A Conversation on the Prevalence of Mental Illness Among Writers, the Challenges of Motherhood in Writing, and the Lineage That is Passed to the Next Generation.
This is a poem I wrote when I was pregnant with my son, and it’s named after him. I’d
like to share it with you:
thru the skin
pierce the folds
my lineal time
away from chaos
listen to the words
Who will you be?
Your father’s shy protégé
your mother’s free bird.
Will you be between? seeing such worlds in binary
Will you be gay?
and yes, I also mean happy
Is God in your sight
in your bones
of my bones
the body as a vessel
your life and
Flutters and tickle
quickening the pace
of growth and growing inside
from body and soul,
you call me
Find the right words.
What are the words?
Are there any words?
For two weeks now I’ve been in a depression, and part of the reason for it is that the
enormity of this topic truly hit me. I was handling it well; taking it bit by bit, not thinking too much about the scope of it, not allowing those thoughts to penetrate my barriers. Because I know myself. I know that when things start to get overwhelming, when the pressure ups the ante, when it comes time to prove myself, that’s when it all comes crashing down.
I had so many avenues I could take in this panel presentation. I could talk about the
statistics of mental illness in the general population, about the 121% higher rate of bipolar
disorder among writers. I could talk about mitochondrial DNA and how that affects our bodies, our brains — how these genes are being passed to the next generation, the next generation of writers and artists. How my DNA is lurking within my own children. I could speak about motherhood and writing, about women writers who are not mothers, about Mayer and Woolf, about the use of lighthouses as beacons and syntax as way of despair. I could have.
But it’s simpler than that.
It should be simpler than that.
There will always be statistics, there will always be new discoveries, but there won’t
always be the conversation. There won’t always be people actively seeking to bring awareness beyond science magazines. But there can be, if the conversation continues after this. And I intend to continue it. I intend to talk about it again and again, until my voice dries up and my lungs lose their last breath. Because statistics and discoveries are great; they are so important to understanding the nuts and bolts of the problem. But they are merely the blueprint. I and so many others like me, are where the real conversation begins.
As writers we have the unique opportunity of being wordsmiths. All writers of every
gender, race, religion and background have the power to evoke the conversation, if we are
aware what the conversation looks like. Maybe it should start here, in our MFA Thesis
classroom. Maybe by hearing me speak today, I can inspire one of you, or all of you, to go
forward and write about your own mental illnesses, if you have one — to tell your story, to show that writers in community together can make space for others to see that they aren’t alone. That there are people fighting for them, speaking for them, giving them room to speak back. And maybe then it spreads, to coffee shops and conferences, small presses and the academies, to the streets and the office buildings in big cities. Maybe someone, somewhere, who can’t put into words what they’re feeling in their head and heart can read our words, and realize, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along, but didn’t know how to say.” Writers can say it for them.
That is our power.
I bring up power in my paper, and how we can take it back. I bring it up because when
you have a mental illness, be it anxiety, depression, bipolar, post partum, or any other, it often feels as if you’re stripped of your individual power. You can’t control how you react as easily as you might in ordinary circumstances, whatever ordinary is. I honestly have no idea what ordinary looks like. I’m not sure I ever knew given my personal history. But dealing with a mental illness means always being on the defensive for attack; and it can happen at any time with the slightest trigger. Sometimes it’s a stressful day, or an ambiguous comment on social media, a picture you didn’t expect to find tucked away in the depths of a drawer — a forgotten memory.
And sometimes, it’s nothing at all. How do you explain the unexplainable? For any writer dealing with mental illness, this is our challenge.
I think this is why the “open text” as Lyn Hejinian defines it, has so much meaning for
me. I feel the walls of my mental illness around me every day but when I write, those walls are shattered, even if it’s only temporary. I started writing when I was nine years old, and even then I think I knew somehow that this was a way out and over those walls. People told me all the time how weird I was, but when I translated that weirdness onto paper and into worlds and characters, suddenly I was creative, imaginative — suddenly people told me I was a good writer.
I fell in love with escape.
Escape can be both beneficial and dangerous. If someone never faces the demons
within, then eventually they take over. Pretending to be fine, pretending to be in control,
eventually leads to downfall, and what that looks like is different for each individual person. I wasn’t writing during the time that I had my breakdown.
