By Writing Excuses | February 24, 2013 - 8:03 pm - Posted in Career and Lifestyle, Season 8

Robison Wells joins us again to talk about personal health, and his brother Dan joins us from the couch where (as of this recording session) he’s suffering from the recent removal of a body part. Eeew!

We start by talking with Rob about his well-chronicled mental health issues, how he dealt with them, and how he used them to inform his writing. We ask the obvious question — are there more mental illnesses to be found among creative folk, or are we all under confirmation bias?

Mary and Howard chime in with their own mental wellness struggles, and we talk about the importance of letting other people know how we’re feeling, and why we might be feeling that way. We also talk about our physical health, and how important it is for us as writers to keep track of that. Dan, Brandon, and Mary all have standing desks, and Brandon’s is affixed to a treadmill (and as a result of this ‘cast, Howard tried a standing desk for a month and but then gave up on it.)

This episode doesn’t offer much in the way of crunchy, nuts-and-bolts writing advice, but hopefully it helps some of you deal with the issues that you now know some of the professionals suffer from as well.

Those Pictures You Wanted: Howard promised to get pictures of Brandon’s tread-desk. He lied, or at least cannot find the pictures anywhere. As a consolation prize, here is a link to Robison’s blog post about mental health.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Our pick, Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer, has been pulled from Audible because the author made some stuff up! So not only can you not believe everything you read, you can't believe everything you listen to.

Writing Prompt: Take an outline, and make a list of the questions you are going to ask your readers at the beginning of the book. Then make a (hopefully shorter) list of the questions you leave unanswered by the end of that book.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, February 24th, 2013 at 8:03 pm and is filed under Career and Lifestyle, Season 8. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. February 24, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    It takes serious guts to talk about this stuff openly — thank you.

    Posted by M.A.
  2. February 24, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    Thank you so much for a BEAUTIFUL, frank discussion of what would normally swallow other people up in shame. Thank you—thank you—thank you.

    Posted by Joe Kawano
  3. February 24, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

    Such an enlightening discussion! My mind is now abuzz with ideas for managing my own health better (Brandon’s standing tread-desk is particularly exciting), and discussions to have with friends, etc. Thank you exceedingly much, all of you! This discussion needs to be made known to everyone — writers and otherwise. Rob has suggested some fantastic ideas for ‘cast subjects. Thanks, again and again.

    And thanks even more, seeing as I haven’t commented before, but have been inspired and helped by every episode, and by all your writing that I have been privileged to read. About Season 3 I decided I probably ought to read your books and see how you applied your advice, and then read Variant as well, and found to my delight that each of you write excellently and fill a different interest/want/space with your work. You are all doing a great work!

    Posted by Nathan Tolman
  4. February 24, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

    Thank you. It is much appreciated to hear others with the same problems and how to handle them. I had something similar happen to me a year ago. I was working full time, attending a UC for my biochem major, and raising 2 kids. I had a panic attack that put me in the hospital. I haven’t been the same since. Like Mr. Wells said the switch is just on.

    Posted by Jason
  5. February 25, 2013 @ 12:45 am

    That’s too bad about that writer Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing his work. It sounded like a good read. I’m always on board with a conversation about this correlation between creative types and mental illness and addictive personalities. They go hand and hand, all across the spectrum. I was almost brought to tears when I lost count of how many mental hospital visits I’ve had in the last four years. Then other days you think to yourself at four in the morning and say, ‘If I wasn’t so crazy would I have not been as creative?’. It’s the artist’s catch 22. And then there’s substance abuse problems. I suffered alcoholism for years before I stopped and saw I’d just about ruined my life outside of my word documents. There’s no bs cliche Hollywood romanticism about it, it’s exhausting and ugly. I don’t know if you guys at writing excuses suffered from these problems, but its issues like this that worries me most about being a writer. Not so much becoming an author, but surviving long enough to get published, mentally, physiologically, and financially. And even then nothing is guaranteed. We need a writerholics anonymous support group or something, seriously. :)

    Posted by Austin Charles
  6. February 25, 2013 @ 1:06 am

    This is kind of uncanny…

    I remember when I was at Brandon’s book signing at the Philadelphia Public Library (2/19) I asked if he knew any ADD / ADHD writers. He said yes, but when I took out a notebook and pen (hoping to find some blogs of writers who have learned to use their ADD / ADHD to their advantage so I can learn some things) he said that he didn’t feel comfortable mentioning their names because he was unsure whether they would want that information disclosed. (or something like that, it is 2 AM right now) I apologized and said that I understand because it is not easy to talk about mental illnesses like ADD / ADHD.

    I had more books that I wanted signed so I went to the back of the line, we were limited to 3 books at first, and spent some time thinking up of something to ask him. By the time I was in front again I was the last person in line. Brandon greeted me by my first name. (which only seemed unusual afterwards) I suggested to him that Writing Excuses could do a podcast on Writing and ADD / ADHD, because our (ADD and ADHD) minds and brains work differently. He thought it was a very good suggestion, and then asked me if I was a writer. I said barely, because I have a hard time starting and continuing projects. Brandon suggested that I try using the Kevin J. Anderson method of dictation, but I told him it wouldn’t be much use to me because I think slowly. (my words at the time) I thanked him for all his hard work writing fiction and taking part in Writing Excuses, before saying goodbye. I think it was about 11 PM when I left the library.

