The Old Man and Me: Writing myself whole

(Content note for discussion of mental illness)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in a state of thesis-induced hermitude. Last Friday, I finished what I hope will be the final rewrite, sent it off to my supervisors – and then sat back down at my laptop, opened a file called The Shadows, and started writing.

The Shadows is the sequel to Spider Circus, and is the second novel I ever finished writing (the first will never see the light of day, because it is awful, just awful). There are a lot of changes that need to be made following Spider Circus, so it needs one heck of a rewrite, and I’ll do a proper blog about it another time. This post isn’t about The Shadows per se. Instead, I’m going to live the cliché, and be a writer writing about writing.

Finishing off my thesis was even more stressful than I had expected, and it was manifesting in some pretty weird ways. My PCOS was acting up, my skin was breaking out, and the previous Friday, I’d had to call in sick to work because I was too tired to move. I’d peppered my Facebook page with plaintive cries of despair, including this rather melodramatic gem:

“I don’t think I’ve EVER been this stressed out. It’s very weird – my brain feels fine (I’m used to my brain going into overthinking spirals when my anxiety is playing up, and it isn’t, so that’s a relief) – but physically, I feel like a wreck. I’m completely exhausted – I feel like I’ve done a solid week of hard exercise, but actually I’ve just been sitting around on my arse typing stuff. I haven’t felt this bad physically since just before my PCOS diagnosis (tbh, the fact that I’ve had a flare-up might be connected or contributing to all of this).

When I was swimming really regularly, I used to be able to do a length and a half underwater. I feel like I did when I was doing that and reached the point where my breath was burning in my lungs and every inch of my body was screaming out for oxygen. I still love my subject, I still love research – but dammit, I want to be able to breathe again.”

(Told you it was melodramatic).

Writing a thesis is exhausting. Writing a novel, though, something that isn’t all that much shorter than a thesis…that’s a very different matter. Within minutes of starting work on The Shadows, I felt my energy flowing back, my muscles relaxing, my stomach unknotting. I skipped between Shadows and Sigyn (the other book I’m working on, inspired by my weird fangirlism of Loki in all of his incarnations), and by the end of the evening, I felt like me again.

This, more than anything else, is why I write – because writing makes me me. It took me a long while to realise (I can be rather slow on the uptake at times), but for me, writing is inextricably linked to my mental health – just not in the way you might expect. The stereotype of the ‘tortured artist’ is a common one, and I do know some people in real life who can’t write or paint or compose when they’re in a good place mentally, and whatever treatment they’re using is working. For me, though, writing is the treatment.

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for many, many years. The feelings began before I was a teenager, sneaking in alongside puberty. I’m 100% sure that the root cause of my mental illness is entirely hormonal. My body has been playing gynaecology bingo with me since I was fourteen; as well as PCOS, I’ve had endometriosis and adenomyosis, and the accompanying hormone imbalances played havoc with my emotions as well as my body. Unfortunately, the fact that it all began at such a young age means that it played a major role in shaping my personality. I may have got the physical illness under control (most of the time, anyway), but all those years of wild mood swings and hating my body, my thoughts and my uncontrollable feelings meant that I built a sense of self-esteem that was closer to a shack than a skyscraper. Raging at your defective body can translate very easily to raging at your defective self. By the time I finally got a diagnosis and some help for the physical illnesses, the mental illness had dug its claws deep into my life, and it wasn’t letting go.

I don’t know if it will ever let go. Living with depression and anxiety is like the Sinbad story with the Old Man of the Sea. I’ve tried, and I’m still trying, to get it off my back. Sometimes I’ve thought that I’ve succeeded, only to realise a little while later that no, it’s still there. I’ve put off writing about my mental illness for a long time, telling myself “I’ll write something when I’m fixed, so the story has an end!”; but, after many years, I’ve realised that it might be even more like my PCOS than I’d previously thought – it might be something that isn’t going to go away, isn’t going to end, and I have to deal with that. And, generally, I am dealing with it. Over the years, I’ve got strong enough that, most of the time, I can carry my personal Old Man without the weight dragging me down.

Writing lifts the weight so I can hardly feel it’s there. Even now, I’m not completely sure why. It’s partly because writing takes me out of my head – or rather, into different parts of my head. These are the more interesting and exciting parts, the parts that aren’t devoted to focusing on all the things that the Old Man whispers in my ear – my flaws, my mistakes, what a loathsome and unlovable person I am. (On good days, I know that the Old Man is full of crap, but on bad days, he can make a very compelling argument). Instead of going over and over a conversation that went wrong, or a mean thing I might have said or done, or all the ways I could have hurt someone today, I go and wander the worlds, follow my characters and write down their adventures as they happen. It’s easy to forget the day’s embarrassment when you’re crouched behind a rock with your heroine, watching her watching dragons.

Another reason – and I feel really squirmy about writing this, thanks to the Old Man doing a number on my self-esteem – is because I’m good at it. I’ve written my fair share of rubbish, but I’ve put in the ten thousand hours it supposedly takes to get good at something, and I know that, when all’s said and done, I can write. That’s not to say my stories are always perfect, or that I’ve learned all I need to know and I don’t need to improve. I want to always keep learning and keep improving. But I’m still pretty damn happy with the stories I’m writing now.

And then, there’s a reason that I only realised today. Writing makes me me, helps me lift the depression, because I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Ever since I could write, I’ve been writing stories, or poems, or plays (and then forcing everyone around me to act them out). And, although I was a quiet little girl, I was secure in who I was and what I wanted from my life.

Writing is a reminder of who I was, linking me back to the time before the Old Man took his place on my back and I had to start carrying him around. It’s not just nostalgia; it’s reconnection. Depression pushes that little girl away into history. Writing brings her back, and she becomes a solid foundation for the person I am. Depression empties me out, sets me on shaky ground; writing steadies me and makes me whole again.

It’s not just writing, of course. I’ve had CBT, which helped, and I’m on medication for the PCOS and the depression, which keeps my hormones more or less in balance. I’m lucky enough to have some truly wonderful people making up my family and friends – especially my close family and my best friend, who, like the writing, link me back to who I was before the illnesses (as well as just being generally fantastic). I try to face my flaws, and either change or accept them – it’s a long, difficult process, but I’m making some headway. But, I’m a writer, and I wanted to write about writing and what it means to me, and particularly about how it helps. This is why so many of my characters deal with depression – because that’s often where I’m writing from. The feeling that the dimensionals get when they’ve been stuck in a world for too long is a thinly-veiled metaphor for my own frustration at the traps my mind has set for me. I didn’t realise this until I’d written it (again, I can be a little slow on the uptake), but it’s true. And there’s something quite cathartic about using the depression as inspiration in my writing. It’s caused me enough problems over the years – it’s very satisfying to finally make it work for me. It’s like I’m making the Old Man pay his rent.

Of course, if I do ever beat the depression and anxiety for good, I won’t stop writing. Like I said, I was writing long before I got ill, so there’s no reason I wouldn’t carry on after I recovered. But, for now, I’m going to keep going forwards, writing as much and as well as I can.

Maybe I’ll skip as I go. I’m not going to give the Old Man an easy ride.


Spider Circus is available to download from Smashwords and Amazon. Alice’s short stories can be found here. She also has two webcomics, Footloose and Cherry, co-created with the awesome Emily Brady. Ally is also on Facebook and Twitter (be warned – the latter contains quasi-stream-of-consciousness posts and lots of tweets about food).


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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One Response to The Old Man and Me: Writing myself whole

  1. Pingback: Robin Williams | Spider Circus (and other stories)

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