My Mercurial Brain

guess which is the good side and which is the bad

(not actually my brain)

My brain is mercurial. It marvels and terrifies me in turn: sometimes it works so gloriously well, and sometimes it turns on itself with such viciousness. The same brain that writes all these novels and solves all these problems and is so taken with the world around me also saddles me with anxiety and depression and crippling migraines. I have a love/hate relationship with my brain. It is fickle and tricky.

Everything about my brain—the brilliance and the pitfalls—is inherited. I come from a long line of very smart, very tortured people on both sides of my family. Big thinkers who succumbed to alcoholism thanks to recurrent depressive episodes. Curious people trapped by bipolar disorder. Creative people who stumbled under the weight of chronic headaches. All of my immediate family members—my mother, father and sister—have or had serious mental health issues just like me. My mother and sister also get migraines. The brains in my family are for all of us a curse and a blessing. Jon, too, has his own mercurial brain. He’s brilliant and funny and insightful, but he is constantly grappling with anxiety. His anxiety, like mine, seems to stem in part from genetic influence.

I think a lot about my mercurial brain and his these days as I watch my kid develop. I get a migraine and I wonder whether twenty years from now she’ll be lying in the dark whimpering in pain herself. I get an anxiety attack or spend months surviving a fresh bout of depression, and I wonder if the same thing lies in store for her.

Recently, Jon began dating a woman who suffers truly vicious migraines—ones worse than mine by a wide margin. She told him she didn’t want kids and one reason was she didn’t want to curse them with her migraines. And I understood. When I was pregnant, I thought a lot about this, about how there was little possibility of my kid skating through life with a brain that always happened to work the right way, one which was always a friend and never a foe. Did I want to subject her to this?

Internalized ableism is sneaky like that. No one wants their kid to suffer more than they have to. No one wants their kid to suffer in the ways they themselves have suffered. Noble goals, both. I still worry for her, and I still wonder whether I was right to saddle her with my kind of mercurial brain, and at the same time I marvel at just how much ableist Kool-aid I’ve drunk in my life. The truth is that no matter what the migraines would be debilitating and the mental health issues would suck when they are at their worst. But they are made so much worse by living in an ableist society.

If everyone had free access to quality health care (mental and physical) without stigma and shame attached, if space and care were given to those suffering without judgment—if, put plainly, the world wasn’t ableist—then the disabilities I live with would be infinitely more tolerable. When we blame the brains and bodies of those who suffer instead of the society that piles on the suffering, when we say that maybe those facing life as people with disabilities shouldn’t be born, that’s a hair’s breadth away from eugenics.

This is not to say that I think Jon’s lady friend is in any way wrong in her personal decision. And, honestly, given that society is so deeply ableist I still worry. But it is to say that people with disabilities will always exist. And it is to say that I had Zadie, that she exists with her ticking-time-bomb brain, and that while I worry I don’t think I have cursed her.

I can teach her all the things I learned the hard was as a person with disabilities. I can teach her the strength to survive. I can teach her how to have spine enough to advocate for herself. I can teach her to be kind enough to herself to make space to cope. I can bring her up in a household where these things are not shameful, and hopefully that foundation will be something she carries with her. I can teach her to make peace with a mercurial brain.

Meeting All The Deadlines No Matter The Cost


I am not an ambitious person. People don’t believe me when I say it, but it’s true. I don’t really care about external validation or accomplishments, but I gather them up anyway, so I can see how they’d be confused. But the truth is that I can’t help it. It’s my anxiety. I need stability, and stability comes from social and cultural capital—my ability to ape and secure a middle-class life for myself and my family—so I do what needs doing to get it.

My anxiety disorder and I are frenemies. On the one hand, the way it manifests makes it incredibly easy to pass. I am an extraordinarily productive person. I have to be doing things all the time. It’s like I have to leave a trail of created things in my wake to prove I haven’t wasted all this time I’ve spent living. I am writing this piece on the bus ride home right now. I cannot ever seem to just sit and relax like my partners can. I am, in fact, so anxious about being able to do all the things I’ve convinced myself I have to do that I’m a savant at time management. At work, I can get through in eight hours what would take colleagues of mine something closer to twelve hours. I have to, otherwise I never feel safe. Otherwise I feel like the ax is about to drop and I’ll be fired. And I’ve lived like this my entire life, so I have a hell of a poker face. Impossibly tight turnaround time? No problem! Scope of project far too large for one person? Says you!

Here’s the thing: it’s easy for me to pass because I’m productive. In this society, demonstrable productivity is used as a way to measure someone’s worth. To be a “productive member of society” is the goal. Schools are supposed to train children to grown up to be productive. Parents are supposed to give their kids the tools to be productive. The homeless and poor and unwell are a drain on society precisely because they are not productive. This is the rhetoric we hear every day. This is the rhetoric I have used to pass, because we don’t understand how mental illness can coexist with such culturally sanctioned productivity.

You can see where this is going, right? On the surface everything looks great. I’m high-achieving and high-performing by virtually every metric there is. But below the surface is another story, because as much as we’re taught to value productivity the truth is that productivity is not an index of mental health. I have a history of neglecting my physical needs in order to meet unreasonable deadlines imposed on me, things like working twelve hours straight without stopping to eat or go to the bathroom. Things like completely revising an academic article for revision to a prestigious journal without any help from my advisor at his behest while a month giving birth. I did that on essentially no sleep. My advisor was impressed; I received a pat on the back and a request to work on another article. That’s when I had an epiphany.

A month postpartum, so anxious about my baby that I literally could not sleep, I was both ridiculously productive and an absolute emotional wreck. It took me way, way too long to realize that I was living with severe anxiety in large part because the anxiety was manifesting in a way that is culturally sanctioned. I was productive, but I wasn’t ok. And looking back all I could see where the thousands of other times I’d been so anxious, so panicked, that I forged ahead and produced whatever needed producing instead of asking to be accommodated.

It’s a lot of work to unlearn the associations I have between productivity and mental health. I think this is partly because of me, because I’m a person who has always been happiest working, but a lot of it is society. My capacity to get enormous amounts of shit done has been a quality that has been praised and rewarded my entire life. It’s the thing that made me look sane. It’s still a tension I struggle with within myself, though I struggle now much more self-consciously.

I think about this a lot. This is like any other kind of passing—it’s a short-term fix with negative long-term consequences. I pass for sane, for someone with a brain that works right, because that’s safe. There’s still stigma. There are still biases. If I told my boss that I have an anxiety disorder it would change how I interact with her, and I’m an at-will employee who doesn’t want to take that risk. But the flip side of passing, in this case of being productive, is that doing so forces me to reproduce a particularly subtle and pervasive form of ableism. I’m not trying to change how my coworkers and supervisors approach mental health and accommodations. I’m not trying to make my workplace more emotionally sustainable for me and others. I’m trying to use the veneer of normalcy I have learned to project to get me through this day, through this week, through this month. And in the doing I enable my supervisors to develop unrealistic expectations for what I can/should be able to do in what timeframe and with what resources.

I can pass, but it takes a toll. I have to pass to feed my family, but sometimes it means choosing between productivity and my own mental and emotional health. Passing for sane is both a mark of privilege (since I can cover it and I can be productive the way society deems worthwhile) and a mark of marginalization (since I have to cover it in the first place). I can pass, and I do it, but I wish I didn’t have to. Using productivity to hide my anxiety disorder is like any other kind of lie: it grows in the telling and becomes its own prison.


WORKING Interview with Sarah McCarry

Sarah McCarry, who is beyond awesome, recently started the Working Project, where she interviews women and trans* writers who experience mental illness. The Working interviews are a space where these writers articulate the way their experience of mental illness impacts and intersects with the act of writing.

I expressed interest in participating in her project, and Sarah generously agreed to interview. My interview is up on her blog now, and I am honored and thrilled to be a part of this ongoing project. If you’re at all interested in first person accounts of writing life, mental illness and the combination of the two, I encourage you to read the whole set of interviews. And if you’re a woman or trans* writer who experiences mental illness and is comfortable speaking about it, I encourage you to contact Sarah.

Epiphany Time: I’m Never Going to Leave My Day Job


my kiddo says you can pry my day job from my cold dead hands

I’m Officially Published now, not once but twice over. I now have Professional Fiction Writing Credits. That is amazing and wonderful and I am so proud of myself. It’s also set me thinking about what role writing plays in my life, both professionally and personally.