    I’ve been remembering this encounter through out the week, and when I first saw and listened to this podcast… It feels like a continuation of that night.

    And I don’t know whether to chalk this up as coincidence or something purposefully done.

    — Andrew Phillips

    (Sorry for having to put up with this long comment, but I had to put my raw thoughts down NOW or else I’d put it off indefinitely)

    Posted by Andrew Phillips
  7. February 25, 2013 @ 1:10 am

    Folks – I agree with comment #1. Thank you for your openness and talking to the rest of us about this stuff. I think one of the finest things that we need to be aware of is that, as my grandfather says, moving is living. The more you live your habitual life without moving, the more you are moving away from living. I would urge every writer out there to make it a priority to move at least three times a week. I’m not saying you have to do anything stressful; I’m not even saying that you need to go to the gym. Just move. Go for a walk with your spouse, bf/gf, friend, kids, go for a swim, walk to a neighbor’s house, or school or work. Go for a bike ride.
    The key is to just move.
    Look at it this way, you love to write, right? So why not prolong your life so you can do more of it? Thanks for the cast.

    Posted by Levi
  8. February 25, 2013 @ 1:12 am

    I’d also like to add that while this podcast is not what I’m searching for, but there are certainly some food for thought in here. Namely the write a character with your illness bit.

    I think I’ll have to peruse this episode when I’m more alert and focused, because I have volunteer work at the Histology lab in seven hours. (3:12 right now)

    Posted by Andrew Phillips
  9. February 25, 2013 @ 1:35 am

    Wow. Thanks so much for talking about this. I’m sure hearing about this will help lots of aspiring writers. A really brilliant episode.

    Posted by Tim
  10. February 25, 2013 @ 1:50 am

    Great podcast as always guys. I really appreciate this podcast, it’s been very useful for me in my writing.

    On the loneliness of writing, I’ve wondered about this before. I have an office job full time at the moment, but I was wondering: If I ever became a full time writer, whether it would make sense to rent an office space and share it with other freelance people. That would allow for some socialisation during the day, rather than being stuck in a home office all the time.

    The downside is the commute, but it doesn’t need to be too long. The upside is seeing other people during the day and also have a place to do work without the distractions at home.

    At the moment, for me, it’s a problem I don’t have to face yet :) But those were my ideas on the subject.

    As a future podcast suggestion, I wondered whether having an episode where an amateur writer could come in with a short story and you analyse it, as you have done with your own earlier works. That way we could see what kind of thing you say to amateur writers to help them at conferences, etc.

    Keep up the great podcast guys,

    Posted by Simon Cantan
  11. February 25, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    Thanks for the great podcast!
    I feel like an schmuck, though. One of the short stories I submitted for the Out Of Excuses Scholarship was about a guy who had mental issue that made family gathering a bit, uh, interesting. I apologize if that hit too close to home!

    On another note, I’ve experimented with the treadmill desk before. For all you who are going to do this endeavor: BE CAREFUL. You must get everything aligned properly or you can do some long term damage to your back, shoulders, and wrists. If it is not angled correctly, you can exacerbate carpal tunnel.
    But the idea is great, especially since you can think much more clearly when you are walking :)

    Thanks Rob for talking about this! You continue to give others hope!

    Posted by Jesse Cunningham
  12. February 25, 2013 @ 7:15 am

    Thank you for covering this topic with such frankness. It can be really hard to talk about, but mental illness (permanently or temporarily) affects so many people. Dealing with it and figuring out how to live a fulfilling life is the challenge.

    Posted by Michelle Knowtlon
  13. February 25, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    This was a wonderful post, and really relevant for me right now. I have one thing I’d like to say though: as a former “13 year old girl” and someone who works with young teens every day, the mental health and self harm issues of young women aren’t things to be laughed at, and in this podcast it’s used as a nonserious stereotype to be flung off in contrast to “real” problems. In the future, please be considerate of how the connotations of “teenage girl” are used to make things not be taken seriously, and how this might affect young women’s views of themselves. Thanks!

    Posted by K. Tait Jarboe
  14. February 25, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    Dan: do you by chance still have that neurology paper about correlations between mental illness and being a writer? That sounds like something I’d like to read. If you don’t, no worries–I realize how long ago this was recorded.

    As a scientist there are certain mental illnesses that seem to crop up a lot in that profession as well. Probably not all that surprising given science is also creative work. Oh, and since mental illnesses are really far more common than most people care to admit. Though I’d guess the community mental illness profile (for lack of a better way to say it) is subtly different, there’s a fair amount of depression among scientists at least. My observation is that those who figure out successful hacks for their mental (or other) issues are often the ones who also find career success. This may not be about the mechanics of writing, but for some of us it’s at least as critical a topic to consider.

    Really great podcast. Rob, as always, thanks for sharing. Mary, I don’t know you but I’d give you a hug if I could!

