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On Being a Science Writer and Managing a Mental Illness

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On Being a Science Writer and Managing a Mental Illness

July 18, 2017   Alex RileyCourtesy of Rosie Chomet

The Depression Monster, by Rosie Chomet.

To be a science writer—to generate creative ideas, meet deadlines, and turn around timely revisions—you have to have a routine. Mine starts with a dose of citalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that sometimes makes me nauseated but otherwise keeps me healthy.

For the past ten years, and particularly in the last three, I have struggled with depression. Although we didn’t deem it to be a mental illness at the time, my first depressive episode happened when I was 16 years old. Now, ten years on and several diagnoses later, it has become a major part of my daily routine.

Depression presents challenges for any career, but it poses some particular obstacles for writers. (A 40-year study published in 2012 found that writers are more likely than people in other, less creative occupations to suffer from mental illnesses such as bipolar, depression, and general anxiety disorder.) For one thing, choosing writing as a way of making a living can nurture insecurity and doubt—especially for those, like myself, who are early in their careers. For me, at least, publishing a story is like handing in an exam essay, an invitation for strict judgment by both the intended audience and my peers. And this moment of necessary extroversion, this continual struggle to be recognized or appreciated, is fodder for a mental illness.

“I get stuck in loops of comparing myself to others, thinking I’m not producing work quickly enough, thinking I’m not a good writer,” says Steph Yin, a Philadelphia-based science journalist who is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and who has bipolar type II (a form of the disorder that involves less manic highs than type I bipolar but retains the depressive lows). “It feeds into itself, because I end up wasting a lot of time stuck in these negative thinking loops—which of course makes me less productive and less creative.”

Psychologists say the type of thought pattern Yin describes, called rumination, is a gateway into mental illness. The more you ruminate, the more easily destructive thoughts flow through the brain’s neurons, and the harder it is to break free.

There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for writing about science while managing a mental illness. The relationship between the two is different for everyone.

For writers with other kinds of mental illness, a writing career can pose other challenges. Repetitive habits that are part of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, might lead a person to spend far too much time on reporting tasks such as finding sources, reading and digesting scientific papers, and annotating stories for fact-checking—a recipe for low productivity and high stress. And spending long periods of time alone, a frequent side effect of freelancing, can amplify symptoms of any mental illness, from schizophrenia to general anxiety disorder. When a person is socially isolated, destructive thoughts can easily replace conversation; with no one there to answer or rationalize them, self-doubts can grow out of control.

There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for writing about science while managing a mental illness. The relationship between the two is different for everyone, and for each of us, it takes time to understand a condition that lies in the black box of the brain, honed by habits that are unique to every person.

“I guess the basic answer is patience—which, as generic as it seems, is a well that many people with anxiety, depression, or other issues really need to be able to draw from,” says John Wenz, a freelance science writer in Madison, Wisconsin, who has bipolar type II.

After speaking with science writers who have various mental illnesses—primarily mood and anxiety disorders—I’ve discovered that knowing more about how other writers cope with mental illness has helped me come to terms with my depression. Just knowing that there are many other people who deal, day to day, with two facets of their life that could easily be incompatible is, for me, a source of inspiration and hope.

First Things First: Get Treatment

The most important step for me, in living with a mental illness, has been to seek treatment. Therapy and drug treatment can be very effective. “Barring yourself from considering therapy or medicationwhen you are having a hard time is like breaking your arm and being like, I am going to tough this out without a cast!” says Shannon Palus, a New York City science writer who has general anxiety disorder and struggles with OCD tendencies. Not seeking treatment, for the reason that it has a social stigma, is “bullshit,” says Palus.

For a long time, I chose to avoid treatment. I thought that antidepressants would dull my synapses, dampening vital pathways that I needed in order to understand complex science or connect different elements of a story. I thought medications would make my brain, and my writing, blur.

But after the first week of medication, that wasn’t the case. Rather than stifling all of my neural activity, antidepressants just seemed to thwart those extraneous flashes of thought that left me feeling lost, anxious, and easily distracted. As I read and wrote an article, I was more focused—embedded in the present rather than worrying about pains of the past or uncertainties of the future. (Antidepressants don’t work out as well for everyone, and possible side effects range from reduced libido to suicidal thoughts.) I now know that for me, medication is not a barrier to my work; it’s an essential tool.

