Apologies this doesn’t have quite the lighthearted tone of my other posts. It’s also too long. But I’m not anxious about that. This is important to share.
I am an anxious author.
Big deal, a lot of us are. What with the cycle of hope, rejection, waiting — oh the agony of waiting…we are creative types who think too much, and care too much, and have neurosis — isn’t that part of what makes us able to write?
No. Don’t you believe it.
The concept of the tortured artist is outdated and dangerous. To write well, you do not have to suffer.
This time, exactly one year ago, I went from being anxious, to suffering from Anxiety. And I give it a capital letter because I think it needs one. In the wise words of my 11 year old son: ‘Anxiety needs a different name, I mean — you wouldn’t call a broken leg a bruise!’
I became very ill just when I thought my life was everything I’d hoped for. My family was happy and healthy; I liked teaching four days a week, running a department, and my first book had just been published. The reviews were great and it was selling. On the surface things looked awesome, so I persuaded myself they were. I worked late and slept heavily but for only 5 or so hours a night with an erratic evening napping habit. I didn’t have time for exercise, I often felt overwhelmed and that I wasn’t doing anything well enough. My time management had become dismal, some nights I’d spend 5 hours writing, after an 8 hour day teaching and managing a department. Sometimes I’d sit on social media for nearly the entire day.
I had kept all my skittles in the air for a long time.
I had woken nearly every morning for around 2 years with my stomach churning, like there was something truly awful or nerve-wracking looming that day. I’d got used to this feeling and blamed it on excitement. I was having a book published, it was natural to feel a bit on edge! But I often had tinnitus screeching in my ears and clenched my jaw so tight I thought I had ear ache. Right after my book deal I developed gallbladder illness and had the operation; it took me longer than average to fully recover. I developed rosacea so severe I had a biopsy on my face. I knew I was working too hard, and probably run down but isn’t everyone? I tried self-care, but erratically, starting a yoga regime and quitting after a couple of days, going for a jog, but only once.
Just after my book came out things…changed. I changed. I felt disorientated and disconnected at work, when I’d always been organized and confident. I remember a strong sense of being in the wrong life, doing everything on autopilot; this wasn’t really me. I couldn’t remember people’s names and stuttered over my words. I had a constant banging headache. The simple act of making a to do list was overwhelming. But…I muddled through and hid it as best I could. I ran a whole day of author assemblies and workshops at my school and led a big school trip. I was cracking, by my mask remained intact.
Then one day the mask shattered. I woke up and the crying began. And it didn’t stop. The wrenching sobs came from somewhere deep and terrifying, a primal place, the way I would cry as a young child, waking from the nameless fear of a nightmare.
I called my GP, but he was away. I was signed off with stress by a locum; I slowly imploded without my work routine as a crutch. The crying continued for days until I despaired and sunk deeper, and did barely anything. I would walk, stare at the TV, do menial tasks at home. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read a book, let alone write or properly talk to anyone. My speech was sometimes slurred. I slept a lot. I gathered myself in front of my kids, but I could barely think at all, and when I did, the fear came back, so it was better to allow the numbness. I was supported by the love and care of my parents, my husband and close friends, but couldn’t explain to anyone what was wrong. I thought this was burn-out and I needed to rest, but I was locked inside my own head, I couldn’t stop pacing, and the lights were off.
Then I saw my own GP. The waiting room was too bright and loud, gravity was concentrating all its force just on me, pressing, pressing. I was numb as I stammered that I needed a brain scan. Please. Something had to be seriously wrong, dementia, a brain tumour. This sounds so dramatic, but I was in anguish.
My doctor gave me the mental health questionnaire.
He waited patiently as I filled it out very slowly with trembling hands.
I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and depression. I refused to accept the depression, I didn’t have suicidal thoughts, the opposite, I was scared for my life. Taking the anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication was terrifying. My excellent GP never pressurized me, and told me to take it just one day at a time, it was always my choice.
3 weeks later I found myself singing along to the music in the car. I couldn’t remember last time I had done that.