    Posted by krizzaro
  15. February 25, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    This is awesome right now. I’m dealing with a depression right now. I’ll get through and hopefully not hurt myself. But Y’all are awesome for talking about it.

    Posted by Bones McKay
  16. February 25, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    @K. Tait Jarboe–

    When I listened to the podcast this morning I cringed at that myself, and I apologize for the way I made it sound. I think what I intended was to say that my self-harm comes from a different mental disorder than the stereotypical teenage cutting (usually that self-harm is an effect of borderline personality disorder, whereas mine comes from OCD). But that intent didn’t come across in the podcast at all, and I’m sorry if it appeared I was making a joke of it. I fully realize and acknowledge that cutting is part of a very serious disorder, and comments like the one I made don’t do anything to help sufferers. I’m deeply sorry.

    Posted by Robison Wells
  17. February 25, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    Thank you very much!

    I am lucky, in that I do not seem to suffer from any kind of mental illness, but I have none a couple of people who have, including one selfharmer. It is a serious issue, which deserves proper attention.
    However for the four of you to so openly discuss this issues, including your own private affairs, on a podcast which is now in the public domain, is an act of genuine courage on your part – especially as it to help other people who might be experiencing similar issues, even though you do not know them personally.
    I for one would not feel comfortable discussing it so openly with people I do not know. Its just how I am.

    So I want to thank you on behalf of all of the writers who suffer from similar problems, for your openness, frankness and sensitivity in the way you discussed this.

    A very good podcast. :)

    – Ben

    PS: On a completely unrelated note, if you would not mind a podcast suggestion/request, how would you feel about an episode or a microcast on the non-chronological writing process?

    To elaborate – it is often said, that when writing, it is useful to write the scenes which excite you the most first, and insert them later, kinda like joining up the dots. Could you do a podcast on this at some point?
    – Ben

    Posted by Ben Lowe
  18. February 25, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    This was a timely episode, actually. I’ve had to deal with several mental issues (depression, and anxiety mainly. What sounds like “battered woman syndrome”, though I haven’t been diagnosed.) I find my writing has been cathartic for most of it.

    And glad you put in the bit about standing desks. I’m actually trying to figure out how to do that in my home without going out and buying one. They are pricey.

    Talking helps. Even if all you can do to talk to others is put up an anonymous blog and start writing about what you are thinking and feeling. That may not fix the problem, but it is a start because once you open the door to discussion the other steps are easier to open up to also.

    Posted by CrissyM
  19. February 25, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    I wanted to chime in, along with all the other listeners here, to say thank you for talking about this! It’s so refreshing that you all are open & frank about things like this, instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it doesn’t happen. As the spouse of someone who struggles with similar issues, Rob, I find your words — here and on your blog/twitter/etc. – to be extremely helpful in particular. Part of it is knowing that we’re not alone in this struggle, and part is seeing how successful you’ve been able to be and how well you (at least publicly seem to) handle your struggles. Thank you for being willing to talk about it openly. I think it helps more than you might realize.

    I’m not a writer, but an editor, and so the “take care of yourself physically” portion re-inspired me to make sure that I exercise and take my work-related “injuries” seriously, even if it is “just” neck strain or whatever. Thanks for all the great ideas!

    Posted by Michelle S
  20. February 25, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    I noticed that Mary references a segmented sleep pattern. I find that happens to me all the time, but apparently it used to be normal Marie Brennan actually put this in one of her books

    Posted by Musereader
  21. February 25, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    Most writers have to have a day job, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot have both a desk job and write. I used to work as a software engineer and write when I got home. It was an overload to be on the computer 12 hours a day. Eventually I developed horrible back problems, good posture or not.

    Dragon Naturally Speaking works pretty well for dictation, although it makes mistakes and has problems with foreign or made up words.

    Posted by Andrew
  22. February 25, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    For anyone who uses a laptop and is interested in making a very inexpensive and easy treadmill desk, here’s a helpful blog post:

    Jen, who writes the blog I just linked to, is a very creative person and has done several posts about her strugles with an anxiety disorder. I think a lot of us don’t realize how widespread such issues are, and how many different forms they come in. It definitely helps to have them discussed openly by bloggers and podcasters. Thanks!

    Posted by Melanie
  23. February 25, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

    I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, so this isn’t on-topic for the episode, but when I saw this video I immediately thought of Mary’s advice on applying puppetry to writing. In this case, it’s applying puppetry to the reenactment of a local corruption trial, but it got me thinking about mixing media and genres in novel ways. And it’s funny.

    Best-of Reel:

    Posted by John Nash III
  24. February 25, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    I have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and have dealt with self-harm off and on. I applaud Rob’s courage about talking about his problems so openly. I am also very vocal about my mental health issues, mainly because of isolation issues like Rob discusses, but also to help demystify mental health issues in the general public. I feel that if more people were aware of these invisible disabilities than there can be a more open discussion about them and those who are dealing with mental illness will be more mindful about their issues and may seek help if they haven’t.

    Posted by Drew
  25. February 25, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    I’m really grateful for that episode.

