The Hope That Awaits Writers Who Struggle With Bipolar Depression

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Kelly Gurnett of Cordelia Calls It Quits.

Writing is hard enough when you’re feeling well and everything is going okay. But if you suffer from a mental illness like I do, everything in your life, including your writing, can get that much harder.

I’m bipolar (also known as “manic depressive”):  a disorder which means that I cycle through periods of very high energy and productivity (the “manic” phases) and periods when I feel very down and find it hard to do anything (the “depressive” phases). I’m currently on medication to help manage these mood swings, and I’ve learned how to recognize and get through them, but I still have my good times and my bad times. It can make everyday things like getting up and going to work feel overwhelming.

So writing?

Some days it just feels impossible. And not being able to write only makes me feel that much worse.

And I know I’m not alone in this. Mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and depression are more common than you may realize, and they can be especially hard on writers because we have a tendency to internalize and (over)analyze our experiences. So I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’ve developed over the years to help me keep in touch with my writing when I’m going through a rough patch. I hope they can help you, too, to stay connected with your love for writing even when times get tough.

Disclaimer #1: There Is Nothing “The Matter” With You

Before anything else, I feel compelled to say: there is nothing “wrong” with you if you suffer from a mental illness. Let me repeat that: There is nothing wrong with you. When I came out to my readers about my BP, I was adamant about this.

You are not weak, you are not defective, and you are perfectly capable of doing whatever you want to in life. Everyone has something that they’re struggling with. You just have to learn to manage and live with your particular issues. It can be done. Don’t let your illness hold you back.

Disclaimer #2: Please, Ask for Help

Part of learning to live with a mental illness is making sure you get the proper medical treatment. Mental illness is just a chemical imbalance in the brain, and there’s no shame in using medication to set this imbalance right again. There are also some great counselors and therapists out there who can help you learn to recognize your symptoms and how to deal with things when they get rough. Don’t think you have to go it alone. It’s okay to ask for help.

How to Keep Writing When Times Get Tough

These tips a geared towards people with depression and other mental illnesses, but they can also be applied to any rough period in your life that distracts you from your writing or makes writing difficult. Life isn’t easy, and neither is writing. The trick is in learning how to keep going in spite of that.

Here’s how I’ve learned to keep my writing alive when my BP symptoms get bad:

Take advantage of the times when you’re “on.” We all have those days, when the words just keep flowing and we can’t type (or scribble) fast enough. When I hit a rare sweet spot like that, I do everything I can to use it for all it’s worth. I let other things (like chores) slide. I try to get as much as I can out before the magic wears off. The extra writing counterbalances those times when the words just aren’t coming.

Stockpile for the times when you’re “off.” This is particularly helpful if you run a blog and want to keep to a regular posting schedule. I try to keep a running collection of posts ready to go for the times when I’m not able to come up with something fresh.

Work with what you’ve already got. Sometimes when I’m in a low phase and can’t bring myself to write, I find that going back over things I’ve already written is a good alternative. Rereading and editing old drafts sometimes sparks an idea that gets me writing again. Or, I may just spend some time rereading and editing. Either way, it helps because I still feel like I’m “doing something” to work on my writing.

Do something little. Tweak some dialogue that hasn’t been working. Sketch out an idea for a new scene. Read an article on the topic you’re writing about. You don’t have to be actively writing to still be working on your writing. Some days, the words just won’t come. That’s okay Just do what you can, however small it is.

Write about your struggles. If you can’t work on your normal projects, try writing about what you’re going through. You don’t have to share it with anyone if you’re not comfortable with that–you could just write a journal entry or a letter to yourself. As any writer knows, putting something into words has a special power—it helps you understand it better, work through it, comes to terms with it…or, if nothing else, it can feel better just to get it out on paper.

Mental illness especially is a disorder often suffered in silence. Sharing it, even if only with the page in front of you, can give you a grasp on it and a power over it that can help you cope with what you’re going through.

Just write, even if it sucks. Along the lines of the previous sentiment, you don’t have to always feel brilliant and on fire when you’re writing. (In fact, any writer can tell you that you very rarely ever do.) The point is just to keep writing.

Julie Fast, author of the book Get It Done When You’re Depressed, said in an interview at The Renegade Writer that “What’s amazing is that I can’t tell the difference between my writing when I’m depressed and my writing when I am well. Now, the process is horrible. The difference between what you’re doing when you are depressed versus when you’re well feels terrible, but the outcome — you can’t tell the difference.”

Lower expectations (or get rid of them altogether). There’s plenty of writing advice out there that says the best thing to do when you’re having trouble writing is to set goals for yourself to get yourself moving: “I’m going to write for half an hour” or “I’m going to finish this one scene.”

If having concrete goals like that helps you, then by all means, keep using them. But for me, I find that when I’m going through a bad patch, setting strict expectations for myself only makes things harder. It puts me under too much pressure and the goals seem overwhelming. Plus I’m really hard on myself when I inevitably fall short of them. So I don’t set myself any goals. I let my efforts be what they are and don’t judge them by any criteria. No writing, crappy writing, tiny little bit of writing—it’s all okay.

Finally, take it easy on yourself. Some days, it’s just not gonna happen. All the tricks and tips in the world won’t do it for you when you can barely get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes you have to operate on “energy saver” mode, getting the bare minimum done and leaving it at that. It’s okay. Life happens. Illness happens. You have to take care of yourself first. Your writing will be there for you when you’re feeling better again.

A Final Note From Cordelia

If you’re currently struggling with a mental illness, I want you to know that I’ve been there (and back again), and I can absolutely, positively tell you that it will be okay. Nearly a decade ago when I was first diagnosed with BP, I thought my life had come to a halt. It took me some time to find the right doctor, the right combination of medication, and the right coping strategies to enable me not only to live with my illness, but to thrive just like anyone else can.

I am thrilled to report that I currently hold down a full-time (rather stressful) job, maintain both a husband and a dog (each a good dose of work), run a blog that’s growing more and more each day, and am in the process of writing a Novel and an eBook. I still have my ups and downs. But they aren’t stopping me, baby, and they don’t have to stop you, either.

Resources On Mental Illness

If you’re interested in learning more about recognizing, treating, and coping with mental illness, here are some resources that I’ve found to be helpful:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Mayo Clinic – Mental Illness

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

American Psychiatric Association

Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and encourages others to do the same. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook or send her an e-mail at kelly@cordeliacallsitquits.com.

Do you struggle with depression or another mental illness that interferes with your writing? (Or any other personal situation that makes writing difficult?) How have you learned to deal with it? What tips or tricks would you recommend? Please share with us in the comments below!

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33 comments on “The Hope That Awaits Writers Who Struggle With Bipolar Depression

  1. Rebecca C says:

    Wonderful post! As a writer who suffers from chronic depression and anxiety.. I could certainly relate to this post and I am definitely keeping it to read and re read!! Great job!

    • Cordelia says:

      Thank you, Rebecca! I definitely have to remind myself over and over again to break things down into these steps. It’s so easy to get frustrated. My best wishes to you for your own journey (in writing and in life!)

  2. Christina says:

    Hi Cordelia and Ollin:) This is a great post, and something few people are willing to talk about openly.

    For some reason, in today’s world, admitting you’re struggling with something – anything, not just mental illness, it could be physical problems or just being a sensitive person – is often perceived as a problem. Suddenly you’re weak, or hopeless or just less worthwhile to your boss or so-called friends and acquaintances.

    In my opinion, dealing with issues shows how strong you are. I don’t understand why so many people don’t see it that way. Frankly, I think people who refuse to deal with their issues or to even accept that they have issues are the ones who lack inner strength.

    Everyone has problems and goes through rough patches. Dealing with and overcoming these problems not only makes you stronger, it also makes you a kinder, more understanding human being.