The ubiquitous dream of aspiring writers like myself is to make enough from your writing to live off of. A measure of whether or not a writer has “made it” is if they’ve been able to quit their day job. The thought of having all day to write at a leisurely pace, of taking an hour out of your day here and there to grant a fawning interview, yes that sounds divine. I think I just assumed that’s what I wanted, too. But I don’t really think it is.

To date I have made a sweet $23.00 off my writerly pursuits—shit, you guys, that’s a whole pizza! Obviously right now I have to keep my day job. I have spent more money on contest entries than I have earned back in sales. But here’s a thought experiment: let’s say one of my books really takes off. Like, it gets Harry Potter huge. What about then? It feels nigh-heretical to me, but I…think I want to keep my day job. I think I need to keep my day job for my own sanity.

Let me lay it out for you. I am the primary breadwinner of a family of four, and one of those four people is a toddler who depends on me for literally everything. I have two partners, both of whom do part-time or piecemeal work. Of the three of us, I am best positioned to get a solidly middle-class salaried position that can keep us afloat both by virtue of social/educational capital and by way of comfort working an office job. I am cool with it, and they are cool with it, too. If I were to tell my partners “hey, y’all, I think I want to give this writing-full-time thing a go, and I’m quitting my day job to do that” I have no doubt at all that they would support me. But life would be a scramble, and it would mean forcing one or both of them into positions where I get to pursue this at the expense of their quality of life. And most of all, it would be unstable.

I grew up in a financially unstable household. I grew up with bill collectors calling and the phone lines getting cut off; the whole nine yards. It is decidedly Not Fun. In my adult life, I have never paid my rent late, not one time, not ever. I am ridiculously conscientious with my family’s finances because I quite literally cannot go back to that kind of financial instability. I would lose my mind. These days, even the thought of not being the one in charge of paying the family bills and making the family budget lands me in a cold sweat. And if I wasn’t the breadwinner, would I have to give up that level of economic control within the family? I would think so. To manage the finances so closely otherwise would feel like overstepping a boundary.

I have an anxiety disorder, and it cozies up to the occasional major depressive episode. One thing that makes my anxiety flare up is financial instability. A couple of years ago, I finished my Ph.D. and went on the non-academic job market looking for a new gig. It was a nightmare. It was hellish. I could barely see straight I was so anxious. I was in danger of bursting into tears at any given moment. I couldn’t sleep. And I had a job while I was looking, which is the best case scenario since it meant I still had an income rolling in. But all those unknowns—what if I get fired if I go to this job interview? If I get that job, where will we live? Should we renew the lease? Should I be looking for jobs in a different area of the country?—those unknowns tore my brain to pieces. In many ways, the process of looking for a new job post-grad school was a time of pure psychological violence for me. Thanks capitalism.

With writing full time, there are no guarantees. There is no salary, no steady and reliable income. There are certainly no health care benefits (and as the only salaried full-time employee in the household, guess where the health care for my spouse and child comes from). Psychologically, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist. I crave the routine and stability of a day job. When I was on the job market? I hardly ever wrote fiction. Like most people, I can’t write for shit when I’m too anxious to handle making a sandwich. If I were to quit my job, I would be so obsessed with all the uncertainty of living off my writing that I ironically would probably not actually be able to write. Socially, it’s not really an option either. I have dependents. Starving artists just scraping by should not be doing so with children in tow. That’s selfish. It’s bad parenting.

I also need the balance of doing something other than writing. I need the contact with the outside world going to a job every day gives me. I get all weird when left alone too long. Weird and hermit-y and all Alan Moore-ish. Which, that’s fine for Alan Moore, but I do feel like there is value in being able to competently interface with society at large. I’d like to keep those skills sharpened, and introvert that I am, I am likely to let them go dull and unused without something to prod me to leave my house on the regular.

Besides that, I work in public education, which is something I am as passionate about as I am my writing. I really do need the balance; I love writing, and I fully believe that the act of writing can be radical and transformative and revolutionary. But it’s not the only way to effect change. I like to write my radical and revolutionary fictions and I like to push the education system hard from the inside. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.

My family makes ample space for me to write. I have a working routine, and I produce a lot of content while working full time. I would love to have a bestseller! Shit, it would be pretty sweet to scoop up the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or any prize for literature. But the mercurial and unpredictable life of a full-time writer is not something for which I am cut out. Which begs the question: if success for me is not financial, then what would success look like?