Can you talk a little about the ways in which your illness works as a barrier to writing? What are some of the specific challenges you deal with?
Motivation and inspiration are the biggest issues for me. I work from dreams--every novel I’ve written that’s been good (but okay, even some that haven’t been good) have had their genesis in a dream. I’m not 100% sure how my depression and anxiety and (ex-)agoraphobia have shaped my brain into dreaming differently, but during the past two years I’ve spent as a hermit because I couldn’t leave my house, I haven’t had a dream that’s felt significant in the way that it should be written about. I’ve written about a novel a year since the age of fourteen, so to lose that is terrifying. Especially when you don’t know if you can get better, if it really is agoraphobia that’s sucked all your access to inspiration away. Being trapped in your own home is the most stressful and painful thing. I think I need a certain kind of outside stimulus to create the memories that are fed into dreams, and being empty of that makes your brain this sort of incestuous thing that can only feedback to itself on a loop and there’s nothing new. It’s just you living the same day trapped in your house over and over. You can’t leave to celebrate the holidays even, or your own birthday. It’s not life. So, in that way I suppose, art can’t imitate it. And being a depressive type… it’s just difficult to motivate myself to do much of anything at all. If I don’t have a fiction project I believe in fully, and if it doesn’t bring me joy to work on it, I really can’t be bothered with it.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I complain a lot on Twitter haha. But really, Twitter’s huge for me. It’s the only social life I’ve had for a long time now and that keeps me sane. If I didn’t have it I have no idea how I’d have survived the past two years. The people there… well, some of them help. The other people that deal with mental illness help a lot in coping and letting me believe in myself again, and my projects. They’re my best friends, my queer & trans* community, the people that like my selfies (I feel like that’s a big deal when you’re trans*) and buy and commission my embroidery work so I have pocket money!
Other than that, I just remind myself constantly that I don’t have to work myself to death and I deserve taking breaks.
What is your relationship to more traditional models of managing illness, like therapy and/or medication? Do you find them effective? Is accessing them an issue for you?
I’m one of the horror stories about therapy & medication, and am certainly an exception to the rule. It wasn’t that I had a bad therapist (she was okay) I was just ignored when I said I had emetophobia (fear of throwing up) and was put on an anti-depressant that make me nauseous. And, like, literally my life fell apart. I was just (“just”) suicidal before this, and then I developed a panic disorder that, as I mentioned, I had for two years and am just now making progress with. I didn’t think things could get worse from a suicidal point, but they actually did.
Being agoraphobic, and having medication and therapy as a trigger, is a huge accessibility problem when it comes to getting help. I’ve had to rely on myself fully, which is beyond tiring. Emotionally and physically too. Or at least psychosomatically. But late last year, I did manage to find an at-home CBT course designed for people with agoraphobia. Which, even the thought of that, just reading a few ebooks about panic, was panic-inducing. I didn’t think it would work, honestly, but I was so desperate because I didn’t want to be trapped at home anymore (especially in a household that doesn’t accept me as trans*) so I tried it and it fucking worked. So since about late December I’ve been able to leave my house without panic. And I’m beyond grateful. And never expected myself to be at a place in my life where I was overjoyed that I could drive to a shitty boring town to do grocery shopping, but I am and it’s honestly thrilling. I happy cry from time to time because I never thought I’d be better. I thought agoraphobia was going to be the end of me.
I guess the end summation is: cognitive behavioural therapy has worked for me, but only on my own terms. And in a situation I wouldn’t have been in if I hadn’t sought help a few years ago. You win some you lose some.
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
I’m still trying to figure out what self-care is for me. I’m fairly sure it’s not buying yourself a bunch of shit, but then maybe it is if it’s small, nice things that bring you some amount of joy and don’t contribute to the Work Load. Good things being: fancy soaps & samples of perfume oils, Work Load things being: research books for writing projects that will sit there, unread, making you feel beyond guilty for not reading them and also not working on the project they’re intended for. (I own an abhorrent amount of research books and perfume samples.)
