52 Weeks of Writing: Week 33—Let's Talk About Writer's Block and Mental Health

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 33—Let's Talk About Writer's Block and Mental Health
Photo by John Moeses Bauan / Unsplash

My god, it's week 33. How did we get here? It's been thirty-three whole weeks, and in that time I've written two halves of two different books and not done the original editing I was planning to do at all.

This isn't one of those "Show up and hustle for your worth"-type stories. It's more a confusing meander through a year, but when you hit your mid-forties, a lot of years are like that. I'm not a specific age any more, I'm an age bracket. I'm a shrug and say "mid-forties" in response to queries about my age.

This week I'm going to be absolutely honest with you and say it's been tough. Instead of editing the original versions of the original Amnar series like a grown-up who has their life figured out, what I'm doing is encountering all the trauma around what happened twenty years ago and trying to get to the other side so I like writing again.

So this isn't going to be a sensible account of one person editing a novel or series of novels. It's more like getting lost in the woods at night and thinking you're being followed for a really long time but then figuring out that, in actual fact, it's just a tree.

I don't especially like writing about trauma because who does. It's a word that gets thrown around such a lot these days the lines are blurred. "I got PTSD when I saw the deadline was tomorrow," one of my students said. As a person who's actually had PTSD, with all the nightmares and flashbacks and sensory overload, I was not impressed.

We need more words to describe the spectrum of experiences between "this was a bit of a jumpscare for me" and "this wrecked my life so hard I'm now on three different types of medication and I can't leave the house without help."

I also don't want to trauma-dump, because I have a therapist who's great and it's her job to listen to me trauma-dump there. It's no good writing out the experiences because I've done that a hundred times and who wants to read that over and over again. If you want to, I am adding some of the journals I wrote to my therapist on Medium and I'm thinking of putting them up here behind a paywall. Is that interesting to you?

Anyway, instead of re-hashing the trauma let's talk about how I worked with my nervous system this week to get out of writer's block. I see a million billion posts on how to get through writer's block but none of them deal with nervous systems, so I feel like maybe I have a niche here.

For me, at least, not being able to write—and here I mean fiction specifically, I'm still vomiting out words for my journal—is about the nervous system. It's about not wanting to go to a place that might trigger memories or emotions that hurt, that I don't want to feel.

I spend a lot of time detuning myself from real life because my nervous system spent such a long time being overwhelmed it very much would like a rest from all of that. I spent the first portion of this week detuned, like snow on an old TV (remember when that was a thing?) or the roar between radio stations.

Yes, totally tuned out because it got too much. This is entirely my own doing. I was aware of struggling, and made myself struggle more by watching a very good psychiatrist YouTuber and streamer discussing trauma in such a way that I started to automatically work through triggers.

This isn't... smart. Or at least, it's tricky, because as an adult, you have to somehow schedule out time for your mental health to suck. Life carries on. You can't press a pause button on work, or paying bills, or having a partner and a cat who needs feeding. I wanted to, I really did. I wanted to check out. But I also wanted to use the need to keep going as a way to dissociate from what I was feeling.

I stopped writing. For three whole days. It was a tricky weekend because T was away, but then we had a guest on Monday and Tuesday staying at the house. T was out working, I was working, and there was this third person around doing things. I was trying very hard to be a person. You know, a regular person who can have conversations.

I don't think I did very well at this. In a fit of dissociation, I began obsessively working on a long-term creative project that involves building a miniature Moomin House and all the furniture. I get a package every month with packs to build things, and they've been piling up. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, all I did was build minute furniture and accidentally glue my fingers to surfaces.

I've included pictures so you can see evidence of this unfolding work.

Photo of a circular house with spiral staircase.
A whole section of the Moomin House
A tiny kitchen dresser sitting on a green crafting mat.
A tiny kitchen dresser.

It's fun, it really is, but it's also me checking out emotionally. I made poor choices. Instead of taking a recovery nap on Monday I pushed through, obsessively sanding, gluing, and painting different tiny objects. The sense of achievement of a morning battling to fit the ceiling and walls and floor of the ground floor area together was immense. It's been eight months! Eight months and I have three rooms, a staircase, and a basement with a working storage drawer.

