The High Point of My Career Came With a Physical Breakdown

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

I’ve probably had thousands of migraines. I started experiencing them in my early teens, though they weren’t frequent then, and I dealt with them begrudgingly but not proactively. Medication worked well. By grad school, they were worsening but still manageable.

When my second novel, The Immortalists, sold to a publisher at a level that allowed me to leave my day job in social services and write full time — a rare and extraordinary privilege in the arts — I was wildly grateful. I also felt a lot of pressure. My first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, hadn’t found a wide readership or sold many copies. My new publisher had taken a chance on me, and I desperately wanted the book to do well. I was given the kind of publicity and touring opportunities I’d dreamed of even before the book actually came out. After publication, I did something like 60 events in 14 months.

My migraines were getting worse and worse, but I just thought, I have to push through. Once I get home, I’ll be able to rest. Then my migraines escalated to an incredibly intense pain level — a 14-day migraine during a short tour in California landed me in the ER for the first time in my life. I reluctantly canceled the next day’s event but continued doing them through the end of the year. It was the best time in my life professionally, and I felt so lucky for that. But my body was breaking down.

Just after the publication of the paperback, my pain became daily, which lasted almost a year. Days went by when I didn’t even open my computer because I couldn’t tolerate screens at all. Medication didn’t work, which was terrifying. I had put my writing, my ambition, and my success over not just my health but my experience of life. I’m still processing the conflict of feeling that adrenaline, excitement, and gratitude during what turned out to be the most physically difficult time in my life.

At that point, I realized I needed to transform my relationship to my body. I knew the old ways weren’t working. I found a physical therapist who had expertise in headaches. I’d already had a headache-specific provider who managed my medications, but I added non-pharmacological treatments: I did acupuncture, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, cognitive behavioral therapy, vision therapy, and mindfulness and meditation. (I know my ability to pay for such treatments is another privilege — and, ironically, something the success of the novel afforded.)

I don’t drink anymore because alcohol is a pretty common migraine trigger for many including me. I also drastically changed the way I respond to stress, which is one of my biggest migraine triggers. I used to think my mind was the important thing and my body was the annoying thing that was slowing me down and that I’d deal with later. But being creative puts a strain on my mind, and the body absorbs and reflects that stress. So the way I pace myself now is totally different.

I used to push myself so hard when I didn’t have a headache to the point that I would get a headache. Now I think of working like a wave: Anytime I bring my energy up, like during a writing session, I bring it back down afterward. I’ll do a five-minute meditation or take a walk. I put boundaries around my brain and the extent to which I let it run and run and run. I used to stay awake in bed thinking about a problem in my book, which was impacting my sleep. I don’t do that anymore. When I started this journey, I had to say to myself, like a dog, Drop it. Drop it. Sometimes it would take 15 or 20 times. But I’ve trained myself to create that boundary.

I’m never writing if I have a migraine. Parts of The Immortalists were written when I had migraines, and I’m never going to push my body to do that again. If I have moderate pain, I like to knit or cook something easy. If it’s bad, it distracts me to listen to a podcast with my eyes closed. I still struggle with feeling useless when I’m not being productive. I’ve always been a really focused, ambitious, and rather obsessive person, and I thought that was just who I am, that I couldn’t turn it off. I now have a much healthier attitude toward my desire for control and my at-all-costs ambition. I’m not privileging my depiction of life over my experience of life.

However much I denied it for the first two-thirds of my life, chronic pain has utterly shaped me. It shaped my anxiety; it shaped my fear of loss. The Immortalists is about loss of life, and that instinct comes from the loss of time I’ve experienced — many, many days when I couldn’t socialize or work or feel good in my body. My writing often grapples with uncertainty, which is a feature of any chronic condition. It’s not a question of if there will be more pain but when. And I still struggle with that.

I haven’t sold or published a book since all of this happened, so I’ve been able to stay in a cocoon where I can figure out what’s safe for me. I do feel aware that I’m a slower writer than a lot of writers I know, and sometimes I feel my ambition activate when I look at other writers publishing more frequently. But there’s a growing sense, culturally and internally, that it’s okay for me to do this in the way that’s as healthy and fulfilling — and frankly joyful — as possible. I’ve become passionate about encouraging other artists to find ways of creating that are emotionally and physically sustainable. I rushed throughout so much of my career. I felt very desperate to prove myself. It feels so good not to feel that pressure anymore.

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The High Point of My Career Came With a Physical Breakdown