Writing with Suicidal Ideation

cliff-2213614_640Recently, in my blog entry Writing with Depression, I revealed how depression affects my writing and talked about the depressive episode that has thrown a shadow over my past few months. I was trying to exercise my way out of this recent depressive episode. That didn’t go so well.

In Writing with Depression, I said that medication didn’t help me. I’m bipolar and take mood stabilizers that help prevent manic episodes. They do little to nothing for depression. The popular antidepressants used to treat unipolar depression don’t work for me because they throw me into a ‘mixed mood’ and usually result in a suicide attempt. To treat bipolar depression, doctors prescribe antipsychotics or atypical antipsychotics. I’m extremely sensitive to the side effects of these medications and basically hate them. However, they have their place.

July is a hard month for me. Its anniversaries remind me of death. July, so sultry and sun-drenched, so full of promises of summer pleasure, doesn’t charm me at all. I know that she is full of death and shadows, that her breath is as fetid as it is hot, and her kisses bruise and burn. July quit being my friend years ago.

This July, I was depressed, but I thought I could take care of myself and fend the depression off. If things had been normal, maybe I could have. Honestly, though, things are never normal, are they? I had a stressor that came as something of a shock. Under normal circumstances, I think I would have been more resilient. This time, however, I was already depressed, so I just sank. I went from ‘kind of down but mostly okay’ to suicidal in a matter of minutes. It happens like that. Fast.

I hatched a quick plan and started to implement it. At a pivotal point, I had second thoughts. I actually thought about that depression blog entry and called the suicide hotline that I mentioned. They were really nice and talked me through the maelstrom. Afterward, I called my therapist and made an appointment for the next day, then followed up with my psychiatrist a few days later. During the time between the call and the psychiatrist, I felt constantly plagued by thoughts of suicide. Having suicidal thoughts is called suicidal ideation. (Suicidal ideation sounds like a band I would have liked in my twenties. Sadly, it’s not as fun as it sounds.) I felt like I was caught in some kind of loop. I thought of better plans. I settled on one that met all of my requirements, held it close and nurtured it. The morning of my psychiatric appointment, I dressed in the clothes I thought would work well for my best plan in case she had nothing to offer. I wanted to be ready.

I didn’t tell her that. I did tell her that I was having constant suicidal thoughts. She put me on an atypical antipsychotic called Vraylar. Honestly, so far, I don’t like it. She said it would give me lots of energy, but it makes me sleepy and lethargic. I’m having to drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake. It did, however, stop those destructive thoughts. It stopped them cold. Now, I feel embarrassed for having them, and I can see that it was all over something that shouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I apologize that this entry is even more pointless and self-indulgent than usual. I just thought, since I write about depression and bipolar disorder and have tried to be transparent and honest about my illness, I should admit to what happened with my self-care strategy. I’m hoping I can get off of this medicine soon and go back to trying to self-care my way to normalcy again. Despite this post’s title, I haven’t been writing much since everything blew up. My characters are bothering me to get back to it, and my cats have been trying to get me to go into the office where I do most of my writing. I’m trying to give myself some space, but characters and cats have little patience.

If you’re reading this and having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately. I know everything might seem clearer now than ever before and that suicide is the only way out, but I can promise you that pain is clouding your judgment. Please call one of these numbers:

 

Writing with Depression

women_with_gauze As I said in an earlier post, writer’s block and depression are different things. Depression isn’t fixed by a writing exercise, brainstorming, or reading books on the craft. If a writer had a heart attack and didn’t write the next day, we wouldn’t say he had writer’s block. If someone is clinically depressed and doesn’t write, he probably doesn’t have writer’s block either. Depression is a mental illness. That decreased ability to perform even simple tasks–let alone writing–is caused by a dysfunction in the frontal lobes. This article explains it.

Writer’s block can feel pretty bad, but it’s not an illness. It’s just a hurdle. It’s deeply frustrating, but it ends at some point. Depression claws its way inside you and lives there until you die. It might go into a sort of remission, like cancer or herpes, but it’s always there, lurking, waiting, gathering its power for the next attack. At least, that’s how it is for me. I’m bipolar. Unipolar depression might be different. I’m not a doctor, just a writer who struggles with this stuff. Medications work for some people. They don’t work for me.

I’ve been in a low grade depression for a few months. (I say low grade because, although I’ve had days where I didn’t get out of bed, I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts. So, this is a good depression.) I haven’t written much. Instead, I’ve focused on self-care. I set a few small goals in the morning and try to accomplish them. Walk five thousand steps. Shower. Do laundry. Walk another five thousand steps. The walking has been really good for me. I’m able to commune with my characters and ‘write’ while I walk. I sweat, which forces me to shower and change clothes. If you’re able to do some type of exercise when you’re in a depressive episode, I highly recommend it. It might just be my superstition, but I feel like that is what has kept the suicidal thoughts at bay. (Actually, that article I linked to above says exercise increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, so maybe there is something to it.)

