The Emotional Side of Writing When You’re Chronically Ill

Being a Writer:

There is no doubt that being a writer is emotionally taxing: whether you’re a fiction writer, academic, or creative non-fiction writer; writing will take an emotional toll. Long hours, ambition, rejection – even success, can put us through the wrangler. Add to this any amount of daily stress, and it can be quite a treacherous pursuit, even for the emotionally robust.

A writer must be many things: an organiser, administrator, observer, reader, researcher, analyst, and empathiser, to name but a few. All of these things inform, shape, and sustain a career as a writer. Often I think a picture is painted; of the reclusive, head-in-the-clouds writer, diligently bashing away at their computer in the fruitless pursuit of the next Big Thing. We know this is far from the truth. Few of us are lucky enough to write full-time, and our practice must be squeezed in around other work, or other commitments. Finding the time to write, is in itself a great achievement, never mind staying the course to the longed-for moment of publication.

Many writers will not adhere to just one form of the craft; we diversify to pay the bills and keep our fingers flexed. In my case, I write reviews of cultural events for an online platform; personal essays and op-eds for magazines; and articles on mental health and chronic illness. I enjoy it, and it keeps my portfolio fresh. When I found writing my novel to be too exhausting, or I hit a snag in my plotting, I could turn to another form and still find creative release. This is what I do: from the outside I am a full-time writer; but in reality, I am a part-time writer, managing full-time illness. That’s not to say my illnesses take over my life; they don’t – largely because I’m good at managing them.

The Deal:

I live with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and generalized anxiety disorder. Bucket of fun, right? The latter two were only diagnosed eighteen months ago, so I’ve been making a lot of adjustments to my lifestyle in a short space of time. The first thing I did was quit my freelance work. Fortunately, I had been referred a year prior, to have my mental health assessed (initially for ADD) and the appointment came round at the time I stopped work. I was completely surprised to be diagnosed with a pretty severe case of generalised anxiety, which was likely exacerbating my pain and fatigue symptoms. So I received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which suited me well. I loved the method because it gave me tools which I could use in any given situation (and that’s many) where my anxiety could impact my daily life and my emotional wellbeing. The process was difficult and I would often find myself emotionally wrought, but I knew it would benefit me long-term.

The CBT opened a door to an heightened sense of awareness, not just of myself but of those around me. Suddenly all the things that had made me broken, or damaged, were the same things that set me free. I accepted and came to terms with the most difficult and challenging aspects of my life: now, I could do anything. I went back to art classes, picked up my guitar again, and rifled through all my old writing. I uncovered the ten-thousand words I had outlined of my novel, and I realised I now had the tools, and time, to write it. The experiences that informed the story were now at a safe enough emotional distance that I could let them inform my writing. After a couple of productive months I decided to undertake psychotherapy as I was feeling low, but it wasn’t a good move. I would leave feeling utterly exhausted, my limbs stiff and heavy like lead. It got steadily worse, and I stopped the sessions when I started having panic attacks. I ended up so fatigued I spent two months lying up on the couch, watching endless TV, unable to read, or to leave the apartment. I wondered if I’d ever do anything again. In retrospect, I think I was analyzing my negative thought patterns and behaviours, and doing a lot of emotional cleansing which was exhausting. I had no choice but to rest, and to wait for the shift to come. Eventually, it did.

Managing Health around Writing:

Now, my novel is complete, and it explores anxiety and disability, informed by my experiences. It was incredibly cathartic to write, although some days really took their emotional toll and I would feel fatigued for a few days. The fatigue has gradually got better, though it flares up when I’m ill or stressed, or over-tired, so I need to make sure that I don’t push myself too hard. It can be difficult to manage – I don’t know when I’m going to get sick, my GAD means I can stress-out over normal, everyday things, and it makes deadlines for articles, competitions and awards all the more challenging. I try to allocate more than ample time in order to manage any potential hiccups. If I know I’ve got a busy week, I’ll make sure to get at least nine hours of sleep a night, eleven if I’m particularly run-down. Sleep is crucial to my functioning properly and is the biggest factor in my wellbeing. As soon as it lags, I become forgetful and irritable, and brain-fog makes any kind of mental processing impossible (cue putting a mug of hot tea in the fridge, or asking someone the same question three times in an hour). On these days I tell myself I can’t do this, I can’t do anything. I allow myself the day to be pitiful, but then tomorrow is a new day, and I make sure I get up, ready for the fight. Knowing the worst will pass is the most powerful tool at my disposal.

When it comes to emotional wellbeing, I think writers have it tough. With so much else going on, it can be difficult to remember to take time out, to relax, pursue other things, let your mind rest and wander. I actually find this time to be the most helpful in generating new ideas or allowing my sub-conscious to solve some plot problem I’ve been picking away at. Structure helps too. I start every day with ten minutes of yoga to focus my mind and set my breathing. On my good days, I’ll work a full day, around six to eight hours. I make sure to take regular breaks, drink plenty of water, and go for a walk –I listen to my body and give it what it needs. I swim a couple of times a week, to really get out of my head, and to ease any tension or anxiety that’s built up. If I need a day on the couch I’ll take it, guilt-free, because I know that pushing through doesn’t work.

Recognising My Achievements:

The emotional rollercoaster of submitting; to magazines, competitions, mentoring schemes or agents and publishers, is emotionally exhausting too. We are so invested in our work, it can come as a blow when we don’t get what we want. But we need to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off for the next round. After I make a deadline or submission, I tell myself it’s done, I can’t change it, and give myself a pat on the back for giving it all I’ve got. Usually I’ll plan a day of rest, or have lunch with a friend, the next day. Putting yourself out there is terrifying – It’s important to recognise your achievements. This attitude makes the frustrations of living with illness easier; when an opportunity is missed due to illness, there’s always next time.

I write for myself; because I love it. It can be hard, and there are days I don’t touch my computer, but I always come back to it. I’d love to have my novel published, who wouldn’t? But it’s not the reason I wrote it. I wrote it because I had a story I had to tell. It’s a story I love, and one I can relate to. And that’s all I can ask for. If it does find itself in the hands of readers someday – that’s just icing on the cake.

Bio PicJulie Farrell is a writer living in Edinburgh in the UK. She writes creative non-fiction with a focus on mental health and disability, and she is in the beta stage with her first novel, Fractal: an own-voice, contemporary YA; about love, mental illness and self-discovery. Julie was selected as a runner-up for the Jericho-Marjacq Bursary for under-represented voices; and was awarded a sponsorship for the Breakthrough Writers Bootcamp, for her novel. She worked as a marketing executive in the publishing industry, before deciding to focus solely on her writing. Julie has been published in various magazines and you can find more of her writing here. You can also find her on Twitter @weeredwriter

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