Writing Excuses 8.8: Writing and Personal Health

Robison Wells joins us again to talk about personal health, and his brother Dan joins us from the couch where (as of this recording session) he’s suffering from the recent removal of a body part. Eeew!

We start by talking with Rob about his well-chronicled mental health issues, how he dealt with them, and how he used them to inform his writing. We ask the obvious question — are there more mental illnesses to be found among creative folk, or are we all under confirmation bias?

Mary and Howard chime in with their own mental wellness struggles, and we talk about the importance of letting other people know how we’re feeling, and why we might be feeling that way. We also talk about our physical health, and how important it is for us as writers to keep track of that. Dan, Brandon, and Mary all have standing desks, and Brandon’s is affixed to a treadmill (and as a result of this ‘cast, Howard tried a standing desk for a month and but then gave up on it.)

This episode doesn’t offer much in the way of crunchy, nuts-and-bolts writing advice, but hopefully it helps some of you deal with the issues that you now know some of the professionals suffer from as well.

Those Pictures You Wanted: Howard promised to get pictures of Brandon’s tread-desk. He lied, or at least cannot find the pictures anywhere. As a consolation prize, here is a link to Robison’s blog post about mental health.


Take an outline, and make a list of the questions you are going to ask your readers at the beginning of the book. Then make a (hopefully shorter) list of the questions you leave unanswered by the end of that book.

Our pick, Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer, has been pulled from Audible because the author made some stuff up! So not only can you not believe everything you read, you can’t believe everything you listen to.

64 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.8: Writing and Personal Health”

  1. @NR: Your statements are much more palatable than Brenton’s, but like Robison, I worry that you’re pushing the pendulum too far in the “all in your head” direction based on anecdotal evidence and a sample size of one.

    Maybe not deliberately, but that’s how it reads. Own up to that.

    Yes, cognitive therapy can work. And it’s something a doctor should prescribe, just like medicine. But if you tell that story incorrectly, sick people can be convinced that they don’t actually need outside help. I will always suggest that people get help.

  2. To all of you WritingExcuses-ers: a huge thank you for speaking out on issues that many are still today ashamed to face, much less speak openly about. My heart goes out to all of you.

    Embracing a mental illness and then using it creatively is wonderful, but let’s face it: having a mental illness is hard work. Mental illnesses–even the less severe ones–are like black ice to the winter jogger. Out for a pleasant run on a sunny, snow-covered winter’s day, the jogger sees what he believes is a clear patch up head–a section of the path where the snow has melted away. He looks forward to his shoes getting a good grip on the black tarmac. His thoughts turn to sunny days, to wearing shorts and feeling the sun on his skin as he runs. With summer thoughts occupying his mind, he strides forth onto the black patch–and skids out of control. Arms flailing, he loses his footing and lands on his backside. He slides at full speed the length of the black ice. He’s out of control, and nothing he does will slow him down. He resigns himself to his situation: Down; battered; bruised; alone. Supine on black ice. Getting back up isn’t impossible, but it’s hard, slow work.

    Some depression – some – is due to poor coping skills. This can be remedied with cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Some depression is more mysterious. If we look at the moodiness/depression of teens, women in menopause, and women a week before their monthly cycles, it seems that some depression is related to hormonal imbalances. Unfortunately, modern medicine isn’t yet equipped to help much, though a trip to an endocrinologist might be a good place to start. Yes, there are various anti-depressants out there, but they don’t address the underlying problem.

    For panic and anxiety issues, the best book I’ve found (and I’m speaking as a secular clinical psychologist who has read loads in the area) is a thin paperback, Ray Comfort’s “Overcoming Panic Attacks.” At the back of the book there’s a Christian gospel message, which you needn’t read to gain the benefits of the book. I use the book with my patients here in Atheist Sweden to very good effect.