    I tend to turn a judgmental stare towards people who proclaim that writers are depressed more than the general population, but perhaps it is more because those people are usually neither depressed nor writers and at least somewhat prejudiced towards depression. I am a writer who has done battle with it and get defensive about that issue.

    I was pleasantly surprised hearing the bit about writing characters with your own health issue. I got through the darkest spot of my depression by writing a novel where most of the characters were either depressed or suffered (that one helped with self-harm, I suppose). It’s good to hear that other writers have also done that.

    Posted by Meryle
  26. February 25, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

    Question about treadmill desks. How is it on your eyes? I can’t read in a car, because the constant vibration is brutal on my eyes, giving me a headache within 10-15 minutes. I’d be concerned about a treadmill desk doing the same. If I was in the writing zone, I could probably just close my eyes and go, but I don’t think it would work if I needed to read what I was writing.

    Posted by Jeff
  27. February 25, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

    Great of you guys to talk about these issues like this. I always try to be open about my bipolar disorder and ADHD–it’s important for us to destigmatize and demystify mental disorders.

    So many people I know who clearly need help of some form either dismiss their problems as unimportant or hide them out of shame.

    Posted by D Kamar
  28. February 26, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    @ Jeff
    I get really car sick within about 5 minutes, and I had no problem with the treadmill desk. Your back will need some time to adjust to keeping your upper body still while your lower body moves, but other than that, it is nothing like vibration- or motion- induced sickness or headaches.

    Posted by Jesse Cunningham
  29. February 26, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    I write on my ipod touch often when I go out for walks around Tokyo. It really helps to walk. The tread-desk sounds awesome

    Posted by Travis Sullivan
  30. February 27, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    PRI’s show Creativity and Science has done an interesting episode of their podcast called Method in the Madness. It explores the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

    It also asks if treatment impairs creativity. I am glad that they come down on the side of treatment – mostly.

    Posted by Matthew M
  31. February 27, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    Jesse, thanks for that.

    Posted by Jeff
  32. February 27, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    Looking into what writing-related jobs I could turn my hand to, I’ve transcribed a couple of WE episodes… This episode can be found at:

    I’ve formatted it, added links, and a section-menu thingy. Hope you like it ^^

    On the subject of the episode itself, I’ve suffered with a combination of depression, stress and anxiety disorders, as well as the occasional panic attack. I have found that writing or otherwise doing creative activities has helped me “get outside myself”. Instead of being bottled up inside my own head, worrying about my problems and such, I let everything out. Sometimes if I’m feeling dark and depressed, I write dark and depressing short stories, which lets my mind flush it all out. Great episode; thanks for talking about this.

    Posted by Thomas Giles
  33. February 27, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    I get the problems with isolation leading to depression too, I spend a lot of time in the library writing there. It has a nice balance of people being around without it being a social situation(which I have difficulty with).

    Posted by Shauna
  34. February 27, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

    Wow, congratulations to this podcast for tackling Mental Illness. Robison you are brave! You guys rock!

    Posted by Phil
  35. February 27, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

    A bit late, but here’s yet another transcript. Hope you enjoy it.

    Posted by 'nother Mike
  36. February 27, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    I’ll throw in my opinion on treatment…treatment has had zero effect on my creativity. If anything, I’m more creative, because I’m in a place where I can act on my ideas and open up room for new ones–and often an idea only reaches its true potential when you start putting things on paper (so to speak).

    But yeah…I’ve always been of the ‘more ideas than I could possibly write’ kind of guy–most of my characters (good and grey) were originally imagined as the protagonists of their own novels–and that hasn’t changed at all.

    Posted by D Kamar
  37. February 28, 2013 @ 1:10 am

    Cliffs notes:

    The brain chemistry that powers the most creative among us sometimes leads to serious mental instability issues, and you should get a treadmill.

    Posted by Duke
  38. February 28, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

    Thank you for talking about this subject. Rob, you are one of my heroes. Brandon, I’m going to build myself a treadmill desk.

    To address Andrew Phillips’ comments above, ADD (no hyperactivity) has been a real hurdle for me as well. It’s great for creativity. I can brainstorm like nobody’s business. But sitting down and staying with one project at a time is difficult.

    There are all kinds of good coping strategies, and the right medication can work miracles. Dr. Edward Hallowell has a book called “Delivered from Distraction” that is excellent. It’s very comprehensive and written in short chapters for people with short attention spans, like us. He has also done some TV interviews that you can find on YouTube.

    Andrew, keep trying until you find what works for you.

    Posted by Marta
  39. March 1, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Great podcast. Writing health has been a big deal for me since I started going to the chiropractor a couple years ago. Some things she was able to fix, some things I had to figure out on my own–like the fact that my right shoulder never stopped hurting because it was in a permanently elevated position from handling my wireless mouse. I switched the mouse to my left hand and the pain has vastly improved. I figured out that my muscles were unbalanced– my right shoulder was much stronger than my left, so I switched the mouse to balance out the strength between the two shoulders. I also use a a squeezing tool designed to strengthen my grip–that’s helped with wrist pain along with some other hand strengthening exercises and stretches, and for a VERY long day of writing, have a cold pack on your desk to put your wrists on when they start to hurt.

