I recognize the danger I’m taking in posting a serious account of a mental illness breakthrough on April Fools Day, but you can’t control when this stuff happens for you. So, there’s no punchline, this is just all good news.
There’s a line in the song “Let It Go,” from Frozen where Elsa says, “It’s funny how some distance/makes everything seem small/and the fears that once controlled me/can’t get to me at all.”
That’s pretty inspirational. But what the song doesn’t tell you is that it’s a lot of work to get to that line.
In 2009, I was about to have a second series published with Mira, and it was a series I was so incredibly passionate about. I loved it with all my heart, and I was so sure readers would love it as much.
For the most part, they did not.
I was crushed. I was also at the start of the five hellish years that span this story. I lost my house– the house I grew up in–, struggled with IRS problems that I’m still paying off until I’m forty, had surgery to remove a huge tumor from my spine, got Fibromyalgia which led to a pill addiction, developed epilepsy and became an alcoholic. It was not the best time of my life.
A brain affected by mental illness can really mess up a person’s life by creating parallels and patterns where there are none. And to my mind– which was mentally ill before all the stress and the raging substance addictions I had at that point– I decided that I knew what was up: the universe had handed someone else’s success to me, and now that it knew what a fuck up and fraud I was and always would be, it had directed that success to the right address and I would go on being the same failure I had always been.
Obviously, the answer was to kill myself.
I was already seriously mentally and physically ill. I was in pain all the time, walking with a cane when I could walk at all, living in a constant daze of pills and booze, missing my daughter’s first year, and watching my career, the thing that gave me the only sense of self worth I’d ever allowed myself to have, slowly spiral away. To my mind, it all made perfect sense. But then a family member committed suicide, and I realized that I was’t ready to do it yet. It would hurt people that I cared about. I decided that I was definitely going to kill myself, but that my reluctance to do it right at that moment was a sign that I shouldn’t do it yet.
Obsessive compulsive disorder has long caused me to look for “signs.” I wanted desperately to see a pattern in things, I wanted a clear signal that it was the right time to commit suicide. I began to set benchmarks for what would be my sign, or at least the thing that proved to me that I was worthless, that I was a fraud, and above all, that I had been given something I had not earned, because it had belonged to someone else the whole time.
I attended the Authors After Dark conference in Philadelphia, and at the book signing, a very earnest, very enthusiastic young woman came up to me and started going on and on about how great my books were and how the writing was so amazing and the characters, etc. until I realized that the book she was holding in her hands wasn’t my book. And as this person continued to talk, it became clear that she had the wrong author. All the writers around me looked at me with such open second-hand embarrassment, I had to get up and leave. And I thought, “Okay, there’s a sign.” But it wasn’t the sign. So I put it in my back pocket and kept waiting. These instances kept coming, and began to form the foundation for my paranoid delusion that I had somehow taken something that didn’t belong to me. I interpreted each of these misunderstandings as a sign. But I still wasn’t ready.
By this time, Harlequin was no longer interested in seeing manuscripts from me. I’d written a critically well-received book that showed absolutely no hope of earning out the advance they’d been paid for it. My last editor had passed on a proposal days before I learned he was leaving the company, not through a phone call or an email to me or to my agent, but through another author’s tweet. I had written erotic romance for a small press, but it didn’t pay the bills. I worked as an editor, making twenty-five dollars a manuscript. Twenty-five dollars for manuscripts in excess of 50,000 words, while I was on food stamps and my husband had to return to the job he’d left in order to go to college. I had to go back to work at the McDonald’s I’d worked at when I was twenty. College was gone for him. Writing was gone for me. I was utterly humiliated, and I convinced myself that I’d proved everyone in my life right. Oh, because everybody in my life secretly thought I was a worthless fuck up, even though they’d never said or done anything to indicate that’s how they felt. I forgot that part.
