There have been a great number of studies in the creative mind and how it relates to mood instability, erratic behavior, and general mental disorders. This is not such a study. Everything here is anecdotal from a personal standpoint, not scientific. Keep that in mind as you peruse my words. Also, nothing here is meant to be used as medical advice. It’s all about my personal journeys, how they relate to my writing, and how you can also be a creative person despite the hand dealt to you.
Even though I said this wasn’t going to be a scientific study, I need to get some facts out of the way. I’ve been professionally diagnosed with a handful of mental disorders. I’m going to cover each one individually, describe how they affect my life, and how I continually work to do my best writing despite the negative (and sometimes positive) impacts on my mental and emotional health.
I wanted to write this for everyone else out there that may be in the same (or similar) boat as I am. If I’m able to hold down three jobs (Day Job, Writing Job, and Non-Profit Job) and be successful at all of them, I feel you can do it as well. I hope you find my words encouraging and informative, but they are no replacement for qualified, professional help. If you feel you have a mental issue that you can’t deal with on your own, I urge you to contact your doctor and talk it over with them.
I did. I’m glad I did.
The most impactful mental disorder of mine is that I’m type II bipolar. I also cycle “fast” as compared to others with bipolar disorder. If you’re not sure what bipolar is, I’ll explain in brief. Everyone goes through mental and emotional “ups” and “downs.” It’s just natural. People with bipolar disorder will have higher “ups” and lower “downs” than the normal curve. Some of them, like me, will move between days of great elation and days of crippling depression in a very fast manner.
My typical full cycle (number of days between two peaks) is roughly a week. This means that on Monday and Tuesday, I’ll be a great mood. Wednesday and Thursday will be fairly normal followed by a depressed Friday and Saturday. A return to normal on Sunday will follow and I’ll cycle back into manic behavior sometime on Monday. It’s not a precise science, and I’ll even spend a week “on high” or a week “down low.” It’s not entirely predictable, so I can’t schedule my life around it. I just have to deal with what comes, when it comes.
This affects my life, and my writing, by interrupting those high energy times where I produce more than the average person. The interruptions come in the form of days where I barely want to get out of bed, let alone put on pants, go to the Day Job, struggle to put 100 words down on paper, or even eat more than a light snack. When deadlines in the Day Job or the Writing Job come about, my boss/editor doesn’t care much that I don’t want to get out of bed. What they care about is that I get them the software or story edits they’re waiting for.
Part of my continual struggle with the rapidly changing moods is a daily medication that keeps my wildly swinging curves of up/down at a more reasonable level. Even with the medication, my highs are a tad above regular areas, and my lows are still a good amount lower than the lows. Unfortunately, the medication doesn’t do much for the speed at which I cycle through moods, but I have to deal with that on my own.
The way I deal with this is that when I feel a high hit me, I do as much (or more sometimes) as humanly possible to be productive. This includes late nights, early mornings, skipped meals (more on that later), and throwing myself whole hog into the project at hand. This helps me get ahead on projects and stories, so that when depression hits me hard, I have a little more leeway in how much behind I can get during those days.
Another mental disorder of mine is hyperfocus. Basically, it’s the opposite of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). My ability to hyperfocus allows me to sit down, crank on a project (whether software for the Day Job or prose for the Writing Job), and delve so deep into that project that I won’t come up for air for hours, sometimes days, later. The longest stint that I’ve hyperfocused on a project was 52 hours straight. No sleep. Little food. Some water. Few bathroom breaks.
This might sound like a blessing to some of my fellow writers out there (especially around deadline time). However, my ability to hyperfocus is rarely within my control. I can’t trigger it or turn it on. It just happens. I also can’t turn it off without an outside force exerting itself upon me, and that outside force (usually in the form of my wife these days) must be persistent and annoying to snap me out of my hyperfocus.
The downside is that this is a dangerous thing for my physical body. I’m sure you’ve heard of the people keeling over dead after a two, three, or four day binge gamefest on some online game. I’ve come close to that a few times. One of the downsides of my bipolar medicine is that it causes low blood sugar. If I don’t eat on a fairly regular schedule, my blood sugar crashes, and I have a hard time thinking, walking, speaking, or just being a coherent human being. This means driving to the nearest fast food joint on my Day Job lunch break is out of the question. Good thing we have vending machines on site.
I’ve yet to find a good way to deal with this, even though I’ve been this way my whole life. One of my mom’s favorite things to say to me was, “You have a one-track mind.” If we’d only known the truth of that statement when I was a child… I’ve tried the software and alarms and alerts and such that trigger every so often to remind you to get up from the seat and walk around. I’ve tried alarms to tell me when to go eat. None of it works for me because I can click the “dismiss” button and get back to the thing I’m focused on. Like I said, the interruption to my hyperfocus must be persistent and unyielding for it to snap me back into reality.
If having bipolar and hyperfocus weren’t enough, I also have to fight with Tourette syndrome. Like with bipolar, there are nuanced flavors of the disorder. My particular flavor of Tourette syndrome manifests three different ways, and I’ve managed to get one of them under control, one of them as a rare thing, and the third runs wild in my system.
The one that I now have (mostly) under control is the fact that I grunt like an animal when stressed out. I’m not talking the “job interview” level of stress. My Tourette syndrome triggers when going through the loss of a close loved one, making a massive, live-changing decision, or something similar. I was almost expelled from sixth grade for “intentional disruption” of the class with my grunting. The ridicule was massive, and I knew that it was time to bring into control the part of me that grunted. It took several months of intense focus and meditation, but I was able to eventually bring the vocal outbursts under control.
The second symptom I have is that I used to constantly blow on my hands like you would after touching something hot. This manifested after I brought my grunting under control, and it still persists to this day. However, I’m able to keep it under wraps to the point that I only do it a few times a day instead of constantly like I did as a pre-teen and teenager.
Lastly, I have tics that ripple through my body like a wave. These usually happen in my jaw, elbows and knees. Not really places that people study or watch (other than the jaw), so I can let those tics run free without needing to bring them under control. When someone does notice, they think I’m nervous or restless.
None of these impact my writing directly, but they do affect how I have to handle myself in social situations. While I’m not in the point in my writing career where readings, signings, and public presentations are regular activities, I do have to appear in public as president of Pikes Peak Writers, and I give the occasional presentation to Pikes Peak Writers attendees.
While doing these public appearances, I tend to “twitch out” beforehand to get it all out of my system for a good thirty to forty minutes before the tics start to creep back in. I got the idea from a story about a brain surgeon with tremors in his hands from Tourette syndrome. Yeah. You read that right. Brain surgeon. Hand tremors. Well, he would meditate and induce a near seizure in his arms and hands. This would calm his system down to the point where he could operate normally for several hours.
As you can tell, there are a variety of things getting in my way of creative and professional work, but I still manage to get things done. I’ve had many people comment on the quality and quantity of my work over the years, so I know I’m doing something right despite everything that is “off” about how my brain works. I’ve had many ask me my secrets, and I’ve always had a hard time putting my “secrets” into words until now.
The last paragraph isn’t there for me to brag.
It’s there to show you that no matter what you have going on in your life, your brain, your body, or your society, you can create as well. I don’t care if you’re writing prose, crafting software, painting oils on canvas, developing poetry, taking photos, hammering out a sculpture, or any other creative venture.
You can do it.
I know you can.
Go create because of who you are, not despite of what you are not.
Note: This post first appeared as part of SF Signal’s “Special Needs in a Strange World” series curated by Sarah Chorn. With the closure of SF Signal, I received permission to repost this here for posterity. Thanks to John DeNardo and Sarah Chorn for allowing me to let these words escape into the public eye.