Mental Health

When your mental health takes a nosedive

Photo by Chris Loomis.

The past month has been a special version of Hell. I seriously injured a rib while helping my neighbor move a heavy chair. I knew the moment it happened that I was in trouble. When you feel something inside you go *pop*, reassess all your life decisions.

The pain spread from my rib to my back to my neck. I no longer slept through the night. I woke up at 2 AM and cussed at my TV for hours. I wandered through my days like an angry zombie … but I didn’t eat human brains. I didn’t eat anything, because OH, HELLO DEPRESSION! I WAS WONDERING WHEN YOU’D SHOW UP AGAIN!

As most of you know, I’ve suffered from depression since I was fourteen. This is nothing new. It reached its climax … valley … I don’t know which metaphor to use … when I lived in Phoenix and took some pills and drank some vodka and, oops, emergency trip home to stay with my parents.

Ohio has been a revelation for my mental health, possibly because I’ve come to realize I actually dislike sunshine and love rain and snow. I also love the small town lifestyle. I signed my first book deal here for the Bite Somebody series, and I have  my family nearby. All these things put depression in the rearview mirror. But now, thanks to some unfortunate life circumstances and a rib injury, it’s back.

What do I do when my mental health takes a nosedive?
1. Hide in my house.
2. Drink gin.
3. Read Sherlock fan fiction.
4. Stop writing.
5. Stop eating.
6. Stop smiling.
7. Reconsider medication.

I haven’t been on antidepressants in over three years, and weaning off of them last time scared the bejeezus out of me. Am I at the point where it’s time to revisit medication? Well, that’s still up for debate, but as my friend put it last week, “At least you can acknowledge when you need help.” Many people with mental illness seem incapable of reaching out for help. They wander through life in a sort of denial haze telling themselves they’ll get better, they’ll get better, when they actually need support.

Photo by Chris Loomis.

Medication isn’t the only answer, of course. There’s therapy and exercise and dietary changes and getting rid of alcohol (a HUGE depressant). There are any number of treatments for mental illness, but so many people don’t even want to admit they have a problem in the first place.

It’s been a long time since I had a “problem,” but that doesn’t mean I’m depression free. Whenever I speak about depression, I make it damn clear that there is no cure. You don’t just get kicked in the head by a horse and feel all better. Depression is a lifelong battle with peaks and valleys (see, I can use metaphors). I’ve been lucky to be on a peak for a long time, but now, I’m visiting the valley … and that’s what this is, a visit. I won’t be building a house here anytime soon.

It has been a month since my unfortunate *popping* incident. Two weeks ago, I wanted to cut for the first time in years. I saw my doctor and promised not to cut myself and spent a week on Effexor before its side effects freaked me out. I went to the gym today for the first time since my injury. I stared at Benedict Cumberbatch giggle gifs on Tumblr and watched the entirety of Yuri On Ice all over again. I’ve been talking again, too, smiling again, and I’m working on eating. Oh, I’m even sleeping again, and nightmares notwithstanding, it’s good. It’s all good.

I’m climbing out of the valley, slowly, but this has been an important and eye-opening reminder that mental illness is indeed the monster under your bed. It waits and it waits, until it grabs you by the ankle one morning and says, “You didn’t think I’d gone, did you?”

We need to take care of ourselves, mental illness or not. We also need to admit when we need help. See doctors. See friends. See God. When your mental health takes a nosedive, know that you are not alone. We all have bad days, weeks, months … Please don’t fight the fight by yourself. When you’re depressed, find the thing that makes you happy and surround yourself with that thing, even if it’s a good book. Even if it’s the sound of rain. Even if it’s ice cream. I’m clawing my way out of the pit. So can you.

Charleston · Mental Health · Sara Dobie Bauer · Writing

Light and Scales: Freaky Friday Fiction

There are people out there who would have you believe love cures mental illness. Find the right guy or girl, and your depression will go away. Your monsters will go away. Fact is, no one can heal you but YOU. Be wary of thinking otherwise …

Light and Scales (Excerpt)
by Sara Dobie Bauer
Featured in Twisted Sister Magazine

You meet him your second day in Charleston. More so, perhaps, you meet his violin. He’s wearing a suit you imagine cost as much as a car. As he speaks to you, he’s still holding his violin: a red piece of wood with scratch marks and a faded veneer. You wonder at the abuse the instrument has taken but soon think these are not marks of abuse but marks of love—of devotion.

You’re in a place called the Charleston Grill. Waiters scurry like albino beetles in white shirts and dark slacks. The restaurant smells of butter and fish but mostly butter.

After the jazz quintet finishes their last set, you find out his name is Graydon Kelly and he would like to take you to dinner. At first, you think you should say no. He has that look about him: the thorn on the rose, the sugared rim of a poisoned glass.

When he shows up to your date, though, you reassess. He’s in a pastel linen button-down and torn jeans. He has on boat shoes, and his curly black hair is a mess. He smells like pine.

“Rosin,” he explains. Something to do with his violin.

