Weathering The Storm

Things have been difficult over the past few weeks. I feel guilty for saying that, because there has been a death in my family and here I am talking about how it’s affected my mental health. Part of me thinks I have no right to complain about how I feel when other family members are grieving more. It feels selfish to acknowledge how stressed and anxious I have been when other people have been far more involved in the arrangements. But it’s true: although I’m sad about my grandad dying, I am also stressed, depressed and anxious.

 

Seascape

 

I don’t want to write this post, which is why I know I need to write it. I guess there must be a lot of people in a similar position. The fact is, when you have mental health problems, everything gets filtered through the lens of mental illness. This applies to good things and bad. Achievements and bereavements.

I’m not going to write about my grandad. While many people think I’m very open about my life, because I talk about my mental health with as much honesty and openness as I can muster, I prefer to keep some things private. Personal relationships fall into that category. Sorry if that seems cold or weird, but I’m not comfortable blogging about some things.

However, I will discuss the impact of the past few weeks on my mental health.

The main effect is that I had more to worry about. Again, I’m not comfortable with going into detail, but I stress out about everything at the best of times, so you can imagine how my stress worsens during times which anyone would find stressful. I found it hard to think straight – I can spend hours worrying, not even paying attention to the television because I’m so caught up in my thoughts. This makes it difficult to be productive.

Of course, when I’m less productive than usual, I get stressed and anxious about my lack of productivity. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I can’t help it: my mental health struggles make me feel like I have to constantly prove myself. I have to work ten times harder than someone with good mental health in order to do things they find easy.

Another facet to this issue is that I fear I’m reinforcing negative stereotypes about mental illness when I show weakness. I know I don’t represent everyone with mental health problems, but I’m afraid other people will view me as such. Every time I miss a deadline, I think “I’m unreliable” and I’m terrified other people will think not only that I’m unreliable, but that everyone with a mental illness is unreliable.

The logical part of my brain points out that being ill isn’t synonymous with being unreliable, but anxiety persuades me to ignore logic and interpret the symptoms of my mental illness as proof that I’m unreliable, lazy, stupid, a failure, etc.

My counsellor set me homework on Friday and part of the homework is to recognise that my negative thoughts are symptoms of my mental illness, not the truth. It’s easier said than done, but I’m trying! It’s strange how I find it so much easier to dismiss the physical symptoms of mental illness. I can experience gastritis and accept it as a manifestation of anxiety, but I find it difficult to do the same with negative thoughts. When I think “everyone knows you’re worthless and a failure” I don’t immediately recognise it as a symptom – I believe it.

Once you start believing negative thoughts, you give them power and they can spiral out of control.

I have struggled with this spiral of negative thoughts a lot recently. Negative thoughts are my reflexes to external events and since I have trouble challenging them, they turn minor problems into catastrophes. At times, all I can do is cling on and try to weather the storm as my brain produces a torrent of insults, criticisms and accusations.

Living in this state is exhausting and makes problems proliferate. It exacerbates my anxiety and depression, leaving me paralysed by my thoughts. I know I would feel better if I could only do something, but doing anything feels impossible. The simplest things take a gargantuan effort – one morning, I had to give myself a 10 minute pep talk to convince myself to check the time when I woke up!

My counsellor is helping me to realise that I’m still on the right path, despite the obstacles being strewn across the way. I’m still training for my Machu Picchu trek, which is getting scarily close. I’m still writing, albeit less than I’d like. I have to focus on these priorities and trust that I can stay on the right track.

 

The Therapeutic Side of Writing Fiction

I’m always a little wary when someone asks me if I write as a form of therapy. They usually expect a yes or no, but the answer is complex…

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that writing is a substitute for talking therapies or other kinds of mental health treatments. While using any kind of art as therapy can be helpful, I think it’s appropriate as a complementary strategy rather than a complete treatment for mental illness in itself. (Sidebar: in my experience, there is no such thing as a complete treatment, but medication and talking therapies come closest, in my opinion).

Secondly, I write for readers. If I write something just for me, it stays in my journal or folder. If I submit stories, I want other people to read and enjoy them. Regardless of whether a particular story has been therapeutic for me to write, the audience is one of my top considerations. This consideration always affects the story and may prevent it from being as therapeutic as it would be were the readers not taken into account.

With those caveats in mind, my answer is yes. I do write as a form of therapy, but there are also many other reasons why I write.

 

Not all writing is equally therapeutic.

To make things a little less complicated, I’m solely talking about writing fiction and specifically short stories, since they constitute the main body of my work to date. However, the therapeutic value of any given story varies a lot: many of my stories have had no therapeutic value, whereas some have been very helpful as therapy.

Can you tell the difference? I have no idea. I like to think I write to a high standard regardless of whether a story has been therapeutic to write, but that might not be the case! Do the more therapeutic stories have more emotional impact? Again, I can’t tell. I hope all my stories have some emotional impact, though the emotional effects depend on the individual story.

 

The raw material, whether it is inspired by life or not, is transformed.

When people hear “therapeutic” in regards to writing, they automatically think of memoir or autobiographical fiction. They assume that in order to be therapeutic, the story needs to bear a strong resemblance to the writer’s lived experience. Often, the opposite is true.

Amanda Palmer, in her excellent book The Art of Asking, talks about the transformation of life experience into art in terms of putting raw material into a blender. She typically uses a low blender setting when songwriting, such as level 3 on a scale of 1-10. In contrast, her husband (the author Neil Gaiman) uses a very high blender setting — often level 10.

I love this analogy. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating how two pieces of art can be equally as personal, but very different in terms of recognising the raw material from the finished work.

For me, the more therapeutic the story, the higher my blender setting. I know what raw material has gone into the story, but other people (even those who know me best) would find it all but impossible to tell.

 

The transformation of raw material is the most cathartic aspect of writing.

While pouring out my emotions in my journal can help me feel a little better, it’s the process of transformation that I find most therapeutic. I suppose it correlates with talking therapy: if you recount your experience to a therapist it usually provides a sense of relief, but venting your feelings is just the first step. The most useful part of therapy is questioning and evaluating. There is more value in learning to reframe your experiences and think about them in different ways. Ditto writing.

Transformation is crucial for the story itself, too. In order to be most effective, you need to select and adapt material (whether from life or another source).

You need to choose a focus for the story, to tease out a plot and create characters (even if they are heavily inspired by life) who serve the story. It doesn’t matter if, as many new writers complain, “that’s not how it happened!” Your task is to find the emotional truth at the core of your story and make it shine.

 

Writing is a constructive way of using your experiences — which can help you value them.

Many experiences are awful. Writing is one way I can find value in them — it almost gives them a purpose. This provides another way of helping me to reframe those experiences, so the therapeutic effect continues.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the therapeutic effects of writing fiction complement the other ways ai manage my mental health. If you would like to try writing — or any other art — as therapy, go for it. However, my main reasons for writing have nothing to do with my mental health (except indirectly) and when I approach writing fiction, therapy is never foremost in my mind.