Filling the Abyss With Words: Writing and Mental Illness

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The first reason I wrote a book was that I wanted what everyone wants, to connect to others in some meaningful way when I could not bear to do so directly.

Having a psychotic break is a profoundly isolating experience. You become the center of a universe around which all beings and objects rotate in a dangerous orbit — now on a fiery collision course, now so far away that their existence can only be implied through abstract calculation. The meaning of insignificant things — the label on a mattress, the beep of a stranger’s electronics — swells like a cancer in your mind, while things that you once loved seem drained of their essence. Your consciousness itself may fracture so that other entities seem to speak from inside you, and the fragile thing you call self is lost in a rioting crowd.

Often, the experiences of mental illness imply not a deficit of humanity, but an excess of the things that separate us from all other kinds of life. Our ability to think in symbols turns against us; we imagine horrible futures or return to the scene of every injustice, trapped by our ability to project our minds outside their current time and space.

It’s no surprise that many people with mental illness are writers, given that these tendencies are also precisely what one needs to create poetry or prose. But is this kind of expression good for us? Authors are full of words about how writing is heaven (“Every word written is a victory against death.” — Michel Butor) and writing is hell (“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” — Red Smith). Having turned to Buddhist philosophy for guidance, I was struck by the fact that meditation, proven by ancient wisdom and modern science to reduce all kinds of mental and physical ills, consists essentially in emptying the mind of words and narratives.

I think that writing is another way of draining a vessel that has become too full, while also filling something that was previously empty. In comparison with Zen mindfulness, the same balance exists, but in a more active form. When I started writing Demons in the Age of Light , I could barely look people in the eye while mumbling a few words. I had a lot to say, but I didn’t have the means to express it through direct communication. Writing to some hypothetical audience seemed far more possible than carrying on a conversation with an old friend. In time this changed, but putting my story on paper was a way to not be completely alone in my head.

The second reason I wrote Demons in the Age of Light was that I needed to interpret my own experience. Events do not occur with a prepackaged set of object lessons attached to them — we have to work to find the sense in even ordinary experiences. When your senses themselves can’t be trusted, it becomes far more difficult to decide what you believe about the world and why, or even to remember what you did on a given day, who you talked to, or if the world might end tomorrow because of something you’ve done. If you write about your life, then by necessity you trap it under glass.

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Writers often use the uncertainty principle in quantum physics as a metaphor for the equivocal nature of reality. Is the cat in the box alive? Is it dead? Nobody knows until they look, and the result may depend on who is observing. People like to believe they exist in a linear world in which there is a Truth that can be discovered through Science and Reason, but the closer we look at the fabric of the universe, the more we realize that this universal truth bears more in common with dreams and poetry than machinery behaving in a predictable way. While most facets of our life are content to follow rules of cause and effect, acts of creativity seem to exist outside this realm. They seem more easily explained by the chaotic seething of quantum foam than by the indifferent dance of atoms in a perfectly choreographed universe. Whatever part the unknowable thing called ‘spirit’ plays in our lives, the quantum world seems likely to be the physical realm through which it may one day concede to be measured or defined.

People with mental illness, and psychosis in particular, seem to have found themselves in direct contact with the uncertainty that pervades our universe. We see the arbitrary nature of the first principles that most people can and must take for granted in their lives. Writing and art are a synthesis of the chaos of the unknowable and the comfort of the real. We take what is not, and make it. In few other disciplines can so much be created from so little. Our words may not heal our wounds, but they will almost certainly leave us transformed.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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