writing about mental illness

I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo all through November; for those of you who might not have run across this thing, that’s National Novel Writing Month, and the goal is to try to write 50,000 words in a month, or roughly 1,667 words per day.

I had a very specific goal in mind, which ran a little bit counter to the goals of the NaNoWriMo creators, who were thinking about having people writing new work for a month. I had a draft for a novel that I’d written more than ten years ago, and I wanted to revise it, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it, so I wanted to use November to power my way through a revision.  I was able to revise more than 50,000 words of it, and though there’s probably another 35,000 words left to go, I feel confident that I can finish up this month.

What really struck me about it as I was working on it, though, was how intense the portrayal of eating disorders is. I don’t really know how many people will want to read it, because it talks about the condition in pretty gross detail. I have to think about that, and what I need to do next is do some reading and see what other novels there are about people with depression and eating disorders. But what made me happy about reading it is that I wrote it when I did. Reading through it reminded me that I need to write about things as they happen, because I may later fictionalize them to a greater or lesser extent, but if I don’t write about them in the moment, I’ll lose a tremendous amount of detail that I’ll never be able to recover in the future and that may be important to me in writing the story.

So this story started out with my experiences as a young Buddhist, traveling to Japan to teach English. I naively thought that my new religion would somehow cure me of my depression, my anxieties, and my eating disorders. That’s why I’d started practicing. But I also had some doubts about the group I belonged to, and I wanted to go and spend some time in Japan and study more intensively.

As it turns out, going to live in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language all that well is not a prescription for good mental health.  Or at least it wasn’t for me. And I was young enough not to have worked out how I was going to manage to get the few meds I did have over there (this was still before we had any anti-depressants that worked for me). So I wound up being a total mess in a country that still doesn’t really recognize mental illness.

I’m thinking about posting the novel in this blog. I’d love to have some feedback (I had abandoned it, because I was told by a couple of agents that it was good, but no one wants to read anymore stories about coming of age in Japan…but now I wonder if I don’t have a particular audience in that I’m talking about experiencing mental illness in Japan. Plus, this book serve as a lead up to the second one I’ve written about being a person with mental illness and parenting people with mental illness). If anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Fun with Demons

I was really happy today, because I found links to a story that I’ve been searching for for quite a while. I thought I knew where I had read it originally, and I had looked through that text with no luck, and then I had searched on the internet using key terms, but still no luck. Today perhaps I used slightly different terms, or maybe enough time had passed that some people had put new material up.

The history of the story is that before I became a Quaker when I was 35, I’d practiced Buddhism for much of my 20’s with the Nichiren Shoshu lay group that used to be called NSA and later became SGI. I also spent two years in Japan, wanting to learn more about Buddhism.

The story I was looking for is about single-mindedly seeking the truth. I feel sometimes that my search for truth gets derailed by my anxieties and my depression. Not that I want to become a person who sees things in black and white, because I don’t think that the human world operates that way, but I do think that when I am properly centered, I usually know what I should do, and if I’m not, I frequently do impulsive things that may be interesting at the moment, but which I later come to regret.

So about those demons…The story is about a guy named Sessen Doji who is born before the time of the Buddha, so it’s really hard to learn anything about the truths of Buddhism at that point. Sort of a tautology there. One version of the story I read says that Sessen Doji is an earlier incarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha, so then all of those truths would be there in nascent form somewhere.

But anyway, SD spends a lot of time alone, meditating, trying to happen along the truths he’s looking for somewhere inside himself, or however himself connects with everything out there when he’s meditating.  And one day while he’s sitting there, the god Taishaku sees him and decides to test him. So Taishaku takes on the appearance of a demon, stands close to Sessen Doji, and growls, “All is changeable; nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death.”

Hearing this SD’s eyes flew open. He looked around him but saw only the demon standing there. Finally, he called, “Who said that? I must hear more!”

He couldn’t believe that the demon could have uttered a Buddhist truth, and yet he asked it, “Did you speak that verse?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the demon growled, its sharp teeth grinding, and the hair on the back of its head lifting. “I am so hungry from days without food that I hardly know what I am saying now.”

Sessen Doji agreed with the demon that if it told him the second part of the verse, Sessen Doji would sacrifice his body to it for his dinner. The demon howled. “Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters nirvana.”

Sessen Doji was so happy to have heard the entire verse that all he wanted was to record what he had heard so that others could learn it as well.  He wrote the verse on the trees and rocks around his meditation spot with a piece of chalk he had in his pocket.  Then he climbed to the branch of a tall tree nearby and leapt into the demon’s mouth.

Just as he reached the sharp teeth, the demon transformed back into the god Taishaku, caught Sessen Doji in his arms and set him on the ground, apologizing for causing pain to a bodhissatva and asking for assistance in his next lifetime.

What I hear in this story is that my life will be worthwhile if I can find the right place to put my absolute trust and then leave aside all doubt, devoting myself absolutely. The difficulty is in the first clause.  There are plenty of groups willing to take your absolute trust.  But will they turn into gods as you leap into their mouths, or will they remain the blue demons that you were looking at moments before?  We need to listen carefully to their words, this story tells us. The wisdom of their words will tell us everything.