity as a balm for it. Do a Google image search on “madness” and “writers” and you’ll see dozens of arty quotes about “beautiful insanity” and the like. They see mental illness as this glorious, passionate, technicolor acid-trip of imagination… when oftentimes it’s just being shackled to a high-school bully who won’t shut up.

Allow me to illustrate.

When your brain is not necessarily your friend.

You write a thing.

After a brief burst of happiness, you start questioning said thing. Slowly, you convince yourself that the piece actually sucks. It’s not just “bad but revisable.” It’s trash.

It doesn’t stop there.

The piece sucks, your brain whispers, because your writing sucks.

The writing sucks because you suck. You are, objectively, a horrible human being.

At some point, you find yourself up at two in the morning, remembering (I am not even kidding here) some terrible, stupid, embarrassing thing you did in junior high school, which your brain has helpfully provided as “proof” that you are, without question, a horrible human being.

The next day, you go to write, but you find yourself paralyzed. Because your writing sucks, because you suck, and this is an empirical, proven, clinically tested and peer-reviewed fact which everyone knows.

(On some logical level, you suspect that you may be wrong. You probably aren’t horrible. But every time you brush against this thought, your brain starts to present more proof, so for sheer self-preservation, it’s easier to not examine it more carefully.)

What it looks like from the outside.

Let’s say you try to explain this problem to someone.

You don’t necessarily want to say it’s because of the mental illness – because the illness itself tells you it’s not its fault.

You’re not blocked because you have depression, it murmurs. You’re blocked because you’re a terrible writer, because you’re whiny and self-indulgent and a fraud.

So instead, you tentatively say that you’ve “got a bit of writer’s block,” and you’re “kind of bummed” about it, downplaying your emotions. Why? Because it seems overly dramatic to say “I am in agony over here” and the last thing you want to seem is over-dramatic.

(Because that would make you a terrible person, your brain whispers. People don’t like drama queens.)

And let’s say that the person you’re talking to 1) is neurotypical (i.e., does not have mental illness) and 2) does not realize that you are not neurotypical.

Good intentions.

They are then going to apply “solutions” that could possibly work… if you were neurotypical.

“Buck up” or “stay positive” or similar are often trotted out. “I don’t believe in writer’s block” is another goody in the bag. People share links to “increasing your productivity” posts and “increasing your word-count” vlogs and other “efficiency hacks.”

None of these things is inherently harmful. (Okay, I do hate the “I don’t believe in writer’s block” thing, because it strikes me as terribly uncompassionate. That’s like saying to someone who just got hit by a brick: “I’ve never gotten hit by a brick. I don’t think that’s a thing.”) They’re just not necessarily helpful.

But when you have mental illness, you take their commentary as further proof that you’re the problem.

If you had only been more positive, or more efficient, or basically less you, then you wouldn’t suffer the problems you’re experiencing. Some people “just need a good smack” to “get over themselves” and honey, that’s you.

It’s not bad enough you’re suffering. You did it to yourself.

You absorb that. Internalize it. Amplify it.

Rinse and repeat.

Gaslit from the inside.

It’s hard to fight something that’s constantly trying to hide its own existence. Mental illness feels like that.

Depression lies. Anxiety takes existing concerns and dials those suckers up to eleven. ADHD tries to convince you that you’re stupid.

They’re wrong. But you’ve got an enemy in your head, morning, noon, and night. How do you address something so pervasive?

Some things that (might) help.

Again – not a doctor, don’t even play one on TV. But I’ve been doing this enough for myself to have a few coping mechanisms up my sleeve.

In some cases – in my case – medication helps. Getting the right medication helps, too. (Turns out I was misdiagnosed with chronic depression as opposed to bipolar 2. That took some dialing in. I loved hypomania – wrote like a demon in that state – but the “productivity” is not worth the extended depressive crash.)

If you think you may have a mental illness, but you’re avoiding treatment because you’re afraid that it will negatively affect your creativity, I would suggest that it, also, might be a matter of a doctor helping you dial it in. Discussing it with one is a step in the right direction.

Some of those earlier neurotypical solutions can be helpful, if you’re aware of why and how you’re using them. The problem is, it isn’t as easy as “stay positive” or “buck up.” It’s more specific.

How do you get to a positive state, for example? Listing things you’re grateful for, even just one a day, can help. Being mindful, focusing on your breathing, meditating. Focusing on “where your feet are.” Doing things that you know make you happy. (Within reason. Four cookies? Good. Four dozen in five minutes? Perhaps less good.)

That’s why I often write articles about self-care. Self-care is crucial when it comes to managing mental illness. It’s hard, don’t get me wrong. But it’s worth it.

Finally, connecting with people who know you have a mental illness, and who understand what that entails and are sympathetic, can be a huge help. The problem then is reaching out and asking for help. That can be one of the most grueling exercises possible. Even when someone is reaching out to you, it can be hard to speak. Set a routine call if you can – it’ll keep you connected, whether you want to be or not.

It’s okay. Or it will be.

It’s not like I take pills in the morning and practice self-care and now I’m “normal.” I still wrestle with various issues, but I try to stay on top of it. (That’s especially important when the illness’s other party trick is saying “you’re fine now – stop taking your meds.”)

That said, I don’t think of myself as particularly “abnormal,” not in any bad way. It’s just an illness. I deal with it. So do lots of other writers who contend with mental illness. It’s okay. Or, if it isn’t okay, we’ll battle, or nap, or prop each other up until it is.

I know recognizing and addressing what you’re dealing with helps. Knowing you’re not alone in the struggle helps. Left untreated, unaddressed, it’s more dangerous than most people want to admit.

Finally, if you need it, I just wanted to say: I see you. I care about you. And I know it can get better, even in this time of catastrophic external upheaval. Hang in there.


A lot of these elements aren’t exclusive to mental illness. Do you ever “beat yourself up” for poor writing, or not writing? How harsh is your inner critic? Does it ever affect your feelings of overall self-worth? Just how much of your “self” is defined by your writing?

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]