Columns > Published on November 19th, 2013

Writing: An Outlet For Psychosis

Thanks to some excellent articles on mental health from LitReactor's own Nathan Scalia and Robbie Blair, I finally feel both comfortable and inspired enough to discuss how writing has helped me through my struggle with psychosis. For anyone unfamiliar with that word, it's a fancy medical term for being crazy. To grossly oversimplify a very complex thing, the psychotic has difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. It can range from hearing voices whispering paranoid nothings in your ear and seeing the occasional hallucination to full blown delusions, and it's part of the package deal with any number of mental disorders. Unlike all the doctors in movies and on TV would have us hope, there is no cure. You can manage it with treatment and drugs like diabetes, but even if you do everything perfectly, it will still flare up on occasion. Sometimes you'll still see that faceless silver man following you, or wake up certain that you are the Dragon King of Mars and it is your destiny to burn the moon to ash, and nothing but woe awaits all who dare oppose you.

When the majority of your waking life is spent holding back a gushing torrent of psychotic thoughts, it can be quite cathartic to find a safe place to let it all out.

It's difficult to describe the sensation of being psychotic without sounding like you're telling some weird joke with no punchline, but I’ll try. Imagine you’re trying to read a novel, something hefty like War & Peace, in a room surrounded by seventy televisions. All of them are on at full volume, each on a different channel, showing everything from cartoons to C-SPAN. There is also a jukebox with a disjointed playlist of everything running in the background, sometimes switching tracks in the middle of a song, or experiencing a glitch where two songs play at once. While you’re trying to take that all in, you will be intermittently interrupted by people who will ask you detailed questions about what is going on in any one of the various stimuli assaulting you, or sometimes give you extraneous bits of information with no context. So much is going on in that tiny little room, and there is no way to sort out what is more important. After a while, it all starts to blend together. The crux is this: despite being a rational, intelligent person most of the time, you will often have thoughts and say and do things so ludicrous that when your friends and loved ones tell you about it later you won’t believe anyone ever did that, let alone yourself. But then you look down at the fifty stitches holding your arm together and vaguely remember being utterly convinced that you had been replaced with a robot duplicate of yourself, and of course there was only one way to expose the truth.  

That brings us to the toughest part of psychosis, the lucid periods. Those times when you are able to completely understand just how crazy you are, and how utterly powerless you are against it. Mental illness is very isolating; few other things can make you feel more alone than being surrounded by people you can’t connect to in any way. We still know barely anything about it, which makes it difficult for the unafflicted to understand and sympathize. Most people will be afraid of you, or at best treat you like a broken toy. They will wonder why you don’t just ignore those pesky hallucinations like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, not realizing that the organ that would allow you to discern what to ignore is exactly what’s impaired. And if you bother to explain that (you really shouldn’t) they will ask why you don’t just take whatever magic pill Dr. House is prescribing this week.

It is in these lonely moments of sanity that writing has proven to be an invaluable coping mechanism. When the majority of your waking life is spent holding back a gushing torrent of psychotic thoughts, it can be quite cathartic to find a safe place to let it all out. I sit down with a pen and take the leash off the crazy, let it run wild, so it can commit its surreal travesties and unspeakable acts across the pages until it finally tuckers itself out. And after my inner psycho has finally curled up and slipped into a sweat-drenched sleep, my rational self can return to these mad scribblings and mine them for fragments of stories waiting to be rewritten. On those difficult nights when it’s hard to be sure you're not really a sleeper agent from Hell sent to tilt the world into chaos, it can be comforting to see your madness so securely imprisoned behind paper and ink. Somehow seeing the insanity rendered in this tangible form reassures me that it's all in my head. By turning it into a story that might inspire or even entertain somebody, I not only take back a measure of control from the psychosis, but I have a chance to connect with another human being and possibly help them understand a fragment of myself, which is kind of what writing is all about. It’s a small victory, but just enough to convince me to keep fighting. If you’ve got a lifetime of demons to slay, the pen is truly mightier.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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