I am utterly thrilled to say that our first guest poster is Peter M. Ball! Peter is a particularly kick-ass writer based in Brisbane, Australia. He’s got a brilliant turn of phrase, and a wicked mind for storytelling…and a habit of talking about mental health in a way that breaks my heart and reaffirms the entire point of this series: you’re not alone. You can find more of his writing- and links to some rather wonderful books- at his site, Man Vs Bear
I’m about to make breakfast when the realisation hits me: I didn’t put the dishwasher on last night. Because I didn’t put the dishwasher on, there are no clean bowls for porridge this morning. Because there are no clean bowls for porridge, it should be quite obvious I’m a useless piece of shit. Come on Peter, you stupid mother-fucker, you had one goddamn job yesterday.
It takes 65 words to express that moment. Less than a minute of typing to transmute it into the beginning of a journey, a hook I can build around. A moment of anxiety rendered through the filter of a pithy internet meme. The part of my brain that deals with narrative is already looking for what comes next.
Another part of my brain is still dwelling on the dishes. It took three seconds to pull a pasta bowl out of my cupboard and use it instead. That doesn’t matter. I fucked up. One more in a string of fuck-ups that speak to the fact I’m sorry excuse for a human being.
I’m still dwelling on it an hour later, when I come back to this essay. An hour after that, as I’m eating lunch. Rationally, I know I had many jobs yesterday. I spent hours catching up with a close friend I hadn’t seen in months. I wrote a first draft of this essay that will never see the light of day. I obsessed about the flaws that first draft. I ate take-out burritos, which meant there were no dishes to put in the dishwasher, which is how I missed the step where I turned the dishwasher on.
I did not have one job yesterday. I never have one job.
Let’s not fuck around. When Kylie asked me say a few things about mental health and writing, her one request was ‘talk about how you manage your bad days.’
The answer to that is simple: I don’t. The bad days are bad days, and when they hit, nothing gets done.
I plan around them when I can, mitigating their impact on deadlines. I look at the thirty days in the month, and figure I’ll be productive for about twenty-three. The rest will get taken up by other things, some of which will be bad days where my brain sends me into a tailspin and everything’s a struggle.
At worst…well, I sink for a week or two. On the really bad days I do not write, because I do not deserve to write. I do not deserve to eat real food or make sensible choices about how I spend my money. I do not deserve to have ambitions.
To write on a bad day is to acknowledge there’s a future, and the possibility that I will continue to exist. That I will wake up tomorrow and this process of pretending I’m a functional human being will start all over again.
On the bad days, that thought is terrifying.
Today is not a bad day, but it could turn into one.
I didn’t write yesterday, among all the things I was doing. I mean, sure, I wrote a first draft of this essay, but it wasn’t good and it wasn’t finished and besides, it doesn’t really count. Only fiction counts as writing. The same part of my brain that focuses on my failure to turn on a dishwasher comes into play.
It doesn’t matter that I’d planned yesterday as a day off. That I’d specifically set aside the fiction project to write this and hang out with my friend and eat burritos and talk shit. That I cleaned my house before said friend came over, and answered emails that kept my writing career running.
You had one goddamn job, Peter. You had one goddamn job.
The worst part about writing is the speed with which it becomes a stick you can use to flagellate yourself, especially if you’re the kind of person who deals with anxiety or depression or other mental health challenges.
I put a lot of value on being smart. For years it was my defence mechanism against that hollow feeling I wasn’t yet ready to call depression. I tethered my sense of self-worth to the twin docks of I am smart and I can write.
Here’s the real irony in all this – to write regularly and intelligently, particularly now that I’m aware that depression and anxiety will fuck with me, I need to admit that I’m actually pretty dumb. If I want to write consistently and avoid the bad days, I have to embrace all the simple, stupid thing that help manage my mental state.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I get at least seven hours of sleep, which means going to bed at 11 and waking up at 7.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I take my medication, even though my current medication means alcohol is likely to make my liver explode and that completely sucks.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I track my negative thoughts and dismantle them using the toolkit provided by cognitive behavioural therapy, even though it makes me feel like an idiot.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I make use of a CBT app on my phone to track things, and obey its daily reminders.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I start projects early and work on them consistently, instead of trying to burn through them before a rapidly approaching deadline.
I know I am less likely to have bad days when I do incredibly twee things, like create gratitude lists. Or when I go out and walk every day and eat healthy meals. Or when I make time to catch up with friends, even if it’s for a half-hour, even when I am reasonably certain that I am too feral to be around people.
