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?
It feels right that I procrastinated on this so long that now I’m doing this while depressed. My brain is either hypomanic or depressed. The time for which my neurochemical pendulum sits in the middle varies from hours to a day or so. My hypomanic brain writes. I write a lot. I finished NaNoWriMo in six days. That’s not normal and I won’t even pretend that’s normal. Except it is for me. When my brain’s on, it’s on fire. When it’s off, I might as well not even know how to string together words because I can barely finish anything at all.
Depression shuts me down and off. Tucks my brain away for recharging. I almost never finish drafts when depressed, and I tend to get very nostalgic about old drafts that honestly should never see the light of day. I’m a black and white thinker already but I think that depression magnifies this. I’m more likely to think and say things, “I’ll never get published” and “Everything I write sucks” and talk myself down. Protip: scolding yourself and calling yourself crap doesn’t help you write! But it’s hard not to get stuck in that toilet boil downward spiral. Gravity flush in the brain.
I also am recovering/in recovery from a lifelong eating disorder. Depression makes my appetite disappear, and I’ve never been good at listening to hunger cues. I have to bribe, force, and cajol myself into eating. Writing doesn’t happen if you don’t have fuel or if your blood sugar is so low that you feel too miserable and weak to write. Maybe this is just me, but writing takes energy. It’s an exhaustive process even when it’s an invigorating process. We’re always talking about writing fuel and writing snacks on Twitter, so maybe everyone’s subconsciously aware of this. But you can’t write when you’re not taking in some sort of calories (case in point: for my sickest years in my eating disorder, I wrote nothing at all. Nothing.) Depression compounds my recovery.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I’ve written and rewritten the answer to this specific question several times. I don’t know that I’ve found anything effective. I took away my internet at home so that I have to go to Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. For me, this is socializing and this is a level of socializing that I can do whether my brain’s super speedy or my brain’s stuck in the fog. I can tell a few of my friends when I’m low, just to feel accountable. I make sure I write something basically every day, even if it’s just something like this or a blog post. Writing pulls me free. Like surfacing in an ocean.
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 was in therapy of some sort from January 2007 until June of 2013. Talk therapy was immensely helpful for me. I sought therapy for the first time at college on my own for OCD/anxiety type of behaviors and following a close family member’s multiple suicide attempts.
After I graduated, I found a therapist who did real talk therapy, versus CBT, and I truly believe she saved my life. I saw her from once a week to three times a week for several years until I was unable to continue to pay for her and I aged off my parents’ insurance. I have insurance again thanks to Obamacare, but I don’t think I’m pursuing talk therapy.
I have been on several different medications, never for long periods of time. I had several bad side effects (I’m not naming medications or side effects because I’d rather not scare anyone else away from something that may be lifesaving and I do believe that medication for many people is a lifesaver, including that close family member). I think I could benefit from medication but I am exhausted by the idea of starting with a new psychiatrist and going through the Whole Thing all over again. (I swear this isn’t laziness as much as it’s really honestly draining to go through my story and my truths and everything each time.)
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
When I’m hypomanic, I’m less likely to do self care because there are things! To do! So many things! Do all the things! Write all the books! Go all the places! Talk about everything! Who has time to slow down? I don’t have time to do that!
When I’m depressed, I’m slow enough to realize that I need to take time for myself. I need to take a long bath. I need to splurge on the good decaffeinated tea. I need to reach out to a friend. It’s probably the only upside of my depressive swings, to be honest. My brain needs to recharge and so does my soul, as kooky as that sounds.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
I’m okay with it. I live with it. I understand now, and it’s taken me a long time to get here, that this is just how I’m wired. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or weaker or stupider than other people. Self-awareness has helped me maintain friendships and learn how to live in each swing. I’m more aware when I’m moodier and more likely to take things personally so I remind myself that the way I’m experiencing things is through my illness.
What’s most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
I don’t know that outside support as much as understanding and empathy. You don’t have to know what to say or do. There isn’t anything for you to do. You can’t change my brain chemistry. But when I say, “I’m having a horrible day. I woke up depressed,” saying, “I’m sorry” is so much more helpful than, “You need to exercise!” Someone saying that they are there for me if I need to talk is immensely helpful, even if I never take them up on the offer. In fact, I’m highly unlikely to take someone up on the offer which isn’t them, it’s me. But it means so much to have the offer made. It helps me feel accepted. All of me. This is me: my highs and my lows and my lack of middle ground, my eating and my not eating, my anxiety, my absolute thinking, my catastrophizing, my magical thinking. It’s taken me twenty seven years to start to realize that none of this should, or does, make me a lesser person. It’s me. I go to great lengths to make sure that my mood swings affect the people around me as minimally as possible but the people around me going to great lengths to make me feel accepted regardless means the world.
I have no idea if that made any sense.
How do you negotiate the balance between self-care and writing and working?
Can you ask me this again in ten years? I haven’t. I haven’t mastered this balance much less opened negotiations. I try to set a schedule and set rewards for myself (do the laundry, clean the house, shower, eat a meal = read a highly anticipated book type of goals) but I’m still working on this one.
Katherine Locke is a twentysomething Philadelphian (though she’ll remind you that she grew up in the rural ‘burbs, so ‘it doesn’t count. I say water, not wudder’) who has been writing and reading for as long as she can remember. She used to pack four books in the family van just to go to the grocery store. She now writes with her resident cats, and a rotating cast of foster cats, and assures you that she only uses capslock for fangirling. You can find her online at @bibliogato on Twitter, bibliogato on Tumblr, and writingwithcats.wordpress.com.