I am a great advocate of writing therapy. When diagnosed in 2010 with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder I, anxiety- and panic-related disorders, and bulimia nervosa, I immediately began searching for an effective means of coping with what I finally understood to be mental illness.
It wasn’t easy to find any.
Writing became a powerful outlet for me, a tool I used (and still use) on a daily basis to help me keep in touch with my emotional and mental state. It is my therapy, my cathartic release, my method of taking the troublesome and often terrifying things lurking within me and exorcising them.
It was in this way that my debut novel, Chasing Azrael, was written. Subconsciously, I took all my problems and poured them into my characters, writing away my pain and giving it to someone else. I was suicidal at the time. In finding a way for the main character to cope with the loss (through suicide) of her husband, and her own suicidal thoughts, I found I had—without realising it—worked through my own issues. I have not attempted suicide since finishing the first draft, almost four years ago.
That’s the longest suicide-attempt-free stint I’ve had since I was thirteen.
I just turned thirty.
I’ve since gone on to refine this technique of using characters as proxies, doing it in a far more conscious, deliberate way.
I refer to this process as Emblematic Exorcism—creating a character that embodies a particularly painful aspect of my own psyche, and finding a way for them to cope.
A while ago I was doing some research for my next novel, Death Becomes Me, when I came across something very interesting that took my writing therapy to a whole new level.
Death Becomes Me is a very personal story. The core relationship, between Evelyn and Luke, was originally based on a relationship from my own past. I’ve never been able to stop obsessing over it. I decided it was high time this was dealt with, so I made Evelyn the living (in my head) embodiment of all that pain. I gave her the angst, horror, suffering, and years of obsessively searching for non-existent answers.
This novel has taken a lot out of me emotionally, physically, and mentally, but it is helping. I reached a stage where I could push past all my own issues and see the characters as separate from myself, as more than proxies for my own pain.
At this point I realised my novel, while helpful to me, was a mess from a narrative and structural perspective.
The story lacked focus.
Chasing Azrael wrote itself in a matter of weeks. Writing Death Becomes Me has been like pulling teeth from a grumpy Great White Shark.
The original focus of the story was the dysfunctional relationship between Evelyn and Luke. The more exorcised my ‘Luke’, the less I needed the characters to stick to that traumatic narrative.
The less I focused on the relationship the more I was able to see the true core of the story, which revolved around Evelyn’s trauma, not my own.
While researching the novel—an Urban Fantasy Mystery—I came across a Wiccan practice known as ‘grounding’, or ‘earthing’. Already quite familiar with the tenets of Wicca and their occasional similarities to Buddhism (which interests me personally) I decided to attempt it, partly for first-hand experience to inform my writing, partly because I was curious.
The essential concept of Earthing is that the world has its own energy and balance, found everywhere, in the ground, trees, mountains, and rivers all around us. The notion is really very simple—by finding an awareness of this energy, and aligning ourselves with it, we nurture a connection to the Earth, which enables us to achieve a healthier, clearer state of being.
I already practice Buddhist meditation, having found it extremely beneficial for managing my mental health. There are several suggested methods of ‘earthing’, including meditating on a mountain.
As it happened I was on Anglesey trying to write, and so finding a mountain wasn’t difficult. The experience of meditating in such a wild environment brought a whole new level to the experience, but it was what happened next that was truly magical.
Another earthing method is walking barefoot, a practice that is believed by many to enable you to absorb the free energy of the earth (there is also some scientific evidence suggesting it is physically beneficial). I went unshod, wherever possible, across beaches and meadows and found thoughts and feelings falling away as I walked. Once they were no longer accosting me as they had been, it much easier to consider them in an objective manner.
Out came the notebook and pen.
There is much we don’t understand about the mind. Here is one more thing: the pain and trauma of years of illness, bottled up within me for as long as I can recall, were unlocked through writing, which was a good thing. But opening that door was something akin to unbarring the gates to Tartarus.
Taking myself out into the wilds allowed me to find order in the chaos of what had been unleashed.
Writing is a powerful form of therapy.
Earthing prior to attempting it is nothing short of magic.
Hazel Butler is an author of Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction. Her debut novel, Chasing Azrael, is the first in a series of Dark Urban Fantasy Mysteries exploring themes of mental health, depression, and suicide. She also runs The Bookshine Bandit, providing freelance editing, proofreading, artistic, and coaching services to authors, and The Bipolar Bear, a personal blog detailing her experiences with Bipolar Disorder and mental illness.