    • Cordelia says:

      Amen! I was so terrified at first to come out about my BP, but once I did, it was amazing how many people responded positively. Having “issues”–of any sort–isn’t something to be ashamed of. If anything, being open about your struggles and showing the world that you’re succeeding in spite of them sends a powerful message. It removes the stigma from them and lets others know that they’re not alone and that they, too, can find hope.

      I remind myself every day of the adage, “Treat everyone you meet with kindness, for everyone is fighting their own battles.”

  3. Cordelia,
    You are so brave to share your struggles in a way that spreads information, inspiration and hope to all of us. You are so right,-we all have struggles,some with labels and some freefloating ones and your message that you can and will be OK is so encouraging. Your points on writing through the tough times are excellent and we all can benefit from your wisdom. Thank you for sharing and Ollin thank you for hosting Cordelia. Excellent message worthy of tweeting and stumblingon which i will do!

    Blessings,
    Kathy

    • Cordelia says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Kathy! It means a lot to me to have gotten to a point where I’m able to try to help others and offer hope wherever I can. (And it means a lot, too, to have the honor of sharing that message on C2C).

      Thank you for helping spread the word. It’s something I sincerely believe in and I’m grateful for every opportunity to share it.

  4. Conor Ebbs says:

    Hey Cordelia,

    Thank you for the tips and insights. I particularly like ‘taking advantage of when you are on’ and ‘stockpiling’.

    Some days I feel completely useless and others the words seem to leap on to the page. Those usually end up being late nights.🙂

    My mental struggle with writing is the lack of purpose I feel when I’m not creating, which leads me to exert huge pressure on myself to continually pour it out. I go through bluesy periods frequently, but I tend to write (and exercise) my way out of them, or lean on loved ones.

    Conor

    • Cordelia says:

      Hi Conor!

      I feel the same way when I’m not writing. So much of the lore of writing focuses on “inspiration” and being in that mystical place where the words just come to us. It can make us feel like we’re faulty and lacking when that isn’t happening.

      Writing even when you’re not “feeling it” is definitely one way I’ve gotten myself out of funks like that. Another is to try to remind myself that just because you’re not actively *writing* (or because your currently writing less-than-perfect material), doesn’t mean you’re not still a “writer.” I’ve always related to the quote “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” (Thomas Mann) Accepting that has actually made my frustrating times a little easier for me.

      p.s. You are also fortunate to have people to lean on. You can never underestimate the importance of a support system.

  5. Ollin says:

    Cordelia,

    You are such an inspiration. I have an idea of how difficult mental illness can be–I don’t suffer from it but I know people who do and it is such a difficult disease to cope with.

    It is trying on not just the person but on the family, who wants to see the individual have a happy life.

    With your words and your insight and your encouragement I have no doubt that you may have saved some lives today–in the sense that you may really have given hope to someone out there who has been despairing that maybe having a mental illness might mean that they never could be successful at anything, or that they may never achieve their dreams.

    Thank, a million times thank you for being so brave, honest, caring and, well, just amazing in every way.

    Much love to you.

    • Cordelia says:

      Ollin:

      That’s is, now you’ve brought a tear to *my* eyes! 🙂

      It really is my honor to be included here. I truly believe I’ve gone through what I have, and gotten my writing to the point it’s at, so that I can reach out to people in the very position I was in not so long ago. I’m hardly as spectacular as you make me out to be, but I do believe with every fiber of my being that these things need to be said and that my story is meant to be shared.

      Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to share it on your site. I hope too that it reaches as many people as possible who need to hear it right now. Including a piece like this was a fantastic idea that also, I know, stemmed from a ton of caring on your end. I really appreciate your eagerness to help spread this message, and thank you again for letting me be the person to do it.

      ~Much love back,
      Kelly

  6. Brilliant post. Thanks to Ollin for having Kelly (aka Cordelia) here, and thanks to her for being brave enough to discuss something that is so hard to discuss at times. I know all about depression, have suffered from it all my life. Oddly enough, I have heard that a lot of artistic people are either bipolar or have a tendency to suffer from depression so we’re not alone in this.

    Loved the tips, thank you, I will certainly try to keep them in mind.

