Posted On August 9, 2013 by Print This Post

Mental Health Issues: A Candid Discussion with Sarah M. Anderson

Welcome to Sarah! Today she gives us a poignant, real and fresh perspective on mental health issues and the writing life.

Hi. My name is Sarah. And I’m less than mentally stable.

How did you react to that statement? Did you giggle? Think, I know what she’s SarahMAndersonhires[1]talking about? Wonder if I was going to take up arms and become a menace to society?

How about if I told you I was an author? Does that fit with your image of someone who deals with mental illness?

There’s something of an open secret amongst authors (romance authors in particular; I don’t hang out with too many other kinds) that many of us are a) dealing with some sort of mental issue and b) we will never, ever let readers know it. It’s not good for our brand image, after all, if readers think we’re all nuts.

When fans think of mental instability, images of Mel Gibson melting down crop up. Or maybe suicide attempts. Or worse. And we never, ever want our readers to associate us with those worst-case scenarios.

But when it’s late at night? When we’ve had a really bad day? In private messages and emails, sometimes we pour our hearts out to each other. And discover we’re not alone with our issues. Sometimes, it’s such a shock to discover that you’re not the only author who’s struggled with major depression that it can take days to sink in and leave you feeling a little unsure of how to interact with someone who now knows your secret, and you theirs.

So, here’s my secret. I struggle with mental issues. They mostly stem from anxiety, but they take on a delightful range of forms. I have dealt with mild to moderate depression for most of my life. I’m borderline OCD. I’m most likely mis-wired for sensory issues, which means that I can not only feel a mosquito bite me (they secrete a numbing agent in their saliva, which means most people can’t feel the bite until the itching starts) but most of the time, I can feel a mosquito land on me.

The combination of these issues manifests itself in nail-biting, skin-picking and hair pulling. All of which can lead to more anxiety, more depression. It’s a vicious circle.

Here’s the thing, though—these issues? Ones I’ve dealt with my entire life? They make me a better author. Doesn’t that sound all sunshine and rainbows? It’s not. Mental illness is rarely fun, even on good days.

The difference is that I’ve learned to make my issues—my quirks, if you will—work for me.

So let’s go down the list. How do mental illnesses make someone a better author?

Depression
Cons: Well, you’re depressed. That’s the big one. Some days are a struggle to get out of bed, to smile at your child, to see the color or light in the world. It’s worse when you know you have nothing to be depressed about but cannot break free from the overwhelming sadness anyway. Hopelessness is a hell from which it can be hard to escape. I need medications to keep me from falling down a long, deep hole.

Pros: People who have dealt with depression can be amazingly empathetic. Because I have felt my own pain so deeply, I cannot help but feel other people’s pain as well. This translates well into making those black moments so dark, so heart-wrenching that readers feel the character’s pain, too. A drawback to this that I can sometimes feel too much. I have to limit the news I watch because there is so much suffering in the world. If I’m not careful, that suffering can overwhelm me. If one of my author friends is suffering from a crisis, I can become so worried that it affects my mood, my sleep.

OCD (Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder)

Cons: Your thoughts are not really your own when you’re OCD. You cannot break out of a certain cycle your mind has trapped you in. You worry needlessly about stuff you can’t control and stuff that doesn’t matter. I’m terrified of locking myself out of my house or missing a phone call. I have to pat the keys in my pocket several times as I’m shutting the door just to reassure myself they’re still there. I check the answering machine when I go from the second floor to the first floor, even though there’s no way I wouldn’t hear the phone. (These are mild examples, certainly not enough to get me on Dr. Oz for washing my hands a thousand times a day or anything). I get stuck. It’s hard to get unstuck. It’s worse when I’m tired. Much, much worse.

Pros: Writing a book was an amazing outlet for this endless cycle of thoughts. Instead of obsessing about that mosquito bite, I could let my mind go over a scene in a book again and again and again until it ‘feels’ right. Instead of lying in bed, worrying over what went wrong that day and what’s going to go wrong tomorrow, I think about what I can make go wrong for my characters and then how to fix it. Then, when I sit down to write, I’ve already worked everything out. This leads to 15 pages a day when I’m in a good rhythm. People laugh when I tell them that OCD is the reason I write so fast, but I’m serious. It gives my brain something else to obsess about. I rarely stop thinking about my characters and that leads to huge word counts in a short period of time.

