Creativity and imagination are humanity’s greatest strength.
The ability to visualize ways to make life better enabled us to harness fire, invent the wheel, and go to the moon.
For fiction writers, imagination is our bread-and-butter. It’s the superpower we use to create worlds where Knights of the Round Table become immortal vampires, or pretty baristas win the love of billionaires.
Unfortunately, imagination also has a dark side. It can easily torment us with visions of all the ways our lives can go horribly wrong.
I suspect this started out as a survival characteristic. When Baby Ug was playing on the edge of a cliff, his mother’s ability to imagine him plunging to his death probably drove her to snatch him to safety. This, in turn, allowed Ug to survive to pass on his mother’s creative neurosis to future generation of Ugs.
Which is probably where we came by our imagination to begin with.
Yes, we owe going to the moon to generations of helicopter mothers who flew long before helicopters had even been invented.
But for writers, that kind of creativity can become a trap.
That’s particularly true now, when disease, unemployment, and frustrated rage are creating an especially lethal stew. For the more creative of us, it’s easy to visualize all the ways things can get even worse.
Don’t let yourself get sucked into that undertow. Believe me when I say it doesn’t end well. Twenty-four years ago, I got caught up in one of those violent storms of toxic imagination, and it almost killed me.
I had spent the previous two years working for an abusive boss. For the first year or so, it seemed like my dream job, but as time went on she grew so hypercritical I started making stupid mistakes that inspired her to even more verbal abuse. Finally, even as I slid into a clinical depression, I quit.
It was then that the anxiety storm began. I grew obsessed with imagining horrific scenarios that could destroy my family. I knew none of it was logical, but the catastrophizing became a compulsion that consumed my life. I vividly remember feeling as if I was being swallowed by a giant snake that was digesting me alive.
That’s what people don’t understand about suicidal depression.
It’s not so much that you want to die, as that death begins to seem the only way you can avoid losing any more of yourself.
On Father’s Day of 1996, after six months of fighting depression, I crawled into the closet, took out my husband’s gun, and put it to my head.
Luckily, I heard my 11-year-old son playing in the other room. We were alone, and I knew if I pulled the trigger, he’d be the one to find me. I also knew that the children of suicides are three times more likely to commit suicide. I put the gun down.
The next thing I knew, it was back against my temple again. I didn’t remember picking it up. It was just there.
I knew then I had to have help.
I told my husband what I had done, and he made sure I got treatment. I was admitted to the hospital the next day and spent the next week in treatment.
But recovery wasn’t as easy as all that. I fought clinical depression and anxiety for the next decade. In the process, I discovered techniques I still use when the dark side of creativity starts taking hold.
One is exercise.
When anxiety is particularly bad, a hard workout seems to burn off the adrenalin and help me calm down. I started with a half hour on the treadmill, but I’m up to a daily three-mile ninety-minute hike now around the neighborhood. The sunshine and birdsong lift my mood, and the vitamin D from sun exposure doesn’t hurt either.
Another is doing something creative.
When I get sucked into an anxiety storm, it’s best to give my imagination something else to chew on than whatever catastrophe I’m worried about. For me, the most effective distraction is writing or art. Art works best, because it focuses my mind on something nonverbal that takes intense concentration.
I’ve also found discussing my fears with other people helps.
My husband, in particular, has kept me flying level for 34 years now.
Other useful distractions include reading, listening to audio books and going to the movies, the louder and more outrageous the better.
If the anxiety gets particularly bad, I talk to my doctor.
When your brain chemistry is really screwed up, it takes medication to rebalance it. There’s no shame in using antidepressants, any more than it’s shameful for a diabetic to take insulin.
But whatever techniques I use, all the work, all the effort, all the sweat has been worthwhile.
Because I did not pull the trigger 24 years ago, I went on to write more than 50 novels, novellas and short stories, many of them with a major publisher. I won awards and made the New York Times list.
But most of all, I did not destroy the lives of my son, my husband, and my family. I lived to see my son grow up, and I didn’t leave him with horrific mental scars.
Yes, dealing with anxiety and depression can be a hard, exhausting fight, especially when times are as frightening as they are now.
But it’s a fight worth winning.
If you’re struggling, here are some helpful resources.
If you are in crisis now, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
You’re also welcome to reach out to me on my personal Facebook page, where I maintain a daily presence.
I’ve been there, and I’m always willing to talk.