Find a Niche You Can Tolerate

One of the blessings of being a writer is that you can structure—and restructure—your career in ways that suit the needs of your condition.

Palus discovered that working as a fact-checker, which she did for several years earlier in her career, was “a godsend”—a perfect match for her OCD tendencies. But once she started writing more, she found her obsessive tendencies to be an impediment, forcing her to recalibrate how deeply she needed to drill into tiny details during the reporting and writing process. Both regular therapy sessions and medication were crucial for her to move forward in her career, she says. “[With] Lexapro, it got much easier to do everything in my life.”

In my case, focusing on writing features, so that I have less frequent deadlines, has helped me. Not knowing how I will feel in the next few hours makes committing to hitting embargoes and daily deadlines a near-to-impossible task. I have tried to write through episodes of depression, but that just leads to an inability to understand the science and to bad writing, refueling the cycle of doubt and rumination.

I see the days when I can write as a gift from my brain. I cherish them, and they can even help me recover.

I’ve learned that I function best when I stop trying to “cure” my depression. Seeing it as something to be conquered only led to rumination—why did the black dog always keep bounding back? Now, I let depression have its day (or days). At such times, reading and translating complex scientific terms is not on the agenda. Instead, I try to relax, eat well, and wait until I’m back on a level plane.

I see the days when I can write as a gift from my brain. I cherish them, and they can even help me recover. Just by working through a piece—finding the perfect sentence to link two disparate themes, for example—I can boost my highs beyond what an antidepressant can achieve. I know it’s temporary, but it’s a wave that I enjoy riding every time.

Focusing on feature writing allows me to set my own deadlines—usually a month or so to write 2,000–3,000 words and to have two or three depressive episodes—and use my highs to work through the finer details of a piece. I never feel disappointed by researching too much. The process takes time and I don’t get paid often, but for me, that’s a small price to pay for a bit more flexibility, and for peace of mind. (Needless to say, I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can make this choice.) And although I don’t publish a piece every week, or even every month, I write down what I have done each day. For me, an afternoon spent poring through a single research paper is something to reflect positively on.

For others it’s the process of publication—the regular sense of accomplishment—that helps. “I write one or two news stories a week, and they’re manageable enough that I don’t get too overwhelmed by them,” says Yin. “At the end of the week, even if I’m feeling really shitty, I can look back and say I did something.”

Find a Workable Schedule

A person’s daily work schedule can also play a role in coping with mental illness. Wenz, who recently left an editorial position at a magazine to go full-time freelance, says the editing rhythms at his previous job had become a depressive feedback loop. “When your mood isn’t always stable, that affects your outlook on the story you’re editing, as well as your ability to concentrate,” he says. “Some days you don’t have the narrow focus that editing demands. Other days, you’ve never been a better editor.”

He decided that for him, “an editor role might not be the right fit, even though it’s the ‘right’ way to rise through the ranks.” Although freelancing is less financially stable, the more flexible schedule is more accommodating of his periods of mania and depression. “If I can’t focus on something now, I can walk away and come back to it later. If my brain is able to focus at 9:00 p.m., I can crack open my work then. Writing is also an easier enterprise for me because of these concentration issues. I can power through writing something—even having to tap into mania at times—in a way I can’t power through editing something.”

In contrast, New York–based freelancer Taylor Beck, who also has bipolar type I, prefers a rigid work schedule. “I rent a desk at a coworking space and go there from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each weekday,” he says. “Community is also important to me. I work two shifts a week at a cafe on the corner.” There, Beck says, he gets to know young people from his neighborhood and makes a little money doing a very different kind of work.

Build the Community You Need

As Beck’s experience illustrates, being a freelancer need not be isolating. Joining or forming one of the many small online communities that speckle the science-writing world can be an important source of social support.

Having someplace to go when in doubt … can often stop rumination before it becomes all-consuming.

Palus is part of several such groups. “It’s been really helpful to be able to write to those people and say that I’m feeling stressed about this, or awkward about that, or worried about rejection,” she says. “You’re going to experience rejection a lot as a writer, so being able to confirm with other people that that happens all the time is a helpful reminder that these are hardships of the field—not a sign that something’s wrong with me. Anxiety makes you think awkwardness or rejection are indicative of something being wrong with you, rather than just facts of life. Being part of a close-knit community helps you fact-check those thoughts and feelings, and realize that a lot of them are wrong.”

