Writing With Mental Illness: My Story

In some ways, I think I started writing because of my mental illness. Not in the romanticized tortured-artist way. I am not a better, more creative writer because of my mental illness and I absolutely do not believe the bullshit that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. It’s entirely possible that I would have ended up being a writer even if I didn’t have depression or anxiety and I’m positive that I would be a better, more prolific writer today if I had treated my mental illness at an earlier age. But despite that, it is still true that my mental illness drove me to write.

I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. When I played pretend with my best friend in our backyards as a kid, we didn’t play house or schoolteacher. I made up characters with carefully chosen names and elaborate backstories for each of us and we’d play out their lives. When my friend wasn’t available, I’d make my stuffed animals engage in intricate dramas of love, friendship, and family. The first fanfiction I ever created (though I didn’t write it down and had no idea that’s what it was called) was an alternate ending to Titanic where everything was the same except somehow Jack survived and lived on an iceberg. That was the beginning of the stories I would tell myself as I drifted off to sleep, soothing my dread of the night terrors I’d had all my life.

For my thirteenth birthday, some friend I can’t remember gave me a Winne the Pooh diary with a little silver lock and key and because I was in middle school now I finally had stories to tell and secrets worth keeping. Nearly every night, I lay in bed with the pale blue pages lit by a low-watt lamp and wrote about my anxieties, wishes, crushes, and friendships. I haven’t stopped since and now have two large file boxes containing journals that document nearly two decades of my life. Those pages were a refuge from untreated depression, an abusive relationship, global terror, personal shame, fear, and high school. It’s possible those pages are the reason I survived.

These days, I still sometimes soothe myself with stories, and my journal is the safest place to unravel the tangled knots of my brain. But my mental illness has become more of an adversary to my writing than an instigator. Because, of course, it’s one thing to dream up fictional worlds to escape into and playact characters so I don’t have to deal with being my real self in a world that makes me anxious. It’s an entirely different thing to do the hard work necessary to finish a novel. That wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t found a treatment plan that works for me and an abundance of coping mechanisms for the days when my brain is being a dick.

In the end, I’m grateful for this weird, twisting-turning path I’ve walked. But it’s not gratitude to my mental illness for making me a writer. I honestly don’t believe that’s true, though at one point I did have that very common fear that antidepressants would somehow take away my creativity. No, I am grateful instead to writing and to stories. For giving me a safe place to escape to when reality felt like too much to handle. For helping me imagine life and a future for myself when it could have been just as easy to see only darkness. And for giving me written proof in my worst moments that I have been here before and I survived.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is dealing with a mental illness, I hope you find the right treatment for you. In can take time and a lot of trial and error, but that doesn’t mean you’re broken or too far gone. It is worth trying again. You are worth it. And if you are a writer living with a mental illness, I encourage you to share your story. Our voices are our most powerful asset and the more we use them to speak about our lived reality, the weaker the stigma becomes. Slay the stigma. Tell your story.

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