Self-Care while Writing

Self-care is important on a personal level. Everyone needs different types of self-care, including writers. But when you hear the word, do you think bubble baths, face masks, a glass of wine and a soppy movie? Sure, that can be it if that’s what you need. But self-care is so much more than pampering yourself, especially if you have a mental illness — anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Self-care is learning coping mechanisms. Self-care not cancelling your next therapy appointment because you had an episode with hallucinations again and you’re ashamed of it. Self-care is forcing yourself to get up and shower when you’re too depressed to do anything.

Ultimately, self-care is so much more than what most people think. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s something I wanted to talk about, because mental health and self-care are for everyone. Everyone has mental health. And, as a writer living with severe mental illness, I find it’s important to take care of yourself during the writing process, especially if you’re writing a novel. They can take months, even years, to finish. And I find they can be quite consuming (especially when I’m manic and writing over 5,000 words in a day for several days in a row).

Even when I’m not manic, I find that when I slog over a manuscript for days on end without doing anything else other than sleep, I start to lose focus and clarity. But over the years, as I’ve learned to refine my writing process, I’ve also learned to care for myself and my mental health so I can continue to knock out word after word, sentence after sentence. Here are a few tips to help you do the same if you find you need to care for yourself:

  1. Learn to step away from your manuscript if you feel drained.
    Hyperfocusing on your manuscript will only burn you out and drain you of your creativity. You might end up getting stuck with writer’s block, feeling nothing but frustration. Step away for a few days to help you clear your head. Sometimes, when you narrow in on one thing (practically obsessing over it), frustration and depression can quickly take over.
  2. Make sure to take small breaks to eat, rest, take care of other chores, etc.
    Sometimes, we get so “in the groove” that we forget about what’s going on around us. Whether it’s to eat a meal or snack, to walk the dog, or to simply clean up your home a bit, be sure to get up and move around if you’ve been working on your manuscript for hours at a time.
  3. Don’t forget about other hobbies.
    Having other hobbies is another way to help you step away from your work, as well as help you destress when you’re frustrated with your own writing. Whether you’re into knitting, doodling in a planner, or any other pastime, enjoying a hobby for a few hours per week has actually been said to reduce the risk of depression.
  4. Take a walk.
    And not in a “Get outta my sight!” kind of way. Exercise is great for reducing stress and clearing your head, even if it’s a quick 10-minute walk. You can even do a short, 7-minute workout routine according to WebMD.
  5. Focus on the positive.
    Feeling down about your work, like you’re no good at it or your manuscript is a pile of garbage? Stop and find the good things. Find a passage that you feel is written well and read it a few times, or find other parts of your work that you enjoy. Recharge your outlook to a more positive view, and don’t be so hard on yourself.

Remember that everyone is different, and everyone has different needs for their mental well-being. These are simply things I’ve learned over the years as a writer. Do what you need in order to take care of yourself, and don’t forget: Mental health matters.

Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.

I’m Proud of You

Mental illness doesn’t take a break for the holiday season. With just one more day until Christmas, I understand it can be an extremely trying time for those with Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Schizophrenia and other illnesses.

I hope you don’t feel guilty if you’re just surviving, day by day, if you’re just getting by. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not merry and bright, if you don’t feel up to forcing some holiday cheer around the family.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or ideation — I want you to know that I’m proud of you for still being here. I know how hard it is to simply survive with these kind of thoughts. I hope you find something, anything, worth living for, even if it’s as simple as a good book or enjoying your favorite movie (mine has to be the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors with Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene). I keep a list of things worth living for in my planner, as well as a list of the things, activities, and people I love. When those pesky suicidal thoughts start to creep in, I take out my lists and look over them as a reminder. As Juliette Lewis said, “The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”

No matter what your battle is, no matter where you are in that battle, just know that you have at least one person who is proud of you. Because I’m there. I’m with you. I’m in your shoes.

I hope you do more than survive some day; I hope you thrive in spite of your illness. But for right now, I hope you simply get through the holidays.

The Shadow People

I recently had a bad depressive episode with psychosis. I hadn’t seen the shadow people since March. Unfortunately, I had to go for another inpatient stay, and I had to go for an unscheduled ECT treatment on top of my medication changes. I’m currently in the middle of an acute rescue series of ECT, with one more scheduled treatment.

The shadow people were watching me for several nights, and they wouldn’t relent. Finally, I got it into my head that if I cut myself, they would go away. It didn’t work. The cuts are healed, and after more than a couple weeks, they’re light enough that I feel comfortable wearing short sleeves in public again. (Although, the temperature is beginning to cool off here in South Carolina, so I’m wearing a cardigan, anyway.)