Food might be the most difficult self-care thing, but the nicest thing when I do manage to get it right. I have a hard time remembering to eat. I don’t naturally have much of an appetite and forget to eat all the time, which makes me unravel a bit, emotionally/mentally, and then it makes doing anything at all a lot more difficult. I get anxious easier. Emetophobia makes you terrified of your own body and anything that can make you even slightly nauseous, so under-eating is difficult, over-eating is difficult, being afraid of food poisoning is a constant. So splurging on groceries and good food, food I really, really want to eat, is the best self care thing. Cause then I will eat cause I’m excited about what I have to eat. But I still eat while sitting at the computer… I can’t remember the last time I didn’t eat in my room all by myself. That’s something I need to work on.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
Whatever illness issue I’m dealing with the most at the moment, it usually owns me completely. Agoraphobia, a major depressive episode, a bad week where my emetophobia’s been triggered too much and I can’t even think about eating. I’m very lucky to not be in a major depressive episode right now, I’ve learned how to be aware of Mental Illness Thoughts and observe them and let them happen without gripping me, though… maybe I’m doing better than I realise. It’s easy to get caught up with whatever I’m dealing with, though. I lose my perspective and everything is immediate and it’s hard to realise that it’s usually just a slump, or a fluke day or week, and that I’ll get better, it just needs to run its course. I’m not very logical, I’m afraid.
I do know not to blame myself for whatever I’m dealing with, though. I know I’m not being punished, I know I’m not worthless.
Does your illness intersect with your gender identity? How do you deal with those overlaps?
Dysphoria can feed into the self loathing of depression if I don’t stay really mindful of it, but I’m really good at yelling YOU’RE AMAZING AND HAVE IMMENSE WORTH at myself whenever I feel like shit. I believe it most of the time. I don’t let myself dwell when I don’t believe it, though.
How does your living situation intersect with your illness? Are there specific strategies that help you manage a challenging environment?
Oh boy. I live in the worst place for being mentally ill and especially having dealt with agoraphobia. I live way out in the country, about a half hour from town, which doesn’t sound that bad I suppose, but driving a half hour is a long time to let anxiety simmer inside and get yourself geared up for having a panic attack. Because once you are in town and you get out of a car and go into a store and suddenly feel like you’re going to die, you’re a half hour drive away from feeling safe again. That was the hardest fucking thing. I did drive myself into town a bit--I had to, no one else would buy me the kind of food I wanted to eat--and I had a panic attack nearly every single time. Sometimes I could push through it, sometimes I couldn’t.
And then there’s just the lack of friends here. One friend of mine has moved back home with his parents before he goes to grad school, but other than him everyone else has moved out of the area, which is understandable because where I live is shit. Unless you’re a religious, racist member of the Tea Party. Then where I live is probably awesome.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
I need immense amounts of outside support. In like every way. I don’t get as much as I’d like, but then that makes it so much more special when I do get support. Just as a human, I need a lot of emotional support from people, and as a writer and artist I need a lot of feedback, it’s how I work best. I have better perspective on my writing than I used to, but feedback while I’m working on fiction is amazing and illuminating and makes the work better, I think, just from getting to hear what people get from it and how they interpret things. And it’s just a boost of confidence! I’m not that good at that on my own either.
You're also a freelancer--how do you negotiate the balance between self-care and writing and working?
I’m really horrible at this. The past few months I really worked myself to death and now… I’m still working, but slowly. But then I do feel guilty about how slowly I’m working, cause I know I can get more done if I work constantly, but then that means forgetting to eat and working until my hands & arms ache (I’m well on my way to carpal tunnel.) These days I’m using a weekly calendar and writing down my to-do list and just making sure I get work done on just one thing a day. Once I do that, I’ve done my work and I deserve to do things like cook something or read a magazine or… something else that means I’m not tied to the computer. Hopefully it sticks.
Soren Melville is a horse made out of trash living in the rolling countryside of Literally Hades, CA. As an illustrator, he has worked for Perigee Books, and his first work of fiction, S/N/D, comes out from Civil Coping Mechanisms on March 28th. He spends far too much time on twitter, where, among other things, he runs @DeathMedieval, an account tweeting deaths from medieval coroner's rolls. He has two cats and really lush aquamarine hair.
Previously in the Working series: Mairead Case, s.e. smith, Red Mills, Christine Hou, Litsa Dremousis, Jacqui Morton, Gina Abelkop, Elia Osuna, Wendy Ortiz, Roxane Gay, B R Sanders, Katherine Locke, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore..