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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Guest Post: Writing and Publishing through Mental Health Crises

Writing and Publishing through Mental Health Crises

In my novel, Corners Untouched by Madness, the main character is suffering through a mental health crisis while also (spoiler alert) struggling to become an author. Although it is a work of fiction, the story is a direct reflection of the difficulty I faced while trying to write the book. 

Maybe you have a friend or relative who suffers from a mental illness or maybe you yourself do. I would hope you have some understanding of how difficult it is to be taken seriously when people think you are unstable, even more so when you actually are unstable and trying to be taken seriously as a writer. If you have read my story it may be easier to comprehend the constant battle authors with mental health issues fight when attempting to forge a writing career. The following is a short summary of how I was able to get published while experiencing a major mental health relapse.

It took me six years to edit my book into its current form. During that time I went through an intense therapy regimen. One hour of individual talk therapy, one hour of individual eye movement and desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and two hours of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) in a group setting every week. After the major mental health crisis loosely portrayed in my book, I was in pretty rough shape, but two years into treatment I became stable and made a full recovery. 

Everything changed in 2017 when I was diagnosed with stage three skin cancer. It was melanoma, the most aggressive kind. Surgeons were able to remove the offending tissue and thirty-five lymph nodes from my face and neck. They had essentially cured me but there was collateral damage. I became profoundly depressed. The treatment that was meant to prevent cancer from returning eventually caused severe allergic reactions in my skin and my psyche medications were no longer working. I felt as though I was falling apart. That's when I found my publisher, or rather by some miracle they found me. I was in no condition to publish a book. So, how was I able to do it?

First off, all of the therapy I had gone through had worked. My depression was unpleasant but I had learned the coping skills necessary to deal with my symptoms in a healthy way. Even with ineffective medication I could survive. I lucked out and found a content editor who was empathetic to my situation and gave me a reduced fee for the heavy editing she would perform on my manuscript. I should have been happy with that but physically and mentally I still felt ill. 

So, I went to my psychiatrist and complained about my symptoms. Her solution was to increase my medication to near the maximum dosage. I complied. The side effects became monstrous. I had trouble staying awake and when I wasn't in bed I felt agonized, aggravated and disconnected from myself. Instead of confronting her like the main character does in my novel, I simply stopped seeing her. I decreased my medication to one third of that dosage and applied to see a new practitioner. By the time the content editor was done, my relapse was unbearably intense. Furthermore, I had a job as a live-in caregiver and had no options for inpatient treatment because I had a dependent to care for. It was the worst I had ever felt but something wonderful was happening. I was reclaiming my health.

Instead of waiting to be told what to do I made decisions by weighing the pros and cons. I decided that I was willing to take less medicine, and though it made me symptomatic, I felt my quality of life was better than the times I had attempted to eradicate my symptoms all together. The struggle to feel "normal" seemed futile. My therapist, who had been with me through this experience, was supportive of me discontinuing my medication if the treatment was making my life unbearable. I was not ready for that though. I don't know if I will ever be ready for that. The final editing process tested the limits of my sanity but little by little I somehow managed to make all of the corrections, retractions and additions. This September my manuscript was finalized by the publisher. My debut novel was released on October 1st.

It was a huge victory, a massive blow to those in my personal history who had doubted me, or worse, who thought I had gone off the deep end. I still get anxious about how my book will be received. I have panic attacks and flashbacks caused by the PTSD that developed during the events it fictionalizes. Along with the additional stress however, I have also gained the confidence to keep going, the strength to overcome my symptoms, and the courage to raise my voice to protect others who are fighting similar battles. 

I want to show those like me that what I accomplished was difficult, but not impossible. You can learn from my mistakes, avoid my suffering and succeed where I had initially failed. It is my hope that more individuals who are afflicted with mental health problems write poems, screenplays, short stories and books about their experiences. It is tragic that the majority of our suffering is unnecessary, though it is not without value. We can learn from it and we can learn even more from each other. 

My advice to other authors with mental health issues? Go to therapy to learn the skills to manage your symptoms. Take medication when you feel unstable. That is what it is there for. Don't allow your providers to use that medication to lull you into a false sense of security or a state of perpetual sickness. You deserve to heal. You deserve to feel healthy. Don't settle for side effects. Don't settle for anything less than happiness. You are more than your illness and you are capable of great things. I know it sounds corny but no matter what you decide to do with your life, never give up on yourself or your dreams of turning your writing goals into a reality.


Yours,
N. Daniel



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