On Writing and Mental Health

It’s been a few weeks since my last post because I needed some time to deal with some of the worst anxiety I have ever had. The timing was pretty terrible too since book marketing advice says the time right after a book launch is the most important, but I decided my well-being was more important than a book. Unfortunately the book was the cause of my anxiety, though in retrospect I now know that I have always been dealing with anxiety this was just the thing that brought it all to the forefront. Anyways following a severe panic attack a few days before Black Flowers released my wonderful and supportive wife made me promise to go to a doctor, which I did. I am now happy to say that I have medication for it and I’m doing much better now.

This whole experience got me thinking about how the act of writing affects writers’ mental states in both positive and negative ways.

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This is just a layman’s point of view so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

I’m sure most people are aware of the examples of writers with severe depression that have committed suicide, such as Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and so on. There is also the stereotype of writers being alcoholics thanks to a few well-known ones, such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and so on. While I am aware other types of artists and creators have also dealt with depression and alcoholism, why are these so strongly linked to writers in the popular consciousness? Is there any real connection or is it just a popular misconception?

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I don’t intend on providing any definitive answers on this topic (since I don’t think I’m qualified to do that), but I do want to examine it and provide my own viewpoint as a writer. Does writing create depression and alcoholism or does it draw people that are already prone to these things?

I believe that writers tend to already have these problems and turn to writing as a way to deal with them. There are obvious exceptions but many writers are lonely introverts, many turn to writing for an escape similar to the reason many people abuse alcohol, many use writing as a way to conquer their fears and remove the filters for honesty, and to gain self-confidence and the courage to say the things that others won’t. I know from my own personal experience that I am much bolder in my writing than I typically am in everyday life. I feel like my writing represents the truest, most honest version of myself since I have had the time to consider all of my feelings and experiences before putting words to paper. I can be more thoughtful than the snap judgements people often make in daily conversations even when dealing with tough or sensitive topics that they haven’t had the time to fully think through yet.

In modern psychology there is a form of treatment called “writing therapy” or “journal therapy” where patients are asked to write about their emotions and past trauma they have experienced to gain mental and emotional clarity and come to a deeper understanding of oneself. This is another thing I can attest to as a writer, as an angsty teenager I often felt that the only way I could deal with my inner turmoil was by expressing it through poetry. Now as an adult I still often feel that my writing is a form of therapy for me to work through my feelings toward the conservative, religious upbringing that I had and now strongly disagree with. I also feel that writing gives me a safe form of escapism, gives my life purpose, and allows me to leave something behind as a sort of testament to my short time spent here on earth.

Now that I’ve listed many of the positives I think it’s time to cover the negatives of writing as a profession or at least in a public forum. The negatives come from societal pressures and the fear of public backlash. In this extremely sensitive age where every aspect of public figures’ online history is being dug up, scrutinized, and judged with the intention to “cancel” their career or publicly “drag” them on social media it can be a nerve-racking experience to put yourself out there. This is made even worse for someone that is already prone to having anxiety to start with. While I do think it is wonderful that the internet has allowed many voices that have long been dismissed and ignored finally be heard, I’m not going to pretend that there also isn’t a lot of groupthink and mob mentality occurring as well.

Many writers have a fear of being labeled “problematic” for dealing with sensitive or controversial topics, especially if they discuss issues still ongoing in society today. To bring things back to my own personal experiences much of my anxiety concerning Black Flowers had to do with the last story in the collection called “Coda.” This story deals with a teenager caught between the dangers of racial profiling by the police force in his city and his friend who has turned to drug-dealing to escape a life of poverty. I feel that this story is one of the most important and relevant things I’ve ever written, but it has also been a constant source of anxiety for me and the main contributor to the panic attacks I experienced recently.

I’ve also received some criticism from the more conservative, religious people in my life for some of the sexually explicit scenes I’ve written. Ironically, one of these stories’ themes is about overcoming religious guilt and shame to live a more fulfilling and authentic life, but that must’ve been lost on them. I don’t regret having written those scenes since I feel they were essential to the story and I’m not ashamed of writing about sex since I don’t think it is dirty or wrong.

Not to mention that the bible has some pretty explicit scenes as well despite what many uptight Christians would have you believe. “But she added to her promiscuities, bringing to mind her youthful days when she was a prostitute in the land of Egypt. She lusted after their male consorts, whose sexual organs were like those of donkeys, and whose ejaculation was like that of horses. She relived the wicked days of her youth, when the Egyptians touched and fondled her young and nubile breasts.” Ezekiel 23: 19-21. Or “Onan knew the children wouldn't be his so when he slept with his brother's wife, he wasted his semen on the ground, so he wouldn't give his brother children.” Genesis 38:9.

Now why didn’t my Sunday school teacher ever go over these verses, I wonder? If this level of detail is important to God then I think it should be important to me as well. And here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today titled “Overcoming Religious Sexual Shame” by clinical psychologist David J. Ley:

“Religious people are at heightened risk of developing sexual disorders, and feeling at a loss to deal with them or get help. Sadly, when people within religious communities seek help for their sexual concerns, they are most often told to suppress or ‘battle’ their sexuality, or sent to pseudotreatments such as sex or porn addiction programs, where their sexual desires are portrayed as a form of sickness. Shame creates a feedback loop of pain, fear, dysfunction and self-hatred, which is the true root of most sexual problems.”

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Now I know it may seem like I’m being a little harsh here but I grew up in the Bible Belt and went to summer camps as a child where I was lectured about the evils of masturbation and having lustful thoughts. So this is me taking back my piece of mind and letting everyone know that I will not be bullied or guilted into censoring my art for you. That’s precisely how writers get driven into alcoholism and depression to begin with. I want my writing to continue to be therapy for me and if I can make some money from my art then that would be great too, but the former is far more important to me and my mental health than making a living off of it will ever be.