    • Cordelia says:

      Alannah:

      It’s true, there does seem to be a disproportionate number of creative people who suffer from mental illness. I don’t know if it’s because we feel things so deeply, or because we’re more likely to express our sturggles, or how the correlation works. But I consider myself lucky for having the tendency to write because it’s helped me work through my feelings and my struggles and really come to terms with them.

      My heart goes out to you in your own struggles with depression. You are definitely not alone!

  7. What a great post. I think you offer some really wonderful tips! I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, which hit me really hard this past winter. I went months without writing much of anything, feeling so depressed I would cry at the drop of a hat, feeling like writing was totally pointless. Your suggestions are spot-on for not only people who may have a mental illness, but for anyone who falls into a funk and needs help pulling out of it. My few months of depression and inability to write are of course nothing compared to what you must go through with Bipolar Depression, but I still found your words really inspiring and motivational. Thank you!

    • Cordelia says:

      Kristin:

      I feel for you–my depression definitely gets worse in the wintertime, so I know what it’s like to have whole months where things just aren’t right for you. It can be so hard sometimes to remind yourself that it’s a period that will pass, but as you know, it will in time.

      We just need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s o.k. to not be “on” all the time, that “this too shall pass” and that sometimes you just need to cut yourself some slack and just try to make it through the day.

      As a side note, have you tried anything to help alleviate your S.A.D.? In addition to seeing a doctor, I’ve found that natural remedies like Vitamin D and UV lamps can really help when the winter gloom sets in. I’m not a professional by any means, and you may already know all of the tips that are out there. But there are definitely ways you can ease your symptoms. Hang in there!

  8. Abby says:

    Great post, and one I could have (and actually have) written myself. Writing seems impossible on those days when taking a shower seems tantamount to climbing a mountain, and sometimes that’s okay. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human.

    I never force things, but I also recognize when I’m letting myself play the victim and when I’m really not in any position to write a damn thing–even for myself. Considering my job involves writing (ironic, I know), I try and take things in bits and pieces, do the odds and ends that don’t require as much creative energy. I end up feeling better for being at least slightly productive, at least most of the time.

    As for the blog, I’ve become more guarded with the things I write when either too high or too low. I try and keep it light and to find the funny with most things, keeping my darker thoughts in a separate place for my eyes only. However, if I feel it’s something that might help someone, I have no qualms about posting it–and have on many occasions. (Ironically, I have a “fiction” piece coming up tonight that touches on it.)

    Your tips are a great reminder that no matter what mental state you’re in, you should treat your work–and yourself–with compassion. I’m glad you see that yourself😉

    • Cordelia says:

      “I never force things, but I also recognize when I’m letting myself play the victim and when I’m really not in any position to write a damn thing–even for myself.”

      It sounds like you’ve really hit the right balance between understanding your moods and recognizing when you need to ease up on yourself vs. when you can still do something, albeit small. Dealing with any sort of mental illness really is a balancing act like this–yes, sometimes we can work through the highs and lows, and sometimes we need to just let go and say, “Alright, not today.” Recognizing that and knowing how to deal with both extremes is a huge accomplishment.

      And as for knowing when to hit “publish” and when to keep something in draft? That’s something I’ve definitely learned to do better over the years. I tend to ride out my highs because they can produce some really motivational, kick-tail sentiments, but even then, I try to wait a day or two to make sure everything still sounds proper once I’m back on keel again. Most low posts never make it through the cut. But oh, lord, if you could have seen my college LiveJournal. 😛

  9. Andrea says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your struggles Cordelia. I can completely relate to everything. I also suffer with BP for the past 20 years. Though I’ve never taken antidepressants, I’ve found natural alternatives to manage the ups an downs. Meditation, yoga and talk therapy. I’m currently in the process of writing my memoir about my journey. It hasn’t been easy, do I wish much success on your journey, it’s take courage to speak about depression.

    • Cordelia says:

      Andrea:

      It’s absolutely awesome that you’re writing about your experiences. The more people share their own struggles with mental illness, the more we break down the stigmas and encourage other people who are going through similar things.

