Tag Archives: mental health

The Dangers of Being a Storyteller

As a writer I like to celebrate the virtues of an active imagination, but my own gets me into trouble all the time. The same tools I use to craft fantasy worlds can become weapons in the real one.

While we celebrate New York Times bestsellers it’s the stories we tell ourselves that have real power. I can write a scary story with a subtle theme about managing depression and someone might take that to heart.

Meanwhile, I can tell myself a story about how I lack the stability, maturity, and status to attract a partner and I know I’ll take that shit to heart. The same goes for when I tell myself stories like: I’m still too wet behind the ears to reach out to that publisher or my social media presence isn’t wide enough to attract the right agent. That stuff always resonates on the first draft.

Western civilization has wired us to remember stories more than any other form of information. That’s why politicians use anecdotes about “real” Americans to make their points. That’s why charities showcase the plight of one disadvantaged child to represent an entire community. That’s why we file memories in three act structures, even when that’s not how the events occurred. Stories are easier to recall than abstract information because of how they’re linked.

That’s why when we tell ourselves stories about our failings they sink in. Fortune may have dealt us a bad hand, but good storytellers can convince ourselves that we’re cursed.

Storytelling Changes How We See Things

Everything is a nail to a hammer and everything is a story to a writer. That’s why we see story structure everywhere, like threads of fate, and a lifetime writing happy endings can give anyone unrealistic expectations.

Writers spend so much time building universes around their protagonists it’s only natural for us to think that the real world revolves around us too. All our friends and family members are just supporting cast members there to aid us in our journey.

We start believing conflicts in our lives are there to break us out of overbearing routines. We think that every problem will advance the narrative of our life, teach us a lesson, and fundamentally changes us a person. We think less of ourselves when a conflict leaves us feeling the same as we did when we began.

We’ve been conditioned by so many stories to believe that our lowest moments will lead into climatic triumphs, that those lessons we learn at the bottom will embolden us, but they so often don’t. They might just serve to reinforce our fears.

In a movie you might miss a character’s change if you have to go to the bathroom. Real shifts in our personalities are so gradual they’re imperceptible.

Storytellers reinforce the notion that so long as we quest for a goal that we will ultimately get what we need, not necessarily what we want, but what we need. We can be forgiven for thinking that if our hearts are pure the universe will provide for us.

We forget that so many of the fundamentals of a great story are  fallacies in the real world. That’s why they’re stories. They’re an escape from the cruelty of reality.

How to Write a Bad for Romance

It’s time for this week’s Oversharing Anecdotesponsored by Jack Daniels. Jack Daniels, it’ll get your tongue so lose it’ll practically fall out of your mouth.

My 20s were a montage of breakup texts and fetal position showers sessions. Upon seeing someone new I made the mistake of dubbing the kicking-at-the-tires stage of dating “a relationship.” When that process came to an abrupt end, I performed a postmortem so I might catch the signs earlier on.

I developed a protection measure inspired by all the pulp detectives who were too hard boiled to get their hearts broken. I turned first dates into investigations, looking for patterns in behavior. I convinced myself that I was an acquired taste and that anyone who showed too much interest early on did so for the wrong reasons. I was looking for evidence to confirm my bias, to fit the story I was telling myself.

Romantic encounters became a chance to role play at film noir. I honed in on every micro expression, read between the lines, and saw sagas in the subtext, and whenever I spotted a femme fatale in librarian’s clothing I’d show her my “evidence.” Oh how my psychic Sherlock loved to show off.

Long story short, my time role playing as a detective did not go well. Unlike the characters I most admired I was not quick whited, I was quick to assumptions, quick to anger, but I wasn’t that clever. I never solved my partner’s grand deceptions so much as I gave them a good reason to move on. My story became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Long point made short: people are terrible mind readers. When we assign motivations to one another’s actions we’re almost always wrong. Storytellers who spend their days empathizing with fictitious figures run the risk of doing this to their partners.

Want to know what someone is really thinking? Ask them.

Our imaginations have a tendency to buzz on when its inconvenient. We replay scenes in our heads adding drama upon each retelling. We elevate the conflict in the present and raise the stakes when we fear new situations.

People have always told me I think too much. I’m just now realizing that what they mean is I think too much about things outside of my control. I’m slowly learning that that’s a great way to turn observations into problems. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to take things at face value.

Storytelling Can Amplify Your Ailments

I think the line between fantasy and reality blurs in very subtle ways, ways that we writers have a hard time catching. For those of us who’ve been telling ourselves stories about all our failings we need to learn to make some revisions so that we can better live in the moment.

When we’re in the throes of depression we forget the long periods of time when we were doing fine. We need to remember that painful urgency in our gut hasn’t always been there, and that it will pass.

We need to recognize that emotional memories link to one another as a kind of neurotic mnemonic. That’s why when we feel humiliated we find ourselves hard pressed to think of a time when we didn’t feel like that. We tell ourselves a story that our lives were nothing but a series of embarrassments.

We need to acknowledge that this is a fiction, one that edits out all of our success, to play better upon our heartstrings.

We need to learn to leave that shit on the page where it belongs.

Continue reading The Dangers of Being a Storyteller

The Depression on My Shoulder

Depression has been a pressing issue on the news these days, with newscasters talking about mental illness like outside observers, despite the fact that 1 out of 4 people experience some form of it in their lifetimes. I won’t claim to have insight on the individuals they’re discussing, I can’t tell you what Robin Williams was thinking, but I can offer a metaphor to explain why some of us don’t come forward.

