The Power of Self-Knowledge: How Understanding Mental Illness Made Me a Better Writer

IMG_3623 When I was 19, I took a ride in the back of a police car.

I hadn't been arrested; I hadn't committed a crime--I'd simply gone off grid at the height of a very public emotional breakdown. A consuming depression, along with a series of misunderstandings, led my parents to fear that I'd disappeared with the intention of harming myself. The police were enlisted to help find me--which they did. So I took a ride in the back of a police car and ended up involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Physically, I was a danger to no one; I didn't need to be in the ward because of that possibility. However, I don't regret the time I spent there. Those days marked a turning point in my life--a defining moment, you could say. Locked up within its walls, I began to understand myself--my mental state--better than I'd allowed myself to do up until that point. Self-knowledge had been something I'd avoided because I didn't like what I learned. There was a brokenness in me I couldn't fix, so I refused to see it. But being committed forced me to see it--the whole ugly truth: who I'd hurt, what I'd destroyed, things I'd done that I'd never have done in my right mind. Only when I accepted that brokenness was I able to start working towards getting better.*

Mental illness is never someone's fault, but I didn't know that at the time. I nursed a deep self-hatred because of actions I'd had little to no control over, and it took months--years, even--to learn that though I had hurt and destroyed and broken things, the blame wasn't on me. The sickness that had altered my mind and behavior was to blame. Once past the point of despising myself, I was able to get to know who I was apart from depression. And once I knew myself, I was able to write.

My work in progress, Ourselves and Others, is based on true events--namely, my time in the psychiatric ward and the resultant occurrences. The only reason I'm able to write about it now, six years later, is because I finally understand where my mind was when the events occurred. There's a deep place I'm writing from, one previously locked away. And self-knowledge was the key to finally opening up that door. In fact, it opened many doors: doors that led to opportunities, art, new relationships, self-improvement. Knowing myself, I can excel in areas I wouldn't even have attempted otherwise. As Rosoff says, "Self-knowledge is essential."

Do you know yourself? Let the person you are come through in your writing. Write from that deep place that only you can fully understand. If you don't know yourself--if you've never been to that deep place-- get to know who you are and allow that knowledge to transform what you do. It'll be worth it.

Today's Prompt: Write a short story based on a defining moment in your life. As you write, try to learn something about yourself as a person: your state during the event; how the event changed you; etc. Let the story come from that place of understanding.

Happy Writing!


*Anyone who has ever struggled with a mental/emotional illness knows it isn't that easy. You can't just decide to get better. My story is not everyone's story. Denial stunted my healing, but many people accept and admit their sicknesses and still don't feel like they're improving. "Working towards getting better" for me included taking my medication, going to therapy, moving back in with my parents, leaving school, and being honest with myself and my family about my illness. It was a long road that truthfully, I'm still on. Depression hasn't been a part of my life for a long while, but I'm now living with Social Anxiety Disorder, which I think is largely due to the breakdown I had in 2009. Accepting that has been the difference between function and debilitation. You can't just decide to get better, but you can decide to get help.