Writer’s Block Nearly Killed Me

I had a two decade-long writer’s block and didn’t know it – until it tried to kill me. It nearly did. We’re talking literal inches between me and a city bus moving at speed, trying to make a light. This was three days before Christmas 2016. My writer’s block had long since metastasized into a deep, dark depression built on a foundation of self-loathing. However, once moderated, my darkness lost its grip on me. I could begin to heal – to pinpoint that thing at the very core of my darkness, my depression and my writer’s block. That is my whole point in writing this: I’m walking-talking proof that there is a way out of the darkness. There is hope – always – there is hope.

Regardless of whether we call it darkness or depression – or even writer’s block – this “thing” destroys our perspective. It convinces us that our whole world is a tiny little tunnel surrounded by darkness. And the tunnel keeps getting smaller. Now, I can’t speak for anyone but myself but I’m quite certain I’m not special. My experience isn’t unique to me. Here’s the essential takeaway: everything my darkness said to me was a lie.

The problem was, I’d come to believe the lie.

In The Beginning…

I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. An entertainer. While everything I wrote reflected me, I never ever wrote about me. Even before depression took hold of me, I thought my own story was utterly dull. That’s because I was keeping a secret from myself that I’d have to confront if I ever used me as source material. That was my problem in a nutshell: something bad happened to me when I was 14. A sexual assault. Two sexual assaults – by the religious director at the synagogue to which my Conservative Jewish family belonged.

It was the second sexual assault that did the real damage to my psyche. Had I reported the first, there wouldn’t have been a second. But, I was 14. I could hardly make sense of what a grown man had done to me that first time. How even to articulate it? Instead, I denied it in real time. And then it happened again.

A terrible feeling of culpability seared into my adolescent psyche. Now I was responsible for my own harm. Going forward, this would be the default position. Anything bad that happened to me? I brought it on myself. No one else to blame but me. That saps all your self-confidence; it definitely sapped mine. While I always believed in me as a writer and storyteller, I never believed in me as a person.

There’s a difference.

The Mountain

Hollywood’s a rough and tumble town and an even rougher and “tumblier” business. Strange thing is, climbing the show biz mountain – while hard – isn’t the real challenge here. Staying on that mountain once you’ve climbed it – that’s the bitch. It requires a great deal of luck, political acumen, timing and – off to the side – talent. In order to stay on the mountain, the one thing you must have by the bucket is confidence in self.

Smoke + Mirrors = Show Biz. If you enter a meeting brimming with confidence – you can’t guarantee that you’ll sell anything – but you’ll exit the room with fans you didn’t have at the start. And they might buy from you next time. When you walk in a room (real or virtual), as much as you’re selling a show or movie or content, you’re also selling you.

As I tell the story in my podcast – The How NOT To Make A Movie Podcast – my trip up the mountain was easy compared to most peoples’ experiences. I saw a TV show I wanted to run – and damn if I didn’t end up running it! That doesn’t happen in real life. But, it happened in mine. Doing “Tales From The Crypt” was a literal dream-come-true for me. I was Cagney in “White Heat” shouting “I’m on top of the world, ma!” Oh, the irony. It all goes downhill for Cagney after that moment in the movie. Ditto for me.

Change Of Plans

Consequences and a movie – “Bordello Of Blood” – altered my course and my ability to stay on the mountain. I absolutely could have but didn’t. Why?

Simple: I lacked confidence in me – and my own story. If a storyteller can’t articulate who they are or why they are that way, how the hell can they articulate a character who isn’t them? That was me.

Money compounded my problem. Making it, that is.

The good news – again, I was lucky. I met the right people at the right time and within several months of landing in LA, I had money in my pocket. Not a ton – not very much, really, but my talent as a writer suddenly paid for my existence. And then some.

Show Me The Money

That – right there – that was the bad news – getting paid to write. Just like that, the money became the driver. At 26 – my age when I relocated my future to LA – I had zero big ideas in my head. Oh, I had opinions about everything but no “big concept” demanding I articulate it into a story and then a script. A confident me would have greeted success with “They like how I think – I’ll go think some more (and write it down”. The unconfident me flipped it. I liked whatever the money wanted – and that’s what I pursued as a writer. Whatever their story was? I was happy to tell it. I never looked within myself for source material.

Kinda like I was avoiding something. A story I did not want to tell or even know about.

Secrets Kill

Repeat: secrets kill. Mine manifested in a writer’s block. Long story short – I knew I was in trouble and had been contemplating medication. Thing is, I grew up in the medical culture. My dad was a general surgeon. Our whole friend community was doctors and their families.

This colors how I think about my own health care – especially my mental health care. I knew that my own GP had no background in psychological disorders or the meds used to treat them. Whatever mood stabilizer they had on hand came from some pharmaceutical rep’s briefcase. They were samples. Big money runs medicine in America. Big Pharma especially. My successful outcome isn’t the point of the exercise, selling more pills and making more money – that’s the point.

I wasn’t going to risk my successful outcome and my future on Big Pharma’s shot in the dark.

Getting Help

Moments after I nearly leaned into a passing bus, I got into my car and drove straight to my GP’s office. Though I had pulled myself back at the very last second this time, I knew I could do it now. The self-loathing had indeed gotten that bad. I got immediate attention; I told both my doctor and the head doctor my whole story. I wanted them to have the entire context. Now, the part of the story I didn’t tell them was the sexual molestation. I hadn’t confessed it to myself yet.

I must have exhibited a shitload of self-directed rage because they asked me three times if, perhaps, I should allow myself to be hospitalized. By the third time, I think they really meant it. I assured them that that was unnecessary. I was there because I wanted help. If they’d give me that help, I felt, I might-could regain control of myself and my life. All they had to do was write a prescription.

The Bounce

Here’s my situ: I’m bi-polar with periods of hypomania. My brain flies a million miles an hour. I’d done significant research on mood stabilizers, looking for one that would deal with the darkness but leave the mental energy alone. I feared starting down the road with a medication – that’s six to eight weeks waiting for it to kick in – only to find it was making things worse. That was and is a possibility. It was why I’d resisted medication up until then. But, I’d found one that (lamotrigine) that – my research said – would fix what I wanted fixed and leave the rest of me alone.

My two doctors whipped out their smart phones to look up the medication. They agreed with my assessment of it – and went along with my hoped-for prognosis. They wrote the prescription.

I am sooooooooo glad I asked for that help. I’m glad, too, that I had a hand in steering that help. And I’m sooooooooooo glad that my luck continued. Within thirty-six hours of taking my first minimal dose of lamotrigine, I leveled. Just like that.

The darkness lost its grip on me. It was kinda cool actually.

Up until that first dose of mood stabilizer, bottomless rage owned me. Anything could set it off. Political arguments on the radio, for instance. I’d feel the bomb go off in my gut. Then, like a lava plume, it would shoot up through my chest and throat to my mouth where it would invariably explode out into the world. What fun! Boy, was it tiresome. But, thirty-six hours into my mood stabilizer regimen, I experienced a trigger moment. The rage flared to life and raced upward. But, when it reached my mouth and went to explode into the world, instead, it dissipated like a soap bubble.

“Paff!” Like that, it was gone.

I knew I’d experienced the rage. But, just when I expected it to fill the room – nothing! Only the fading memory that I’d been angry. The weird thing was, I wasn’t angry anymore. After it happened again – almost the same circumstances, I understood: this was the mood stabilizer stabilizing my mood – in real time!

Once I could rely on it being there – and it was there reliably – I was free. It didn’t mean my darkness ceased to exist. It meant my darkness could no longer get at me – and run me. Suddenly, I had perspective I’d never had before – on me, on my story, on Life itself and my place in it.

For the record, I’ve never increased my dose. I will probably have to stay on lamotrigine for the rest of my life, but, there will be a “rest of my life”. That’s the bottomest line there is.

Perspective

The two other facets of my mental health regimen are a great therapist and copious amounts of THC. Like I said, I’m hypomanic. My brain is like a black box theater. Go inside and a dozen or so things are going on at the same time: movies, slide shows, videos, laser lights, poetry readings, science, religion, art and all kinds of abstract thought. It’s maddening but fascinating. THC (I prefer smoking it to edibles) works like a scrim. It drops down and allows me to focus on two or three things instead of the whole freakin’ carnival.

Dealing with my darkness gave me the strength to confront it head on – and, at last, confront the secret I’d been denying for 45 years.

Healing Ain’t Easy…

I won’t lie. That first weekend – when I finally got honest with myself – it was awful! I cried long and hard for the 14 year old me who mistakenly took that burden onto himself. But I absolutely needed to cry for him. To embrace him and make peace with him.

It was cathartic and it was healing.

That’s the bottom line: healing. Once I began to heal emotionally, my writer’s block vanished. Alan-The-Storyteller emerged from the darkness like Theoden in “Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers” emerging from Sauron’s spell.

…But It Is Soooooo Worth It!

I realized I had plenty of stories to tell – including stories about myself. My problem now was time. I’d lost two decades – right in my prime, too! These days, I keep hearing the last lines from Frost’s “On Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” – “For I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep”. I hit the ground running every single day with missions I fully intend to accomplish.

And, ya know what? I walk around in a perpetual state of bliss.

It isn’t the lamotrigine. That merely keeps my darkness in a box. My therapist was the shoulder I desperately needed and she slowly convinced me to tell my own story. At first, just so I’d tell it to myself. THC colors my bliss but it doesn’t motivate it. It makes me feel good – and, feeling good, I approach my work every day with vigor and rigor and purpose.

My story is mine and it won’t necessarily be the case for anyone else. But, like I said, I’m hardly unique. My finances are still a work in progress. Same goes for my future. At 63, I cannot afford to retire. Not even remotely. Yet, despite the challenges ahead, I absolutely believe I can face them and meet them. That’s the practical side of hope.

And it all starts with reaching out for help.

Photo 153053805 / Writer Block © Libux77 | Dreamstime.com

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