Writing with Bipolar Disorder: A Mental Health Awareness Month Post
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I thought I'd talk about what it's been like for me as a writer living with bipolar disorder. I know there are lots of other things I can talk about--I certainly have years of stuff built up that I could discuss--but for me, this is something that still impacts my life regularly, as my dream is to be a writer, and I'm trying to write all the time.
I'm writing this post not to only vent, but to just keep things out in the open, in case any of you might feel alone or want to read about experiences that could be similar to yours. Or not. Anyway, I hope me sharing this would be helpful for you.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (I) when I was 21 years old. My behavior started getting erratic when I was 20 while I was in Wales, but there are also times, when, in hindsight, I think I demonstrated traits when I was in high school. I just didn't get diagnosed until my 21st year when shit really started to hit the fan.
I have a lot of bad memories. Bipolar disorder ate my 20s. That decade was spent trying to treat it, and it was full of mania and depression, medicine changes, hospitalizations, poor decisions, dangerous choices, and treating people just awfully, particularly when I was manic.
But here's an honest truth: sometimes I miss my mania. I haven't had a true manic episode in ages. We've always caught it before full-blown mania hit (exhibiting signs like rapid speech, or irritability and anger, and pretty much stopping sleeping--when these started happening, we adjusted my meds and halted a potential manic episode).
The thing about mania is, your brain is whirring a mile a minute. I was always so creative, coming up with hundreds of ideas very quickly and writing them very quickly (largely because I didn't sleep). I felt like I was a genius. I didn't have any sort of control mechanism during these periods, so I wrote what I wanted when I wanted to, and I just didn't care about what other people thought or felt about it. It was incredibly freeing.
That's also a downside to mania. You just don't care. Nothing is holding you back. You are a slave to your impulses. So, while something positive can come from it--like boundless creativity--it can be very dangerous and harmful to yourself and other people. You can hurt others when you have no concerns for anyone or anything. I've done a lot of things I regret.
But some of my greatest accomplishments came out of manic periods. I wrote my theatrical productions during these times. For example, my musical Melancholia was written in one month--that includes not only the book, but the music and lyrics. And somehow, as unhealthy as I was, we pushed through and produced it at the local branch of The Ohio State University. I'm still baffled as to how it worked out so well.
My next production, In the Hands of Mr. Hyde, was also written very quickly (it was a complete rewrite of a show I wrote in high school), but I didn't get the kind of help I had for Melancholia and had to direct the show myself in order to get it off the ground. This never should have happened. I was a terrible director and still very, very sick. I said awful things to the cast. I was moody and harmful. And worse, I just didn't see how I was hurting people because, again, I was catering to my moods and impulses, and saw nothing outside of myself.
Despite my awful behavior, these two shows were a creative triumph for me.
...Or were they?
I'm not really proud of Hyde anymore because the terrible memories of how I treated my cast and crew have overshadowed the positives. My friends came to see the show and some of them read the script and told me it was amazing, but it was just an angry show, I think. If you read my work today and compared it to what I wrote then, you wouldn't believe it came from the same person.
I'm still incredibly proud of Melancholia, but there were issues with the story--things just didn't make sense, especially the ending, and there were logic issues throughout it. I would've been able to catch these things if I wasn't manic, and could've come up with an even better show.
Once I stabilized, I started rewriting Melancholia to add more songs and change the ending (one of the best songs I've ever written came out of this rewrite), but I shelved it once I started graduate school, and I doubt I'll get a chance to put this new version out unless I gain a modicum of fame or something from being a published author. In 2026, it'll mark 20 years since we did the show. I doubt people want to do it again, and I'm not sure how to convince them to.
I switched to writing novels in graduate school. I suffered depression during grad school, particularly after my dad died unexpectedly, but there were also some mania moments (for example, not sleeping in order to finish the book). I talked to my mentors openly about my mental health and they assured me the writing did not seem to reflect my mood changes at the time, which was a huge step up from me writing shows when I was ill.
The more stable I became, though, the harder it became for me to write. I write very slowly. My thesis took the full length of graduate school to draft, so we're talking two and a half years. Son of the Siren also took me two years to draft, but then almost a third year spent rewriting it due to beta reading feedback.
I think also, I've become terribly self-conscious of my work as a writer. I flipped from not caring at all to caring too much, all the time. I write my books feeling completely afraid, and that's not something I'd ever felt before, particularly when I was manic.
I've needed constant validation. I feel like, because I write YA (technically upper YA) I have a responsibility to my readers, who are still technically children, to write with morals in mind, to make sure the message I'm sending isn't harmful, and to write worlds that represent the readers so they can find themselves in my books.
I used to write for myself, but now I feel like I'm writing for other people. Writing brings me joy, but that joyfulness doesn't last as long as it used to, and I rarely get the "high" I felt when I was writing while manic. I think this is because I care so deeply about what others think of my writing, which is something I know I need to work on.
But the thing is, as harder as it is for me to write while stable, I can confidently say that my writing has improved. I never would have been able to produce the books I have while being manic. I do get depressed more than anything now, and I have to admit that if the depression is bad, the writing stops. But even though I experience these hardships in writing, I can stand behind it and call it good. It doesn't have the same issues my work had while I was writing with an unmanaged condition, and my writing does not reflect my mental illness.
So, in this way, I wouldn't trade my mania for what I have now, as much as I miss it. I'm far more self-aware, and the thing is, no matter what, I'm able to say that I am genuinely proud of my books. There's so much that's right with them, and the pride I feel for the books I've written doesn't compare to what I feel about what I've written while ill. I don't have the large logical issues or unsatisfying endings, or a script that feels manic or a script that feels depressed. I'm serving the story and my characters, and before, I was just serving my moods.
I've grown quite a bit in the 20 years or so of living with bipolar disorder. It is a disability, but every day I work on it and do my best to manage it, and because of that, I can say I've been stable more than not. And when I'm stable, my best writing comes from it. I'm proud of what I have done.
If you are dealing with mental illness, I hope you reach a period of stability in your life and are successfully managing your illness. You'll find a clarity that you never had before when you were in the throes of being sick, and you can create beautiful things.
Thank you for reading, friends. I'm glad I have your support.
For more information about bipolar disorder, check out this link from Drugwatch, which breaks down the disorder, symptoms, treatment, and more.