It's How I Work: The Give & Take of Mental Health on My Creative Process
I work in a strange way.
As many, or some, or everyone may know, I’ve been inconvenienced by panic disorder, PTSD, chronic depression, and the abject torment of an addict-gone-clean. It’s something I tolerate. Something I live with. Something that gives me superpowers.
But every strength comes at a cost; on that, at least, I think we can agree.
I replace ‘suffering from’ with ‘inconvenienced by’ for a reason. Because while I do suffer (from bouts of misery, from episodes of apathy, from odd thoughts and even odder behaviors), this unorthodox frame of mind offers a rather unique take on life outside the cardboard box of the human status quo. It alters my perception by a nautical mile or two. Sometimes this affliction hands me a pair of binoculars or night vision goggles. Other times it flips the binoculars backwards and turns on the lights. They’re hospital-grade. Fluorescent.
I’m constantly under threat of sudden emotional discord, wholly beyond my control. The fits come without warning, barging through the door with a bulky three-man team. One secures my arms. The other restrains my legs. The last smacks a chloroformed rag to my mouth, and I can do nothing but fruitlessly thrash until I succumb. But instead of robbing me of my valuables or my virtue, this invader seeks a less commodifiable and more irreplaceable prize: my identity.
Imagine a professional gamer (hopped on Red Bull, 5-Hour, and Adderall) having his controller confiscated by a total novice in the middle of the greatest match of his life. Hundreds of thousands on the line. Chained to the coffee table. Ball-gagged, unable to protest, forced to watch.
Imagine a military drone pilot (high on adrenaline, split nerves, and the threatening scrutiny of a boss with the power to make people disappear) thrown from her chair by a foreign insurgent. Incapacitated on the ground. Gun to her temple. Ball-gagged, unable to protest, forced to watch.
Imagine an accomplished painter (deprived of sleep, health, and relationships in their isolation) kicked from their stool by a vandal. Head spinning. Brush torn from their hands. Ball-gagged, unable to protest, forced to watch.
Or at least, after the fact, to remember: shame-faced and distraught.
You may think my analogies dramatic. Maybe they are. But how else can we—the strange, the afflicted, the hounded, the wounded without physical wounds to show for our many wars and battles, lost or won—show you: the prying eyes, the public guise, wondering why this person, who has everything going for them, who is talented, and loved, and supported, has a reason to crumble?
Maybe it’s because those eyes of yours look only at the skin, and not underneath. If you gazed deeper—I mean, really, really looked; took more than a cursory glance—you’d see the demons. You’d see the wars and the battles fought within. You’d see the wounds and the scars and the reasons for the strangeness I can’t help but make known, because that strangeness is my core, my signature, my self; the sharks and seaweed and bones of murdered men lurking under the serene surface of my lake. If only you could wait, to watch just long enough to wonder “why?” instead of doling out split-second judgments, then perhaps you’d see.
See, and not listen, because I find myself incapable of speaking of those things that haunt and harrow me. Sometimes I break and spill tears. Other times I shut down and mumble false excuses, and this only compounds my dysfunction.
The nonfictional people in my life always ask for a reason. Why am I sad? Why am I silent? Why don’t I want to leave the house, put on pants, walk into the sunshine? More often than not there is no reason, but these nonfictional people of mine seem to need one to sate their curiosities or their concerns, so my fractured mind either conjures one, or I simply dissolve into the distance, shake my head, mutter something incoherent about being ill or tired—enough to prod expressions of worry that look, to me, like disappointment, disdain, and most of all: incomprehension.
I don’t blame them. I can’t, as much as I want to. They don’t think like me. They don’t work like me. Their cogs and gears, well-oiled and well-tended, are different from my rusted springs, trip-wires, and pressure plates. Human brains are each unique, but typically tend to run on the same thread; I just happen to function on a different one, a knotted or frayed one, a lump in the weave. A literal loose end.
I’ve come to think of myself as that one kinked strand of yarn on a crocheted blanket. The one that exposes a hole, or juts out to soil the symmetry. But despite the awkwardness of its existence, the artist refuses to snip me with her scissors, to unravel me with her fingers and start anew. And I’m okay with that. I’ve learned to be okay with that. Imperfections give a thing character, don’t they?
Writing is my escape. My refuge. On occasion, my keenest of torments (as any honest writer would tell you) but most of all, it’s a craft that has allowed me to pour my pains and my joys, my experiences and naïveté, into villains with gallant purposes and heroes with abject vices. Into places, real or imagined. Into whole worlds, built atop my imagination. Countries. Cultures. Races. Religions. Noble ascendancies and criminal hierarchies. I’ve created foods and traditions, styles of dress, manners of speech, social norms. I’ve conjured romances and hatreds, family feuds, international tension. I’ve manufactured wars between nations. Mythical beasts. Conflicts among friends and foes.
With pencil and paper (or, in my case, finger and keyboard) I’ve played God, but I’ve also played witness, because on occasion, the story, the world, these fictional people who feel more real than the nonfictional, sometimes—they take the reins. And I’m absolutely sure my strangeness has allowed this to be so; has allowed me to create the things that I have, published to the world or kept secret in the hollow of my heart, finished and polished or perpetually in progress.
Strangeness may not be kind, but it is my friend. It is my asset. It is my Unique Selling Proposition. And while it may come at a colossal cost, it’s one I’m more than willing to pay.
As a cadre of musical men, whose horrendous haircuts were the casualties of an era with a lack for aesthetics, once said: “Yes, I get by with a little help from my friends.”
And this friend, this enemy, this unshakable frenemy, strange as it may be, is my superpower. Take it or leave it.
It’s how I work.