Maladaptive and wonderful

Have I told you I accidentally wrote a novel once? I did. Totally true.

That, as many other things in my life, started with a mental health crisis. A well-known phenomenon, really, has a name and everything: maladaptive daydreaming.

Google it and get shocked. It’s when a person loses themselves so much in daydreaming and fantasies that their ability to function in the outside world is severely hampered.

In the summer of 2018, I thought I was losing my mind. The outside world held no particular charms. It was boring and bland, and it didn’t give me what I needed. What did I need, you’ll ask. Just wait, I’ll get there.

Lucky for me, I had a friend who had experienced hallucinations before. I asked her: What does one do when reality and fantasy get mixed up? She said, “Write it down.”

So I did.

To be absolutely honest – as if I could be anything else – a lot of it consisted of simple (or not so simple, wink wink) sexual fantasies, but that was, of course, not the whole story. Something was evidently missing from my life. Some vital mode of expression. The box that I’d tried to squeeze my humble self in wasn’t containing me. I was trying to be what others – Society? My husband’s family? – wanted me to be. I wasn’t who my inside pushed me to be. The result: dissonance. Catastrophic, disruptive dissonance. The inside pushed out until it broke through.

The result: A Natural.

First of all, I didn’t expect this to become a novel. I didn’t know there were stories in my head until I typed them out on the keyboard. Secondly, I had no idea I could write a 90k-word novel in just under five months. I hadn’t known the levels of obsession I would reach, writing day and night, before and after work, and neglecting literally everything else, including – I’m mortified to admit – my children, who spent those five months mostly in front of the TV.

Turns out, I’m an artist. Who would have thought? Maybe my grammar school teachers, who had me painting pictures to decorate the classroom, or my parents, who saw me read every free minute of the day for decades and knew about my teenage poem-writing. But my parents have a long history of not going out of their way to encourage their children’s interests, so, in a maladaptive (there’s that word again) attempt to prove to the world I’m smart, I studied physics. Who’s smarter than a theoretical astrophysicist, after all? “A brain like yours isn’t for studying literature!” my physics teacher said, and I took it as a compliment, instead of understanding it for the harmful bias that it is.

Alas, you can’t deny your true self forever.

The physics career failed. Not for a lack of brains, but for a lack of drive and talent. Some of my profs in Uni will tell you I actually had the talent, but for the life of me, I still can’t understand how people publish scientific papers, how they network, how they present their work. None of this worked for me. I was incompetent as a researcher, and I think the point is: it wasn’t my thing. At all. I do love science, and my brain is wired to think with bone-breaking logic. But research? Definitely not my world.

When I published A Natural with an indie publisher – the first one that appeared in my Google search – I had no idea what I was doing. My cover was whipped up using an iPhone and iPhotos editing. I didn’t know this book could sell, and I couldn’t even imagine there would be people who’d encourage me to write more. But somehow, everything – except marketing books efficiently, but that’s a whole different issue – came naturally: editing a book? Easy. GIving writing and editing advice? I had to start saying no to requests for help very early on. Encouraging, or even tear-bringing messages from readers? You bet. Networking with other writers, nurturing the relationships with the best of them? Piece of cake. All the things that were a mystery to me while my life was spent in scientific circles suddenly became not even simple, but nearly unavoidable. I couldn’t write a scientific paper to save my life, but now I found myself unable to not write a novel. The drive was so strong, it was impossible to resist. The stories were there. For some reason, probably because of my obsessive, decades-long reading, even the craft was there. And I just couldn’t stop writing.

As I said: you can’t deny your true self forever.

There’s no place where I feel more myself than my den, where I write, edit, proofread, create book covers. When I’m here, I’m truly, deeply, finally me. Nothing is missing, and life doesn’t need fantasies anymore to be interesting or fun or worth living in the moment.

The fact is: I. LOVE. THIS.

I love it. I’ll keep writing, editing, creating covers, and publishing until I fall dead. Even if nobody ever reads my books. Because that’s my thing. It’s do or die.

13. Getting flatter

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I’ve been taking the antidepressants for a week now, and the one thing I can tell you with some degree of certainty is that my inside is getting flatter. The waves of moodiness are smaller, the turbulence is receding, things are assuming their appropriate proportions, or at least what I assume to be appropriate proportions. People don’t freak out about random aches and don’t hyperventilate when someone raises their voice, after all, so I’m just going to go ahead and claim that the medicine is already working.

When you’ve lived in a state of constant inner turmoil for a few years, reaching a state of relative mental calmness can feel like a wasteland where emotions go to die. It makes sense: when all you’ve experienced are untameable passions, deep anguish, great exhilaration, to stop being whipped about by internal forces can feel like you’re losing a part of yourself. What to others is a meaningful emotion, to you is just a gentle hint. You start to wonder: do you love your spouse enough, are you committed enough to your relationship, are you a good enough mother if you’re not terrified about the dangers your children face on a daily basis?

Renormalizing your inner self is quite a process. And I’m not talking about the past few days—I don’t have enough experience with antidepressants yet, and the doctors say their full effect will be felt in another one or two weeks. I’m talking of what you’re left with after years of taming your brain’s quirks, what remains after you’ve become more capable of dealing with everyday stimuli, and I think I’m getting an enhanced version of this with the antidepressants. Yes, life becomes more bearable, and not everything you experience challenges you to the extreme, but you might also feel like you’ve become less of yourself. And that doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re happier, calmer, able to finally sleep at night, able to function like “normal” humans around you seem to function, almost effortlessly. Actually, having a more even mental background—I’m coming to discover—is such a blessing: day by day, I’m becoming more stable in my reactions and more capable of dealing with small disturbances. Man, the drugs do help.

But what about art? The tortured artist is a well-known stereotype: can you truly create good, moving art if you’re not suffering, if you’re not constantly processing layers of deep emotion that color your life experience? For my kind of writing, the writing that’s meant to put you in a character’s shoes, make you feel their agony, shake you and take you as far out of your comfort zone as possible, not being able to feel—or translate the emotion to words—is a big impediment. What will become of my ability to write, then, if the medication balances my mental state?

It’s true that, sometimes, the anguish of the moment transforms itself into words that serve to ease my mind—On a night like this is a good example, as well as the poetry I wrote as a teenager—but I think for a novel it’s enough to be able to relate to those emotions, to access them in your memory, or to extrapolate from what you’ve already experienced. I’m not absolutely sure about that since I haven’t been able to write much—except blog posts, obviously—since this adventure started, but it seems plausible, right?

In any case, the fact remains: I’ve never felt so balanced before in my entire adult life, if not longer. I asked a friend the other day, “how did I not know I’ve been anxious all this time?” and she answered, “because you’ve been anxious all this time.” It makes sense: I trained myself to a different baseline, and now that baseline is changing.

Yesterday, I tried to write a paragraph in the book I’m currently writing, just to see if I could. Dimitra—always my first beta reader—said it was fine, it was Nora-worthy. In this, as in nearly everything else, I suppose I’ll just trust her judgement.