How Writing Helped Me Cope With My Mental Illness

Ever since the Northridge earthquake I have considered myself to be a child of trauma. However, it wasn’t until I was 22 that the residual anxiety, and that fear of abandonment, came to rear its ugly head. After living through a natural disaster, and growing up in an impoverished neighborhood, I had assumed that I had overcome everything. But in reality, my anxieties were merely glossed over by other anxieties and habits and rituals I didn’t know were part of a mental disorder.

Looking back on second grade journals and poems, it’s apparent that I was suffering. The nightmares were real, and not merely my figments of my imagination at play. But children who don’t bear any physical markings of pain or discomfort, are left voiceless. Playful, funny, sweet – non-sufferers. So when teachers weren’t listening, my pen was scribbling. Perhaps someone would notice.

In middle school – my 7th grade teacher deemed me gifted. Was I gifted or merely lonely because of social inability to make connections? I didn’t want to be abandoned once more. But it was the pursuit of writing that helped me find friends who also burrowed into the library during lunch hour. Who, like me, had things to say and wanted someone to listen. We flooded the pages with ink, and the internet with boyband fantasies. We escaped. We fled the discomfort of the halls, of our crushes calling us ugly and sexually harassing us after school.

But it seemed harmless – all this awkwardness and cowering. A rite of passage, if you will. After all, becoming an adult doesn’t come without its challenges.

In my early adulthood, I had what many refer to as a “ mental breakdown.” Like Britney shaving her head, but more subtle.  A subtly I only noticed as my pants slid down my thighs and my bones protruded through my skin. This “mental breakdown” that left me twenty pounds lighter, and afraid to step outside of my own home, nearly killed me. I had lost the will to stay awake, to be with friends, to eat all of my favorite foods. I was dying, and no one knew why or could help me understand my disfigurement.

That same year, I was accepted into CSUN’s Graduate Creative Writing program. But it was that acceptance letter that made me fight to stay awake, to write and grieve my losses – my grandma, cousin, and aunt. People who I then prayed to keep me on this earth; I was determined to leave a legacy, to escape death.

On every page, I tackled death. Fought with it in ways only fiction allowed me to.

A friend brought in Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief, and in it, Death had a voice. Although he was portrayed as a gentle entity, I made him suffer. Jim Gray Reapley, Death himself, came alive in my short story, “A Reapley Tale.” I wanted Death to experience tragedy over and over. I wanted him to feel the guilt, the anger, the bargaining – everything associated with the grieving process. And he did. So much so, that dear Jim attempted to commit suicide every waking moment. But he could never die.

Perhaps that was my own anger speaking to the page, but it was cathartic. Yet, I knew that wasn’t the only way to talk to Death. I had to write more.

“Love’s Immortal,” embraced death – literally. A young woman, much like Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, works for her parents’ mortuary. Death visits her everyday, but she is unphased by the physical and emotional process. That is until a young boy from her school dies in a tragic accident and she meets his body in the basement of her home. His soul manifests, and she falls in love. The only caveat, is that in order to be together, she must die. Of course, she embraces death, and transitions into another life peacefully. Loved.

These two stories would later form a collection entitled Synonyms for Grief – my graduate thesis. A collection of poetry and short stories which revolve around death, and the choice to accept it or to run from it. For me, writing about the thing that scared me the most, made me realize how much control I had over my own thoughts. Over my life, if I wired my brain to think that way. I could take those fears, and bend them. Thoughts, especially anxious ones, are malleable, and never permanent. Writing allowed me to grieve.

And while these aren’t the strongest stories I’ve written, I am proud of them. These words are physical proof of what therapy, a community of writer-friends, and art can do for the mind. It can heal, it can retrain, and it can open up a multitude of opportunities that I may not have once had if I left the page blank, if I’d slept my life away.

Writing made me get up in the morning, and most days, it still does. I check my email for rejection letters and requests from agents. I comb through my manuscript and rewrite. I email my designer and editor, asking questions and make executive decisions on how and what I want to say to the world. I write to leave a legacy for those who are no longer here. I write to raise awareness for others like myself.

I write for myself – to self-reflect, to heal, to bridge the gap when I can’t stop touching the door to make sure it’s locked; when I scare myself to make sure that I can feel a pulse; when I call a friend to make sure that she is still alive…

It is in no way romantic to struggle, but I can write a romance about a woman like me who finds companionship without the idea that she carries too much baggage, and  I can promote the hope that is so much-needed in an age where mental health is still stigmatized and seen as other.

Writing is not a hobby, or some get-rich-quick scheme. It’s quite frankly, life or death for me.

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