It feels appropriate to wrap up the Working interview series with a conversation with my boon companion and one of my dearest friends, the inimitable Cristina Moracho, whose debut novel Althea & Oliver is going to blow all your minds this October. Thank you to the amazing, brave, generous, and thoughtful writers who participated in this interview series, and thank you to all the people who reached out to me to tell me it made a difference.
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?
Actually, sometimes for me the problem is the reverse. In order for me to really focus and write, I tend to isolate myself from other people, and that creates an environment that makes it a lot easier for depression and anxiety to take hold. I'm an extremely social person, but I've gotten a lot better over the years at the discipline required to stay home night after night and work. What I've yet to master, unfortunately, is any kind of balance. So I end up hunkered down in my apartment for long stretches, writing and alone, often up all night, and that's when the demons tend to come out.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
Structure is totally crucial for me. That was a hard thing for me to admit--it didn't go with this idea of myself as a writer/artist, I guess, a free spirit who should be able to embrace spontaneity in all things, blah blah blah. When I quit my day job and went freelance, initially I was really excited about the idea of not having any kind of routine. At last! I thought, I can stay up as late as I want, sleep as late as I want, and not be tethered to any kind of schedule. Well, I learned pretty fucking quickly that the best way to send myself into an emotional tailspin was to do exactly that. I've come to accept that in many ways I'm a creature of habit and this does not affect my standing or cred as an artist. There's the soul-sucking routine of spending eight hours a day in a cubicle under fluorescent lights, and then there's making sure you leave the house.
The days I do best and get the most done are the days I write out a schedule for myself in half-hour increments: like, literally, "12:30: eat lunch and shower, 1:30-3:30, work on x project, 3:30 15-minute break," et cetera. Which makes me feel a little like a kindergartener, but it works.
I tend to block out entire days--like, Tuesday for freelance work, Friday for my own writing, etc. But I do find that literally writing that schedule into my calendar makes it a lot less likely that I'll be derailed. If someone wants to make plans on a day I've set aside to write, it's important that I think of myself as not having that day free. For a long time writing was the thing I tried to fit in around everything else, but I'm older now, and exhausted, and this is my career, so it's like, fuck it, everything else can revolve around the writing.
I had this amazing lightbulb moment a few years ago when I was trying to make plans with a (male) writer-acquaintance and he was like, “I can’t hang out any of these days because those are my writing days,” and I was like “Oh my GOD you can DO that????” Which I think can be so gendered, too—like, I am a lady who, as you know, is fairly explicit in my various feminisms, but was still this huge project for me to say “This is my job, too, and it’s also the thing I care about more than anything else in the world, and I get to make it come first.” I’m still not all the way there.
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've found therapy extremely helpful in the past, but only when I've gone into it with a specific goal or project in mind, like having a more manageable relationship with a particular family member, something like that. Medication is something I'll take on an as-needed basis if my anxiety or insomnia get particularly bad, but I'm reluctant to take something daily that will change my brain chemistry. Sometimes that seems like an arbitrary distinction, but since I don't have health insurance, most of these things aren't an option for me anyway. I try to pretend that white-knuckling it makes me some kind of badass but actually I just feel really worn out, a lot of the time.
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
My actual idea of self-care is a big problem. To me it often means that after a week of running myself ragged, consistently going to bed at five in the morning and not taking the time to eat well, whatever, that I spend an entire Sunday on my couch watching my stories, ordering garbage takeout, chainsmoking, and maybe taking some painkillers, but thinking of it as "self-care" because I'm relaxing, not working or parked behind my laptop. So right now my biggest struggle with self-care is to associate it with healthy behaviors.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
Something I think is really telling is the response I had when you initially asked me to participate in this project. I actually tried to tell you, the person who knows me best in the world and is privy to my every emotional flare-up, that while I do have a host of other issues that I struggle with--anxiety, insomnia, self-destructive behavior, what I think of generally as an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation--depression isn't a problem for me. And you were like, mmmhmm. And then an hour after this exchange I remembered that last year I dealt with one of the worst depressive episodes of my life, which just laid me the fuck out and lasted for months. MONTHS. And I was like, oh yeah, that is something that happens to me. But I tend to think of myself as someone too functional to have anything wrong with her. How can I call myself depressed when I'm meeting all my deadlines? A lot of the times it's something that I try to keep in my peripheral vision--if I don't look too hard at it, I can pretend it isn't there.