Allow me to borrow a plot line from an episode of The Twilight Zone.

There's a gremlin on my wing.
There’s a gremlin on my wing.

There’s a gremlin on my wing, pulling out the systems I need to function. He’s dug beneath my skin, undermining my self-esteem. He’s ripping out memories I have no need to see, bringing things to the surface I’d prefer to leave buried.

Whenever I venture outside of my comfort zone, he tampers with my fuel gage, convincing me I don’t have what it takes to go the distance. Whenever I get off to a flying start, he tinkers with my propeller, convincing me I’ll crash and burn the longer I keep talking. Whenever I’m riding high on possibilities, he brings me down to sputter out, crashing on my pillowcase alone.

Between my neckline and my clavicle he’s dug his claws in, a hijacker issuing demands. He’s got me in a holding pattern and I can’t seem to shake him. He wants to go south with the conversation. He wants to go nowhere fast. He wants to go crazy. He’s my first class saboteur, my snark passenger, my very important burden. He’s a collar crawler, a nightmare at five-foot-four, the Depression on my shoulder.

He puts new acquaintances on standby, when I actually have the time for them. He leaves copilots out on the tarmac, when I could use some direction. He cuts off my support systems, when I could use help navigating the turbulence. His no fly list is ever expanding, banning ex-room mates, ex-coworkers, and ex-girl friends from getting anywhere near his captain.

Waving his security wand, Depression scrutinizes everyone. He finds contraband in the form of narcissistic tendencies, codependency, and disloyalty. He uses x-rays to detect second faces. He performs cavity searches of micro-expressions.

He says, “We’ve already got too much baggage. As it stands, this craft is only equip for fair weather. These people will just bring us down. We have to fly solo until it’s safe to start letting people in.”

I want to offer my friends a shoulder to cry on, but its occupied at the moment. I want to offer a sympathetic ear, but someone’s whispering into it. I want to offer stability, but my rudder is off balance.

Marking up the flight maps with negative associations, Depression says, “The girl who stood you up goes to that coffee shop, now it’s in a no fly zone, so is the club that wouldn’t take your card, and the bar that made you feel your age. Oh, and don’t bother going home for Christmas, that whole area is in hostile airspace.”

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.
Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

Bad News Flies First Class 

Bad news travels at supersonic speeds. It’s Depression’s fuel, it’s his inflight entertainment. It’s what he’s got up on all of my instruments. The displays play an in memoriam montage without end. There go beloved childhood icons, actors, and musicians in their prime. There go fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. There go captains who took directions from their gremlins.

Depression stares at me from the aisle, with a microphone wrapped around his fingers, his face set aglow by a backseat screen.

“This is your Depression speaking, please turn on all cell phones and automatic devices. Then get on social media, because tragedy is trending. To your left you’ll see an ongoing story that will make you feel like you’re losing your faith in humanity, and to your right you’ll see comments that will help you lose it completely.”

The world is in chaos. There are so many headlines stacked up on the window, I can’t see the horizon. I’m internalizing the external, flying blind. It’s not that Depression lies, it’s that it isn’t very well informed. It senses patterns in limited information, then speculates with confidence. It finds scary stories to reinforce its suspicions, then emerges emboldened.

Depression booms over the speakers, “According to the radar it isn’t safe to land anywhere. The ice caps are melting. The runways are flooding, and people are rioting. They’re invading everywhere. They’re shooting planes right out of the sky. It’s open season on anyone with a pilot’s license.”

He walks down the cabin, pulling things out of the overhead compartments: unfinished screenplays, lyrics I never sang to girlfriends, and manuscripts I never had the courage to send. Depression performs a one man show for his captive audience, mixing and matching lines from what he’s found.

He’s got me facing the wrong direction.

I make my way for the dining trays, chowing down on whatever’s around. Whether it’s  cheese slices straight from the wrapper, pepperonis from the bag, or Ben & Jerry’s, the in-flight meal is always my feelings.

3. Flicking the little bastard off

Depression at 20,000 Feet

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

He says, “If you were any kind of pilot, we’d be there already. Instead we’re lost in the storm.”

I grip the controls a little tighter. “Sometimes the only way out is through.”

Depression grunts. “Or in circles, apparently. How’s that tailspin working out for you?”

He’s the peanut gallery I carry with me. My own private Friars Club. My personal heckler. He’s a passive aggressive parasite, a bullying barnacle, a foot on the coattails of my ego. He’s the alpha male dominating the conversation, the monkey stabbing me in the back, the jockey that’s riding me.

His stigma allows him to get away with his destruction. No one else sees him, because no one is looking.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because sometimes there’s no sign of him. Sometimes I forget, there was ever turbulence. I keep the truth buried in my black box.

My friends might not see him, but whenever I examine myself his big ugly mug is staring right at me. I’m afraid to call attention to the damage he’s done, for fear I’ll run out of places to land.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because whoever’s listening might bind my hands, giving Depression free rein to pull me apart in silence.

I want to shine a light on him, to hit him with the flare gun, I just don’t want to lose cabin pressure in the process.

I’ve learned to live with him, to adjust for the added weight, to divert energy into other systems, to compensate. The things that come easily for others, take more fuel than you might expect for me. The things others do to stave off boredom, I do just to keep myself functioning. The things others think are routine, I do with all of my engines firing.

He’s the reason it’s not so easy to straighten up and fly right, to man up and snap myself out of it. My Depression, my gremlin, my stigmatized stowaway.

There’s something on my wing. You might not see it, but I assure you, it’s out there.