It’s the first Wednesday of the month, so I’m posting about anxiety and writing as part of the Insecure Writers Support Group. Head over there to visit writers who are almost as neurotic about their work as I am.
Like many folks, I freak out about writing. I worry my work stinks. That agents and publishers will never accept me. That all my work is for nothing and I’d be better off studying carpentry, electrical engineering, or other useful skills.
On the other hand, I also get ANXIOUS. I worry that something terrible will happen to my children. I’ll get fired. Lose the house. Ruin everything for everybody. That the world would be better off without me. ANXIETY can make me curl up in my room, drink to avoid reality, and turn into an all-around lame guy.
Actually, I don’t get super ANXIOUS much these days. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder several years ago. Since then, I’ve eliminated caffeine, reduced my sugar intake, and I take medication daily. Oh yeah, I’m also supposed to exercise. Some months I’m really good about it.
My point is that we need to know when we are experiencing normal anxiety and sadness related to the writing process and when our fears, worries, and depression are getting out of hand.
This distinction has consequences. Here’s a quick list of writers who have taken their lives:
Manuel Acuña, Louis Adamic, Arthur Adamov, Francis Adams, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jean Améry, Raymond Andrews, Hubert Aquin, Nelly Arcan, Reinaldo Arenas, José María Arguedas, Takeo Arishima, Charles Ashton, Arno Assmann, Zo d’Axa, James Robert Baker, R. H. Barlow, William Vincent Barré, Rex Beach, Victoria Benedictsson, Lore Berger, Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, John Berryman, H. S. Bhabra, Jens Bjørneboe, Samuel Laman Blanchard, Ernest Bornemann, Karin Boye, Menno ter Braak, Henry Joseph, Steele Bradfield, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, Eustace Budgell, Andrés Caicedo, Albert Caraco, George Caragonne, Don Carpenter, Camilo Castelo Branco, Harry M. Caudill, Samson Cerfberr, Ana Cristina Cesar, Nicolas Chamfort, Evan Chandler, Iris Chang, Thomas Chatterton, Konstantin Chkheidze, Charles Clegg, Charmian Clift, Danielle Collobert, Charles Caleb Colton, Courtney Ryley Cooper, Branko Ćopić, Elise Cowen, Ida Craddock, Hart Crane, Thomas Creech, James Ashmore Creelman, Hector-Jonathan Crémieux, René Crevel, Harry Crosby, Géza Csáth, Will Cuppy, Stig Dagerman, John Davidson, Osamu Dazai, Aldo De Benedetti, Roy Andries De Groot, Penelope Delta, Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey, Thomas M. Disch, Tove Ditlevsen, Michael Dorris, Chris Doty, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, K. Sello Duiker, Tristan Egolf, Carl Einstein, Alexander Fadeyev, Fan Changjiang, Arthur Davison Ficke, Ham Fisher, John Gould Fletcher, Vsevolod Garshin, Romain Gary, Helen Palmer Geisel, Peter George, Sam Gillespie, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Guy Gilpatric, Richard Glazar, Denis Goodwin, William Lindsay Gresham, Paul Gruchow, Hjalmar Gullberg, Stephen Haggard, Kenneth Halliwell, St. John Emile Clavering Hankin, Tamiki Hara, James Harden-Hickey, Horace Hart, Walter Hasenclever, Rashad Hashim, Beatrice Hastings, Attila Hazai, Sadegh Hedayat, Olle Hedberg, Thomas Heggen, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, Ernest Hemingway, Leicester Hemingway, Jarl Hemmer, Henry William Herbert, Iva Hercíková, James Leo Herlihy, Anderson Bigode Herzer, Ashihei Hino, Jane Aiken Hodge, Merton Hodge, Abbie Hoffman, Doug Hopkins, Brian Howard, Robert E. Howard, Lorraine Huling Maynard, Arthur Eaglefield Hull, Robin Hyde, Evald Ilyenkov, Kaan İnce, William Inge, Charles R. Jackson, Philipp Jaffé, Morris K. Jessup, Orrick Glenday Johns, B. S. Johnson, Maurice Joly, Ingrid Jonker, Philippe Jullian, Metin Kaçan, Sarah Kane, Yasunari Kawabata, Bizan Kawakami, Anthony Paul Kelly, Alan Kirschenbaum, Jim Kjelgaard, Heinrich von Kleist, Jochen Klepper, Ardian Klosi, Fletcher Knebel, Vsevolod Kochetov, Arthur Koestler, Sarah Kofman, Hannelore Kohl, Nikola Koljević, Jerzy Kosiński, Deborah Laake, Lao She, Mariano José de Larra, Margaret Laurence, Katherine Lawrence, Pepi Lederer, Joel Lehtonen, Édouard Levé, Primo Levi, D. A. Levy, Heather Lewis, Lester Lewis, Hans Leybold, George Lichtheim, Erik Lindegren, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Petre Locusteanu, Erich Loest, Jack London (either suicide or accidental overdose), Leopoldo Lugones, F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Philipp Mainländer, János Majláth, Klaus Mann, Sándor Márai, Eugène Marais, Nilgün Marmara, Harry Martinson, Eleanor Marx, Gunnar Mattsson, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Keith McClung, Tom McHale, Johann Heinrich Merck, Carlo Michelstaedter, Richard Barham Middleton, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Roger Milliot, Yukio Mishima, Edgar Mittelholzer, Vilhelm Moberg, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Henry de Montherlant, Pamela Moore, Jason Moss, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, John Mulgan, Inge Müller, Börries von Münchhausen, Mirosław Nahacz, Nandanar, Yves Navarre, Gérard de Nerval, Torquato Neto, Adela Florence Nicolson, Hollister Noble, Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, John O’Brien, Alexandru Odobescu, Louis Owens, André Paiement, Breece D’J Pancake, Dillwyn Parrish, Cesare Pavese, Harry Thurston Peck, Mike Penner, Petronius, Richard Pigott, Edappally Raghavan Pillai, H. Beam Piper, Peter Pišťanek, Sylvia Plath, John William Polidori, Gabriel Pomerand, Raul Pompeia, Jan Potocki, Lucien-Anatole Prévost-Paradol, Gert Prokop, Dragoș Protopopescu, Qiu Miaojin, Horacio Quiroga, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Fritz J. Raddatz, Alexander Radishchev, Taqi Rafat, Ferdinand Raimund, Rajalakshmi, Anil Ramdas, Christopher Rave, Richard Realf, Liam Rector, David Oliver Relin, William Relling, Jr., Cale Young Rice, Jacques Rigaut, Roger-Arnould Rivière, E. Arnot Robertson, Amelia Rosselli, Berton Roueché, Gerolamo Rovetta, Alice Rühle-Gerstel, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Gunter Sachs, Jun Sadogawa, Stig Sæterbakken, Emilio Salgari, Ramón Sampedro, Thomas Parker Sanborn, Drake Sather, John Monk Saunders, Alexander Saxton, Hermann Georg Scheffauer, Runar Schildt, William Seabrook, Mark Shepherd, Gennady Shpalikov, Peder Sjögren, Edward Stachura, Frank Stanford, George Sterling, Adalbert Stifter, John Augustus Stone, Alfonsina Storni, Michael Strunge, John Suckling, Mikhail Sushkov, Aaron Swartz, Hidemitsu Tanaka, Rudolf Těsnohlídek, Hunter S. Thompson, James Tiptree, Jr., Ernst Toller, John Kennedy Toole, Felipe Trigo, Thaddäus Troll, Kurt Tucholsky, Peter Tyrrell, Dorothy Uhnak, Tor Ulven, Urmuz, Nikolai Uspensky, Louis Verneuil, Guido da Verona, Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, Horace Binney Wallace, George Drought Warburton, Albert Wass, Gary Webb, Josef Weinheber, Otto Weininger, Ernst Weiss, Lew Welch, Edward Lucas White, Gustav Wied, Charles Williams, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Alfred Witte, Wally Wood, Virginia Woolf, Shōji Yamagishi, Francis Parker Yockey, A. P. Younger, Unica Zürn, Joost Zwagerman, and Stefan Zweig.
I could produce a similar list for other professions, but it wouldn’t be as easy.
That’s because research has demonstrated that writers are more likely to face mental health challenges than non-writers. Using a ginormous sample (N = 1,173,763), researchers found that being an author was “specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.”
The study found that individuals in other creative professions (artists, musicians…) actually had a reduced chance of being diagnosed with these disorders. In other words, all creative types do not suffer equally. Writers suffer the most.
Here’s the study if you want a closer look. Mental Illness, Suicide, and Creativity
There could be a bunch of reasons behind this relationship.
People with mental illnesses may be more likely to write because we want to work out the issues that bother us.
We tend to be introspective as well as thoughtful observers of the world around us. Such awareness might lend itself toward anxiety and depression.
Writing can also be a lonely life full of criticism and failure, so there may be something about the writing process itself that fosters poor mental health. I have doubts about this argument. Writing can be therapeutic as well as anxiety producing.
I am inclined to think that people who are extra sensitive are more likely to have mental health problems and also more likely to write. But, honestly, I don’t care about the causes. I just want to make sure I stay mentally healthy and keep my anxiety from becoming all-consuming ANXIETY.
The first step comes in recognizing the difference.
There are bunch of online resources to help you figure out if your anxieties are getting the best of you. I don’t know enough to say which one is best, so I do not want to link to one over the others. Just Google “do I have an anxiety disorder” or “anxiety checklist” and you will find a slew of them.
The standard advice is to seek treatment when anxiety affects your daily life. Does it impede your physical health, relationships, or work performance? If so, take it as seriously as you would a stabbing pain in your heart. Self-medicating is another big sign. If you are drinking to calm your worries or smoking herb to chill out, you may have a problem.
In short, if anxiety is screwing up your ability to function or enjoy life, schedule an appointment with your general practitioner. They will help you diagnose your condition and possibly think out a treatment plan. They may also connect you to a specialist.
That’s what I did, and it helped me become a better husband, father, and worker. Spending less time worrying has also opened up new hours for writing. You can’t write when you are paralyzed by fear and, despite what some folks say, writing drunk rarely produces quality work.