    As to whether to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, think of this: a psychiatrist is a medical doctor with very little psychology. A psychologist is the expert in mental disorders and, here in Sweden at least, we study psychopharmacology. We don’t prescribe, though there’s a battle going on to allow it, as we are the ones who diagnose and treat the patients. (Having been baffled by many psychiatrists’ diagnoses and having changed them to reflect reality, I tend to steer people away from psychiatrists and to licensed psychologists. Not counselors, mind you, but psychologists.)

  3. @Howard: “Depression and anxiety aren’t linked to us dreaming up worst-case scenarios. … As I’ve found to my great dismay, when I’m depressed or anxious, I cannot find a root cause. If I could, I’d use my godlike creative powers to dream up best-case scenarios. I’ve actually tried that, too. It doesn’t work, because with these mental illnesses there’s no rational reason to be unhappy or worried — my body and brain are simply betraying me and concocting a chemical stew that generates the emotional state.”

    ^Anecdotal evidence and a sample size of one. I was directly answering your experience with my experience and concern for those who might share it.

    What if someone read that, and said, “Well, this is just how my brain and body works. It’s no use trying to get help. I can’t change anything.” Or worse, “Because I have identifiable causes for my depression, I’m choosing to be sick and it’s just me” which could just as easily lead to “so I don’t need help.” You also don’t mention seeing a doctor. That wasn’t really the issue. The issue was what can and can’t lead to anxiety and depression.

    All I was trying to say is that sometimes it works differently, and that just because there are identifiable causes doesn’t mean it’s a choice. If you guys read it as me saying “A majority or at least 50% of people experience depression/anxiety this way and you can overcome it all on your own” then I’m sorry it came off that way. I should have just posted a link.

    For anyone interested in what CBT is: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Treatments_and_Supports&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=141590

  4. Also, Howard: “…if those meanings can be extrapolated then they need to be addressed. I agree that seeing a doctor first is the best course of action, *especially* for chronic or very strong depression and anxiety. … It was an oversight not to include that” <- That was me owning up to it.

    What I haven't seen you do is own up to flying off the handle at someone for sharing something about mental illness heard second hand, which had a slight basis in scientific research that you vehemently denied based on your own experience: the part about imagining worst-case scenarios leading to anxiety and depression, which sometimes, it does.

    Part of my mistake was following that example and responding with my own personal experience, and another was not providing a broader context and warning. Everything I can say has been said now, though, so I'll let it rest in agreement: Yes, if you're suffering from mental illness, seek professional help. Know that just because you may not experience it the same as someone else doesn't mean you're not experiencing it, and that you don't need assistance. Best of luck on your journey.

  5. @Howard Tayler
    I just wanted to mention, and I hope no one hates me for this, that mental illness can be caused by past abuses and trauma, just like mine was. So far, it seemed like you have only mentioned mental illnesses that are chemical by nature, and in many cases, that’s all they are. But there are many studies showing that survivors of any kind of abuse, physical, sexual, emotional, or negligent, are at a much higher risk of developing a mental illness (especially early in their lives) than those that have not gone through any major trauma. Just as NR said, abuse can lead to our minds reinforcing certain thoughts that can be harmful to us, especially if the abuser was someone who was trusted and should be believed. But if there is a history of mental illness in your family anyway, plus any abuse, the likelihood of your actually developing a mental illness goes up. And I agree that psychiatrists should be the first person to go to, and medications are also important. But so is counseling! It doesn’t stop with the right medication; counseling, in which CBT can be included (or can it? I don’t know), with a professional can help you keep yourself in check, to make sure you’re not falling into another episode or to make sure it isn’t as bad as the last, etc. Now I’m not saying that medication is not important; it is. But in my experience, professional counseling has helped me more than medication has. Perhaps I just haven’t found the right medication or something. And frankly, don’t take this the wrong way, but I find it offensive that you would say that counseling is a bad thing to think about and that meds are always the only way out of being depressed. I’m sure you didn’t actually say that, but that’s what I felt you meant. Either way, it has been an enlightening discussion!

