A short and mostly accurate guide to mental health for writers
Before I begin in earnest, here are a handful of things you need to know about me:
Though I live and work in the UK, I am Canadian. (I tell you this primarily so that you are not confused by the quantity and variety of apologies that will undoubtedly appear in the course of this article. Sorry about that.)
I am a single parent to teenaged twins.
I have, at various points in what I stubbornly insist on referring to as a career, been an actor, a singer and a filmmaker.
I am a writer.
And I have bipolar disorder.
Needless to say, I am seldom short of stories to tell. Though I have no plausible explanation for why so many of them are about the early days of the steam engine.
It’s probably a metaphor.
You would be forgiven for thinking, of all of the above strains on my time and character, that writing - a nice, quiet activity - might have had the least impact on my mental health.
Well, shows what you know.
Actually, I’m being unfair. Those of you who are writers know perfectly well that, however outwardly sedentary our profession may appear, writing is, perhaps, the most precise antonym for calm ever devised. I know it’s not working down a mine, or levering collapsed buildings from the tender backs of puppies, but it’s still a hefty and continual workout of body and mind.
Even without the added wrinkle of a chemical imbalance, a writer’s brain is, approximately ninety-seven percent of the time, on fire. And the remaining three percent is comprised of petroleum by-products.
"Whether it’s medication or meditation, as your needs demand, get the support you need."
And that’s purely on the creative side. There is, of course, also the business side to consider. Deadlines, rejection, frustration and, most common of all, specialist medical insurance to cover chronic back pain and paper cuts.
Striking the necessary balance to prevent flights of imagination from becoming fevered hunts for the ejected black box of imagination is key to surviving and thriving as a writer.
I have not always done this.
Here, verbatim, is a conversation I have regularly had with my brain, in those dark days when I eschewed treatment for my mental health.
ME: I note that we have an important deadline in two weeks.
BRAIN: This is true. I left a note in blood on the bathroom wall to that effect.
ME: We should probably make a plan.
(We hear the sound of a bottle being plonked on to a table)
BRAIN: I have a plan.
ME: Vodka. Vodka is your plan?
BRAIN: Don’t be ridiculous. The vodka is in case we get thirsty at four o’clock in the morning.
ME: Four o’clock in the morning?
BRAIN: Yes, the day of the deadline.
ME: Shouldn’t we have finished before then?
BRAIN: We should, yes. We won’t be.
ME: What’s that?
This may be an extreme example, but it is typical of the self-medication to which some writers find themselves irretrievably affianced.
Here’s another regular exchange:
ME: So, lots of nice reviews on this one. That’s pleasant and mood-enhancing.
BRAIN: Yeah, but that one guy.
ME: He’s entitled to his opinion.
BRAIN: He really didn’t like it.
ME: One guy. It doesn’t matter.
BRAIN: He hated it.
ME: He’s allowed.
BRAIN: He hates you.
ME: Come on, now. We don’t know that.
BRAIN: He said he slept with your girlfriend.
ME: What? No, he didn’t.
BRAIN: Your girlfriend.
ME: Stop being ridiculous.
BRAIN: She also hates you.
ME: Where’s the vodka?
The reality is this. We all have to look after our mental health, whether we have a particular condition with which to contend or not. And writing contains, in its very DNA, a veritable grab bag of stresses.
Long hours, mental strain, worry about how we’ll be received, whether it will sell, how we’ll pay the bills if it doesn’t, how we’ll balance our responsibilities to families and friends against those of our sulky and jealous muse – they can all take their toll on our mental health.
And while the stereotype of the eccentric (if rich) or disturbed (if poor) writer continues to loom large in the public’s perception, it is actually far more difficult to write with any degree of discipline or craft if we are mentally unwell.
"Try to remember that you don’t write for reviewers, you write for readers."
Four brilliant chapters of a novel you never finish are of no use to anyone, unless they contain a hidden key to buried treasure and, let’s face it, they so seldom do.
I’ll finish with some tips that I’ve found helpful as I’ve journeyed from mentally ill writer to mentally ill writer who is doing something about it. But, they all serve one overarching rule:
Seek help when you need it.
Whether it’s medication or meditation, as your needs demand, get the support you need. And accept it when offered. We aim to be observers and reporters of the human condition; if we can’t observe and report on ourselves, we’re missing a trick.
In the short term, however:
Sleep, damn it. Just because you can write an entire screenplay in 48 hours - despite beginning to hallucinate somewhere around Act II - does not mean you should. Apparently.
Take regular breaks. Going to the bathroom doesn’t count, although you should probably do that too.
Don’t read reviews. I mean, you will. But, still, don’t. There is literally nothing to be gained by pushing your objective face into that subjective chainsaw. So, when you do – because you will - try to remember that you don’t write for reviewers, you write for readers.
It’s okay to be stuck. You know who doesn’t get writer’s block? Non-writers.
Be kind to yourself. There’s no joke attached to this one.
I am a better writer now than ever before. That’s not a comment on whether I’m any good or not, just an observation on how much more comfortable and inventive I feel, having taken the decision to address my mental health. I truly believe that this will hold true for most, if not all writers.
And if you find otherwise, come round and have a drink and discuss it.
I’ve got an unopened bottle of vodka sitting right here.
Kenton Hall is the author of Bisection - a story of bipolar parenting and twin wrangling - which is available now for pre-order in paperback from Chinbeard Books and will be available as a paperback, ebook and audiobook from 31st August from Amazon and all points west.