For a week straight, I wanted to die. My husband hid all my pills but one dose at a time. I also had him hide sharp objects. The intrusive thoughts of hurting myself were nonstop. I barely focused on work when at the office. This is the reality of my life. Finally, two Thursdays ago, I planned on stopping by the local pharmacy on my way home from work and picking up a bottle of acetaminophen to overdose on. I texted my husband from work to tell him, and he took me to the local inpatient psychiatric hospital to check myself in.

I was there for a week, which happens to be one of my shorter inpatient stays. There have been times when I’ve been inpatient for two weeks at a time, so I consider myself lucky this time. My inpatient psychiatrist recommended an acute rescue series of ECT, as I respond well to the treatments. They help tremendously. It’s hard to say if it is the increased dosage of medication or if it’s the ECT that’s helping more. Either way, I’m glad to be feeling back to myself (without hallucinations).

Right now, I’m not allowed to drive during the acute series and for two weeks after. It’s a pain having to get my husband to drive me everywhere when I need to go anywhere. But it’s a small price to pay for feeling better. I would never wish my hallucinations on anyone.

Sobriety. It’s a Beautiful Thing.

August 20th marks 12 years of sobriety from alcohol and pain pills for me. I was 21 when I went to a three-month outpatient rehab program for my drinking and drugging. I remember the withdrawals. Vomiting the morning after as my body reacted to the drugs leaving my system. I remember the cravings. Being unable to resist that next drink, that next pill, that next high. Towards the end of my drinking career, I was drinking daily. And not just one or two drinks. I was blackout drunk every night.

But I’ve been sober since August 20th, 2008. I took my last drink August 19th, 2008, at a bar called The Alley. After my psychiatric hospitalization post-suicide attempt, the facility signed me up for the outpatient rehab program for drugs and alcohol. I agreed, desperate for any kind of relief from the chaos that was inside my head. Within the first couple of weeks, the rehab facilitator told us that less than 25% of us would remain sober, that most of us would relapse. Hearing that I might relapse sparked a fiery determination inside me. I decided, right then and there, that I wouldn’t be another statistic. I wasn’t going to relapse. I started going to twelve-step meetings, got myself a sponsor, began collecting chips to mark my time in sobriety. 24 hours. 1 month. 2 months. 3 months. 6 months. Time went on, and I didn’t pick up a drink or pop a pill.

Since then, I haven’t picked up a single drink. I even use the alcohol-free brand of mouthwash. I don’t eat foods cooked in alcohol, as cooking it doesn’t completely burn off the alcohol; you have to flambé it to completely remove the alcohol content. I refuse to take benzodiazepines (such as Xanax) for my anxiety, as they affect the same A-1 receptors in the brain as alcohol. Granted, I have to have Versed, an intravenous benzodiazepine, post-ECT treatment, otherwise I freak out when I wake up from the anesthesia.

There are still times I wish I could drink like a normal person. There are still times, 12 years later, that I get cravings for alcohol, urges to chase that old high once again. But it’s just a good reminder that I’m an alcoholic and addict, that I can’t drink normally, that I have to take extra steps to guard myself from that first drink. I love sobriety, but I must always be aware that my demons are lurking in the corner, waiting for a moment to strike. I must never become complacent.

My Life with Bipolar Disorder

If you’ve read my bio page, you already know that I live with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis. I had my first episode, a depressive episode, when I was sixteen, and was originally misdiagnosed with Major Depression. I started self-harming in the form of cutting to relieve my mental anguish. At sixteen, I wanted to die.

The next few years went by without incident. It wasn’t until college that I experienced full-blown mania. I was delusional, going days on a few hours of sleep, and I experimented with alcohol and drugs. My drinking and drugging, towards the end, got to the point that it was nearly daily binging and withdrawals. Finally, August 19th, 2008, I couldn’t take it anymore. I overdosed. I left a note for my mother that simply read, “I’m so sorry. I need a lot of help.” I was still conscious when she found me. The panic in her voice is still crystal clear in my memory.

After chugging charcoal and spending some time in the ER, I was sent to a psychiatric facility, where I received my bipolar diagnosis, although it wasn’t until several years later that psychosis was added onto my diagnosis. After a week in the facility, I was sent home and signed up for an outpatient rehab program for drugs and alcohol.

I spent the next six years on lithium and a combo of other drugs, which kept me mostly stable. Once the lithium started shutting down my kidneys and I developed hypothyroidism, it was time to go off of it. That’s when trouble started up again and the hallucinations began. I started seeing shadow people in my house, and later began to hear voices telling me to kill myself. I was in and out of the hospital multiple times a year. We tried Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) before Electroconvulsive Therapy was offered. Desperate for relief, I agreed to ECT.

While ECT hasn’t kept me completely stable, it has helped in my recovery. I’ve been going regularly for ECT since 2015 and still go to this day. I had a second suicide attempt in July 2019 while going through a particularly rough depressive episode. Early 2020, I was put back on lithium. A low dose, to see if that would deter some of the side effects I experienced before. I’m still on it, and I’m doing well.