What is it about authors and mental health issues?
Is it a prerequisite?
A social trend?
A way to draw attention to their work?
This is a subject I have a serious interest in. I have been diagnosed as being bi-polar, with manic tendencies. That means some days, I swing better than Tarzan!
Looking back, this is something I have had most of my life (and with the current knowledge of today, can see it in past generations of family.) What was passed off as me being a 'brat' as a child, to a 'moody' teenager, on to an intelligent adult with anger issues, was later still mis-diagnosed as 'depression', 'manic depression', bi-polar type 2, leading up to my current diagnosis.
After much studying, three things bout this subject struck me as being profound.
1. In these enlightened times, people are STILL ignorant of mental health issues.
2. Many great authors, past and present, have either shown signs of, or have been attributed with some form of mental illness.
3. People - including many writers of today, are ashamed of their diagnosis, and live in fear of their peers or publishers finding out. They suffer alone, in silence, with no support.
Why is there a such a strong bond between writers and mental illness?
And just what is the connection that binds mental health and writing?
Scientists believe it's apart of the creative process, how artistic, creative people (including writers, artist, dancers, singers, musicians, actors) think 'outside the box', thus making them different from others.
Imagine, if you will, that the left and the right side hemispheres of your brain are like two trains, traveling side by side. They have these little 'connectors' between them that not only communicate, but feed each other as well. If certain neurons have not developed properly to stimulate both sides of the brain, odd things can occur. One of the 'trains' jumps track, throwing everything off. Neurons mis-fire' or go into a state of under production and over production of the brain's chemicals. This results in our mood swings and left unchecked, can result in chaos.
In each person, this activity is on a different production level, releasing or ceasing at different time intervals. It all depends on DNA, outside stress factors and the personal health of the individual.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Did you know famous writers throughout the ages have always had issues with what is now classified as "chemical imbalances within the brain?" They just didn't know what to call it, other than 'odd', 'peculiar behavior' or were misdiagnosed with other illnesses.
Such symptoms as long bouts of insomnia, mood swings of anger, depression, or euphoria, crying lags, extreme eating habits or money management problems (over spending, gambling), unnatural amounts of sex and even issues such as the now labeled 'OCD' or 'ADHD' were a problem then, as they are today.
Not knowing what to do, authors in the past (especially men) would "self-medicate" their manic behaviors with alcohol and some drug use (in the higher classes) or perusing their sexual/spending appetites at an alarming rate. Then, either in guilt or despair, lock themselves away to write.
However, that was then. What about the professional pens of our modern society?
Unfortunately, because of our isolation as writers (though it is better in this day and age of the internet) we are still susceptible to depression and its many forms. And, as in the past, this problem continues to be misunderstood.
Pride gets in the way of taking the diagnosis seriously (if one chooses or can afford - on a writers salary - to see a doctor at all.) Finding the right medication to fit your affliction can take years -- with constant tweaking. Even on medication, there is no guarantee that "everyday" will be free from melancholy. Or swinging. Or the chronic, repetitive behavior.
So we writers sit, day in and day out, alone in our worlds, dealing with these behaviors the best we can and hope it doesn't interfere with our works in progress.But it does. Look at our reactions to writers block. Deadlines. Conferences. The way we treat our family members. The way we react to rejection letters or submission acceptance.
As for my own story, I've been diagnosed since 1989 (24 years old) - and although it was a relief to know it was a legitimate medical condition bearing no fault of my own, it still took me years to take it seriously. I was ashamed (fortunately, the more educated we are as a society, the better we are. However, old habits die hard, and Joe Q Public will take any mental illness out of context and frown upon.) Family members didn't help, as they truly didn't understand what I was going through.
I wasn't faithful staying on my medicine, either. At one point, I was convinced my doctor got his medical degree from a Cracker Jacks Box. After being on the medicine for six months and flourishing in a euphoria of well-being, I would convince myself I was 'cured', therefore, I'd trash the pills. Six months later, I would find myself worse off than before as I continued to spiral down deeper into the dark abyss. I repeated this cycle of self-abuse several times. (I never claimed to be the brightest Skittle in the rainbow!)
Then, a concerned friend told me: "You know what the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
Ouch! That hit home. All those years of denying I was 'crazy' - and here I was traveling in a vicious circle doing the same damn thing over and over. I was still ashamed. I mean, I may be wild and crazy, but to be classified as mentally ill? That label carries huge amounts of stigma. (Up until 1973 - homosexuality was classified as a mental health disease.) I didn't want people to know.
An other friend pointed me in this direction. "If you have a heart attack, you go to the heart doctor. If you have lung cancer, you go to a specialist. If you need surgery on your knee, you go to a knee surgeon. Heart, eyes, knees...they're all an important part of the human body - and if these parts get sick or injured, you're expected to take care of them with medication and what ever.
"...So, what about your brain? The most important, complex organ in your body. If it gets sick or hurt, you need to take the medication and see a psychologist. It only makes sense."
After that, I refused to be ashamed of my Bi-polar and manic depression. I openly talk about it, hoping to educate a few minds along the way. I even make jokes about my medication - which rattles some folks, but we gotta do what we gotta do, to be at ease with our bodies. I finally learned to accept my cross in this life. I have bi-polar. It is also complicated with manic tendencies. It's not going away, and I need to be on medication in order to live a productive life. So far, I've been on my medication for 3 years straight (the longest ever.) It's a good thing, but still, even on medications, I have my 'days' where 'impending doom' looms over my head, and I just want to crawl into a hole and disappear forever.
And as I have been more open about this malady - many other writers (aspiring and professional) have contacted me, admitting they too, have been diagnosed with some form of mental health issue. And they are bewildered. Ashamed. And afraid of what it will do to their careers if their publishers or their readers found out.
I believe with all my heart, this has gotta stop!
Writers with depression symptoms - or any mental health issues, need to support each other. In fact, I would love to see a workshop on it someday - or even a website/yahoo group. You know, a place for writers who suffer from the many forms of depression (from the PMS, postpartum, going through a grieving process down to the Manic to the full-blown Bi Polar) would benefit from having a place to share with others in the same boat.
I mean, nobody understands better than somebody who has been there, done that, and still has bouts. Double therapeutic if the persons they talk with are also writers, going through the same thing. Mental Health issues touch us all, whether we are writers, have family members who are diagnosed, or suffer ourselves.
Are you (or do you know of) a writer who has mental health issues? It could be just depression, or it could be bi-polar, or a number of other oddities. How do you (they) handle it? Do you think the time has come for writers to face this demon? Do you think a writers group for mental health would be a good thing, or would it harm the authors career?
I'm curious to see some answers on this topic.