Why I Write: A Note From Death Row

WIW3 prison

For the past 33 years or so, I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, I’ve only know what it was for about 18 years. Prior to that, the dark hopelessness of depression was written off as being a moody kid, and the awful, ever-present feeling of anxiety in my gut was dismissively deemed an ulcer.

I was given a two-pronged prescription: 1. drink Mylanta like it’s going out of style, and 2. suck it up, buttercup.

In middle school, I started to really develop an interest in and affection for writing. But every word written was countered with crippling self-doubt and an inner critic harsher than any other. The unidentified devils of untreated anxiety and depression whispered in my ears, and I was always ready to listen.

As I got older, I insisted that there was more to it all than what the doctors were saying so dismissively. But … no. As a young adult, I was able to better advocate for myself and work with a new doctor to diagnose what was going on, and I began to deal with matters in a more appropriate way. I cheered like a maniac when an upper GI revealed a stomach that was completely ulcer-free, further confirming what I suspected.

But I was fairly narrow in my scope of understanding when it came to treating mental health, and I went with the easiest route: medication without counseling. I got better, but only insofar as the prescription allowed. About three years ago …

Look. I don’t know why I’m writing this. I had another thing planned, and here I am relating a tale that would drive even the sloshiest drunk away from the bar. Writing and mental health are on my list of future topics. But I’m going through some stuff and it’s bubbling through. Go with the flow, I guess.

Long story short …

After finally making it into counseling and learning about things like self-compassion and mindfulness and self-care (I’ll circle back to these things at a future date), I was able to write for the first time in my life without the dueling devils whispering away as they rested on my shoulders.

Correction: those devils are still whispering away, and once in a while their words still manage to get through. But now I can take those words and turn them around, find the hope secreted away inside them, continue to find my way across the minefield of an empty page. Or not. Sometimes the whispered words make a mark, and I need to walk away for a bit. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to find my way back to the notebook and the laptop after I get myself grounded and ready to move forward.

Writing is good for my mental health. Even when I’m writing about stuff I think isn’t about anxiety and depression – stuff like Bigfoot, a family of Canada geese, alternate realities – I’m untying knots and helping myself. Writing is amazing that way.

WIW3 Alan Watts
Alan Watts

A few paragraphs back, I lied. I said I didn’t know why I was writing this piece, but I do. To be fair, I didn’t realize then that I knew, but I did.

One of the amazing discoveries I’ve made on my journey of inner healing is Alan Watts. Watts (1915-1973) was a British philospher who took a psychotherapeutic approach to Buddhism and brought Eastern philosphy into the mainstream of the Western world. His work speaks to me in a way little else has, and it’s incredibly meaningful.

Anyway, I got stuck on this thing I read. Some non-advice he gave on writing. If it wasn’s so long, I’d get it tattooed on my arm:

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” 

I guess this piece was my “one last thing to say.” For a few hours, anyway.

4 thoughts on “Why I Write: A Note From Death Row

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