Writing with Mental Illness: The Value of Acceptance

Syed Ali Wasif from Flickr

Posted by Anthony Lyon, Fiction Reader for Issue 9.2

This past year, I took a stay in a mental health institution for my severe depression. While I was there, I spent many hours thinking about my life, and talking to others about the crossroads where they had found themselves. How should I continue? I would ask myself. How should I continue when nothing else has worked?

I remember an exchange I had with one of my friends, with whom I’ve since lost touch. He used dry erase markers to draw a giant snail covered in different colors. When he finished, I remember asking him: “Do you like to draw?”

He looked belabored with the question.

“Well,” he said. “I would like to draw, but I just can’t do it. If things are a little off, I stress myself out, and then I get angry. It isn’t fun anymore, so I just don’t. I don’t see the point.”

I remember being struck by his response. For me, writing had been the same way. I had wanted to produce the best writing possible, to the point that I would not allow myself to write because it would not be good enough. This mental bind, which had frustrated me for many years, was not unique to writing. It is a more personal issue.

My anxieties had led to analysis paralysis. Each time I sat down to write, I had high expectations for myself. I wanted to pick a compelling topic, and I wanted to execute it well. I would try to hold myself accountable for past failures by avoiding topics I felt were out of my reach. I would criticize myself based on a track record of my mistakes.

Since then, I have found that many of my friends share this same mindset. Either they are not confident in their ability to produce something creative, or their standards exceed what can really be considered possible. This kind of creative bind is the hallmark of writing with mental illness.

In my case, I felt as though it was not worth beginning, because on all the occasions I had written before, I had not turned out anything publishable. I wrote each of those pieces in short and painful bouts, writing for as long as I could before I ran out of ideas, or until I was too critical of the piece to continue. My problem originated because I was unable to let myself write. I couldn’t continue because I had no confidence in my ability to choose the next step forward.

The realization that led to the solution of this problem came in the last few days of my stay at the hospital. I remember hitting a wall of exhaustion, when I could not spend any more energy beating myself down. I accepted the clinician’s advice, and tried my best to remain in the present, thinking about what I felt and what I wanted. Without much thought, and without judgement, I decided I wanted to write. I have made the same decision every day since.

What changed for me, in my exhausted moment, was the effort I spent on choosing what to say. Every time I’d held my first draft to any expectation, I’d disappointed myself, and hurt my own self-esteem. Instead of worrying about the quality of my writing, I chose to write without thought, and save my judgments for the process of review. I implemented Anne Lamott’s advice and gave rise to a slew of shitty first drafts, practicing writing as a craft rather than grind for publication alone.

This idea, of getting words on paper without judgement, is central to developing confidence both as a writer and as an individual. The drafting process tests our patience, and our ability to stay confident that the work we do in the short term will eventually pay off. By placing more faith in myself, and by being more mindful of how demanding writing can be, I have had more success and satisfaction in my work. Though not every piece lives up to snuff, I find I do not care. I enjoy writing, and that is the most important.

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