Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.
Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.
Episode X: An interview with Matthew Newton
In this installment, Matthew Newton talks about OCD, depression & anxiety.
Today I’m with Matthew Newton, a writer, editor, and author—his debut book Shopping Mall is coming out in 2017 from Bloomsbury, and he’s also been featured in Oxford American, Guernica, and more. Matthew has a history of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and has been gracious enough to share his story and experience. Let’s start at the beginning. When and what was your initial diagnosis, and how was it brought on?
I was first diagnosed with severe clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in December of 1992, when I was 15 years old (I wrote about this to a degree in an essay titled “White Rabbit”). As far as what brought on my depression and OCD, is difficult to nail down. When I was 11 years old, my family moved from Wilkinsburg, an urban borough in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the city's eastern suburbs. While it may sound dramatic, I often describe that experience as a culture shock of sorts. The environment in the suburbs was far different from the neighborhood where I grew up. There was almost an immediate sense of isolation. Not only because I didn't know anyone, but because I felt disconnected and anonymous. Those were my initial experiences with depression.
How did the symptoms of OCD initially show themselves? Did they precede the depression?
OCD is more complex. Mine first manifested with what's often referred to as obsessive rumination. And it coincided with my depression. I would worry that I dropped something or left a light switch on, simple concerns. But it soon evolved to include rituals and compulsions.
When did you begin writing? Did this coincide with a progression or a recession of either set of symptoms?
I began to pursue writing while enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, where I was in the nonfiction writing program. My symptoms were under control due to antidepressants. But I was unhappy with the side effects of the drugs, and how they made me feel. That's also when I was first turned on to narrative nonfiction as a genre, and was fortunate to have professors like Bruce Dobler, Patsy Sims, and Lee Gutkind who introduced me to that world.
When you say you weren't happy with the side effects, do you mean in ways connected to your writing?
The antidepressants didn't hurt my writing, because at that time I was still a long way from being developed as a writer. What I disliked was more immediate, the fact that antidepressants seemed to rob me of a certain clarity of mind and, in the end, certain aspects of my personality. I often felt like I was looking through myself, not living in the present.
I take it then you went off them? Are you still off of them? Today do you use prescriptions to manage your depression, anxiety and OCD?
I took myself off antidepressants when I was 18, just as I was entering college. I was taking carefully prescribed dosages of Paxil and Anafranil. While the medication helped when my depression and OCD were at their worst during high school, I was tired of not feeling like myself. But that decision to stop taking antidepressants had serious consequences, and I struggled throughout my twenties and early thirties as a result of that choice. I don't take any prescriptions now. But I did find an incredible therapist, which has been a life-altering development.
Was it this aversion to the side effects that made you decide to stay off them despite their consequences?
At first, it was the side effects I wanted to avoid. I didn't like feeling so detached from myself. But as I grew older, particularly after college, I became interested in trying to solve the problems in a way that didn't involve medicine. Mainly through therapy. But in my early twenties, even though I understood that there were different schools of psychological thought, I didn't know precisely how that informed a therapist's practice. So I wasted a lot of time in talk therapy.
What has been the most crucial advantage you've been able to develop through your work with your therapist? Has your time with them mainly been devoted to anxiety and depression, or to OCD (or to both)?
Knowing that I have a certain level of control has been crucial. Of course that doesn't mean I can will away my depression, or that I don't experience obsessive rumination or high levels of anxiety. But I'm no longer blindsided by those things. I see a cognitive psychologist, someone who specializes in identifying dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses. Essentially, she's taught me how to listen to what she refers to as negative self-talk, the internal dialogue that, at least in my case, feeds the depression and anxiety. Learning to listen to the fucked up, often insidious ways your mind operates is a sobering experience.
Do you think being cognizant of this negative self-talk is something that would aid even someone not afflicted by it to the point of diagnosis?
Definitely. I think everyone experiences this type of internal dialogue to a degree.
I'm also curious as to how and if your rituals and compulsions have manifested themselves in the mechanics of writing and producing a final manuscript or piece. Do you find that using those parts of your brain help put away these sides of you, bring them out, or neither?
My obsessions and compulsions certainly manifest themselves in my writing routine. It's probably where I notice it the most in my life. In many ways, there are benefits to ruminating on subtle details, dates, chronology, and structure in a story—especially in nonfiction. I want to get those aspects right. So I often find that my obsessive nature can both motivate me and act as an organizational tool in that regard. But the darker side of that scenario is that it often leads to burnout and mental exhaustion. For example, one of my biggest hang-ups is editing while I write. I have a tendency to strive, perhaps too hard, to make the writing in a manuscript match the way it unfolds in my head. But when I'm looser with my ideas for a story I almost always get better results. So being aware of my own habits is important. Even though I'm tuned in to the weird psychic weight that I take on, I make sure to remind myself to be less precious about everything I write.
In what respect do you see your OCD's place in your mind? Is it something completely separate that you've learned to deal with and use to your advantage, or is it so ingrained in the way you think that it would be hard to separate it at all?
I would say it’s so ingrained that there is no separation. It’s difficult to see OCD as anything but an invasive presence, no matter its ebb and flow in my life over the years. While there’s no doubt it informs my desire for order, there's no true advantage to living with it. When I was first diagnosed as a teenager it was a bewildering experience. A certain sense of relief came with knowing that the obsessions and compulsions were part of a larger disorder, but that relief was only temporary. As an adult, while I no longer get caught up in the same compulsions that dogged me in adolescence—things like checking, counting, excessive hand washing, etc.—rumination remains a challenge.
I'll pitch one last question and then we'll wrap it up. If you were to give one piece of advice to yourself as a young writer—that is, advice you'd give any young writer struggling with OCD, what would it be?
I would say be easier on yourself—always be easier on yourself. Having spent so many years as a relentless critic of my own skills and ideas, this has become a maxim for me. Writing is such isolated work that requires thoughtful and engaged experimentation that the work only suffers when stifled by self-inflicted negativity. I can't tell any writer the best way to free himself/herself of that critic, especially a writer suffering from OCD, but I know that being mindful of the way you treat yourself is very important—at least it has been for me. There's a certain sense of empowerment that comes with that acknowledgement. In cognitive therapy, I believe it's referred to as redirection. Whether that's the correct term or not, when my thoughts skew too negative or obsessive, it helps if I redirect. I'll take a short walk, get fresh air, do something entirely different for a stretch of time to help me reset. Breaking from routine every few hours so my mind doesn't stall out or slip into a black hole has become invaluable.
Thanks for your time Matthew, and your words.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions Andrew. I respect the work that you're doing with this series.