Writing My Book Almost Killed Me

Writing My Book Almost Killed Me

When I was younger, I thought the average memoirist must have it easy. After all, her only duty was to report what had already happened, and how hard could that be? I certainly didn’t imagine that writing my own life story would put me into such intimate contact with the ghosts of my past that I’d shrink from the sunlight each day, haunted by memories I couldn’t control.

My memoir, “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom,” recounts the development (and subsequent successful treatment) of my panic disorder, agoraphobia and depression. I still dealt with these issues after the crisis point of my early twenties, but I learned to manage the situation with medication and therapy, and my mental illness flared up less and less as I got older. Eventually, I began to talk about it.

I had a lot of stories to tell—like the time in high school when a panic attack landed me in an emergency room in Sicily, or the time in college when my mother extracted me from my filthy apartment and brought me home to heal. I started writing my stories down and talking about them on stage (I’m also a stand-up comedian). And eventually, with the help of a sorcerer-like agent, I got a book deal.

I was happy. I felt great! I felt so great, in fact, that I decided to stop taking medication. After all, if I’d reached the point where I could write about my experiences with mental illness nearly a decade prior, I must be cured, right? I hadn’t suffered from much anxiety or depression for many years. I’d even convinced someone to pay me to tell my story. That must mean I wasn’t crazy anymore.

Then it was time to write the damn thing.

That’s when the crying began—well, it began fairly close to when I first started excavating all the dark stuff that ended up in my final manuscript. I’m not talking about wee trickles of tears once in a while. I’m talking about great gushing floods of emotion welling up from unfamiliar places. I started sobbing at work in the bathroom, and then at my desk. I began to withdraw into myself and avoid the company of friends. And then the suicidal thoughts started up again, after nearly ten years of hibernation. That’s when I knew it was time to go home to my family.

In a way, I felt as if I were reliving my memoir. Once again, I was back at home with my parents and brother. Once again, my mom took me to regular therapy visits. Once again, I got used to taking medication. Once again, I missed out on time with friends. But this time, I was neck-deep in final edits to my manuscript.

As they had ten years prior, the suicidal thoughts recurred again and again without warning in otherwise lovely circumstances—out on a country drive, hiking near a river, watching TV with my family. I found that they were worse in the morning and generally subsided by evening. But the medication didn’t wash them or the depression away quickly, and so I spent two months living with my family, doing my best to go about the daily business of being a human—and a writer—without succumbing to a very dark temptation.

I suppose there are some advantages to going through a suicidal depression while writing about a suicidal depression—it lends the work a ring of authenticity, and brushes away the cobwebs of memory to put you squarely back in the place of your depressed main character (yourself).

But it also tends to eliminate all your illusions about the glamour and sex appeal of being a writer. There’s nothing remotely romantic about the real work of writing. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s often horribly dull. If you’re writing while depressed, chances are you’re either overeating and getting fat or under-eating and getting ugly-skinny—pale and bony and wraithlike. Not to mention the fact that you’re developing a hunchback from leaning over a computer all day, and you’ve probably taken to wearing the same pair of sweatpants over and over. I wasn’t exactly Emily Dickinson mooning about the estate in charming white frocks.

By the time I felt steady enough in my mental health to move back to my own apartment, I had finished the book. I wasn’t happy, exactly, and I certainly wasn’t cured, but the medication had kicked in and therapy had reminded me of a few cardinal rules of living with depression: 1.) Eat properly. 2.) Sleep properly. 3.) Take your pills properly. 4.) Repeat as necessary (which means daily, for the rest of your life.)

And now, as I prepare for the book to come out on Valentine’s Day, I find myself far more subdued than I would’ve anticipated. Oh, I’m excited about it, and proud. It’s work that I think will resonate with folks who’ve experienced depression and with folks who have friends who’ve gone through it. And it’s funny, too. But since last summer, when I stared back into that old familiar abyss, I haven’t been as inclined to go off on flights of joy for fear that they’ll result in their inverse, those steep drops into darkness. I move more carefully now.

So I wait, and I breathe slowly, and I delight in writing a second book, my first novel. It’s full of characters who have nothing to do with my past, and I can make them suffer or rejoice as I please. It’s wonderful! I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I actually look forward to the rest of the process.

And this time? I’m staying on the damn medication.


  1. I had a similar experience just ghosting. (I wrote about writing about it for Publisher’s Weekly recently.) The subject matter was sad, and I took it personally. I started thinking about my own troubled past. Then I lost my shit. Then I got it back together thanks to Klonapin, two rockstar therapists and a doting husband.

    I know your story was difficult to write, but I’m so glad you did. My book helped other people, and yours will, too. I’ll definitely check out Agorafabulous!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. The writing/depression connections are sometimes glamorized. It’s impressive that you’ve become a stand-up comic–to face your fears, I’m assuming.

  3. Thanks for being honest. It resonates with me. I write a book about doing what we love, and I want to share a part of my past on how I overcame abuse and started my journey. It still haunts me, I have flashbacks, and I want to put it behind, but it’s hard to tell to the world and ones that did that to me, with whom I still have close relationships. And so I have a love/hate relationship about coming to the keyboard to write it.

    But hopefully, this is the hard part. I wrote about other hard stuff and once it’s published, it’s in my past, I understand more about life and it helps people or makes us more connected as humans.

    Your story is inspiring in many ways, anyhow. Good luck with your novel! I think as writer we should enjoy most of the time what we do. Writing a novel is definitively on my radar too, mostly for the same reasons.

  4. I enjoyed this article. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad the medication is working for you. I’ll check your book out. Please email me and tell me where I can find it.

    I’ve gone through a similar thing during my 47-years on this earth, only I’ve rarely responded to medication and the underlying cause of my depression is hormonal, all the worse from the hysterectomy/oophorectomy I had in 2010. I’m on bioidentical HRT but it only works so well. I escape into my writing as I always have, but like you said, it’s lonely, and I’ve grown fat in the pursuit.

    Right now, my depression is at its worst, because I haven’t been taking good care of myself and have been stressed out. I just published a historical romance novel that I wrote when I was 23. It got shelved due to the demands of supporting a family. Last year I started editing it. It has only been a little over a week since I published it, but it has received few sales and no reviews. Maybe it’s just too soon and needs time to find its readership. But, even worse, friends and family are being strangely silent. A proof reader assured me that the lack of support has nothing to do with the quality of my work. She said that she couldn’t put it down and read it in one day. But I don’t know what to think. I’m confused, feeling lost. And last night that dreaded word popped into my mind: suicide. I have an underlying strength though, which has always seen me through the darkest despair. And this morning when I woke up, I told myself that I’d keep writing, keep publishing, and drop a few unsupportive friends by the wayside.

    Good luck with your book and your battle against depression.

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