On Writing

I do a lot of journal writing, which helps my mental health.

I do a lot of writing.

The majority of that writing is journaling that serves as therapy: it helps me figure out what I’m thinking, what is and isn’t bothering me, how to deal with the ups and downs of my mental illness, and how to fit writing into a life for which I’m only awake and functional for half the time of regular folks.

Writing is my way of interpreting the world, of filtering it into manageable bits that I can digest and ruminate on. It helps me figure out what’s important to me, and what I need to do to support those activities. It’s also what keeps this blog going week after week.

For example, I wrote in an earlier post that I was planning to do the Lake-to-Lake walk this fall, which is a marathon walk on an old railbed trail. However, the aftereffects of the high I had early this year are making it difficult to keep up my training – some days I have to sleep half the day away, and other days even though I’m awake I can’t function that well because I feel like a zombie. The doctor says these feelings could last up to 9 months, which means it could be hard to keep up my training for quite some time. Now I’m not convinced I’ll be able to do the full marathon walk as I just haven’t done the required miles. But another option would be to do the half marathon.

In this case, it was writing that helped me figure out what was bothering me (not getting out walking and cycling), what the problem was (recovering from a high), and a potential solution (doing the half-marathon instead of the full marathon). (Note: I ended up registering for the full marathon anyway because I’m obstinate. I can always bail if I need to. But I plan to finish.)

Writing is also a way of sorting through my past and figuring out what my “story” is. How you tell the story of your life is an exercise in what to include or not include, or what to hide and what to reveal. It’s also a test of what you understand about your life as a function not only of your own choices but of random events and encounters with strangers. You don’t make everything happen in a vacuum – sometimes other people make things happen for you and it changes the course of your life. Writing helps excavate those points of connection, those serendipitous events that push our lives onto a new path or even just keep it on the straight and narrow.

For example, my friend Jenny Ryan asked me to write a few blog posts for the Canadian Science Publishing blog back in 2013. These were important because they allowed me to exercise my rusty writing muscles. More importantly, they gave me purpose at a time when I was adrift from having left academia due to my health issues, and she was kind enough to allow me to work within the limitations of those health issues.

Several years later, I feel like my writing muscles have really been strengthened: all that journaling paid off! Unfortunately my mental health issues remain, so I can’t push my writing muscles to their full extent because I’d pay for it in terms of negative mental health.

So even though I feel like I now have pretty decent writing chops, I have to stay within my limitations. Just enough to keep me from feeling I’m a complete failure, which has a positive impact on my mental health. It’s a fine line between positive and negative mental health impacts, though, so I have to constantly monitor that I’m not overdoing it, even if I don’t want to acknowledge my limitations. My husband is a good barometer for that – he often asks me if I’m doing something I really shouldn’t.

So if you think my writing is all unicorns and rainbows, think again. It’s a constant balancing act between doing a bit but not too much, and making the most of my limited abilities. It’s a daily challenge to interrogate my mental state and decide what I can or can’t do each day. Sometimes that doesn’t line up with what I *want* to do or had *planned* to do. But I have to listen to my body – like yesterday morning when it said I should sleep in until 9.30. Some days I can only get one errand done and that does me in for the day. Some days are just a write off, and I don’t write at all because I don’t have enough spoons.

There’s always the hope that tomorrow will be better. But the writing will always be there.

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