Although I do take breaks from writing, I try to push myself to write at least once a week when I’m depressed. It isn’t easy. I’ve noticed that when I’m depressed, I:

  • Make more typos

And some of them are really weird. I’ve understood homonyms since grade school and know the difference between too, to, and two, etc. When I’m depressed, I’ll find words like that switched around in my manuscript.

  • Have trouble finding words

A word is there–then just vanishes. Poof! Usually, I can jog my memory with Google searches and music. Sometimes I’ll ask my husband if he knows what word I’ve lost. Sometimes I simply find a different word that works well enough.

  • Take longer to write a scene than normal

Something that would ordinarily take me a couple of hours to write takes four

  • Have trouble answering questions

Although I construct a ‘rough sketch’ outline prior to writing scenes, I often run into places where I don’t know how something happened or why something is the way it is. It’s tougher to ferret out these answers when I’m depressed.

  • Feel pessimistic about the outcome

When I’m not depressed and in the midst of writing a book, there are spaces where I lose myself in the story. I forget that any other world exists. After I finish, I’ll often have misgivings and worry that readers won’t like it. When I’m depressed, I feel like no one will enjoy it even as I’m writing it. These kinds of thoughts crush creativity.

On the plus side, a depressive episode, by slowing down the writing process, gives me extra time with my characters. (This is mostly with a low grade episode. Deep episodes are a hell I don’t want to even discuss at the moment.) During this current episode, I ended up spending a lot of time with Frank. I would lie in bed and suddenly discover Frank with me. (This wasn’t an hallucination; my logical mind knew he wasn’t there. But…he was. That’s called writer crazy.) Anyway, he was usually quiet, but sometimes we would talk about his friends, his jobs, his lovers. I felt him more acutely than when I did his character worksheet. He entertained me, buoyed me, and we became friends. I usually bond with a character while I’m writing, but not this early in the book.

If you’re reading this and are depressed, please seek help—especially if you’re feeling suicidal. Some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

International Association for Suicide Prevention

 

Depression Feels Like…

I’ve been sort of beige and muffled lately, mildly depressed. I’ve been functional, for the most part. My mood is lifting, and I’m grateful. While I was sifting through some files today, however, I found something I wrote while in the midst of one of my worst depressions. A lot of people don’t seem to understand what clinical depression feels like. To me, if feels like this:

I feel numb. I get out of bed in the morning because I know my husband expects it. All I want to do is sleep. Everything seems difficult–little things like brushing my teeth and hair feel arduous. I don’t want to be around other people. I cringe from my friends. Just attending a social function physically hurts–I have to escape to another room or outside to make my skin stop crawling. I have so little energy that I feel like I could fall asleep standing, like a horse. Everyone around me seems to be moving at eighty miles an hour while I stumble through a sea of gelatin.

I know it wasn’t always like this, but I can’t remember feeling normal or competent or whole or anything. I can’t feel anything but the overwhelming numbness. I am a hollow tree or a frozen landscape, something empty and barren, something dead–a waxwork of the person I distantly remember being.

A few weeks after I wrote this I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My variety tends more toward Bipolar II, which is characterized by long, deep depressive episodes. The antidepressants that work so well for many people with unipolar depression can actually drive bipolar people into manias or suicide. I had tried different antidepressants in the past and none of them worked. I believed the fault lay somehow with me, never realizing that I had been misdiagnosed with chronic depression and that I simply hadn’t been given the right medications.

I still have low moods, but I rarely feel the level of emptiness that I felt in the throes of my worst depressive episodes. Medications are not for everyone, but I credit a combination of mood stabilizers and anti-psychotic medications with saving my life.

Remembrance

I’m depressed. I’ve been trying to hide it. I’m still writing (a comedy of all things), but everything is kind of hard, my body feels heavy, and I want to sleep more than I want to be awake.

I know one of the reasons is that today is the birthday of someone I loved very much who is gone now. She died of an overdose, but I don’t know if it was intentional or not. She was beautiful, kind, and generous. There aren’t words that describe her well. This is an excerpt from an autobiographical short story I wrote when she was alive about a trip we took to Galveston. She was a heroin addict and had just been diagnosed with hepatitis C. This was about four years before she died. Names have been changed.

Alice and I puttered along the seawall and bought two hermit crabs and some waterguns at a souvenir shop. We shared a love of animals and trash—anything the rest of the world considered useless.  She was tired and wanted to go home, but I coaxed her onto the beach, telling her we needed sand and shells for the crabs, so they would feel at home in our apartment.

I loped along the beach, trying to entice her into the waves with me. She lagged behind, finally stopping to stand by herself.  I backtracked to stand with her, wondering if she was okay.  She stood at the water’s edge and took off her baseball cap, unleashing about two feet of blonde hair.  No emotion showed on her face. The wind swept up from the ocean, tossing her hair and unfurling it behind her. Her open white shirt billowed about her taut body like a waving flag, the thin camisole beneath it clinging to her skin.  I stopped a little behind her; she twisted her fragile neck to greet me as I approached.

“Do you want to get in the water?  Cool off?” I asked.

“No, I just want to go home,” she said listlessly. She turned her face skyward and squinted into the white sun. “The doctor told me I was lucky I didn’t have HIV.”

