Changing My Locus of Control
The book I'm currently submitting to agents is, I think, my fifteenth book. I wrote my first book in high school and have been writing prodigiously ever since. However, I've been writing to fulfill a need within me and only occasionally going through the effort of editing and submitting. Even then I have done so without the drive and care necessary to get published. I knew the whole goal of writing was to get published, but I wasn't up for the whole business of getting published. I was okay with that, by and large, and just kept writing. When I did submit to agents or publishers I did so with little research and without hope. I had schizophrenia, after all, what I was doing to maintain was good enough, right?
But this last year that changed. In October I made a goal to get published by the end of 2021. I've edited and am continuing to edit my current novel From the Cradle. I've spent a good deal of time researching and targeting comparable books and finding the agents who represented them. I carefully crafted my query package. I've done more work to get a bite on these agent submissions than ever before. And I'm not stopping there. I'm going to rewrite and edit an older book I wrote before this one and prep it for submission to agents by the end of the spring. Then I'm going to submit that to agents. Then I've already planned out the dramatic thriller I'm going to write after that and have ready to submit to agents by the fall. And I'm going to keep all three--and any additional novels I get ready--rotating through submissions until I find either an agent or a publisher who is willing to sign a contract.
So what changed?
Last week I gave you an overview of my journey with writing and mental health. The turning point in that journey--at least I hope that's what it was--occured last year when I started effective therapy for the first time. I'd sat with therapists before but for the wrong reasons and long before I found out I had schizophrenia and they were so less effective that they were damaging. But this time, I went in knowing I had schizophrenia and knowing that I was tired of living life without anything truly positive happening other than the occasional good day.
And though I had made progress with my medication over the last six months--dropping my antidepressants and determining that my past problems had come because of substance abuse--I was still overly affected by any change in my mood or cognitive ability. If I felt depressed I worried that I was wrong about the substance abuse and actually had clinical depression and that I would have to go back on the antidepressants and suffer the debilitating cognitive side effects. If I felt good I worried that I was bipolar after all and would have to go onto even more drugs that would erase any emotion whatsoever and leave me unable to mentally function. And I struggled to wake up in the morning and struggled to accomplish anything and struggled in general. Something had to change, and living in Vietnam I despaired of a pharmaceutical solution. II wasn't sure that therapy would help, but I was at a point where I didn't have any other options. I was grasping at straws and the only path left open was talking to someone.
As I mentioned last week, I was also at a nadir medication-wise and on the edge of a crisis when Victor, my therapist, first taught me that emotions will be experienced but that they will also pass. And then he gave me a chart to record negative outcomes. It was more than that, though, because it forced me to look at the thing that caused me to have the negative thoughts and emotions and my thinking and consider the possible problems with that thinking and alternatives before concluding that the outcome might not be inevitable. At first I slacked and didn't do my homework, but Victor was insistent. He patiently explained the importance of this chart and how it would help me change my life. I finally gave in and started filling out the chart, only a few events each week, though, but enough to familiarize me with the list of 13 cognitive distortions that affected my thinking and reactions. Enough to start seeing the possibilitiy of alternatives.
I began seeing a change in myself. When something happened that made me angry, instead of blowing up or continuing in the situation I would remove myself and take deep breaths and think through problem before choosing how to interact with the thing or person that upset me. When I felt depressed I began turning to the list of cognitive distortions and trying to figure out where I had made a mistake in my thinking and how I might change it. Inevitably I would find a distortion and i would come to a realization and I would almost instantly feel better. The problem was with my thinking, now, not with my head. The depression wasn't caused by my mental illness in such a way that there was nothing I could do about it, it was caused by a cognitive distortion, a bad thought process, and there was infinitely more I could do about that. I began to see the possibilities of control.
And then one day, several months after starting the process, I felt good. I was on a high. I went through my day, pleasant and happy. I talked to people, I accompished things. I saw the world through a new lens. When my friend offered me chocolate to improve my mood I told him it wouldn't do any good the way I was feeling. It couldn't improve. But then I remembered something the doctor said before I left the hospital back in 2011. He said he thought I might be bipolar. And I had had highs before, though they had been on stimulant drugs, and come down hard. And when I was in the hospital I was writing like a fiend, all day, every day. It was all I did, sitting and writing my thoughts and ideas and stories on printer paper from the nurses station. There was the chance that my past contained evidence of mania. And the way I was feeling, the high I was experiencing, wasn't that also evidence of bipolar mania? Euphoria was the precursor, wasn't it? Hypomania?
Immeidately, I came crashing down. No matter how I looked at it I couldn't find the distortion. I couldn't see the problem. I was bipolar. I had to see a doctor. I had to be hospitalized. I really was sick and there was nothing I could do to change my situation. I was lost to mental illness.
But then, a day later, I had a session with VIctor. I told him what happened and he practically thrashed me with his words. Who was I to diagnose bipolar? It took a medical doctor who had years of training and months of symptoms to examine before coming to such a diagnosis. One day was not nearly enough to justify something like that. Besides, just because you feel good doesn't mean you're manic. You might just feel good. And most importantly and life changingly, just because you have a change in mood doesn't mean you have to fear mental illness.
It wasn't those exact words he used, but when he said them the truth finally resonated in my brain. I was not controlled by my mental illness. I was not a victim. It was the turning point, that single moment, when the reality of months of therapy and a changing perspective on my life began to finally sink in and the ultimate realization came to me. I could control my own life. I could control how I chose to react. I could influence my own future despite what mental health issues I might have. I was not a victim of mental illness. I was a free agent, capable of choosing how I lived. I was no longer simply acted upon, I was an actor.
In instant messaging parlance it was a WTF moment.
In psychology what happened to me was a change in my locus of control. Wikipedia defines Locus of Control as "the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives." It is the primary goal of much of modern psychotherapy and counseling. To move individuals who have lived feeling like they had no ability to change the outcomes of their lives from that dark place into the light of understanding that they can actually influence the outcomes of their lives.
Thanks to Victor's guidance I was able to change my locus of control. I was able to see myself as an actor and to begin making decisions to change the trajectory of my life. For nearly ten years I lived as a mental illness victim. Never sure of my exact diagnosis I sought out every possible symptom and matched it to the DSM-IV (the previous version of the diagnostic manual for psychiatrists in the United States). I tailored these symptoms to seek out medications, regardless of the side effects. I had read that pharmaceutical treatment should be in conjunction with therapy, but I lived in Indochina for much of the time, and even when I lived in the United States the charity mental health services didn't push counseling as a part of a treatment plan. It wasn't until I was out of options that I turned to something that should have been there from the very beginning. And in so doing, changed my life.
Since then, I've written the majority of From the Cradle and submitted it to 29 targeted agents. I'm nearly 10,000 words into a section of a historical novel I'm working on and should finish--between other projects--by the end of this year. I have plans fo get two more books in circulation with agents and publishers by the end of the year. And I'm only spending about an hour a day on writing activities. But that hour is first thing, after getting up at six in the morning and before I start my work day at eight. I'm going to get published in 2021 and I'm doing everything I know how to make it happen. Because I can affect the outcome now. I can change my future. I can go from being someone who writes to feel good for an hour a day to someone who has developed the skills to get published even though he has schizophrenia. All because, with VIctor's help, I changed my locus of control.