Obviously, things started getting better for me and my family the very second I said, “Fuck this” and started writing about 50 Shades of Grey. At that point, I was like, “You know what? My career is over, I’ve been planning to kill myself for three years, anyway, so what’s going to happen? What can the publishing world possibly do to me? Spank me? They don’t even know I’m out here. Fuck this.” And everyone was being so nice and so sweet and people were saying I was cool and they were going to buy my books, and I started writing this thing called The Boss and people were liking it.
Things should have been looking up, right? I didn’t need to kill myself anymore?
Wrong. My diseased brain had been so focused on that one goal, that it was too late. I knew I was going to kill myself eventually, and that made me angry. I didn’t even want to kill myself. Things were going good, and I loved my therapist and I felt like maybe I was getting free from all the misery that my OCD and depression had latched onto. But I knew it was going to happen. I was going to commit suicide, even though I didn’t want to. It was just a matter of time.
One afternoon I got on twitter, and saw something that made me go, “This is it.” I don’t know how I decided that this was the moment, but I went upstairs, my whole body shaking, and with complete calm told my husband that I had the final sign, and it was time to kill myself.
This came as a shock to him, as you might imagine, because I’d never told him about my suicide plan– “conceal/don’t feel,” as the song goes. He knew I was depressed, and I was projecting my mental health issues onto a person and a situation that had nothing to do with me. But he’d never realized how deeply ill I was. He made a frantic call to Bronwyn Green, who was on vacation with her family at the time, and they discussed whether or not I should be hospitalized. Between the two of them, they talked me down, and got me to see some reason until I could make an emergency visit to my therapist.
That day was the ultimate low. And out there were people I had never even met and things I couldn’t control, and I had elected them as the deciding factor in whether or not I lived or died.
How fucking unfair was that? My natural inclination is to say, “Jenny, you’re a terrible person.” But I have to accept the fact that I am mentally ill, and sometimes, I latch on to freaky, untrue shit, and it’s out of my control or anyone else’s control. Still, I’m responsible for that, and if I believed in karma, I would think, “Wow, I’m in a lot of trouble right now.”
Obviously, I didn’t kill myself. I walked away from that low point and I didn’t look back. For a while, I caught myself having the occasional weird thought, but I’d nip it in the bud. And I started looking for signs again, but not “suicide, next exit” signs. I began to look for actual, measurable progress in my mental health. Like feeling good about myself, and liking what I had written. Like standing up for myself in my career, and not pretending I needed to scrounge for crumbs because I failed to meet the high expectations set at the beginning of my career. And I have to get this out here, but really? Really, Harlequin? You gave an author with one series under her belt and already declining sales a four book contract for fifty-thousand dollars per title? I’m sorry, but I am not the biggest fuck up in this scenario.
So, why am I writing all of this now? Because last night, I got the biggest, most important sign of my recovery, and gave the biggest fuck you in the history of fuck you’s to my jacked up mental health. I can’t share what this was; it wouldn’t be fair to out the name of an innocent bystander who was unknowingly involved in my suicide plan, and it’s impossible to tell that particular story without being specific. But it feels like, at least for a moment, my mind is clear and I can live with a whole, open heart and concentrate on doing what I love without needing it to murder me.
I was scared to write this post. It makes me sound like a legit crazy person. Because I am. I am super duper full time wacky pants. And I always will be; there’s no cure for mental illness. But the good news is, it’s getting better. I really am able to “Let It Go,” and not try to force myself to feel negative or positive emotions I think I should be feeling. I’m not going to try and show people the emotions I think they want to see, in order to protect them from the truth of my nuttiness. I’m going to be in charge of, and even like, myself. I’m not going to throw the weight of my suicidal thoughts onto someone else, someone I’ve never even met, and make them symbolically responsible for my life, so that I don’t have to face up to my real problems. And I’m going to forgive myself for being my own worst enemy. And I am not going to kill myself.
Tonight, I feel healthier and happier than I have in a very long time. The next time I latch on to some obsessive quest to justify why I should literally destroy myself, I’m going to remember to “Let It Go.” Because it’s way easier than carrying it around for five years.