I dug my toe into the wet sand. “Yeah, she’s right. It could’ve been a lot worse. I mean, god, look at Geoff—that could have been you.”

She was very quiet.  In the bright sunlight, her face was yellow with greenish overtones; she looked like a faded bruise. “Yeah, everybody thinks I’m lucky—that it could’ve been worse.  That’s just what my mother said, too—look at Geoff.” She stared at the ocean with such longing that I thought she might dive into it.  “I never looked at him and thought he was unfortunate. We used to talk about it—about how it was better for his parents than if he had just hung himself.”

“I don’t see how—“

“Sure there’s a stigma, but it’s not as bad somehow as suicide. You know, your kid gets sick, and, yeah, that sucks, but there’s a safety there, like a buffer. It’s not their fault their kid was a junkie. They aren’t responsible. It’s society or music or friends or whatever.  It’s better that way, you know.  It’s kinder than suicide.” She stared out at the ocean, her voice a little wistful. “Much easier for everyone concerned.”

I nodded silently and felt cold in the ocean wind. Her suicide wishes were nothing new.  We had both been enamored with death since childhood. I could have told her that I loved her—that I would be devastated if she died, that I couldn’t imagine a world without her, that was she was my sunlight, my hope, my only and truest friend—but she already knew these things, and none of that really mattered. I possessed no tether that would hold her should she choose to go, but I would have chased her anywhere. My feelings were trivial, my desires were lurid, selfish.  I let them scatter like sand in the wind, let them rain down on the turgid waves to mix with the oil and mud, the plastic soda rings and dead fish.

Compulsion

I love this J.K. Rowling quote:

“Writing for me is a kind of compulsion, so I don’t think anyone could have
made me do it, or prevented me from doing it.”

I can definitely relate. Yesterday I uploaded Lover, Destroyer to Amazon. It’s awaiting approval. Almost as soon as I uploaded it, I started working on the sequel to Because Faery Godmonster.

I did this because I need some comedy this month. I have two sad anniversaries coming up, and I need to work on something simple and fun. I also did it because I simply can’t help it. As long as I’m not depressed, I have to write. Have to–it’s not a choice. It’s a need like sleeping or eating.

The Gift of Wounds

One of the themes of the epic fantasy, Another World’s Song, is summed up in the African proverb, “the blessing is next to the wound.” It’s something I believe strongly–wherever you have a deficit, you will find a gift nearby.

A few years ago i started taking classes in hopes of becoming a surgical tech, and, eventually a nurse. I made good grades and was filled with excitement. Just as I had finished my prerequisites and was admitted to the program, I was diagnosed with essential tremor. This promised a better outcome than Parkinson’s, the disease it mimics, but the tremor was enough to permanently douse the tiny flame of my future career. I spent about six months in a funk and was even suicidal. But I wrote the entire time. I have been writing my entire life, but now it nurtured me in a new way. It filled all of my empty spaces.

I had tried off on and on for years to publish my work through traditional publishers to no avail. I had flirted with self-publishing, posting a few short stories on Amazon. I took the plunge last year and published the erotic romance novel, The Inquisitor’s Gift. I started writing full time soon after. (Not because I was a great success, but because my husband allowed me to pursue my dream.) With my anxiety and temperament, I probably would have been a miserable surgical tech. I’m a happy writer.

I had actually written Another World’s Song prior to my diagnosis, but that theme now resonates with me even more deeply. No curse comes without a blessing.

Writer’s Block or Depression?

Sometimes I get writer’s block because I’m out of ideas for a story, stressed and having trouble relaxing or focusing, or just need to get a better feel for the backstory. These are all things that can be solved rather easily through writing exercises, or simple things like mediation, bathing, or going for a walk.

However, for me, sometimes I have writer’s block because I’m depressed. It’s almost a warning sign that something is wrong with me. In that case, taking a quick inventory of what is happening in my life can sometimes help me track what might be causing the depression. Clinical depression is serious. If you think you may be clinically depressed, please seek help. I’m bipolar, so I see a therapist on a regular basis. I also see a psychiatrist periodically and take medication for my illness.

For me, the red flags that I’m not just having writer’s block but am sinking into depression are:

  1. Either sleeping too much or waking up too early.
  2. Not paying attention to personal hygiene. (Like wearing the same clothes several days!)
  3. Overeating (especially sweet stuff.)
  4. Withdrawing (more than usual–I’m an introvert, so I’m always somewhat withdrawn.)
  5. Not wanting to do anything, not being interested in anything.

Number 5 is where writing comes in. I’m interested in and passionate about many things, but writing is where my heart is. If I’m not writing–and maybe not even wanting to try some writing exercises–I know that’s a big, flashing warning sign that I’m not okay.

One of the worst bits of advice I ever got regarding writer’s block was someone online suggesting to take a break from writing and not write until you feel like it. Maybe that works for some people, but for me it sent me into a downward spiral of not writing that lasted over a year. Not writing led to more not writing, and I became more and more depressed. Once depression gets a toehold, it’s easier for it to get worse.

So, instead, I recommend being mindful of how your body is functioning and how you’re feeling. Make sure that your writer’s block isn’t a cue that something else is going on.