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?
When I was younger--like, a teenager--there was this romantic notion of "I only write well when I'm sad!" The older I've gotten, the more I know that idea to be a total lie, at least for me. When I'm deep in a depressive period basically all I feel capable of doing is laying in bed staring at the ceiling or watching TV. Totally void of any kind of energy whatsoever, never mind the energy to create something. I've been paralyzed by anxiety under the same conditions: too nervy to sit still and write, or keep my mind on anything for very long. When I'm anxious or depressed I can't concentrate on reading either, which is the worst, because reading is one of my favorite leisurely pleasures. Also, my brain has no original thoughts when I'm depressed.
I have never been suicidal, but most of my thoughts revolve around noting that I cannot live like this, nothing is fun, and I'm exhausted. That's it. I remember being told to snap out of it as a teenager and being so frustrated in trying to explain that there is no choice to be made. You come out of it when you do. The last time I had an extended depressive/anxious spell I had just moved somewhere new, by myself, and it was summer. I couldn't find a job and the only thing I could/place I could go to feel okay was to the river in the town I lived in. As soon as I got there I felt good, and calm, and I could even read, and then when I got home it was back to the gallows. So I spent all summer there by the water.
But I had monetary support and most people don't, so how the fuck do depressed people deal with having to deal when you are deep into the pit? The depressive period before that was when I was trying to quit Paxil after being on it for 15 years. I had a retail job and was taking Ativan all day so I could bare to be around people, but I could barely eat and instead of taking a lunch break I'd go on these uphill walks to try and squash the anxiety. That lasted for six months and finally I just went back on the Paxil. I couldn't live like that.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I had a really incredible therapist for a few years who helped me SO MUCH. And I'm very lucky to have a partner who is supportive and helpful and concerned in the right ways. Reaching out to someone really does tend to help but it is very, very hard for me. I have to force it, which sometime I manage and sometimes I don't. Taking walks with my dog and spending time with my dog in general helps. Long baths. Crying, which I do less and less as time goes on, which worries me.
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 am not currently in therapy but the few years of therapy I had a couple years ago basically saved my life, by which I mean I just couldn't have gone on operating as I did for so many years. So yes, I am a STRONG believer in therapy, but only if you have a really good therapist. I know from experience that there are lots of rotten or just mediocre ones. A good therapist will call your bullshit out in a constructive way and lead you to think more clearly about your choices and perspectives, as well as (hopefully) helping you figure out healthier coping mechanisms. And it's EXPENSIVE! Free mental health care would change the entire universe, I am sure of it.
I have insurance now and parents who paid for therapy when I couldn't which is an extreme privilege. I have many friends who would like to be in therapy but can't afford it, even at sliding-scale costs.
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
When I'm deep in a depressive period it's hard to practice real self care, like reaching out to friends, getting out of the house, eating well. What feels like it might be self care--staying in bed all day, etc.--is not actually effective at that point. It's easier when it's just a period of a few days, and I have to say it's easier now that I have a partner, because when I lived alone it was really easy to isolate myself without anyone asking any questions.
Practicing self-care is something I am constantly working on, and try to be aware of in regards to offering care to other people, though I sometimes fail at that too. It's often a case of three steps forward, two steps back, but I do believe that I am getting better it with age, as I learn what works and what doesn't, as my true desire to live with less pain (i.e. not romanticize the emotional pain of myself or others) increases.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
For the most part I think about it very little unless I'm going through an intense depressive period. I used to get really scared every time I had a hard day, wondering if it was the start of a depressive cycle, but something that helped A LOT with that was beginning to track my period (I quickly discovered that most of the time my harder days happen about a week before I bleed). This way I can calm myself down much of the time by realizing that there is always a time of the month that is harder, and it will probably pass.
I fear being incapacitated by depression in the future, especially when I think about trying to go off medicine, which I may or may not ever want or need to do... I tried to quite Paxil once (with the help of a doctor), as I mentioned, and ended up going back on it after six months due to withdrawal and depression/anxiety that never went away (tried to switch to another med and it didn't help). So I've spent a lot of time since then thinking about how fucked up the pharmaceutical industry is, how frightening it is that I was put on a medication at age 13 and no one bothered to check in on that until I was in my late 20s. What did that medication do to my growing brain? And there are all these lawsuits against Paxil. But I function well on it, so? It doesn't fee like much of a choice.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
It would help me so much for people to check in on me when I'm isolating myself, but I also do no invite that kind of response and am not a super social person to begin with. I have also never explicitly asked for that from people, so I know it's not fair to expect it, and the burden of care cannot be placed on people who don't know what I want/need because I've never asked for it. It does help me to talk with the people I'm closest to, but it is incredibly difficult for me to take that step most of the time. So yes, outside support is important, but I haven't yet figured out how to ask for it when I need it.
How do you negotiate the balance between self-care and writing and earning a living?
I've never been a very disciplined writer--I just write when I feel moved to, for the most part. And I've discovered that I don't necessarily write more when I have more free time. A lot of my self-care is part of the process of writing: listening to music, reading books/magazines, watching movies, people watching, walking, taking long baths, talking with friends. All that self-care time translates to thinking which eventually, sometimes, translates to writing. I currently work an eight-to-five job Monday through Friday and am still figuring out how to manage my time best. Giving myself permission to be a slow writer who writes when she writes helps tremendously, in terms of attempting to alleviate guilt about not being productive enough (which I still have). I also run the small press Birds of Lace, so I spend time on that, which feels like self-care because I love it, and it allows me to engage with a larger writing community in a way that is relaxing and fun, for the most part.
Gina Abelkop lives in Athens, GA with her sweetheart and two funny dogs. She is the author of Darling Beastlettes (Apostrophe Books, 2012) and runs the DIY feminist press Birds of Lace. She is currently working on a series of poems about the artist/art of Rachel Feinstein and a novel about a Pebbles-and-Bam-Bam-esque duo who abandon the planet Earth for Venus. themoonstop.blogspot.com