A circular basement with a drawer opened with a small red watering can.
The basement section.

I'm so impressed.

Meanwhile, Amnar languishes and I don't want to touch it because it's like sticking my finger in a raw and open wound.

Instead, I faff around. I futz with the bathroom, cleaning up, I cook, I come up with excuses why I can't write just now. I need to go for a run. I need to do some editing and earn some money.

I became suddenly and immensely obsessed with running shoes. This is always a bad sign. All my old running shoes need to be replaced, so I fixated on that. I got the wrong shoes and had to do the hardest thing in the world for somebody with my specific brain construction: I had to return an item in the post.

I figured out from watching the psychiatrist on YouTube that this was a nervous system thing. It helps to be told it's physical. I don't know why, but it does. As long as it's a mental thing, it feels amorphous, too big to isolate. I know I'm trying not to remember specific details from my past, and I avoid anything to do with remembering that.

This week, that was Amnar. It's been Amnar for a long time, if I'm honest.

OK. It's been Amnar for eighteen years. Two good years from 2003 to 2005, and then I didn't want to go anywhere near it because something super heartbreaking happened and I was stuck.

I haven't acknowledged that. I've had a lot of times when I haven't wanted to update on Friday and I've avoided the Friday post and I've fought with myself over squeezing some decent words out of my head. Updates probably reflect that in terms of tone and quality.

It's all about the nervous system, y'all.

I spent a lot of time doing body scan meditations. I don't do them well at all. I pay attention for about a minute and then I'm gone. I couldn't even tell you what I focus on for those missing minutes but they're gone. I hear "rest your attention on your head" and then it's "and, finally, your toes".

What happened in between? I don't know.

Still, I kept doing them. I kept writing journals to my therapist so spare a thought for her, if you can. Send her love and hope because this week she had to deal with not one, not two, but three or even four entries from me. She says she likes them and they're like an amazing story she's following, but I'm not sure how to take that.

The most frustrating thing about a mental health journey is that you can't just do the journal or the mental health thing once, you have to keep doing it, over and over again.

Below is one of my favourite memes, the one about dieting. I need a version that's for mental health. "When you've been working on your mental health for two hours and you're still not 'cured'."

All the trained therapists reading this, yes I know there's no such thing as 'cured' or 'fixed' or whatever. But that's how you want to feel as you meditate and talk and write your way through all of this.

Now, I don't want to turn this into a "use meditation to break free of your writer's block!" because life is never as simple as that. I've spent most of my life desperately wishing it was, let me tell you that, but it's not. I carried around a bucket of shame for the whole week because I'd look at my WriteTrack page and see those empty days with no writing and be really annoyed with myself.

On Wednesday, the house was empty. No guests, enough work and done early. T spent the evening with a friend playing guitar. No reason not to write. Except I had a headache. Of course! A headache. T has a cold right now, and I've been worried I'm going to get it too. A headache all the way from my back up into the side of my head.

Ugh. Plus, I'd promised T I'd get him some paracetamol. These are all excuses, of course. I kept opening up the chapter, gazing at it, and then abandoning it. Suddenly, I'd have something else to do. I did all the chores. I mean, all of them. The chores were done. I ran out of excuses.

And yet, at some point, I did manage to write. I only had a tiny goal—around 350 words—and that's all I wrote. I'm in the middle of a scene, an action scene; they're so difficult to do anyway, planning what's happening and managing characters having reactions, making decisions, changing their lives.

But I did it. I sat down and I wrote the barest minimum. The only thing I can say in terms of learning from this is that as annoyed as I was that I wasn't writing, I didn't set "I've got to get writing 1000 words a day!" as a goal. In fact, I loosened up my goals for writing. After all, the world doesn't end if I don't finish the book on a particular day.

I kept meditating, and I kept doing these little body scans, noticing that I struggle with it, but keep going. Writing came back. I've managed to write, with these small goals, since then.

This won't be my last dip. I'm sure it'll happen again. But this week, I was able to get through it.