Recently, I joined a Slack group that has connected me with people that share the same fondness for long-form writing and science as I do. I haven’t met one person from the group face-to-face, but having someplace to go when in doubt—whether it concerns a question on essay structure, experiences with a certain magazine, or just knowing that other people have the same insecurities as I do—can often stop rumination before it becomes all-consuming.

My relationships with my editors have also been important to my mental health. In recent months, I’ve made a point of meeting in person with some of my editors. A handshake, a cup of tea, and some shared laughter helps deepen relationships formed through years of emails and edits, leaving me feeling less like a contractor and more like a colleague, or even a friend. Such meetings benefit editors as well, says Mosaic editor Chrissie Giles. “Whoever you are working with, you want to understand them and their personality and life experience enough that you can tailor how you are with them,” she says.

Opening Up to Editors

Many writers, including some I spoke with for this piece, prefer not to divulge their illness to their editors, and that’s completely understandable. Although the stigma of mental illness is less pernicious than it once was, it can still influence editors’ perceptions and expectations—and could trigger discriminatory hiring or promotion decisions. In other cases, a person with mental illness might simply not be ready to share such personal information with anyone outside of a safe circle of friends and family, the anxieties and potential ramifications of being so open seeming too great.

From an editor’s point of view, there is no need for a writer to share such information when it isn’t germane to the relationship, and doing so can be a little awkward if it isn’t—like telling your parents about the intricacies of your sex life.

Most often, one editor (who asked not to be named) told me, writers’ decisions about whether to share information about their mental health are “framed by the ability to deliver the work. If personal life or health—physical, mental, or otherwise—affects the ability to work to the needs of the employer, then a freelancer needs to have a conversation about arranging the necessary support, extensions, and accommodation. Decent editors can and will adapt to support a working relationship. Everyone knows somebody affected by mental illness, if they aren’t themselves.”

“As an editor, I have no expectation that people will disclose anything to me,” says Giles. “I think if they want to, it’s often useful to know. People might disclose something if it’s relevant to a piece, or if it may affect how you work with them.”

If an editor started sugarcoating their correspondence with me, I would feel even more isolated from my peers. If my first draft is a pile of crap, don’t tiptoe around it—throw me a shovel. 

At Mosaic, which often commissions writers for lengthy features on their own illness or troubling life experience, Giles says that one thing editors can do is ask that a writer has the necessary professional support from doctors or therapists before tackling such an intimate task. “Mostly what we do is just more of what we do for anyone writing for us—try to be collaborative, supportive, open, and understanding.”

A more flexible deadline, for example, might provide the calm needed to write a long piece, or a challenging not-so-long one. When working on more personal stories—for example, a story surrounding the loss of a family member—an added sensitivity in suggesting revisions can help smooth a traumatic process, reassuring a writer that tackling such a piece is worthwhile.

Overall, though, talking to a person with mental illness is like talking to anyone else. If an editor started sugarcoating their correspondence with me, I would feel even more isolated from my peers. If my first draft is a pile of crap, don’t tiptoe around it—throw me a shovel. I’ll get through it. If I’m going through a depressive episode at the time, I will let you know if that’s going to affect my ability to turn the story around on time.

Like most writers with ambition, I want to be seen as a reliable person, someone who is fun to work with and who consistently produces quality work that informs and entertains readers. And I don’t just want to be seen that way—I want to be that way.

I’m still learning how to marry my mental illness with a science-writing career, though. Some days, reminding myself of what’s going well or of others who have built fulfilling careers in my field while living with a mental illness helps buoy me. Other days, focusing on the positive just doesn’t work, and I find myself fantasizing about other jobs and ways to escape. When I wake each morning, I don’t know how the day will pan out, or whether I will fall asleep in the same frame of mind. I just take my pill, write down my tasks for the day, and start at the top.Courtesy of Alex Riley

Alex Riley

Alex Riley is a science and nature writer based in Bristol, United Kingdom. His stories of evolutionary biology, conservation, technology, and health have appeared in AeonNautilusHakaiNOVA NextNew Scientist, and the BBC. Follow him on Twitter @Alex_L_Riley.

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