I was so incredibly lucky because I got the help I needed. For me this started with medication — specifically because it lifted me enough that I could access the talk therapies — CBT and counseling— I needed.
There’s more to this. There always is, but I think this is enough.
Now I feel better than I have in 6 years.
Did writing or my publishing deal cause the Anxiety? No.
Does the life I have chosen as an author exacerbate the Anxiety? Yes, it can definitely have that effect. But it doesn’t have to.
It’s a brilliant privileged life. I love to write, it’s a freeing joy to me, but I can get too sucked into it. I don’t naturally know when to rest and let things go, and I never will. There’s rejection in this life, and there’s waiting and a lack of control. All can be tough on our mental health. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. When I’ve stopped writing so often and so obsessively, I’ve produced more. In between I’ve just been living.
Some things help stop my natural anxiety from being upgraded to a capital A. These are big things that work for me, and may work for others, but we all have to find our own way. And it is the small kindnesses I give to myself every day that count the most. The 10 minute coffee walking round the garden. The long cat cuddle. Playing lego with my son. Reading a page of a brilliant book aloud to my husband.
I was never as sedentary as I am when writing. Now I go to exercise classes every other day and practise yoga most days. Not every day and I don’t beat myself up if I miss one. I know I’m very lucky I get to do this but know it is essential for me.
I have left my management responsibility at school and now only work two days. I’m so fortunate, but it is precarious. I top up my wages with my writing but it isn’t enough, so I’m editing. If it doesn’t work out I can work on teaching supply or try for more school visits. I feel at peace with this decision and that I can live with a bit more uncertainty now I have more space.
I am not good at mindfulness meditation, but I think it makes it all the more important for me. I have constant monkey brain, with hundreds of thoughts and stories whizzing around my head. I’m gradually training myself to work on one thing at a time and more slowly. Nowadays I see rest and peace as essential, not a luxury I don’t have time to indulge in.
At a time when I wasn’t very well myself, I took on my first mentee. Working with someone else’s writing took me out of myself and gave me a perspective, and now is an essential part of my life and my writing career.
Sing. Play. Laugh. Not like that, let yourself really laugh, from your belly. Dance. Be silly. Play an instrument. If you can’t, tap the edge of your desk in rhythm. Breathe.
Really breathe and follow your breath out into the world. Breathe in the world, and more importantly, don’t forget breathe it back out. Be light.
Lay and feel the sun on your face. Walk. Stretch. Read. Read something because it absorbs you, not because you think you should. Hug. Petting animals is time well spent, do it more.
Eat sitting down, looking out of a window and enjoy the taste. Talk. Look at your loved ones. Look at them with your full attention. Hold hands. Learn nostril breathing. Seriously, it’s a thing, and you wont regret it.
Then write. Go to the sea or a river and dabble your feet. Dabble in general. Stare at the moon and remember how small and fleeting we are and that very little really matters. This is a good thing.
Love what you write, love your dreams, but love yourself more.
Or – do none of those things. Do whatever gives you ease.
And if you can’t, if you’ve lost that ability as I did — reach out, to someone, anyone.
Mental health is simply health, and we all deserve to live this short life well.
Lindsay’s first book The Secret Deep came out in the UK in 2018 and the next is to be published in early 2020. She writes YA, MG and has adult and younger fiction works in progress. She reads in all genres and loves to edit, she is an experienced mentor plus a critique partner of published authors.
Lindsay came late to writing, self-taught, after a career teaching which is now part time. She is a slush-pile (talent pool!) conqueror who came from nowhere and had no contacts and – although it took a while – had the first ever book she wrote published by the excellent Chicken House.
An experienced teacher, Lindsay’s workshop style is upbeat, constructive and focuses on the practical. She is sensitive to those at different stages of their writing journeys and the courage it takes to share work. Her workshops have a positive supportive atmosphere, intended to empower writers. All questions are welcome.
She is also leading weekend workshops in Brighton.
And is one of 3 amazing tutors on our new 6-week WriteMaster online masterclass for writers of MG/YA.