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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.