Yeah, I relate to this so much, as you know. And especially because for me my depression is episodic, and so when I'm not depressed I kind of forget how bad it is and tell myself I don't really have a problem, everything's fine now, I'm just making it up. And also because, while I'm not manic, the amount of shit I get done when I'm not sick is pretty significant. So even just acknowledging that depression is a real and sometimes very debilitating thing for me has been a long process. There is also that whole thing where both of us really hate talking about our feelings.
I don't know what these "feelings" are, sorry.
I also know a lot of people who truly are or have been debilitated by mental illness, and it makes me reluctant to even talk about the comparatively minor degree to which my days are colored by the unpredictability of my own emotions. But every time I'm about to undermine my own experience, I remember those two months last year. It's funny because I was on deadline for my publisher at the time, so I was still being productive while simultaneously hanging on by a thread. As fucked up as it was, part of me was like, well, maybe this is progress.
Yeah, I think that’s true for a lot of us who have close friends or have worked with people whose mental illness is profoundly debilitating; for a long time I just told myself, “You’re not sick, that’s what sick looks like, you’re just really fucking lazy.” Which, I don’t know, maybe it’s true, but it still didn’t help me get anything done. I think part of the process is just recognizing there is a continuum; it’s not like the only two options are “Needs lithium every day to function” and “Lazy fuckup.” There are a few points in between.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
Support from other people is as important to me as making sure I have some kind of structure. For the most part it's not the kind of support where I actually, you know, tell anybody what I'm going through or, god forbid, ask for help of any kind. I'm lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that operates very much like a small town, where everybody knows everybody and I pretty much can't go outside without running into three people I know and having some sort of human interaction. Feeling surrounded by friends has helped me enormously. When I walk down the street here I immediately feel seen and acknowledged; there's none of the anonymity that I know is pretty standard in many parts of New York City. I also have a strong support system beyond just my zip code, but I think most of the time they don't even realize that they're providing a certain kind of support. Usually if I'm having a hard time I'll keep it to myself and talk about it really to only one or two people; I'll just lean harder on structure, routine, and simply being around other people, even if I'm miserable, to help keep it together. Part of the reason I went through such a rough patch last year was I went away to finish revising my novel for my publisher; I wanted to get away from all the "distractions" of being home, but it turns out those "distractions" are often the things that keep me from falling apart.
You're also a freelancer--how do you negotiate the balance between self-care and writing for love and writing for work and working?
When I first started as a full-time freelancer I found that sometimes I would work seven to ten days in a row, and then not work for five, and having such an unpredictable schedule made me feel edgy, exhausted, uncomfortable. It also made it harder to get into any kind of writing routine for myself. Something I've found to be truly effective--I can't always stick to it, but I really really try--is to get all my freelance work done Mondaythrough Friday, so that my weekend can truly be a weekend. If I end up doing my own work over the weekend instead of going out drinking, I can live with that. If I can get my own work done during the week too, and have the whole weekend free, all the better. That almost never happens but, you know, it's good to have goals.
Yeah, I've been trying to do that too, although I also just realized that I have been telling people "I will have more time next week" for the last two and a half years. It's a challenge. Something we have talked about a lot is how few models we see out there of other freelancers dealing with being functional--not even talking about depression or mental health, just setting reasonable schedules for themselves and still making enough money to eat and pay rent. Do you feel like you're getting better at it?
There are weeks when everything goes perfectly--I have enough money, all my tasks and assignments fit snugly into the little boxes I've assigned them, I get my own work done and still have time to hang out with my friends, and I think, yes, ah, finally, I've got this shit figured out, now it's official, I'm living the dream. And then the next week I overdraw my bank account and I don't leave the house enough and my sleep schedule gets all fucked up again and it feels like I'm back to square one. But I do think I'm getting better at it, because I have fewer and fewer weeks where it feels like every day is an emergency. You know that feeling? [Yes. –ed.] I used to spend a lot of mornings in front of my laptop just panicking, because I had so much to do I didn't know where to start, and I'd lose half the day to an anxiety attack. So if I've figured out anything, I guess, it's to push through that panic, sit down with a cup of coffee, put Armageddon on in the background, just pick a place and start. What is it you said in the post about the cat? No way out but through. Like that.
Cristina Moracho (@cherielecrivain) is a novelist and freelance writer/editor. Her debut novel, Althea & Oliver (Viking), will be published this October. She lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where she makes all the bad decisions.
Previously in the Working series: Mairead Case, s.e. smith, Red Mills, Christine Hou, Litsa Dremousis, Jacqui Morton, Gina Abelkop, Elia Osuna, Wendy Ortiz, Roxane Gay, B R Sanders, Katherine Locke, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and Soren Melville..