Better Writing Through Chemistry
I want to talk about mental illness and how it can affect a writing career.
I have Bipolar disorder Type 1. Because if you're going to get a mental illness like bipolar, you might as well get the one that has a high death rate (still lower than Anorexia and EDNOS thankfully) and is notoriously difficult to treat. That was a joke. Mostly.
While I wasn't officially diagnosed until I was 16 (basically a baby when it comes to age when diagnosed. I was lucky), I knew I wasn't like my classmates as far back as 13. That's when I found out other kids didn't have what I called "no sleep weeks" at least once a month.
Like Winston Churchill, my type 1 bipolar leaves me needing less sleep than other people. Churchill wrote 43 books because he didn't really need sleep. I've written nowhere near 43 books but I have half-written at least 50 short stories and three books while manic. Are any of them salvageable when I'm not? Sometimes. Most often the thoughts that felt so clear when I was writing them make no sense once I come down off the manic high.
I've never needed much sleep, even when my mania is under control. On good nights I get 3-5 hours of sleep. I can tell when my mania is starting because I start getting less than 3. When my mania is in full swing, 0 hours is not an uncommon number. A lot of hours that I can spend sitting in front of a keyboard writing... when my mania is under control and I can sit still that is.
When my mania is especially bad, I can go days without sleeping. You might be saying to yourself "but people who go days without sleeping are at risk for seeing and hearing things."
You'd be correct. Welcome to psychosis- every Bipolar persons worst nightmare. You haven't lived until you've seen thousands of spiders crawling down a wall that no one else can see.
Or heard someone calling your name over and over and over in the middle of the night when you're home alone.
Or, my all-time absolute favorite, see faceless men staring in at you through your windows at night.
How can they be faceless and also staring?
I haven't the faintest clue how both could possibly be true. But on that night where I lay for hours staring at the faceless men in the window and waited for the sun to come up, I knew it was true. They were faceless but staring and they hated me.
My first psychotic episode happened when I was barely fifteen. Decades later I still can't stand to have curtains open at night. I'm constantly afraid that I'll look up and see the faceless men staring at me again.
Before I started having symptoms of bipolar, I rarely read horror books. Once I started having symptoms I couldn't get enough of them. I guess months of hearing voices and seeing (distressing) things helped me identify with the protagonists of these stories. There's something soothing about protagonists also going up against a big bad that only they can deal with and sometimes winning.
Do they go through hell first? Yeah. But they go through hell and they usually make it out the other side changed but alive. Now I write horror for much the same reason- I want my characters to go through bad things and either defeat the evil or become the evil to avenge themselves. And my protagonists almost always win.
Not getting treatment for bipolar can feel seductive at times. Bipolar medications throughout the years often left me completely detached from what was going on around me. They dull your creativity to the point that nothing you create seems to matter. It can feel like writers block in pill form. There's a reason Kanye West tends to go off his meds whenever he's creating an album- he might not know how to create when he's not in mania. It happens to a lot of creatives with bipolar. You spend so much time creating while manic before you get diagnosed that once you start taking medication you forget how to get that spark back again.
Bipolar medications also left me exhausted, confused, and nauseated most of the time. Sometimes I developed fun symptoms like severe agoraphobia, anxiety, and paranoia to the point I hid scissors under my pillow because I thought my grandmother wanted to kill me in my sleep.
Was my life always like that on medications? No- when they worked, they worked well and I could still write. But when we remember things, do we tend to remember the good things more than the bad? I guess it depends on the person. I tend to dwell on the bad and have only hazy memories of the good.
When your creativity is dulled though, its hard to remember how bad life is off the medications. The reckless spending, the feeling that your skin is three sizes too small, the reckless driving, the urge to drink until you feel numb, and the things you do impulsively that you regret and can't take back. With all the stupid things I did when I was manic I am lucky I didn't end up missing and murdered several times over.
There's a reason the list of celebrities with bipolar disorder is dauntingly long- extreme creativity is a hallmark of the disorder. Your brain on bipolar literally sees the world differently. Connections that others may not get you see with crystal clear clarity. Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are shining examples of this- both creative geniuses whose lives were far too short, Cobain's as a direct result of the disorder.
Although he suffers from depression and anxiety rather than bipolar disorder, John Green fell into the trap of thinking that he'd be able to create better if he just didn't have medications in his system. He eventually went back on medications and finished his next book. Medication saved his life and his career.
This is something I'm keeping in mind as I've started taking new medications. After nearly a decade of no medication following a head injury, it was daunting to realize my brain had healed and my bipolar was back. I knew I needed treatment. I was scared that the medications would turn me into a zombie again, scared that they'd make me stop caring about writing.
Another way I'm lucky is how far medication has come since the last time I was medicated. Back then, I'd cycled through every pill available to treat my symptoms with only intermittent success. My psychiatrist was considering Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) as a last resort for me because nothing else seemed to help. I remember crying in my car on the way home from that appointment because life seemed so hopeless. What was the point of living if it meant getting electricity shot into my brain to survive?
New medications and treatment protocols make ECT less of an option. Now I take two pills together at night with a slow progression in dosage. I've had almost no side effects- beyond the massive need to sleep right after taking them.
Best of all, I can still write. Do the words come a little more slowly as my mania abates? Yeah. But they're still appearing on the page with frequent regularity.
If you're a writer struggling with mental illness who is reading this- take your medication. If it messes you up to the point you can't write, talk to your doctor and find one that doesn't. Your art is not more important than your life or the quality of your life.