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.

happy holidays

We’re coming up on the holidays now, and I’ve been reading in a number of blogs that people are already feeling some trepidation and making plans not to have the awful times they’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve had really good holidays and really, really bad ones, both due to my own mental health issues and because my son’s illness was in a bad place (almost certainly mixed with where the rest of the family was, mentally-speaking, at the time).

My mother was the sort of person who used to cook her way through to the perfect holiday when I was a kid. There were years when we made ten kinds of cookies plus the fruitcake and then all of the ritual foods for the different days. When she started to drink more and more, and she started to say that she was too tired to cook, at first my younger sister and I just filled in and did the baking. But you can’t pretend forever that the person parked in the La Z Boy with the glass in her hand is the same person who used to take care of all of the holiday cheer.

I’d been dieting on and off since my early teens, since I spent my life reclining and snacking, reading and reading, and even then my metabolism sucked. So I’d periodically take my calorie intake to near zero and deal the system another death blow. When I got to be 18, I decided it was time to get serious and take this not eating thing long term. That’s when my weird eating became clinically disordered. I didn’t last long as an anorexic, but I learned about bulimia, and those behaviors lasted for many years. For many, many holidays after that I was calculating which stores were open (usually only the 7-11 on Christmas at that point, which shows you how old I am) and how I could get away without having to offer endless explanations, so I could buy Ex-Lax. These days it would be so much easier. I could say I was off to Black Friday. I hate Black Friday, but oh well. I was counting on those guys who were working Christmas back in the old days.

More recently, I’ve needed to sideline my issues, because my sons have needed so much of my attention. I see that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m so sorry that they have to suffer with mood disorders, and I’m glad that I can see well enough to drag myself out of focus on self. Martin has graduated from high school now, but one of the big stresses used to be that shift out of the rhythm of school and into the blank time of vacation. He’d always think that he wanted it, and he counted the days toward it, but once he was in that open space with no markers for what to do next, he’d flounder. Then as the beginning of school approached again, he’d get terribly anxious about going back. The anxiety was so intense that it made it hard for him to focus on the celebratory aspects of the holidays themselves. For Christmas, for example, when I would ask him what he wanted, he’d think of something, and then he would be in such a state of anticipation and anxiety about how long it was taking to get whatever it was, that Christmas became a state of pain for him. If I didn’t ask him, though, then invariably I’d get him something he didn’t really want, and he would be disappointed. Now that his younger brother is old enough, I’ve taken to asking him for ideas.

Pete, my younger son, tends already to be a pragmatist and a cynic. He’s got his own extreme anxieties to cope with and then he’s an expert at working with his older brother. When I’ve run out of patience and am ready to start yelling back at Martin (worst thing to do with a person with bipolar, or certainly with my son…it only escalates the situation), Pete steps in and deescalates the situation. Infuriates me when I’m feeling feisty, but it’s just what Martin needs. Fighting with his mother is not. Pete loves Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year, but it needs to be done just so. He has rituals that need to be adhered to to make it feel right. I like that he’s picked a day where nearly all the rituals have to do with food, because food is relatively easy, but then again, this is me, so food is never really easy. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years, so sitting next to an enormous bird is less than great. But I’ll do that for my sons. What’s growing even more problematic is that he wants Thanksgiving with his Mom and Dad. Every year I think, this is it. We separated so many years ago. I am not doing this again, and then there we are, performing Thanksgiving again. I love my sons so much, and this year my partner is going to be overseas, but I’m thinking this ritual seriously needs an overhaul.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt