Tag: anxiety

Mental illness and creative writing

                          **The grumpy bird on the windowsill is me.** 

As someone studying both English and Psychology in college, the idea of the aspects of our disturbed minds influencing our art is very interesting to me.

Last semester, I wrote a long symposium paper on Lord Byron’s Manfred and the reflections of Byron’s mental health problems in the play. To me, it was clear that Byron’s art was influenced by and perhaps was given more meaning in context with his mental health problems, specifically what I believe to be Bipolar 1 Disorder. There was quite a bit of research involved in this theory that I don’t have time to go into here, but I will say that I’m convinced on an intellectual level that both the correlation of mentally ill people having artistic ability is high and the correlation of people with artistic ability being mentally ill is high. Those don’t seem to be different on a surface level, but in fact, there is research that indicates genetic correlations between Bipolar 1 disorder and artistic ability. This is subtly different from people who are artistic being more inclined to feel deeply, to experience mental illness in a way that only artists can.

I hope that those seem distinct to you, reader, and I don’t sound like a driveling moron.

The reason I bring this up today is because I have some input into how this is significant on a layman’s level, how this is significant to me, Taylor McCoy, a writer.

I’m currently working on a novel with a protagonist who has anxiety. This should be fairly easy for me seeing as I experience anxiety almost daily, but still I doubt the legitimacy of the experience and the way that I’m relating it. I didn’t realize until today exactly how deep my abnormal pscyhology influences the way that I write.

For example, I believe that I have undiagnosed sensory processing disorder (SPD). If you don’t know what this is, I don’t blame you. The occurrence of SPD is correlated with people who have generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety and was once (and in some circles, still is) associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Someone with SPD experiences sensations much differently than what most SPD-ers call “Neurotypicals” or, those who don’t experience these intense sensations (or in some cases, lack of sensation).

For me, sitting in a room full of people can be either extremely relaxing, if my brain chooses to filter those sensations properly and it all becomes white-noise, or it can be infuriating, perhaps terrifying. For me, when I was sitting in a room with my boyfriend and several of his friends and there was a TV playing the Simpson’s theme, one roommate singing a different song than the theme, another roommate coughing loudly, my boyfriend talking close to my ear, and another roommate crumpling up a plastic bag in another room, I was suddenly quite certain that I was about to set myself on fire and take down whoever I could with me. I was overwhelmed to say the least. It makes me angry, sad, and felt like the physical sensation of a migraine without an actual headache.

Imagine what someone who experiences things like this with all their senses would notice about the world that a neurotypical would not.

For example, I can call to mind sensations that are vivid for me that I haven’t felt in 15 years. I can feel on the inside of my brain what a rusty mailbox feels like and it makes me want to throw up. I can’t even pick up a newspaper or a paper bag without the fear that I will want to promptly wrench my hands off my wrists and never experience the pain of that sensation again.

So, it seems strange to me to try to write without description. If you ever get the chance to read a novel of mine, you’ll probably notice the high amounts of description, the possibly irritating levels of description. But, how else would I get across what I was meaning to without relaying these things that are so central to my experience in great detail, and at every important opportunity. I feel that I have a distinct skill in relating detail because I experience things so intensely and so differently than normal people do.

It’s fairly uncommon to have a disorder like SPD, but many writers can relate to depression, anxiety, alcoholism and other addictions. When I approach a novel from a writer that I know to suffer from these things, I think it’s hard to wrench the writer from the character because usually the character reflects many of the same struggles, and that’s what makes them different. A writer who suffers from depression, Bipolar disorder, or suicidal thoughts is likely to create a memorable character who can’t contain their own snarkiness. They are dark and brooding. They are sarcastic. And you can’t help but love them, right?

I’m not saying that all dark and brooding characters are the product of a depressed author, but I think that we, as writers, have the unique ability to create memorable characters because of our experience with mental illness. We can write the outcasts who go on the grand adventures we long to have. We can write characters who have deep and meaningful relationships that we are dying for, or perhaps the opposite, the loner character who we intensely relate to and can imbibe with our longing.

I don’t at all think that being a mentally healthy writer is reflective of a poorer quality of work. However, as a writer who has a unique experience every day, having constant internal dialogues about my actions because I’m hyperaware of avoiding anxiety, avoiding certain pathways so I don’t have to fear with every step that I will trip in front of a crowd of strangers, or avoiding certain people because I know they’ll want to hug me and I can’t take that today, I might just retaliate and punch them in the face, I think that embracing these dysfunctions might just be the saving grace of our writing.

It’s undeniable that mental illness and artistry correlate, that the correlation is strong. I think the point I want to make here is that our writing is meaningful because of our struggles. Not to exclude the mentally healthy, again. To us, to those who suffer in similar ways, to a world that doesn’t adequately comprehend mental illness, our experience is important and should, it should come out in our writing.

Thank God we can write. Thank God we can turn to words to express what comes out in jumbled pleas from our mouths without proper rehearsal. Thank God the only way I can make the world understand my mind properly is through the beauty of language.

And thank you for reading.


Experience and the Sponge

Sometimes, when the thick gray air of winter sits on brick towns with painted windows, when old courthouses with cylinder blocks for foundation and the smell of restaurant food and newly paved roads tickles my nose and forces me to imagine worlds into existence, I think:

How wonderful it is to be an artist.

Small things…

-the way the leaves twirl around moving cars in wind shapes like the faery world’s gentle collision with reality

-the way the clouds project the moon from out of the black carpet behind it, concealing, revealing, concealing, so dark they look like midnight dragons on a run through the heavens

-the way caterpillars float, transcendent, I imagine, ecstatic through the air on their silky strings, totally carried by their ingenious invention…and their weightlessness

They make me proud to be an artist. It is these things which fill me up like a thirsty sponge, squeezed dry from the harshness of the atmosphere, from the constricting agenda of hate, smothering, smothering. I eagerly fill myself up on this holy water of this world’s majesty. I drink and drink until I am contentedly wet, ready to purge these beauties out onto other things that are dry.

Yet, sometimes, as I am a sponge, and I absorb, I find that even the filthy water gets in, and I’m already too soaking wet with filthy water to take on anything else.

Yesterday, I printed pictures of a dead woman. Her car was like a flash-frozen, half-melted conglomerate of metal with blood spatter on the ceiling. Children’s toys stretched out over the car, through the air, nestling near the railroad tracks and lying down to rest in the dead, winter grass, broken, wet with mud, dislodged.

I printed pictures of little girls and boys, of big girls and boys, of mothers, of fathers, of friends. Little girl in a blue dress with frills down the front, clippies in her hair as numerous as the twirling braids which stuck off her head like antenna.

I ached. I ached. I ached.

Drunk driver. Too fast. Satin coffin. Orphan family. Orphan friends.

I ached, and I ached.

I found that when I tried to draw breath, my chest was shallow. There was no more room in the cavity which held my non-compliant lungs. I found tears with no logical explanation breaking through my resisting eyes, I felt that the toxic water was so deep in my tissue that I was about to rip myself open to get it all out. I wanted to scream, to scream so loud that it would all come spraying out of me and I would be dry again.

Unfortunately the toxic water didn’t come out. It did, some, purify for a brief moment in the company of friends and laughing and story-telling, but when more toxic water lay itself down on top, urging itself into my widened pores, settling in with the rest, I decided to shut off the tap completely. Nothing will try to fill me up again. Not today and not for now.

So today I am empty. I covered my face with pure bath water so hot it scalded the infection off. I watched videos of things which normally fill me up with healthy water from the world, hoping it could sit on the surface and not move in just yet. I need to be empty for now.

Just let me be empty for now.