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 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?
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.
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:
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!
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.
- The Revision Process: Unpublished to Published with Sarah M. Anderson
- Authorial New Year’s Resolutions by Sarah M. Anderson
- Mental Health Spa with Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- Weekly Lecture Schedule – July 16 to July 20, 2012
- The Writing Life – Finding Healthy Balance