Anxiety

Cons: When I am filled with doubt, that doubt doubles and then triples. And then it does it again. I worry about every single book. Will my agent like it? My editor? Will the reviewers? The readers? How are my sales numbers? What am I not doing that would improve them? Do I have time to write? What happens when a total rewrite is ordered? Will I ever sell another book again? And on and on and on. If I’m not careful, the anxiety can be crippling. I won’t submit that book, take that risk. Because, honestly, all of writing is a risk.

Pros: Anxiety pushes me to be better. I don’t half-ass things. I make it my best every single time because I’m pushing back against the worrisome voice in my head. I’m doing everything in my power to avoid that total rewrite, those low sales, those bad reviews. I don’t leave deadlines until the last minute (what if something goes wrong and I have to miss a deadline?). I get things done weeks in advance. I operate with about a month cushion, which comes in very handy when there’s a death or illness in the family. I don’t get complacent. For my mental well-being, I can’t afford to.

So, my secret is out. I’m a little nuts. But for me, the key is to acknowledging how my mental state works, finding the best set of medications to keep the more egregious symptoms under control, and then using what could be a weakness as an advantage. Do I feel too much? Hell, yes. That’s why my characters feel so deeply. Do I worry too much? You bet. That’s why I’m always pushing harder, writing faster. Do I get stuck? All the freaking time. I work on a scene until it’s right.

If you’re dealing with your own mental health issues, whether it’s depression or anxiety or whatever, use them to your advantage. Accept that you are what you are. My life got so much better when I stopped trying to ‘fix’ my OCD and accepted that I would always have symptoms. That took the guilt out of my vicious cycle. Instead of being hopelessly, permanently bad or flawed, I accepted myself. Once you accept yourself not as a collection of your flaws or problems but a whole being, you can find a way to turn your issues—your quirks, your problems—into your biggest strengths.

And the sooner you can get back to that book.

***

What issues – mental health or physical – do you struggle with and how have you used it to enhance your writing?

What’s coming Next

***

Masked Cowboy (Men of the White Sandy, Book 2) Blurb:

MaskedCowboy72web[1]He hides from the world…but he can’t hide from her.

Moving her veterinary practice out west is a chance for Mary-Beth to start over. But her resolve to learn to hold her tongue goes out the window when she meets Jacob, a Lakota cowboy who says next to nothing—especially about the black leather mask covering half his face.

Sometimes he seems to be almost flirting. Other times, it’s as if he’s angry she exists. But there’s no mistaking the heat that flares between them.

Jacob still isn’t sure who—or what—carved up his face and killed his best friend three years ago. All he knows is the thing was after a child he now hides with his silence. A medicine woman’s granddaughter he would die to protect.

Outspoken, sexy Mary Beth reminds him of how lonely his life has become. But he can’t forget how much he stands to lose if any distraction allows a monster to rise again and destroy the last hope of his people.

Warning: This book contains a masked cowboy with a lot to hide, a woman who shoots her mouth off at all the wrong times, and the wanton destruction of a certain pair of panties during explosive sex.

Masked Cowboy is available! Visit your favorite e-bookseller, Amazon, B & N or other online retailers!

Bio:

Award-winning author Sarah M. Anderson may live east of the Mississippi River, but her heart lies out west on the Great Plains. With a lifelong love of horses and two history teachers for parents, it wasn’t long before her characters found themselves out in South Dakota among the Lakota Sioux. She loves to put people from two different worlds into new situations and to see how their backgrounds and cultures take them someplace they never thought they’d go.

When not helping out at school or walking her rescue dogs, Sarah spends her days having conversations with imaginary cowboys and American Indians, all of which is surprisingly well-tolerated by her wonderful husband and son. You can learn more about Sarah at www.sarahmanderson.com.

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Discussion

21 Responses to “Mental Health Issues: A Candid Discussion with Sarah M. Anderson”

  1. Thanks for having me today, RU! I’m curious to see how people react to this blog. Questions?

    Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 9, 2013, 7:52 am
  2. Morning Sarah!

    I have several friends with OCD…one, a young lady, admits to it free and clear and is completely unapologetic, she tells us to deal with it. =) And we do. It just seems to make life so much harder for her than it has to be….

    Myself, I have occasional panic attacks, not something that bothers me when I’m writing so much, as when I’m driving across a big bridge…lol…but definitely something that will affect one of my characters at some point.

    Thanks so much for being with us AND being so candid!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 9, 2013, 8:10 am
    • Morning, Carrie!