Let’s be clear: I hate all of this. I do not want to be this person. I would much rather be a freewheeling, creative genius who shits rainbows and has their brilliance acknowledged by everyone around them. The fact that I am not that person is frustrating as hell.
It doesn’t fucking matter.
I want to be a writer who makes a living from their work, and I want that even more than I hate being the person who needs to do those other things. It isn’t easy. It isn’t fun. It’s just what needs to be done
I don’t like writing about mental health, particularly my own. I force myself to do it quite often, but in the back of my mind there’s this lingering fear that this time is the time when someone will finalise realise the truth. That I’m not actually depressed or anxious, but I am a lazy fuck-up too scared of my own ambitions to actively pursue them. You’re not unwell, that voice whispers, you just need to be fucking better than you are. Stop pretending that you’re good enough.
That thought is always with me. Stop pretending that you’re good enough. Stop pretending. Stop. Stop. It’s grappled with every time I sit down to write. Is this story good enough? This book? This essay?
It’s when the voice get something to point to – a failure, however small – that I crash into the bad days and get nothing done. Look, the voice says, see how bad you fucked this up? You deserve this. You suck. Now everyone will know.
Because the bad days are bad, it’s easy to villainize that nagging thought without acknowledging that it can be a positive thing. The need to be smarter and better drives me as often as it sinks me into the quagmire. It led me to take a stupid challenge that became my first book, or write a short story to prove someone wrong that ended up getting reprinted over and over and over.
The line between a good day and a bad day is frequently just having enough bandwidth to recognise that voice as part of a polyphony, not the entire conversation.
I fear having my depression invalidated because…well, for starters, that’s the nature of being depressed, and there is something comforting about the possibility that you, at your worst, aren’t necessarily 100% to blame.
But it’s not just that. At all.
The worst part about the bad days was never the depression itself, because depression didn’t give me the space to care about anything. What really fucked with me was the week just after I emerged from a depressive quagmire, when the internal monologue stopped playing “nothing matters, so why bother,” and I started to give shit about writing and work again.
Suddenly I looked back at the time I lost and felt nothing but shame, panic, and anger. I was lazy and out of control, and I didn’t understand what caused it. Why could I write consistently and regularly for weeks a time, only to sink into this shit for no reason?
And so I would come out of a low period and try to make up for it, putting together incredibly ambitious and quite unreasonable plans to try and make those feelings go away. Often this meant throwing myself at big, public projects where people would validate me. Public displays of productivity are easy, when you’re a writer. You don’t even need to finish projects, just show that you’re working a lot.
To be able to look back on a bad week and go, “oh, right, I was just depressed,” circumvents a lot of self-loathing. Freeing up the mental resources that used to go into bolstering my ego means it’s easier to get back to writing, simply because I’m willing to cut myself a break.
It occurs to me that I still haven’t put the dishwasher on. More dishes have accumulated on the sink, and there are still no clean bowls if I need them. Do I stop writing and go deal with the problem, or do I keep working while I’ve got the thread of the narrative? I stick with typing, ‘cause that’s what I’m doing right now. ‘Cause taking care of me frequently rates beneath finishing something I’m writing for someone else.
Even though that’s one of the things that I should monitor better than I do.
I’ve almost talked myself into the dishes when I get a notification on google hangouts. My fortnightly writers catch-up is starting, a meeting I’ve forgotten because I didn’t do my weekly diary seven days back. A gap in my process, which I know better than to ignore because it leads to anxiety when shit like this occurs
Jesus, Peter, you had one job…
The worst part about writing about my mental health isn’t the fear. No, the worst part is knowing that you’re still a writer, that stories and essays have structures and conventions. Characters in stories start off broken, and they are made whole by the climax. The problems of the beginning are resolved by the end, all neat and clean.
If you write long enough, this becomes instinct. The reader has stuck with you until the end, and now you owe them an epiphany.
I have nothing for you. In terms of dealing with writing and my own mental health, I’m a rough draft, not the final product. Everything is very much a work in progress. What helps some weeks helps less a month later; anxiety triggers that send me into a tailspin get worse, or better, or go away.
And yet again, the thought is there: Jesus, Peter, you had one job.
Today, I just have the energy to put that thought in the box marked anxiety, which sits next to the box marked depression, and them aside long enough to do this job, and the next one, and the one after that.
It’s not much as epiphany’s go, but right now it’s the best I’ve got.