The Writer’s Journey with Mental Illness

Submitted by K.

Note: this article is purely anecdotal and does not intend to provide medical advice; this story serves to highlight the challenges of having mental illness.

I like writing. When I read books, I study the language, try to absorb the writing style, and let it simmer in dormancy, hoping it will germinate into my own eloquence later. Sometimes a story, a feeling, a line, would emerge at random moments and I would be urged by its momentum to write. On a notepad, scrap paper, a memo on my phone; a series of monologues with no audience or a reason, a journey of words.

There are better scribes among my peers, but I take small pride in what I do and hope that it will take me somewhere. My writing accompanies me reassuringly into the insipid, 9-to-5 cubicle life as my beacon in the monotonous horizon. My paying job may not be glamorous, but at least I can be fulfilled through my writing.

This is why writer’s block crushes dreams. Choking, sputtering, withering; creativity like salmon flopping on dry river beds. The urge to write is there, but the words just won’t come.

Perhaps I just need a muse. Or a chemically altered state. I searched for inspiration in the bottom of the wine glass and the emptied coffee cup. I read more. I slept more. I tried to channel my inner Nabokov. I tried to summon Plath. But the magic was gone. How do you describe it – the rhythmic collaboration of words that dances from the pool of your memories to the rippling surface of the blank page; the eloquence flowing like wine? It is like magic, now a long forgotten memory; an irretrievable relic of the past.

This is something more than just a writer’s block.

In the last few months, it felt like my mind was swimming in molasses. The accurate term is brain fog. My thoughts were slowed, labored, and blocked, exactly like wading in molasses. Even writing these few sentences is taking an excess amount of effort and time. Is that grammatically correct? Wait, what is that grammar rule again? Where am I going with this? I’ve been having a hard time concentrating, learning, and remembering things. Even speaking is difficult; verbalizing my thoughts and coming up with appropriate responses is a hurdle. Conversations don’t feel natural anymore – I fish for responses in the magic-8 ball of my brain, trying to retrieve what sounds right, but instead draw blanks and long, awkward pauses.

The precise combination of words that surfaced naturally to me just disappeared into thin air.
Note: I had to check an online thesaurus to retrieve “precise” because I couldn’t remember the word.

My acumen faded. Productivity plummeted at work. I forgot most of my vocabulary. I haven’t written in months.

After months of wading in this damn brain fog, I started to think that I never was a clever person in the beginning. Maybe the little ember of brilliance in the past was just a fortuitous bang and fizzle; my moment was over and I will resume the rest of my life as a creatively-lacking and fog-brained person.

Frustrated, I looked into what precipitated this cognitive decline. I found the culprit: my new prescription medication.

Long story short, I have a long list of diagnoses with the most problematic being depression. A few months ago I started a new antipsychotic drug to manage psychosis and stabilize the violent mood swings. The drug did a decent job at keeping depression at bay and preventing episodes of disordered behavior and suicide ideation. Without it, I was non-functioning.

But like any other drug, the medication comes with unwanted side effects – brain fog, lethargy, restlessness, inability to concentrate – all the effects that seriously hinder my lifestyle and goals.

I may not be depressed, spiraling in mania, or raging like a volcano anymore, but I feel like a zombie. A very stupid zombie in fact, incapable of complex thought and decision-making.

It’s a Catch-22; my contentment is tied to my sense of fulfillment and the medication that alleviates misery also takes away my abilities that allow me to be fulfilled. And I’m in my twenties, when my skills and career movements matter significantly while competing with other competent twenty-somethings over the supersaturated job market – I can’t afford to have my cognitive ability compromised.

I have a choice: mental well-being or cognitive ability. One or the other. Why does it always have to be this way?

I know I am blessed. I don’t have a physical disability. I’m a high functioning individual with a job. I have a network of caring people. I’m not living in a third-world country. I’m luckier than many people with mental illness and other disabilities.

But I just have a simple wish that I desperately yearn for: to be able to feel normal and live a non-disordered and normal life without compromises.

People say that normalcy is relative – that “normal” doesn’t exist among people – but if they haven’t experienced mental or physical illness, then they really don’t appreciate what it means to be normal.

For those who don’t know, here’s the mental illness periscope: think about how you felt on the worst day you ever had. Maybe it was a death of a loved one, a break up, or something else. You couldn’t think, or maybe a maelstrom of thoughts thundered in your head. You felt drained, or maybe you were brimming with anxious energy that you couldn’t deplete. Your emotions were all over the place, or they flatlined and you felt like a zombie. You probably lashed out at someone, or withdrew into yourself. Maybe you even thought about suicide. Now imagine the combination of the extremes above experienced on a daily basis for no reason at all.

For a long time, I thought it was normal to experience this everyday. Then at one point, I was given a prescription which briefly changed my life. For the first time, I didn’t have irregular mood swings. The irrational thoughts and suicide ideation disappeared. I was feeling neutral most of the time, or even better – happy. I was more productive and writing much better. It was like a dream. But dreams don’t last forever. My body acclimated to the drug after three months and even with increased dosage, I couldn’t get back to my “happy normal” place again.

I tried different prescriptions since then and I have yet to reach that place again. The current prescription is doing an okay job, but at the cost of my cognitive ability and sense of fulfillment.

Often I think that I’m a hopeless case; that I will never get better and will be miserable for the rest of my life. I’m not sure if that’s the depression talking or if it’s an objective assessment.

For the most part, I think I’m continuing my treatment, prescription, and recovery for my loved ones so that they don’t have to suffer. Because I’m not sure if I’ll ever get better. But I keep hoping because they believe in the process and they believe in me. Sometimes I wish they would just move on and find a better person to be around.  

It feels like mental illness is a life sentence. Maybe it is. But doctors and veterans of mental illness swear that it is treatable. And I was lucky enough to see for myself, albeit briefly, what it’s like to recover from it. So there’s hope. Maybe I was discounting the process too early; maybe there is another medication and mode of therapy out there that will suit me better. It’s a trial and error process.

Until I get there, the price of “normalizing” my mental illness is dealing with the lottery of side effects that come with the prescriptions. Weight gain, hair loss, lethargy, headaches, brain fog – take your pick. Crutches feel awkward and make your armpits sore, but they help people walk when they otherwise can’t. I guess my prescriptions are the same way. And perhaps one day I’ll be able to enjoy life without them.

In the meantime, my writing may suffer, but that’s a given in any writer’s journey, right?