    By the way, where do I find those pictures of Brandon’s treadmill desk? I’m itching to see it and am excited to see how many professional writers use a standing desk, just like the great movie editor Walter Murch who did Apocalypse Now, the Godfather, and Cold Mountain.

    Posted by Amy
  40. March 2, 2013 @ 12:01 am

    I’m taking the cue from Robison and say thank you for discussing this. I’ve suffered with Borderline Personality Disorder (including severe panic attacks and self harm through hitting myself in the face), and it has caused more problems with my writing than anything else, hands down. I get so defeatist that I feel I’m going to waste the 20 years writing total crap and convince myself to stop writing for a while. It affects every part of my life, but more than anything I wish it wouldn’t affect my life’s dream as it has for so long. I just hope I can figure out how to merge the two (writing and mental issues) to create an amazing work of fiction before it’s too late.

    Posted by J. David Norman
  41. March 2, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    An amazing podcast. Robinson thank you for not only suggesting this topic but also for being so frank and open about your mental health issues. It is great to have someone step up and talk about it. I finally admitted to myself that I had depression when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. If it hadn’t been for being open and talking about it already I am not sure where I would have ended up when he passed a few short years later right after I had returned home from a military deployment overseas. Being able to talk about it has helped many of my friends in the military stand up and seek out help for their problems without fear of being labeled or being turned away. The fact that this kind of support is something I have found in the writing community as well as the military community makes me feel like people can not only be open about their issues but help others at the same time.

    Thanks again.

    Posted by H. Conrad Miller
  42. March 4, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    Got this podcast a week late, but here is a link to a treadmill desk at Target for those who are interested. Dunno if there are others as inexpensive as this one, but good shopping practices tend to pay off.

    I expect I’ll get a treadmill off of craigslist and hopefully save even more money that this one.

    I don’t work for Target, just found a sample and shared it.

    Posted by B. Byron Whitten
  43. March 6, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Here are some pictures of a writing treadmill desk that the author Nathan Lowell built:

  44. March 7, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    I had no idea that mental illness was higher among creative people! (It seems true with scientists and mathematicians as well.) Now I don’t feel so crazy!

    Posted by N Suso
  45. March 10, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    I’ve heard the theory before that a lot of people who suffer from chronic depression or anxiety are extremely creative, because it takes a lot of creativity to constantly imagine worst-case scenarios, which is what makes them depressed or anxious in the first place.

    Posted by Brenton
  46. March 10, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    @Brenton: That’s the first time I’ve heard that, probably because it’s absolute bullshit.

    Depression and anxiety aren’t linked to us dreaming up worst-case scenarios. That would make the illness a choice. As I’ve found to my great dismay, when I’m depressed or anxious, I cannot find a root cause. If I could, I’d use my godlike creative powers to dream up best-case scenarios. I’ve actually tried that, too. It doesn’t work, because with these mental illnesses there’s no rational reason to be unhappy or worried — my body and brain are simply betraying me and concocting a chemical stew that generates the emotional state.

    If it sounds like I’m yelling at you, I am. Your suggestion is that the mentally ill person somehow made themselves sick, that this was a choice. Back away from that position slowly, and then run like hell for the tree-line.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  47. March 11, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

    @Howard: You’re right that for a lot of people, depression and anxiety comes from the body and brain rebelling for no reason, and I see how Brenton’s comment could come off as invalidating and therefore provoke understandable anger. However, from my own experience, depression and anxiety can stem from trained cognitive responses that can be rewired with effort. It’s loaded to look at that and say “this was a choice,” because it wasn’t a choice to get into that place – but for some people, choosing to work one’s way out of it with therapy – professional or self-guided – really works. For me, when I’m using cognitive therapy to combat the irrational, pessimistic “scripts” that I’ve picked up and reinforced over the years, the intensity of my depression and anxiety goes WAY down. So even though it’s largely unconscious, I’ve become aware that there are processes in my mind causing me to feel sick, or at least to worsen it, and that I can do something to help myself – which for me is actually really heartening. Again, I know that this is not the case for everyone, nor am I claiming that anyone “chooses” to be sick. Of course we don’t; it’s miserable and if it were simple to get rid of, everyone would instantly do that. But saying that imagining worst-case scenarios or that other problems in rationale have nothing to do with depression and anxiety ever ignores a lot of people who suffer that way and might even be disempowering for some readers. You may not have been saying that at all, and I’m not trying to be argumentative or accusatory here; I just want to lend my perspective because that’s how I interpreted it.

    Posted by NR
  48. March 11, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    […] put up a podcast episode with Robison Wells as a guest speaker. The ‘cast was entitled Writing and Personal Health, and in listening to it I learned that Mr. Wells is an author whose writing has often been affected […]

  49. March 11, 2013 @ 4:07 pm


    I’m no doctor, but I’m intensely leery of your statements. They may very well be true for you, but I will always err on the side of “mental illness is an illness”. If I see a psychiatrist who recommends a psychologist to do cognitive behavioral therapy, and they determine that it’s all “in my head” (so to speak), then I will gladly do the cognitive therapy. But I will always–ALWAYS–recommend that that decision be made by a psychiatrist who actually knows what he’s talking about.

    It’s fine to say “this worked for me”. But there’s a danger when that turns into “this worked for me; you should try it before you see a doctor.” See a doctor first. Mental illness isn’t something to toy with.

    Granted, you didn’t say “don’t see a doctor”. But you did say that for many people mental illness is something they can simply think their way out of. And while that may be true, I think it does a great disservice to someone who is seeking help. It makes them question themselves, and maybe not get help at all, and then who knows where they’ll end up.

    Mental illness is real. See a doctor first. Don’t attempt to self-medicate. If cognitive therapy is right for you, let a psychologist guide you through the process.

    Posted by Robison Wells
  50. March 11, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    @Robison Wells: Thanks for pointing those things out. You’ve extrapolated unintended meanings from what I posted, but if those meanings can be extrapolated then they need to be addressed. I agree that seeing a doctor first is the best course of action, *especially* for chronic or very strong depression and anxiety. I never said “Try this before you see a doctor” nor did I mean to imply it. You’re right – that’s dangerous, and I hope anyone who reads this thread and is suffering isn’t prompted to give up on getting help because most often it’s necessary and makes the biggest difference. It was an oversight not to include that; I just wasn’t thinking about or trying to comment on whether or not someone should seek help. My concern was cognitive impact being acknowledged as another real thing.

    As I wrote it, it was “…for *some* people, choosing to work one’s way out of it with therapy – *professional* or self-guided – really works.” (emphasis added) Just in case, by “self-guided” I meant with books on the subject material. The ones I’ve read have suggested seeking professional assistance if the symptoms are very strong, because the books are not a replacement for a psychologist/psychiatrist. I see a therapist who works with me on CBT, but reading about things first helped me take that step to see someone. It helped me feel like things weren’t *hopeless* and that help was even possible.

    I by no means meant to imply mental illness isn’t real or that these things aren’t legitimate illnesses – I don’t think I said anywhere “I am not mentally ill, and neither are people who experience things this way.” Depression and anxiety are very real, serious problems even for those who can use CBT. And “simply” is not something I’d ever add to “think their way out of” – frankly, that’s an unfair way to phrase it. It’s an uphill battle, and there’s no guarantee it’ll solve everything, or permanently. But for some people, the way they think has a severe impact on the way they feel and working on changing thought-patterns can decrease depression and anxiety. They’re illnesses that can be treated in different ways for different people. I just think both sides should be acknowledged, and that’s why I said anything at all, because I think it’s dangerous to say “You can’t help yourself at all,” just as it’s dangerous to say “Attempt to do everything on your own before seeing anyone” (which I would never, ever advocate, and for what it’s worth I do think it’s more dangerous to take that track). There just isn’t a single template for mental illness, that’s all.

    Posted by NR
  51. March 11, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    In closing, I guess I’m baffled at you being “intensely leery” of me trying to say that dwelling on worst-case scenarios and other thought patterns *can* lead to depression and anxiety, or worsen them, and that for *some people* working on changing those thought patterns can be helpful, so Brenton’s post was not necessarily egregiously untrue. Saying that the way you think can affect the way you feel and that I personally have experienced things that way, and that there are others who do, is not the same thing as saying “You’re choosing to be sick and you’re not actually mentally ill so just buckle up and think your way out of it.” Like…obviously, things don’t work that way, and for a lot of people, maybe even most people – I don’t claim to have any knowledge about the numbers – CBT isn’t going to work at all because it’s the chemistry that’s off, or it’s not effective for them for any number of other reasons. That is true. And it’s fine that you voiced your concerns about seeing a doctor first, and I’m glad that you did, but I don’t understand being intensely leery of just stating that other people can have other experiences. An addendum or advisory warning would have been more appropriate than an argument, since I wasn’t advocating any of the things you’ve taken issue with.

    Posted by NR
  52. March 11, 2013 @ 11:47 pm

    @NR: Your statements are much more palatable than Brenton’s, but like Robison, I worry that you’re pushing the pendulum too far in the “all in your head” direction based on anecdotal evidence and a sample size of one.

    Maybe not deliberately, but that’s how it reads. Own up to that.

    Yes, cognitive therapy can work. And it’s something a doctor should prescribe, just like medicine. But if you tell that story incorrectly, sick people can be convinced that they don’t actually need outside help. I will always suggest that people get help.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  53. March 12, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    To all of you WritingExcuses-ers: a huge thank you for speaking out on issues that many are still today ashamed to face, much less speak openly about. My heart goes out to all of you.

    Embracing a mental illness and then using it creatively is wonderful, but let’s face it: having a mental illness is hard work. Mental illnesses–even the less severe ones–are like black ice to the winter jogger. Out for a pleasant run on a sunny, snow-covered winter’s day, the jogger sees what he believes is a clear patch up head–a section of the path where the snow has melted away. He looks forward to his shoes getting a good grip on the black tarmac. His thoughts turn to sunny days, to wearing shorts and feeling the sun on his skin as he runs. With summer thoughts occupying his mind, he strides forth onto the black patch–and skids out of control. Arms flailing, he loses his footing and lands on his backside. He slides at full speed the length of the black ice. He’s out of control, and nothing he does will slow him down. He resigns himself to his situation: Down; battered; bruised; alone. Supine on black ice. Getting back up isn’t impossible, but it’s hard, slow work.

    Some depression – some – is due to poor coping skills. This can be remedied with cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Some depression is more mysterious. If we look at the moodiness/depression of teens, women in menopause, and women a week before their monthly cycles, it seems that some depression is related to hormonal imbalances. Unfortunately, modern medicine isn’t yet equipped to help much, though a trip to an endocrinologist might be a good place to start. Yes, there are various anti-depressants out there, but they don’t address the underlying problem.

    For panic and anxiety issues, the best book I’ve found (and I’m speaking as a secular clinical psychologist who has read loads in the area) is a thin paperback, Ray Comfort’s “Overcoming Panic Attacks.” At the back of the book there’s a Christian gospel message, which you needn’t read to gain the benefits of the book. I use the book with my patients here in Atheist Sweden to very good effect.

    As to whether to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, think of this: a psychiatrist is a medical doctor with very little psychology. A psychologist is the expert in mental disorders and, here in Sweden at least, we study psychopharmacology. We don’t prescribe, though there’s a battle going on to allow it, as we are the ones who diagnose and treat the patients. (Having been baffled by many psychiatrists’ diagnoses and having changed them to reflect reality, I tend to steer people away from psychiatrists and to licensed psychologists. Not counselors, mind you, but psychologists.)

    Posted by Coppertoe
  54. March 12, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    @Howard: “Depression and anxiety aren’t linked to us dreaming up worst-case scenarios. … As I’ve found to my great dismay, when I’m depressed or anxious, I cannot find a root cause. If I could, I’d use my godlike creative powers to dream up best-case scenarios. I’ve actually tried that, too. It doesn’t work, because with these mental illnesses there’s no rational reason to be unhappy or worried — my body and brain are simply betraying me and concocting a chemical stew that generates the emotional state.”

    ^Anecdotal evidence and a sample size of one. I was directly answering your experience with my experience and concern for those who might share it.

    What if someone read that, and said, “Well, this is just how my brain and body works. It’s no use trying to get help. I can’t change anything.” Or worse, “Because I have identifiable causes for my depression, I’m choosing to be sick and it’s just me” which could just as easily lead to “so I don’t need help.” You also don’t mention seeing a doctor. That wasn’t really the issue. The issue was what can and can’t lead to anxiety and depression.

    All I was trying to say is that sometimes it works differently, and that just because there are identifiable causes doesn’t mean it’s a choice. If you guys read it as me saying “A majority or at least 50% of people experience depression/anxiety this way and you can overcome it all on your own” then I’m sorry it came off that way. I should have just posted a link.

    For anyone interested in what CBT is:

    Posted by NR
  55. March 12, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    Also, Howard: “…if those meanings can be extrapolated then they need to be addressed. I agree that seeing a doctor first is the best course of action, *especially* for chronic or very strong depression and anxiety. … It was an oversight not to include that” <- That was me owning up to it.

    What I haven't seen you do is own up to flying off the handle at someone for sharing something about mental illness heard second hand, which had a slight basis in scientific research that you vehemently denied based on your own experience: the part about imagining worst-case scenarios leading to anxiety and depression, which sometimes, it does.

    Part of my mistake was following that example and responding with my own personal experience, and another was not providing a broader context and warning. Everything I can say has been said now, though, so I'll let it rest in agreement: Yes, if you're suffering from mental illness, seek professional help. Know that just because you may not experience it the same as someone else doesn't mean you're not experiencing it, and that you don't need assistance. Best of luck on your journey.

    Posted by NR
  56. March 13, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    Thank you for putting this raw topic out in the open!

    I found this cheap alternative to a tread desk:

    Posted by Rebecca Burgener
  57. March 19, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    @Howard Tayler
    I just wanted to mention, and I hope no one hates me for this, that mental illness can be caused by past abuses and trauma, just like mine was. So far, it seemed like you have only mentioned mental illnesses that are chemical by nature, and in many cases, that’s all they are. But there are many studies showing that survivors of any kind of abuse, physical, sexual, emotional, or negligent, are at a much higher risk of developing a mental illness (especially early in their lives) than those that have not gone through any major trauma. Just as NR said, abuse can lead to our minds reinforcing certain thoughts that can be harmful to us, especially if the abuser was someone who was trusted and should be believed. But if there is a history of mental illness in your family anyway, plus any abuse, the likelihood of your actually developing a mental illness goes up. And I agree that psychiatrists should be the first person to go to, and medications are also important. But so is counseling! It doesn’t stop with the right medication; counseling, in which CBT can be included (or can it? I don’t know), with a professional can help you keep yourself in check, to make sure you’re not falling into another episode or to make sure it isn’t as bad as the last, etc. Now I’m not saying that medication is not important; it is. But in my experience, professional counseling has helped me more than medication has. Perhaps I just haven’t found the right medication or something. And frankly, don’t take this the wrong way, but I find it offensive that you would say that counseling is a bad thing to think about and that meds are always the only way out of being depressed. I’m sure you didn’t actually say that, but that’s what I felt you meant. Either way, it has been an enlightening discussion!

    Posted by N Suso
  58. March 20, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    What happened to the treadmill desk pictures?

    Posted by Spudd86
  59. March 30, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    Thank you all so much for this episode, as well as the next episode, “Abnormal Psychology.” I have been a listener for almost two years now, but I was so moved by both of these after listening to them one after another that I just had to break that silence (and my agoraphobia!).

    I have been attempting to finish one novel attempt after another for over 13 years now. Mostly my issue has been motivation, forcing myself to write even when the initial inspiration is gone, but as of the past year or so I have been dealing with major depression and panic disorder with agoraphobia, an adult-acquired stutter, and self-harm issues. Because of this I have not touched any creative writing in almost a year now. My therapist and psychiatrist have suggested write to calm myself when I am able, but the only writing I have been doing in that area has been journaling, which helps but only to a point. The same is true of my cognitive behavioral therapy and the medications I am taking. The thought never struck me to use my creative writing as a way of coping, and character exploration as a means of theraputic self-exploration.

    I knew writers, especially those that have fame in literature such as Poe and Emily Dickinson, occasionally suffer from mental disorders, but to hear it from modern writers whom I listen to every week is extremely eye-opening. It takes a lot of courage to admit the things you have, especially when it comes to self-harm, and it’s very inspiring. I can definitely relate to your panic disorder, Rob. Mine, too, was very sudden.

    I do have a question though: As far as your agoraphobia goes, how do you get through being on something as public as Writing Excuses, or even just being an author? Does anyone else in the ‘cast have any input here?

    Thank you all again for touching on this subject. Personally, it’s been one of the best podcasts I could listen to.

    Posted by RKH
  60. April 2, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

    […] was listening to episode 8.8 of Writing Excuses Podcast and it made me realize I’m not alone in this type of feeling.  While what I feel is minor […]

  61. April 25, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

    […] with depression, which leads to someone who regularly contemplates suicide. Just a few minutes ago, a podcast discussing mental health prevalence in writers came up in a writer’s group discussion on facebook (this was the final prod that made me […]

  62. July 18, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    I know this is an old episode, but I’m catching up and thought I’d say I liked this episode a lot, but for me, I’m left with a central question: How do you go through something terrible and still write? It can’t always be therapeutic.

    It’s a topic close to my heart, because over the past two years, a close family member of mine attempted suicide seven times. I was the one he always turned to. I was the one who would fly across the country and take the drugs away and play board games with him while he went through heroin withdrawal, pouring tabasco down his throat, trying to ameloriate the symptoms. And it was so hard. I felt so helpless. I came back and fell into such deep depression. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the wall or play computer games, waiting for the phone to ring again. With another doctor. Another lie. Another ditch for him to wake up in.

    And I couldn’t write anymore. And now two years of my life are gone. And my family member is better, but I’m not. And one of the people in my writing group just got a book deal. And I have the cards of a half-dozen editors and agents sitting in my desk who all want to see my book when it’s finished. And I see the author at signings who offered to introduce me to his agent and editor, and he looks at me with such disappointment. He taught me so much, and I can’t do anything with those lessons.

    And I sit here, staring at a wall. This is the first time I’ve listened to the podcast in what feels like forever. I’m trying to get back into it. But I can’t. I’m lucky if I can edit one half-chapter in an eight-hour day.

    But Rob wrote. Mary wrote. And I can’t. And I’ve thrown away my opportunities with both hands to help somebody who then told me I was the reason he was so messed up in the first place.

    I do see a councilor. It helps, but not with writing. It’s been eight months since the last incident, and I can’t help thinking I should be better by now, especially since in all other areas of my life, I’m relatively happy.

    There must be some trick to remaining functional and creative while dealing with self-esteem/depression issues. It’s probably individual and impossible to explain. But what helps you? Meditation? Something else? All my brainstorming/creative thinking is going down a drain of what-might-have-been, what I could have done to make things better, even though I know that the past is the past and I have to put it aside.

    Even though you all might not have dealt with something so traumatic, there must have been times when you felt de-motivated or lost concentration. But you write anyway. That’s what makes you professionals. How do you do it?

    I probably just need to practice more. The writing comes from the same place as my empathy, and it’s hard to tap one without tapping the other, and that brings up grief. Maybe I just need to grind through until I develop harder soul callouses.

    I’ve never written about what I’m going through publicly before. Maybe putting all my fears into words will help me find the focus I need to. I hope so.

    Thanks for offering me a space to vent, anyway.

    Posted by Jennifer
  63. July 19, 2013 @ 6:51 am

    I’m not a medical professional, but it sounds like you are suffering from depression. If the counsellor isn’t helping, there are other options.

    Posted by Ed
  64. March 27, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    […] put up a podcast episode with Robison Wells as a guest speaker. The ‘cast was entitled Writing and Personal Health, and in listening to it I learned that Mr. Wells is an author whose writing has often been affected […]