Mental Health and Writing
I've always been a writer and the act of writing has become an integral part of my life. I wake up every day and find myself unfulfilled if I don't accomplish something related to writing. It only fills up a small portion of my day, usually an hour or less, but it is a major contributor to my mental well being. Unfortunately, while it contributes to my contentment, and without it I would experience mental anguish, its presence does not alone dictate my mental health.
Eighteen years ago I experienced a psychotic break. I was in central Vietnam at the time and for a few days trapped in a city with little in the way of Western amenities or even English speakers. I was hearing, feeling, and even seeing things that weren't there. Because of these hallucinations I was convinced that I had been assaulted physically and sexually. I was paranoid and completely out of touch with reality. I didn't trust the police in Vietnam to report my imagined assailants nor was I terribly thrilled with the idea of going to a doctor to make sure I was okay. My time in Vietnam was almost over anyway, and I returned to the United States a few days later.
Despite my distance from the site the hallucinations didn't stop. They diminished, however, and subsided into a low-level disturbance that kept me up late at night and contributed to delusions about the experience and about continuing events in my life. I went about finishing college and going to law school, all the while experiencing hallucinations and delusions.
During this time I continued to write regularly. During college I wrote my second book, a novel about a woman who learns she was actually descended from a long line of assassins and must defend herself against ancestral enemies. During law school I wrote my third book about a Vietnam vet who lost his wife and daughter during a wartime visit they made to Saigon only to find that his daughter actually survived. I also researched and started writing my fourth novel, a book about the black regiment from New York during WWI. Even after law school I continued working on this book--one whose first draft stretched beyond a thousand pages upon its completion--and didn't finish it until nearly a year and a half into my professional career.
Writing all the while, and hallucinating too, I graduated law school, passed the California bar exam, and quit my first job after a month only to spend another year searching for work. Eventually, I bowed to the inevitable and decided I must return to Vietnam because my experience, language skills, and training prepared me best for work there and I had better prospects there than anywhere in California during the Great Recession.
But Vietnam was where I had been attacked, or so I still thought, and the negative experiences that had occurred as psychosis remained my perceived history. I felt I had no choice, however, and resigned myself to the misery and pain of returning to the country in which I thought I had been raped.
I eventually found a job and began work. Depressed because I didn't want to be there and drinking heavily, I struggled to get through each day. Only my writing (and workouts) relieved the distress I experienced by being in Vietnam and living paranoid, anxious, and negative. Shortly before a year there I received a job offer in Cambodia and, after a disastrous ending to my job in Vietnam, left that country behind.
I was out. No longer in Vietnam. Life got a lot better. I made new friends and stopped drinking as much--though I replaced the alcohol with opioid painkillers and Valium--and went to work every day. But my performance remained dismal. I did little actual work and wasn't enthusiastic about the work I did do. But I was still writing. I remember going to a cafe near my hotel every night and scribbling in a cheap notebook every night. I finally finished my novel about WWI and backed it up in all manner of ways.
But then I made a disastrous financial decision which left me struggling to pay for food and the trip from my apartment to work. And I was taking more and more painkillers. And my boss took me to lunch to discuss my performance and his disappointment in it. And. And . . . I was still hallucinating, more so with each pill I took. And on my thirtieth birthday, I started hearing voices come out of the air conditioner.
I won't go into details but I spent ten days crazy in Phnom Penh, before my family and US embassy personnel managed to get me on a plane back to the United States. After another week of adventures and a brief stint in hospital in Oregon, I ended up in New York City where I was finally, and properly, hospitalized. Luckily, the nursing staff was very liberal with their allowance of printer paper and pen, because I spent most of the six weeks I was there writing.
It's now 2021, 18 years after my initial psychotic break, and almost 10 years after my episode in Phnom Penh. I've struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, taking me into four suicide attempts and a long bout of what I've determined was situational depression. I've lived with my mother and siblings and their families. I've quit numerous jobs. I've been up and I've been down. But through it all, I kept writing.
In 2019 I finished my 14th novel. It's only finished in the first draft and I recently read it. While the plot and character development are good, the writing itself is a disaster. At the time I wrote it I was in the process of adjusting my meds. I got rid of the anti-depressants that I had determined were leading me to brain fog and avolition, and reduced my antipsychotics to the point where i was on the verge of a crisis. Thankfully the doctor intervened in time. All the while I was writing.
But I wasn't editing, nor marketing, nor properly submitting to publishers and agents. I was only writing. Novel after novel. I wasn't doing the specific things necessary to actually get published. That changed in the last twelve months.
Prompted by my near crisis last year and the anxiety that I was experiencing, I began therapy with a counselor through an online platform. We worked for six months on changing my locus of control from a victim of mental illness to an actor capable of determining my own actions and the course of my life. I developed the ability to examine my distorted thinking, changed my sleep cycle, and stopped thinking that every change in mood was a symptom of my illness. And as I began to come out of my victimhood I continued to write.
I finished novel 15 last fall. Without the anti-depressants and with a new perspective, it's quality. I've edited it. I'm now in a writers group comprised of other writers who give me constructive feedback that allows me to improve my writing chapter by chapter. I've carefully compiled a list of agents who represent similar works or have expressed interest in similar themes as my novel and I've submitted to 29 of them. I got my first rejection the other day and for the first time it consisted of an actual response, not a canned form letter. I'm hopeful that this time I can move from just writing to publication.
Writing, then, has helped my mental health, but my mental health has helped my writing. The two are connected intrinsically, one leads to the other leads back to the first. It's a loop that continues to improve and with each passing day,, I intend to continue this virtuous cycle.