      There are so many different ways to handle BP, and coming to learn what works for you is key. I’m so glad you’ve found a routine that works for you, and I wish you all the best with your writing. It sounds like you’ve come a long way!

  10. onelovemeg says:

    More power to you sister! You are an amazing writer with lots of great qualities. Whatever you are doing, you are doing it right. Rock On!

    • Cordelia says:

      Awww, thanks so much, Meg! (And thanks for your many RT loves on Twitter recently!) You’re not too shabby yourself. Rock right back at ya, girl. 🙂

  11. Great book on madness and creative genius: The Price of Greatness by Arnold Ludwig. Ever heard of it? Worth a read. In the introduction he explains why you see BP, depression and other mental illnesses so common in the creative arts: there isn’t a filter in place to disqualify them. Not so with careers like lawyers and accountant. Quirky people aren’t accepted so easily and get flushed out rather early.

    • Cordelia says:

      Demian:

      Just looked it up now and it’s immediately going on my To Read list. (Actually, it’s getting pushed to the top of the list.)

      His argument is really interesting, and I can definitely see it in action. The “mad genius” creative person is often not only accepted in an artistic culture, but encouraged. Like Sylvia Plath (my personal obsession), they can be drawn to probe even deeper into their illness, bringing them further into their symptoms and even exacerbating them by creating the notion that their illness is actually a vital part of their whole creative process.

      Excellent book recommendation–I’m looking forward to reading it!

  12. Rosie says:

    Thank you for your tips. I suffer from type 1 bipolar disorder, and also write poetry. I’m currently writing a novel, and it’s been very hard, especially when I have a psychotic episode. I just came out of hospital again, and I’m finding it very hard to work on my writing and get going. These tips will really help🙂

    • Cordelia says:

      Rosie:

      Definitely take it easy and take your time. Writing anything (especially a huge project like a novel) can be slow going under normal circumstances. Make sure to cut yourself some slack and not put too much pressure on yourself. Just the fact that you’re writing at all is a huge accomplishment with all that you’ve been going through and are going through.

      I hope you are feeling better and am sending you my best virtual good vibes for your recovery. 🙂

  13. A wonderfully insightful post, filled with positive hope and practical help. I appreciated this immensely!

  14. indowaves says:

    I am sharing the link on my Facebook page so that other readers can have a look at it. It’s an interesting article as it shatters the myth that mental illness can act as a blockade.

    The article is of not great use to me as I have had always believed that good and exceptional works is mostly done by crazy souls in league with wild temperament. A little bit of lunacy makes one an exceptional soul🙂

    -Arvind K. Pandey

    http://indowaves.wordpress.com/

    • Cordelia says:

      Arvind:

      Thank you for the share!

      “I have always believed that good and exceptional works is mostly done by crazy souls in league with wild temperament. A little bit of lunacy makes one an exceptional soul.” <—- personally, I couldn't agree more. 🙂

  15. spinx says:

    Dear Cordelia!

    I am honestly glad to hear that you managed to handle yourself so damn well. There is nothing as annoying an dnagging at your heart as the feeling of not having done enough, when you easily could have. And you did it even with that handicap.

    Indeed, it is never too late to start on anything.

    • Cordelia says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words! You are so right–it’s never too late to start, and circumstances are never so rough that we can’t get through them, all the while giving it our all.

      Never underestimate or undervalue the things you can do, even when you’re at your “100%”

  16. Jessie Rose says:

    I’m a little late in reading this, but I wanted to comment anyway and let you know how much I love this post🙂 It can be so hard sometimes to sit down and wade through all of your thoughts when everything seems to jumbled up. A lot of times I have to just allow myself to step away from the computer and take a break, because forcing myself to write causes me more anxiety than is necessary.

    I’ve also found that being honest makes writing come more easily. I never try to be anyone I’m not on my blog, or to lie to my readers (and I know you do the same!). I think if you’re having a crappy day, write about it! It makes the good days and the upbeat posts more powerful.

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