Can you talk a little about the ways in which your illness works as a barrier to writing? What are some of the specific challenges you deal with?
I think illness, like many word-concepts in this world exist on spectrum. I’m bipolar II, but I try not to identify myself with this term. I try not to live in it. In some ways I don’t even see myself as having an “illness.” But take away my meds, which I have done to myself several times in my life, and I’m a very different person. I don’t think my illness acts as a direct barrier to my writing insomuch as my perspective on life, which is where my writing comes from. If I am too excited (or in psychiatric terms, experiencing hypomania) I can’t write. I just want to talk, talk, talk, talk, and move around and talk some more, usually getting louder and moving from one subject to another faster and faster. But I also can’t write when I’m having a depressive episode, or what I call “spiraling.” Spiraling is when I can’t stop falling inside the hole of my own sadness. I’ll just lie in bed, sometimes crying, sometimes not, and stare into space, paralyzed by my own mental state. These ups and downs can consume my being if not controlled. My ups are generally brief, a few hours in the day, maybe a whole day, but my downs last much longer…and then the day is gone. And then the week is gone. And then the month is gone. And then when it’s really bad, that is, when I become the hole itself, which has not happened in a while, I will have suicidal thoughts and consider entering into a psychiatric treatment facility.
Sometimes I will try to control the illness, meaning I will judge myself for it. Controlling/judging is a form of dwelling in it. When I dwell I cannot move. Barrier as lack of movement.
That's been a big struggle for me, too. "If I was tougher I would be better at dealing with this," "If I worked harder I would be better at dealing with this." And of course as soon as you start to talk to people about it, the common thing is "I can't work when I'm sick," or "I have a much more difficult time working when I'm sick." Your ability to function when you're ill isn't related in any way to your work ethic or value or worth as a person.
Exactly! When I'm not in my depression hole it seems like it should be so easy. "You can just snap out of it," I tell myself. But when I'm in it, the idea of "snapping out of it" seems impossible. When I was a teenager, my mom would say to me: "Just focus on your school work." But that's not how my illness, nor any illness that I know of, works.
"Controlling is a form of dwelling in it" makes a lot of sense to me--when I let go of dwelling on how I'm failing, I get a lot better at getting better.
In a counterintuitive way, it can be very comforting to dwell in it. It feels safe. I will say things to myself like, "This is just who I am. There's no use trying to fight it or get out of it." I find this mode of thought to be very dangerous and counterproductive because then I won't want to get better. I have to acknowledge that it is a feeling. I have to let go.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I practice yoga regularly, I make collages in my studio, and smoke weed. Yoga during the day and weed at night. Collages in between while listening to audio books. I don’t know if weed is particularly “effective,” but it helps when I get too excited, anxious, and/or depressed. It takes the edge off.
What is your relationship to more traditional models of managing illness, like therapy and/or medication? Do you find them effective? Is accessing them an issue for you?
I have been in and out therapy and on and off medication for 14 years. Currently, I’m not in therapy because it takes too much time out of my schedule. I find medication to be effective for me, although I often question who I am on it. Medication dulls my sense of self, or I guess the “extreme” versions of myself. This is helpful in that it limits my manic and depressive episodes, which ultimately allows me more time to write.
I am lucky that access to medication is not an issue for me right now. I am on Medicaid, so everything is pretty much free. However, in the past, I have made poor decisions to just stop taking my medication because I didn’t have insurance, and didn’t want to pay out pocket for the doctor visits and meds. This has always proven to be a bad idea! However, when I’m on them I’ll think I’m completely fine and want to get off of them. “I don’t need these pills,” I’ll say to myself. This desire to not be on meds comes from a deep fear of losing my sense of self, or “edge,” when I’m on them.
This fear can also act as a barrier to my writing.
Yes, I have just contradicted myself in these last two answers…sorry.
I feel like there are a lot of ongoing contradictions in being human and that's pretty much fine. But I tend, I think like most of us, to be a lot more forgiving of them in other people than I am in myself.
Me too! Forgiveness is also a process.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
Like I said before, I try not to identify myself with my illness. It is part of me, but I am not it. When I was first asked to do this interview, I looked at the questions and remember thinking to myself, “but I don’t have a mental illness…” and then I look at all my pills, reflect on past, and realize that I do, but that that’s OK.
Yes! How I think about it definitely changes the way I live with it. It’s all about perspective and acceptance. The latter being easier said than done.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
My partner Austin, is my biggest support. I don’t know how I would do what I do without him.
I don’t usually seek support from friends or family outside due to fear of becoming a burden. Support from my family is very important to me, but unfortunately, mental illness is not publicly addressed in Chinese culture. In a way I’ve learned not expect support from my family, so I’ve learned to do without it. Talking about mental illness is frowned upon and viewed as shameful, which is unfortunate. I come from a family of tough love, where everything has a practical answer, and feelings are viewed as obstacles from getting things done. This was always hard for me growing up. As a teenager, I often felt that my feelings were “wrong.” This resulted in very self-destructive behavior. I want to make clear that I am not blaming my family for any of this. They raised me the only way they knew how (i.e. the way they were raised) and I love them and am grateful for the world they’ve given me. I can only move from here.
Christine Shan Shan Hou is a poet and artists living in Brooklyn, NY. Publications include the forthcoming chapbook Food Cuts Short Cuts (The New Megaphone 2014), C O N C R E T E S O U N D (2011) a collaborative artists' book with artist Audra Wolowiec, and Accumulations (Publication Studio 2010). Additional poems and/or artwork appear in Weekday, EOAGH, Bone Bouquet, Belladonna, Gwarlingo, ILK, LIT, The Atlas Review, tender, Two Serious Ladies, and Lemon Hound amongst others. More at christinehou.com.
More about the Working interview series here.