How NaNoWriMo Saved My Life

My family has always been a little skeptical of writers. My grandmother, especially. “Oh, they’re being paid,” she’d say, as if the act of accepting money nullifies whatever idealism and feeling the author poured into the piece. It really annoyed me. I mean, I’m a writer, aren’t I? I’ve even been paid for some of what I’ve written. As any self-respective content-creator, I was duly offended. I’ve since learned that she’s only half wrong: There is writing that is purely opportunistic, words penned to promote a specific agenda or idea with no feeling behind it; voiceless words, pushing platitudes that a thousand thousand other people have pushed, each varying only slightly from the empty words of their predecessors—those variations being only a way of shoehorning the same tired, irrelevant, manipulative idea into something designed to hook the brainless masses. Those writers should be dismissed for being paid.

And then there’s writing you feel in your core. There is writing that makes you want to laugh, cry, jump for joy, punch walls, pull off your clothes and jump into a pool wearing nothing but your skivvies, and sit curled up in a corner alternatively talking to your security blanket and shoveling half-melted ice cream into your already caramel stained mouth, all at once. There’s writing that changes you. There’s writing that calls to your soul with a voice that demands to be heard. There’s writing that is born of passion, experience, and a burning desire to share with the world a masterpiece, painted by pen, one word at a time. There’s writing that alters the life of the reader—that can save or destroy the life of the reader. Such is the power of the written word. Like any other implement, it can build or destroy, beautify or befoul, inspire or devastate. Trust me, reader, when I tell you that it has the same effect on the author as it does on you.

Writing has been my outlet, the method why which I heal, and my contribution to a damaged world I hope to do my part to heal. Through writing, I can express what I can’t bring myself to utter. I’ve felt everything I’ve made my readers feel, and more. The more I’ve written, however, the more I’ve come to realize that as cathartic as the experience of writing can be, nothing compares to the power of a reader’s feedback. The timing makes this all the more significant for me: It’s November, and NaNoWriMo saved my life.

Those of you who follow my blog are familiar with my story. For those of you who aren’t, here’s what you need to know. My life completely fell apart six years ago. It took me a while, but after around a year, and with some help from a certain special someone, I was finally ready to write about it. I wrote a very long article for Ami Magazine, which was published. It’s hard to describe how liberating it felt to tell the world about my life after suffering silently for so long. I knew I needed to do more. For months my friends had been buzzing about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is a sort of contest put on every year by the Office of Letters and Light, to see who can write a novel within 30 days. There aren’t really any prizes, but you do get serious bragging rights. There are write-ins, and all sorts of motivational tools on their website. If you’re going to write a book, November is the time to do it. And I wanted to write a book.

And so, I did. Fifty-some-odd-thousand words in two weeks. I barely ate or slept. This book was going to be the meaning for everything that had happened to me; it would give reason to all the suffering—it would be my reason for living. It took everything out of me, but there it was: My story. It was a memoir, not a novel, but still. It was pretty cool. I spent the next week and a half editing the thing, rewriting parts that needed fixing, correcting the odd typo here and there. Finally, about a week ahead of the deadline, I had something I thought was publishable. (It wasn’t, but I was a kid, so what did I know.) Proudly, I walked to the Fedex office three blocks away, and had my manuscript printed and bound. And there I stood, holding what had kept me going, my raison d’être, in my hands, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that.

I remember feeling at once profoundly euphoric and profoundly meaningless. Those pages in my hand had been my life, from the time Ami had published my article to the time my manuscript came out of the printer at FedEx, and now I had it, and I wasn’t sure what was next. What if it was rejected. What if it was never published. What if my purpose never came to fruition. I walked out of that FedEx Office smiling and crying, and into a nearby subway station to catch a train home. And as I stood there on the platform, watching the train coming, a voice niggled at the back of my consciousness, asking “What if?” For the second time in my life, I considered it. Indeed, what if. I’d never see my purpose fulfilled, but then again, I probably wouldn’t anyway. What if. What if I didn’t have to wonder. What if it ended right there, with my life literally in my hands. What if.

I got on that train instead of jumping in front of it, but that feeling of meaninglessness didn’t go away. The euphoria did, though, and the next day I showed up at the last write-in of NaNoWriMo profoundly depressed. As I sat there flipping through my manuscript, my laptop dinged, notifying me of incoming email. It wasn’t from anyone I knew, but the subject said it had to do with my book, so I opened it. It was from a friend of a friend who had seen the summary of my book on my NaNoWriMo page and had a similar history. We chatted a little bit, and got to know each other, and then she sent me her story. It was remarkably similar to mine, right down to the family history of mental illness, abuse, anxiety, and PTSD. She told me how much it meant to her to see someone writing their story—her story—knowing that there were other people out there who knew what she was going through, and who cared about her.

And right then, I knew what my purpose was. That feeling of meaninglessness went away. I knew that my purpose was not just to get my book published, but to use my abilities as a writer to help others who don’t have a voice, who are either not ready or able to express themselves, tell their stories, or begin the process of healing. My purpose was to be there for those people and tell them that they are not alone. As I wrote in another piece on this blog:

…I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

So, yeah, that’s how NaNoWriMo saved my life. What’s your NaNoWriMo story?


