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.