      Yes, it doesn’t make life any easier. :) But by being unapologetic about it, your friend is, in fact, making it easier in the way that best makes sense to her.

      Panic attacks are no fun, let me tell you. Well, you already know. :) My dad does not do well on bridges, either and sometimes his anxiety is contagious!

      But that’s one of the things that I love about the romance writing community. There’ve been times when I have had a flat-out panic attack while at home, alone, about something professional (husband is very good with the attacks when they happen) and I’ve always found an author friend who not only does NOT treat me like a crazy freak for panicking, but because they’re also in this industry, they can step back and do the big-picture thing and talk me down with a plan of action for the most likely scenarios. It’s that kind of support that makes the romance community a place I’m proud of. I LOVE YOU GUYS!

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 9, 2013, 8:36 am
  3. Sarah,(my third grandchild’s name btw :))you are so brave to step out and share. You realize your action will make it easier for someone else to do the same thing. To seem themselves as not damaged. Though truth be told, we’re all “damaged” in some way. We all have our peculiar flaws. The key is what you’ve done. Find the good in the situatiin. Because I’m such a work-a-holic–a condition that can seriously ruin your health–I can look back on a long line of accomplishments. I’m proud of those. Am I little nuts? Yeah. LOL But hey, my first book has just come out. Isn’t being a little nuts a pre-requist for being a writer? And you’re so right, Sarah. There’s no more supportive community than romance writers. Thanks for your moving post.

    Posted by Marsha R. West | August 9, 2013, 9:23 am
    • Hi Marsha!

      Ooh, work-a-holics. Do you feel that it reaches a level of compulsion? I definitely thing that being a work-a-holic is not only rewarded by our culture in general but by publishing specifically. It seems like no matter how fast we write–which, in my case, can be very fast–publishers always want to know if you can add another book to the schedule. I recently had to tell my lovely editor that I couldn’t, which I hated to do, but I do have an 8 yr old son who requires things like food and stories!

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 9, 2013, 9:59 am
  4. Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing this post outlining the realities of dealing with mental health issues, and how one can use them to become a better writer. I have family members that suffer with various mental health issues.

    Mental health issues don’t get the attention they deserve, and in many communities, the connotation is still horribly negative. Thank you for being part of the movement to talk about these issues and to help those dealing with it enjoy life to the fullest.

    Posted by Reese Ryan | August 9, 2013, 9:51 am
    • Hi Reese!

      Thanks! I know that my issues are very low-key compared to the things that some creative people have recently been open about discussing. But their my issues and I think the more we understand that mental well-being is a spectrum of sorts, the more it loses its stigma of ‘Oh, if you’re depressed you can’t even put your socks on without crying’ because that’s not how it works for most of us.

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 9, 2013, 10:01 am
  5. Hi Sarah,

    I’m a key checker from way back. Always in my pocket and I pat them to be sure. Writing is an outlet for many phobias and calms me down.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 9, 2013, 10:18 am
  6. Hi Sarah,

    Excellent blog post. I love your attitude of taking the trials in your life and channeling them into your craft and your career. I don’t struggle from medical issues like depression, but every year I learn more about how the terrible childhood I suffered through affected me and continues to affect me, including my outlook on the world, my outlook on myself, and how I process emotion. Like you, I take all that badness and focus it on my art. My issues have definitely enhanced my writing. Sometimes it’s hard to stay so open and vulnerable in such a public way, but the catharsis is worth it…and my readers are worth it. Big hugs to you for speaking out!

    ~Melissa

    Posted by Melissa Cutler | August 9, 2013, 12:11 pm
    • Hey Melissa!

      I think that’s something we all have to grow our way into–understanding how the past shaped our present. I can look back and see where my issues got worse and see how my parents tried to help me, but because mental issues were still so unspeakable back then, they couldn’t get me the help I really needed. What’s changed about that is, when I see a behavior I recognize as one of my own displayed with my child, I know now how to better handle that. The thing about the past is that, good or bad, it has shaped us to who we are today. Everything is a lesson.

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 9, 2013, 12:27 pm
  7. Love this post! We are all, I think, a tad nutty – and to me the biggest thing towards making a happy life is to learn to know ourselves abd maste and accept those voices in our head – to know when to trust them and when to listen and think – ‘nah’, you’re talking crap! Congrats for sharing

    Posted by Rae Roadley | August 9, 2013, 4:23 pm
  8. Oh my gosh, Sarah–my reaction is that I want to give you a hug! I’m seriously impressed at your bravery in writing this blog post. I always thought authors had to be wired a little differently to be crazy enough to do what we do.

    I suffer from dizzy spells but I don’t have anything in the pro column on that one except that it makes me determined to do more on the days I feel okay. I kind of wish I had more pros now. I’ll have to think on it…

    Thanks for posting this.

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 9, 2013, 7:53 pm
  9. Wow, what a powerful post! Thanks so much for sharing this. I know so many people dealing with depression – I don’t know if it’s more common among writers or if it just seems that way because I know so many writers. It’s definitely nothing to joke about.

    For me, fear – mostly unreasonable – is my personal bugbear. I’m so nervous about driving I didn’t get my license until I was 45. And I STILL don’t like to drive. I don’t like elevators, deep water, or heights in general. I hope this will help my writing, because it certainly serves no other purpose.

    Your book sounds VERY intriguing – I’ll add it to my wish list!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 9, 2013, 10:24 pm
    • Hi Becke!

      Fear–yeah, that’s a tough one because, on some level, those all have perfectly logical reasons to be cautious. We were up in the former Sears tower this summer and I did not do well there. Too high–not natural! But that can work for you in that fear is a basic emotion we all have that motivates us. Why do people do things? They’re greedy or they’re afraid. You have extra insight into how fear can guide people to do things that might otherwise be irrational, right? Why do people keep secrets, do stupid things like cheat or lie? Because they’re afraid of something. That’s where you can really dig into that emotion.

      I hope, anyway!

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 10, 2013, 6:44 am
  10. Thanks so much for this post, Sarah! I’ve suffered with degrees of depression since my first miscarriage (I had 3 total, but finally 2 beautiful children). 2 years ago, when my hubby faced a professional setback and money got really, really tight, I added panic attacks to the mix. Yay, me!

    Honestly, it was scary. And its taken a lot of management. But I do it, because I have to for myself and those I love. Medicine (for depression and other health issues), exercise (such a stress reliever–even though I used to hate exercise), and writing. Always writing. If I go more than a few days, I get really antsy and cranky.

    But examining and understanding my own emotions helps me to understand my characters also. Why they do what they do. How certain situations and actions make them feel. How to make them come alive to the reader. That’s my goal with each book I start. Oh, and to stay stable (for lack of a better word). Maintaining that equilibrium is always easiest when indulging in my creativity. I write through those dark times and let it take me to a better place…until I’m really there. :)

    Posted by Dani Wade | August 9, 2013, 10:30 pm
    • Hey Dani!

      Yes–stability. Man, that’s a great thing, isn’t it? I like writing so much because it gives me that. All the other parts of publishing…not so much. But writing, yes!

      I don’t like taking meds. It bothers me. But we’ve finally gotten the best mix and the benefits far outweigh the fact that I have to take pills every day for the rest of my life.

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 10, 2013, 6:50 am
  11. Sarah, thanks for sharing! I know this is hard, since mental illness is still so stigmatized. I’ve taken graduate classes in psychology, and though I am not qualified as a therapist, I learned so much in my six classes. Most of all, I learned that people who suffer from anxiety, depression, OCD, etc. need one big thing: understanding. Without it, they will often avoid seeking treatment for fear of being ostracized. That only exacerbates the problem.

    I am lucky that I’ve only been through moderate depression, which was scary enough. I have an ex who is bipolar, though (diagnosed in his 30s, after we married and had a son) and my son, who has autism, also suffers depression, anxiety and OCD. If we didn’t have a host of caring, involved medical professionals and understanding extended family, caring for my son would be so much more difficult that it is now.

    One of the things I am trying to do in my writing is bring a compassionate view to mental illness. My current WIP has a soldier who, in addition to losing a leg in combat, suffers from PTSD brought about not only by his wartime experiences, but from witnessing his mother’s violent suicide years before. His younger brother is bipolar, and his story is next. My goal is to show that the mental illnesses my heroes suffer do not make them weak – and in fact, they are stronger for having to live and survive outside of the “norm.”

    Thank you for sharing your story! You are a true inspiration.

    Posted by Nancy | August 11, 2013, 8:49 am
    • Hi Nancy!

      Oh, I like your goal!

      It’s really delightful how anxiety seems to feed so many other issues. But you’re right–fear of judgment definitely kept me away from help for a long time. But I really think we’re in the middle of a sea change in attitudes toward mental issues and the recognition that they come in all shapes and sizes.

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | August 11, 2013, 4:54 pm

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