The lead up to it was very long. It’s amazing how much we recognize in hindsight, the
things we see as normal can actually be a cry for help we aren’t aware we’re emitting. After my parents divorced when I was thirteen, I threw myself into school and activities. I was always busy, and that’s not an exaggeration. When one activity ended, I filled it with something else. In addition, I was always writing. Every night I spent time in my room writing my stories, which I kept in a binder full of lined paper. Once one story was done, I usually had another one already in the planning stages, and would start it, or I would start coming up with a new idea. One story was a long running series in 12 parts. I went to college and continued being busy, often working more than one job while pursuing my degree and still finding time to party with friends, see my family when they wanted me to and maintaining a long term relationship that lasted five years. I never said no to anyone, or any activity. All the while people saw me as funny, bubbly and outgoing. They didn’t know that I frequently cried alone in my room, from being overwhelmed and stressed, from feeling like a failure and that nothing I did was ever good enough. But eventually I would wipe the tears away, tell myself to suck it up, get over it and keep going.
Always keep going. That was the motto of my life. There was no time to stand still, to reflect. I wouldn’t allow myself to.
A fire can only rage for so long before it burns out. And when I did, I no longer felt
interested in anything. I couldn’t keep jobs because they bored me or made me unhappy. In the months leading up to the breakup with my ex boyfriend, I was palpably lonely. I drank alone. And eventually, it became apparent we didn’t want the same things. I wanted to get married and have children. So we broke up after five years. I ended up in a relationship almost right away with the person who would become my husband. I didn’t want to see anyone except for him.
All these events contributed to the breakdown. It was traumatizing. The stress of all that I
was dealing with and had never dealt with came to a head. I wasn’t writing at all during this time.
I honestly can’t tell you how long I went before I started writing again…years I think. I didn’t feel I had anything to say, and when I would attempt to write, I’d just sit there staring at the page.
My husband was the one to encourage me to begin writing again. He told me I should
start a blog, and I did. And there was something mildly cathartic about that; but I don’t believe it was nearly as cathartic as creating poetry or a fantastic world. There’s something about that escape that I feel drives writers to create, either for themselves or for others. I think it’s safe to say that’s one of the reasons all of us are writers. In the way that open-texts are boundless, writing allows those with mental illness to unravel our own boundaries on the page, until they are broken down or are non-existent. The story of one’s mental illness can take a different shape on paper; it’s a place where we can simultaneously control it and let it run free.
In my thesis paper I speak about the prevalence of postpartum depression among
mothers, and illustrate briefly the weight that this has had on my own experience of being a mother. I was aware before I was diagnosed that I would probably experience it, and I was lucky to have a lot of support to help pull me out of a very dark place. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s still a struggle some days, but having the ability to write when I need to has given me a place to discuss things, to explore topics I’m not sure I would otherwise have been willing to explore out loud. One of those pieces I’d like to share with you:
This weight this weight
weighing me down weighing me down
I sit I sit sit with the gnawing pain
Were I to say everything I ever thought
Would engulf me
It’s in my head
it’s in. my heart.
I didn’t seek
I still don’t find
did a dream come unto me
and rape what hope I had left
did a dream come unto me
This wound this wound
opening and closing opening and closing
i pick at the scab pick at the scab
until it bleeds and I find I can’t stop picking
Can I be brave
can I. tell you.
I didn’t know
I never knew
what to expect
did you steal away my heart
it wasn’t romantic, did you steal
what little I had left
of me away
the thoughts the thoughts
running in circles circles in running
i obsess and chase the thought but
it never ceases to escape my fingertips
did I steal you
can I keep you
in the darkest corner, dank and smelling
of all my filth, of all my pain
can I keep you
As for my children, I often look at them and wonder what the future holds for their
own mental wellness. Will they be lucky and never inherit me and my partner’s mental
illness? Will they struggle in adolescence as we did? I feel fortunate, however, that I
know what I know now, because I can recognize the symptoms long before they have a
chance to take control. And I can share these writings with my children when they are
older, so they never have to feel ashamed for something that they inherited. I can show
them that there is power in brokenness, if we only seek to find it. If we open ourselves to
the world and to our own struggles, we give permission for others to do the same.
Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry. Berkley: University
of California, 2000.
Kyaga, Simon. Journal of Psychiatric Research. “Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity:
40-Year Prospective Total Population Study.”
-By H.J. VandeRiet