The Writing Life, Mental Health and Mental Illness

Before I shifted careers, I was an RN, MSN and my specialty was psychiatric nursing. For two decades I practiced exclusively on psychiatric units, either managing them or supervising student nurses, undergraduates usually petrified the second the locked doors on these inpatient units closed. When you’ve been in psych a long time, there’s this saying that goes something like this: people who gravitate to this specialty are in search of their own mental health. We may not know it when we choose this specialty, but we come to appreciate this sentiment if we stay in psych long enough. I did.

I developed my writer’s voice young; at age 11, my first essay published in the Chicago Sun Times. What I didn’t develop was confidence. My parents couldn’t boost me up when I needed it because they lacked confidence, too. Working class is where I came from and my people never considered reaching beyond our station in life, so I became a nurse, which was considered a reach in my family that didn’t encourage girls to go to college, let alone graduate from any institute of higher learning. The nursing profession offered good paying jobs and as it turned out, supplied much fodder for my storytelling. But it wasn’t my first choice.

From a young age, the voices of writer/authors I gravitated toward tended to be writers who came up hard, much like me. Writers who take to the page to share their prose don’t tend to come from families that supported their storytelling. Imagine coming from a home where you were encouraged to be all that you could be. Just imagine. What would you write about? The writers I’ve followed, read and done deep dives on didn’t come from these homes. They came from troubled homes. The list is long. Among my favorite writers, Nora Ephron. Though her parents were famous screenwriters, they died from the long-term effects of alcoholism. Both did.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, short and long, are among my favorite and yet? He died at age 44 from the long-term effects of his addictions. Sylvia Platt struggled mightily to corral her depression yet succumbed to it through suicide in her early thirties, leaving two small children behind. Hemingway blew his head off at the height of his career. Raymond Carver likely would not have been as beloved were he around today. Carver was a poly addict and before he got sober, a wife abuser. Surely, he would have been canceled in today’s culture. Boston Globe writer Caroline Knapp, author of a best-selling memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, gave up drinking but didn’t kick her addiction to cigarettes. Lung cancer got her not long after her memoir came out. Of particular interest to me, Knapp’s dad was one of the most revered psychoanalysts of his era.

Go back to stories about the Algonquin Round Table members that included Dorothy Parker. Of the many that gathered around that table, most struggled with addictions including Dorothy Parker. And what about poor Truman Capote; abandoned by his mom who had better things to do than care for her little boy.  Who paid the price for her neglect? Truman did, as children always do. In the last novel he never completed, Answered Prayers, it was as if he couldn’t help but go after the people who did love him, the society ladies of New York City. His tragic ending mirrored his tragic childhood. His death at fifty-nine, a result of poly addictions, was a slow suicide and mirrored his mom’s death who took her own life during his young adult years. I could go on because the list is long of ‘content creators’ who used their art to mask or define or understand their internal pain. Some succeeded but so many didn’t.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

In this era of ‘everybody’s a writer’ the fancifulness of the writing life is certainly a draw. To say ” I am a writer’ is a mouthful of words that impresses many, especially those who can’t write, but it comes with baggage and for some, baggage too heavy to carry. Take care of your mental health as you write your prose. I entered the psychiatric nursing profession at age 19 and no, I did not think I was searching for my own mental health at that time. What I appreciate now is that I’ve been in search of sound mental health my whole life as I suspect many of you also have, so be careful out here. We all need psychological filters in place to shield us from negativity that can cause such harm, especially to people whose mental health is ‘delicate.’. In these tumultuous times, many troubled folks out here have decided to let their troubles flourish, their personality disordered behaviors role modeled by world leaders who have gotten away with being so damn mean. One last theoretical underpinning, also well-known in psych circles, goes something like this: Some people only feel okay when others don’t as in, ‘I’m okay but you’re not…’

These tough times require psychological filters to protect us against the ugliness out here. If that means turning off the news and/or minimizing your time on social media sites, do that for your mental health because without it, no other health matters.


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