I’m a writer.
Before that, I was a social worker. Before that, a barista. Before that a radio DJ, copywriter, and IT professional. I worked in a punk-rock record store. I was a waitress — a terrible one. And through all that, I was severely mentally ill. I got a Masters Degree somewhere in there, and was declared disabled near the end.
Was any of it what I wanted to be when I grew up? Sorta. When I was seven, I wanted to be a Go-Go Dancer or a waitress. I got to be one of those. But I started off college studying languages and photography so I could work for Reuters.
Then the psychotic break happened. Mental illness has been taking away jobs my entire life. And when it’s not literally taking them away, it’s making them harder. Which is why I now only write part-time and take care of myself full-time. I love writing. It’s, I think, what I truly always wanted to do. I want to be able to do this for a long, long time.
But being mentally ill is hard enough. And then writing comes with its own share of neuroses, the most devastating of which has its own name: Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is where you, the writer, believes all this success you’ve had is no good or not worthy of you. Cause, really, underneath it all, you’re just a suit containing a million monkeys who are trying to hammer out Shakespeare. Your success is purely an accident, not skill. You live in total fear of being unmasked, and when that happens, you’ll blame the monkeys. You would have gotten away with it to, if it weren’t for the damn …
Okay, that’s enough.
Now try mixing Imposter Syndrome with some mental health diagnoses. Like Major Depressive Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or how about Bipolar Disorder, or maybe any of the Schizophrenia disorders, perhaps Borderline Personality Disorder? When you do that, things get a lot more complicated. At least for me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. My manic phases have its delusions cranked to eleven. My depression conjures up voices that say the most convincing and awful things. Couple this with an actual thing that happened -- in a manic phase, I made some terrible edits on a piece and sent them to an editor thinking I’d given them the better version of the Midas Touch.
Then … I came out of the mania a few weeks later to discover how terrible these edits actually were. I opened up the piece and realized, “Uh, no. This wasn’t what I wanted at all. What did you do, Jordan?” The editor emailed two days later: “Uh, no. This wasn’t what I wanted at all. What did you do, Jordan?”
The emotional fallout was terrible. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. To reduce manic phases, I’d made some adjustments to my medication that (unknown to me yet) had me slipping into depression. I reached out to my writer-support-group and had them look over some pieces of mine to make sure I wasn’t the hack I was convinced I was.
Listen. Because this is important — Every writer needs to know the intended audience of every piece. Then, when they show a piece to a person for feedback, they have to weigh that person’s reaction accordingly. Was this person the intended audience? Would they read it for pleasure? Would they buy it from a bookstore/read past the first paragraph in a magazine? Some people can be the intended audience and not like the piece. Remember who you’re writing for and seek out reactions from those people, first and foremost, because you might weigh the wrong reaction too heavily and get destroyed by irrelevant opinions or critique.
I had a number of people read over some of my pieces for some other points of view. I needed to feel like I wasn’t garbage, like I could trust myself. I sought out trusted opinions, new opinions. My editor is now looking over my short stories and critiquing them. I asked them to do this, and they were happy to oblige when they had the time.
But the depression kept rolling, and the compliments were being swallowed by the criticism.
In the midst of this, I wrote three drafts of a science fiction story. Even though I thought it was one of the strongest pieces I had ever done, the shadow of that same confidence I had about those terrible edits still haunted me. I had to look beyond my own computer screen and to my support group.
I rarely have my husband read stories before I they’re done, but I asked him to read this early draft. He loved it. He said it was my strongest and most ambitious piece to date. He wanted me to show it to everyone. So I sent it to my parents and step-parents, who have always been both critical and supportive (they’re all writers and editors).
They all loved it. Now I’ve sent it to my critique group to look over for next week, and asked my editor to give it their keen eye.
In between all these compliments from my family, I sold a story to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. That sale cut the cord on my feelings of inadequacy; once I signed that contract, I was reborn, breathing real - writers' - air.
As it is with all things, the feeling of legitimacy will pass, and I’ll be hunched over my keyboard again, wondering whether “had” or “need” is the right word for a particular sentence and then wondering why I’m doing this and who really cares and then the voices or delusions will kick in (depending on where I am on the bipolar swing) … and I’ll be at this point again.
But I know I dug myself out of it once. I grabbed onto my husband’s hands; I grabbed onto the facts of my own past. I used my social supports, but also my history — my accomplishments. This is a mire I can dig myself out of again, since I have already built the path.
We are our own greatest assets, but so are the shoulders of those that offer them. We need ourselves everyday, but we need help sometimes because it makes the journey through to the next day, our next project, our next great feat, so much sweeter and less of a burden.
Your success is your own, and it is real. Your friends know that's the truth.