What You Need to Understand About Suicide

Author’s note: This post is very triggering. Please do not read it if you don’t feel you can handle it. Take care of yourself. If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

On the way home from a road test in New Rochelle this morning, I turned on the radio to listen to the Geraldo show. Larry Mendte was filling in, and the topic was Robin Williams’ suicide. Since I saw the story online last night I’ve been reading articles, tributes, compilations of his greatest acts and quotes, and, of course, watching his movies. I’m in middle of Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams was a great man who not only inspired countless people, but touched every one of our hearts with his comedy. Who hasn’t watched Mrs Doubtfire at least 10 times? He will be sorely missed by the world, and we all mourn his passing.

Except, apparently, for Larry Mendte. No, instead of opening with a tribute to Robin Williams, Mendte decided to open the show with a ten minute diatribe about how selfish, unforgivable, disgusting, and cowardly Robin Williams was in taking his life. He touched upon all the usual talking points whenever suicide finds its way into the news: It’s the easy way out; It’s the coward’s choice; It’s selfish; How could he not think of his children and wife? Mind you, this was after Mendte admitted several times that he had neither suffered from depression or suicidal ideation in his life, nor had any education on the subject. And yet, somehow, he felt qualified to give his tens of thousands of listeners his opinions.

And then he opened the show for callers. He asked his callers to please explain to him, because to him it was unfathomable, how a man could do something so terrible. First two callers up agreed with Mendte’s assessment of Williams’ suicide. “You’re right, Larry, it is selfish and wrong, and I will never forgive him for what he did to his family.” “It’s the pharmaceutical companies. They overprescribe medicine and it makes people do crazy things like this.” Finally a call came in from someone who actually suffered from depression, and I thought oh maybe just this once a talk show host will accept education when it’s offered. Nope. The caller described his experience and his history of depression and suicide pretty well, but after he hung up, all Mendte could say was that he didn’t know, couldn’t understand it, and still found Williams’ suicide unforgivable.

Meanwhile, I nearly hit a barrier on the FDR drive I was so angry. And it’s not just talk show hosts and people who are paid for their opinions. These are commonly held beliefs. People think depression can be cured by funny cat pictures or a motivational speech. They think that depression is something people pretend to have because it gets them attention. They think that suicide is something people consider lightly, that someone standing on the edge of that bridge, or with a gun in his mouth, or a fistful of pills hasn’t considered the impact their action will have on the people they love. They think it’s a selfish act. And you know what? It is. But not in the way they think.

I speak as someone who attempted suicide more than once, has suffered on and off with depression for three years of my life, and who grew up with someone who was rendered quadriplegic by a suicide attempt. Depression is not a bad day. It is not laziness, or a lack of proper motivation. It is an utterly debilitating inability to feel. Anything. It is an emptiness that cannot be filled by any amount of money or any number of people. It’s your soul taking a hiatus. And sure, a person suffering depression can smile, or laugh, but that smile is a mask, that laugh is a lie. They don’t penetrate beyond the depth of the skin and flesh required to make them. We laugh and smile because we desperately wish we could feel it, and we never show you our true sadness and emptiness because we either care about you too much to worry you, or we don’t think you’ll understand.

This is what people don’t understand about suicide when they call it a selfish act. Human beings are born selfish—there is nothing more selfish and demanding than an infant. As we grow older we learn to take care of ourselves, and to empathize with other people and their needs. We train ourselves to temper our self-interests for the benefit of the people we care about, but as human beings with needs, sometimes we need to be a little selfish. Sometimes that selfishness takes the form of alone time, and we blow off a friend because we just can’t deal with people at the moment. Sometimes it takes the form of a shopping spree we know we can’t afford just because we need to be cheered up. Sometimes it’s telling a friend that they’re toxic and that you need time away from them, or a significant other whose heart you know you need to break because the relationship has to end.

We who suffer with depression and suicidal ideation have gotten into the habit of being selfless, of stifling our needs, our feelings and emotions, for the benefit of those around us. We put on that mask every day because someone counts on us, or because we don’t want to burden you. We put others first constantly, neglecting ourselves to help others. That’s why, so often, the nicest, most thoughtful, most caring people you meet suffer from depression. We understand how it feels, and we deprive ourselves every day to make sure no one else needs to feel the way we do. And no, it’s not healthy, and we should take care of ourselves, but that is the nature of the beast. We don’t feel enough self-worth to value ourselves before others.

Suicide is the culmination of all those times we weren’t selfish, all those times we forced ourselves to smile, or to laugh, or go out, help you move, drive you to the airport, not take those sick days or vacations. It’s all those times we thought of maybe telling the world to go to hell for a few hours and doing something for ourselves, but then chose not to because of our obligations to the ones we love and their expectations. It’s the end game, where we look back on all the pain, all the suffering, all the sadness, the anger, fear, uncertainty, dread, anxiety and hopelessness, all the times that people dismissed our misery, trivialized our experiences, called us liars, abused us—it is that single moment of devastating clarity when we realize that we are human beings, and we are entitled to be selfish every now and again, and we jump, we pull the trigger, we swallow those pills because once—just once—we decide to look out for ourselves and make the pain and emptiness just go away.

In that moment, when I stepped in front of that bus, I apologized to everyone I’d be hurting, but I kept walking. I thought about all the responsibilities I’d be leaving behind, the void that would need filling in my absence, and I looked at that bus and I walked toward it. And in those few seconds as I stood there, hoping the bus wouldn’t swerve out of the way, I felt free and in control for the first time in my life. I felt like I was finally—for once—doing something just for me.