Staying Sane: N M Browne
Whenever I go on Facebook, which, because I am a procrastinating, distraction seeking excuse for a human being, is all too often, I come across something connecting writing with poor mental health. Back in 2012 the Karolinska institute found that writers had a higher risk of anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. They or rather, we, are also twice as likely as the general population to kill ourselves.
I’ve often wondered whether people with these disorders are drawn to writing as a way of dealing with their disorder or if writing itself produces it .I mean it can’t be that healthy sitting alone in a solipsistic universe, killing off characters and reopening old wounds or as Ernest Hemingway would have it, opening a vein and bleeding. The job itself, with its isolation, its constant rejections, obliges the writer to believe in their own talent in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Worse, we are constantly bombarded with the evidence of other people's creative success. And the successes are never as good as us.
Sylvia Plath, herself the patron saint of all depressive geniuses, pointed out that the worst enemy to creativity is self doubt and, as in the creative world everything conspires to make us doubt ourselves, it isn’t surprising that our creativity is a fragile thing: we can spiral downwards in ever decreasing vicious circles to disappear down the plug hole of despair, or up our own backsides. Most of us don’t make any money either, so we live under financial as well as creative pressure. I think it's fair to say that writing as an activity is not particularly conducive to mental stability.
As I know quite a lot of writers, of varying degrees of sanity, my feed is often stuffed with platitudes - to the effect that the cracked let in more light or some such, a celebration if you like of our common strangeness. I get it. With all the bad stuff and vulnerability it’s nice to be part of a tribe, an alliance of souls who are somehow more sensitive and wiser than other people. Some beginner writers feel the need to become egocentric, melancholic and alcoholic in order to be 'real' writers. I don’t buy that. Nobody in their right mind would want to be mentally ill: even those who aren’t in their right mind don’t want to be mentally ill. Let’s not pretend its a prerequisite for genius and focus instead on helping people to get better.
Given all this, I was interested to come across an article recently which seemed to claim that making stories up about people was, in fact a remarkably healthy way to deal with the world. Of course it wasn’t talking about us special people but ordinary MOPs (Members of the public) Apparently when someone is angry, red in the face and and screaming at you, the very best thing you can do is to try to find a story that might account for their response. You could for example imagine that they'd woken that morning to find their car clamped, their partner copulating with the milkman on the sofa and their kitchen cupboards devoid of any kind of caffeinated beverage. It's no wonder they are upset. Trying to understand another human by contextualising their anger, by story-making, helps people to deal with emotion in a way that promotes their own continued mental health.
I liked that approach. I’m not sure how practical it is but, nonetheless it made me regard my chosen job in a different way. How does anyone learn how to make stories up about others but by reading? Books allow us into the heads of others as nothing else ever does. So, rather than focus on our own dodgy mental health we can see ourselves as offering an empathy service to the world. Read us, learn about story telling and lo, you will deal better with all the ordure that life throws at you. It’s a thought.
And here's another: