Writing and Mental Health

Today I’m thinking about writing (when not?), and more particularly, the connection it has for me with mental health. Here on the blog, I’ve posted about my own mental health challenges, especially with anxiety and depression. I know many of us deal with similar challenges, and I like to be open about mine, because (a) they’re the truth and (b) I figure it never hurts if we can talk about these kinds of things.

Writing is often a great healer for me. I feel most grounded when I’m working. When my brain is busy with some project, hanging out with my characters and working through the puzzle pieces of story, anxiety and depression have a harder time getting their hooks in. I like how my brain is willing and able to latch onto the “good stuff”; I have a side helping of OCD, which, sadly, doesn’t translate to keeping my house even remotely neat, but does help keep me laser-focused on my writing-in-progress. Obsession can be a terrific superpower for an artist. It does tend to drag perfectionism along with it, but if you can separate the two for a little while, you can harness all that energy to help get a project done.

The flip side of the writing-and-mental-health mix is the fragility of sharing work, especially work that has meant a lot, and dealing with rejection. This has been much on my mind lately as the launch of Fourteen Stones gets closer. I’ve found myself thinking about some particularly tough times three years ago, when getting this book into the world seemed extremely far away and probably impossible, and between that and other factors, my mental health hit an all-time low.

My therapy cat, Fergus, who knows when his assistance is needed.

For the first time ever, I found that I couldn’t write: my brain simply refused to go into the world of story. A solid wall stood between me and the one thing that had always helped me. Even reading was no fun anymore; I couldn’t concentrate on books, couldn’t surrender and take a ride with another writer’s imagination.

If you’ve ever been there, you know how disorienting and difficult that is. When your creativity is such a big piece of who you are, and you can’t tap into it because your own mind won’t let you, you start to feel pretty detached from yourself and unsure about everything. I’ve never had the same level of anxiety, before or since, that I did during those months. If you have mental health challenges, you know it’s the worst when your mind is your enemy. You can’t escape from yourself, as much as you want to.

I spent a while (way longer than I’d have liked) in that limbo. Finally, in late fall of 2019, I found myself starting to edge back towards creativity. One day I found I could sit down with a novel and actually get into it. Then, a while later, my favorite characters from Fourteen Stones started to nudge at me. I found myself sketching scenes with them, not to use in any real writing but just for fun, just because hanging out with them felt right. That was when I knew I was getting better. My beloved characters were a solid, strong lifeline. I could hang onto them and they would help me heal.

Map of my fictional country, Namora, which I taped up over my desk when I started writing again.

The good thing, as I found when I finally started to come out the other side of that time, is that once you’ve gone through that kind of fire and know you can survive, it’ll never be so scary again. You might not feel like you’re quite the same person you were before – I don’t, and I’m still learning about what’s changed – but you can feel grounded in yourself and know you’re doing okay, even when you run into bumps in the road.

In the spring of 2020, when Covid hit and everything turned upside down, Fourteen Stones helped me again when I launched into an overhaul of it. It felt so good to dive into the world of story, especially in lockdown, when real-world escapes had mostly disappeared. Since then, writing has stayed around as a touchstone, motivation, and release that I’m very grateful for. Sometimes it feels bizarre to make art, and worry about story and characters, with everything going on in the world. But I do think that it matters to put ourselves, our hopes and pain and wish for beauty, into what we create, and that by doing it, we can make a difference.

I hope you can spend some time today with whatever grounds you and lights you up. As always, thanks for visiting the blog.