  6. Thank you all so much for this episode, as well as the next episode, “Abnormal Psychology.” I have been a listener for almost two years now, but I was so moved by both of these after listening to them one after another that I just had to break that silence (and my agoraphobia!).

    I have been attempting to finish one novel attempt after another for over 13 years now. Mostly my issue has been motivation, forcing myself to write even when the initial inspiration is gone, but as of the past year or so I have been dealing with major depression and panic disorder with agoraphobia, an adult-acquired stutter, and self-harm issues. Because of this I have not touched any creative writing in almost a year now. My therapist and psychiatrist have suggested write to calm myself when I am able, but the only writing I have been doing in that area has been journaling, which helps but only to a point. The same is true of my cognitive behavioral therapy and the medications I am taking. The thought never struck me to use my creative writing as a way of coping, and character exploration as a means of theraputic self-exploration.

    I knew writers, especially those that have fame in literature such as Poe and Emily Dickinson, occasionally suffer from mental disorders, but to hear it from modern writers whom I listen to every week is extremely eye-opening. It takes a lot of courage to admit the things you have, especially when it comes to self-harm, and it’s very inspiring. I can definitely relate to your panic disorder, Rob. Mine, too, was very sudden.

    I do have a question though: As far as your agoraphobia goes, how do you get through being on something as public as Writing Excuses, or even just being an author? Does anyone else in the ‘cast have any input here?

    Thank you all again for touching on this subject. Personally, it’s been one of the best podcasts I could listen to.

  7. I know this is an old episode, but I’m catching up and thought I’d say I liked this episode a lot, but for me, I’m left with a central question: How do you go through something terrible and still write? It can’t always be therapeutic.

    It’s a topic close to my heart, because over the past two years, a close family member of mine attempted suicide seven times. I was the one he always turned to. I was the one who would fly across the country and take the drugs away and play board games with him while he went through heroin withdrawal, pouring tabasco down his throat, trying to ameloriate the symptoms. And it was so hard. I felt so helpless. I came back and fell into such deep depression. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the wall or play computer games, waiting for the phone to ring again. With another doctor. Another lie. Another ditch for him to wake up in.

    And I couldn’t write anymore. And now two years of my life are gone. And my family member is better, but I’m not. And one of the people in my writing group just got a book deal. And I have the cards of a half-dozen editors and agents sitting in my desk who all want to see my book when it’s finished. And I see the author at signings who offered to introduce me to his agent and editor, and he looks at me with such disappointment. He taught me so much, and I can’t do anything with those lessons.

    And I sit here, staring at a wall. This is the first time I’ve listened to the podcast in what feels like forever. I’m trying to get back into it. But I can’t. I’m lucky if I can edit one half-chapter in an eight-hour day.

    But Rob wrote. Mary wrote. And I can’t. And I’ve thrown away my opportunities with both hands to help somebody who then told me I was the reason he was so messed up in the first place.

    I do see a councilor. It helps, but not with writing. It’s been eight months since the last incident, and I can’t help thinking I should be better by now, especially since in all other areas of my life, I’m relatively happy.

    There must be some trick to remaining functional and creative while dealing with self-esteem/depression issues. It’s probably individual and impossible to explain. But what helps you? Meditation? Something else? All my brainstorming/creative thinking is going down a drain of what-might-have-been, what I could have done to make things better, even though I know that the past is the past and I have to put it aside.

    Even though you all might not have dealt with something so traumatic, there must have been times when you felt de-motivated or lost concentration. But you write anyway. That’s what makes you professionals. How do you do it?

    I probably just need to practice more. The writing comes from the same place as my empathy, and it’s hard to tap one without tapping the other, and that brings up grief. Maybe I just need to grind through until I develop harder soul callouses.

    I’ve never written about what I’m going through publicly before. Maybe putting all my fears into words will help me find the focus I need to. I hope so.

    Thanks for offering me a space to vent, anyway.

  8. I’m not a medical professional, but it sounds like you are suffering from depression. If the counsellor isn’t helping, there are other options.

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