He takes your hand and leads you to a table in the courtyard. His left hand is callused against yours. Outside, winding, wrestling fig vines grow up the exterior wall, illuminated by white twinkle lights that mimic the stars. He pulls out your chair and sighs into his seat.

He must notice you looking at him, because he smiles. “I look different when I’m not on stage.”

You fall into conversation, and it’s not the usual, polite, getting to know you babble. Graydon Kelly says odd, irresponsible things like, “You seem like you’re running from something” or “You have an amazing mouth” or the worst, “What do you think of me exactly?”

You only respond to the last comment: a terse, “I’m not sure.”

He walks you home in a rainstorm, leaving you both soaked on the crooked front porch of the yellow plantation house you rent. He smells like rain and marinara sauce with the lingering touch of pine. He tastes like tiramisu.

Later, in your bed, you find him conversational. He makes himself at home. He is comfortable with pillow talk, even with an almost stranger. Again, you doubt your assessments.

He seemed so dangerous in his dark suit at Charleston Grill but so playful in his boat shoes with his messy hair: almost innocent. His comfort in your bed, though, is his tell, his admission. He does this all the time. He makes love to women he doesn’t know because they ask him to, because of his violin and his face and the strange questions he spouts over champagne.

When you ask about a white scar on his rib cage, he tells you his father used to beat him. One day, his father broke his ribs. One poked through the skin. In Graydon’s words, the bone looked like “a stick dipped in marmalade.”

His honesty makes you awkward. You feel a need to share something, too, so you tell him you’ve been diagnosed schizophrenic. He doesn’t know what this means, not really, so you explain to him that you see things sometimes—children in white light on sidewalks; grown men covered in red scales. You tell him things have been better since the medication …

Read the rest today at Twisted Sister Literary Magazine.

Mental Health · Sara Dobie Bauer · Writing

The perils of writing a character with mental illness

Photo by Chris Loomis.
Photo by Chris Loomis.

A week ago, I finished writing my third novel of the year. “Hambden” (working title) was the most difficult novel I’ve ever written. It took me a little over two months to write, but the short birthing period says very little about the emotional toil it took for me to reach The End.

The plot evolved from watching news coverage of the Paris attacks last year. Then, the attacks didn’t stop. The shootings increased. Living in Chardon, Ohio–a small town that suffered its own school shooting in 2012–kept me surrounded by red, cardboard hearts, silently commanding all of us to “Remember.”

I suppose my husband is the only person who can speak from experience about my consistent emotional breakdowns whenever I heard about some other psycho with a gun. Although he perhaps didn’t understand my hysteria, people with anxiety disorder surely do. When you’re already afraid to leave your house just because, multiply that with the fear of getting murdered by some asshole teenager with “Killer” written on his cheap, white t-shirt.

Buried beneath my anxiety and depression, an idea bloomed. Instead of ignoring what was going on in the world, I would write about it–namely, I would write about a shooting at an Ohio college, only I would write about the aftermath of the tragedy instead of the tragedy itself. How does a community rebuild? How are individuals affected?

My “individuals” (we writers call ’em “characters”) soon echoed in my head like gunshots. Meet Isaac Twain: emergency English Department hire who’s new to Hambden University and knows very little about the shooting that stole six lives the prior June. Meet John Conlon: hero teacher who stopped the shooting and desperately tries to hide how fucked up he is by being charismatic, funny, and brave.

I’m not giving anything away when I tell you surviving the school shooting messed John up big time, and, as I wrote my novel, I found it alarmingly easy to slip into his shoes day after day as he battled depression, PTSD, anxiety, and night terrors. However, what surprised me was how hard it was to take those shoes off at the end of the day.

In my past and present, I’ve battled the same demons as John Conlon. No one’s ever put a gun in my face, but depression is in my genes. A hellish job shoved me into PTSD and anxiety. My colorful imagination makes me a writer by day and sufferer of vivid, bloody dreams at night. Immersing myself in “Hambden,” in John and Isaac’s world of broken pieces, was more destructive than I’d expected.

I would never suggest we only write about happy things. I would never suggest we stop writing about mental illness. I’ve found that sharing my own mental health problems has helped my readers be open about their own–and that’s important, having that open dialogue. The more we talk about mental illness, the better we can deal with it. The more likely we are to heal. And yet, writer beware. There must be a strict delineation between the fiction you create and the life you live.

Halfway through “Hambden,” I came to the realization that writing is my job. It’s not my life (no matter what the passionate cliches on Pinterest want you to think). It is necessary for all of us to keep our work and our lives separate. Once I came to terms with that–once I made an agreement with Isaac and John that they had my mornings and life had my afternoons–I stopped feeling so comfortable in John’s sad, cold shoes. I could escape and stop thinking about the book as soon as I hit “Save” every morning.

Due to editing deadlines for next year’s Bite Somebody Else, “Hambden” will not be touched again until December. Then, I will revisit that world of violence and tragedy. Yet, even in that world, there are laughs and there is love. Writing might not be life, but sometimes, it sure does imitate it.

The “Hambden” theme song: