Balancing Life, Writing, and Mental Endurance

Asian Fantasy, Powerful Women, Mental Health.

Earlier in 2023, I updated my website and email branding to share that tagline. All three concepts have been important to me since my very first steps as an author; long before my shiny new logo, my website read “mental illness in fantasy worlds” but I thought it was time for an update and some specificity.

If you’ve been around my content for a while, or read any of my books, you’ve likely realized that I talk about mental health frequently. I’m always learning how to better care for myself and improve my well-being because I’m susceptible to depressive symptoms when I get overwhelmed or overworked. This year has given me various reasons to question my sanity (in that sense, I suppose 2023 is no different than any other year). Although I’m coming out of a brief but intense burnout period, I have the coping strategies I’ve developed over the years to thank for making it out to the other side still a generally positive, put-together person, with all my dreams and goals intact, just with some modifications to the timeline.

Taking care of yourself is a task that’s as challenging as it is rewarding. I’ve taken for granted that I could keep pushing and pushing and pushing myself until I achieved the results I set out for, and time and time again that ends up with my exhausted, creatively drained, and… well, burned out.

Mental illness is one of the most important themes in the Yokai Calling series. There are so many different facets of mental health to consider, and because of my personal experiences, it’s always been important to portray reflections of those experiences in my stories. Although my characters go through some pretty crazy (but fictional) events, a lot of the emotional arcs around mental health come from lived experiences, either from my troubles or from what I’ve observed in those close to me.

I’ve never been that great about sharing my personal troubles. I give vague shapes and often avoid the specifics. It is because, in many respects, they are simply that: personal.

Am I afraid of judgment? Perhaps. I am a very private person, and it doesn’t come naturally to share my struggles. I tough most things out on my own and then perhaps later on, if it feels right, that’s when I’ll talk about what happened. I have a hard enough time talking about my books—which I love to death—and in general with trying to put myself out there as an author. So, it’s quite difficult for me to take that another step and share anything more specific.

But I also know I’m not alone in these struggles.

We in this modern world are responsible for maintaining an uncomfortable balancing act. We must take care of ourselves, but often we must also sacrifice that care for the sake of survival. Care of ourselves, in many cases, does not align with what society expects. This balancing act is a direct impediment to maintaining one’s mental health—including my own.

I also know I’m not alone in being afraid to speak out for my needs.

But I’ve come to think that, as the story of Hidekazu, Masanori, and Aihi becomes more personal, more entrenched in their mental illnesses and their suffering, it is an important topic for me to talk about.

According to a quick Google search, 1 and 4 Canadians experience severe enough depression in their lifetime to warrant treatment.

I could quote an exact source, but the source or even the exact statistic isn’t the point. I’ve lived through depression already, it is an ongoing battle and it is for many people I know and love. For the most part, I consider myself a positive person, very driven and productive, but I can still be taken by surprise by the chemicals working in my brain. When it strikes, it’s like slipping on a blanket during a cold and icy day; a warm and comforting escape, one that you might not always notice the dangers of at first. But then when the blistering heat returns, you’re still stuck wearing a heavy blanket that pins you down and you’re left to suffocate.

I’ve lived with depression my whole adult life. These past few years, as I’ve put concentrated effort into bettering myself, I’ve managed myself much better. I hardly have down days anymore, and definitely nothing like the extremes when I was in university and struggling to juggle deadlines and expectations and work and oh yeah, how was I planning on paying rent this month again?

Thankfully, it hasn’t been like that for several years now. I went back to writing more or less full-time after I graduated in 2020, but it’s still been a bumpy few years for many reasons not worth listing out.

This April though, all the bumps and bruises sent me spiralling into an awful crater of burnout. I skipped the ice and went straight to the fire. I was exhausted, stressed out of my mind, and finally, as soon as we moved (for the fourth time in one year. Not Fun), I was just done. Done.

With the exception of keeping up with some absolute necessities, I pretty much forgot about everything else and buried my head under a rock. (Or rather, under a warm pillow.) I stopped writing (and editing) almost entirely, even the projects that I love and am excited about. At first, I couldn’t sustain any interest in my other hobbies, although after the first couple of days mostly spent sleeping, that’s when I picked up video games again.

A month later, I’m better now, but I’ll likely be in recovery until June. I’m returning to normal but don’t quite have the energy to pull the long working days that I was before this happened, and I’m not exactly eager to jump back into the same routine that caused this in the first time. But now that I’m out of the danger zone, I can’t help but reflect on the experience and try to better understand what happened and why.

I have to say, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in burnout. It’s happened frequently enough in the past that I recognized the signs in February and March that it was coming, but with so much going on, and so much at stake, I couldn’t slow down. I had little choice but to kick things to a higher gear, make it through until April, and then plan to pick up the pieces afterwards.

In many ways, my April burnout was like those bad depressive episodes I used to get all the time. I often couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

Often it felt like, no matter how much work I got done in a day, it was never enough. Nothing I did was ever enough. So why try? And yet, at the same time, how could I ever think about taking time for myself when there were a million things I wasn’t getting done? That I was failing at?

I shut myself away from those who care. Smiled and pretended I wasn’t falling apart inside.

And worst of all were the days when I would somehow have the energy to write a few words (just a few…) and no matter what I wrote, every single word was shit. How could anyone like anything I write? (okay, maybe this is just a writer thing in general…)

Yet it’s these cycles, these thought patterns, that caused the burnout in the first place.

The toll on my mental health feels something like an ouroboros. Except I don’t just have my tail in my mouth, I’m expected to chew and swallow and like it until my tail is completely gone, but even then I’m not allowed to stop eating, so I start eating my body instead. No time to let my tail recover.

That’s not a bad metaphor, I think. Mental health and illness as a tail… like a salamander. Your mind is like a limb that needs constant care, but it’s treated like something that can be cut back and expected to regrow. Of course, it does regrow. It’s a matter of survival. But instead of giving that tail some extra care so it doesn’t get snipped off again, the cycle is repeated, as if we (and society) have forgotten what caused you to lose your tail the first time.

Reflecting more on what exactly caused my burnout this time… it’s difficult to pin down one specific thing. It’s more like there are many contributing factors. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to this:

I work very hard at something I love every day, but I’m still nowhere close to achieving the results I crave. I can only fuel myself on passion for so long before the tank starts to run low and I begin to question myself—What am I doing wrong? Why does it feel like I’m running in place? Are my stories no good?—and the questions begin to wear on the internal machinery.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how important something is to you; eventually, that sense of failure and unaccomplishment catches up with you and runs you over. And that’s life when you’re working all day every day without much opportunity to cool off, re-evaluate your purpose and goals, and figure out where things are going wrong. I love what I do but I know I don’t always make the smartest decisions. I’m still learning and have a long way to go.

For me, burnout comes in the scenarios above: when I make unrealistic goals for myself and set myself on a path of overworking, not getting enough sleep, and not taking proper consideration for my health. Usually this happens with writing.

I always have the intention to do just that. Take care of myself. But life has a way of throwing curve balls my way, and things like self-care get thrown out the window as I run out of time on deadlines, have to manage new and unexpected projects that pop up, or life events get in the way of keeping up with my goals. I’ve learned enough about myself over the years from this cycle repeating itself that this time I did indeed see the signs. And still, I charged forward because I knew the end was near and I would finally be in a position where I could re-evaluate everything that led up to this point.

And finally find a way to untangle the mess I’ve been trapped in for many, many years.

I was recently reading through some of my old newsletters, searching for more content that I could re-use for my blog. For the past few months, I’ve been consistently posting here for the first time in years and it has brought me a fair bit of joy to do so. Relaxing my standards around what to post has renewed my excitement, allowing me time to share more personal posts like these rather than only deeply research-based posts that take a lot of time and effort to research and then write up in a way that makes sense.

Funny enough, I found a newsletter from the first quarter of 2020, just before I graduated from university, where I described the last time I went through a big burnout… (I believe I had several smaller burnouts between this incident in particular and the summer of 2022. In particular, I remember two weeks one May when I binge-watched all 7 seasons of Vikings, but that’s beside the point).

Here’s what I wrote in that newsletter, although I’ve edited this to keep mostly the relevant parts. I’ve also added some commentary in brackets and bold so you can track what I was thinking when I re-read what I’d previously written.

I started January very strong, with all the best intentions. I even planned to take regular breaks! My plan was 5k words a day for weekdays and 2.5k a day on weekends (or a similar productive equivalent when necessary) so I wasn’t running myself too hard all of the time, but also working consistently toward my goals for the year. (Reading this now, I’m cringing! Because actually, 5k and 2.5k goals are not that unreasonable for me. I can sit down and do 5k in 2-3 hours easily! But expecting to do this every day, while still in school, I was crazy! Not to mention there are so many things that I need to do as an author besides just writing, but when I go long times without writing, that’s all I want to do, so I can see why this is the direction I took.)

That didn’t go as planned. Very quickly I overruled my plans to take breaks, instead writing an average of 5k words per day for 23 days straight. It was too much, and the bad weather, snow, and lack of sunlight hasn’t been helping.

This quickly accumulated into long bouts of exhaustion where I didn’t want to do anything, degrading mental health and depressive episodes because I stopped meeting my goals, and then that bled into my schoolwork and lifestyle as well. I started falling behind in school (and I’m still paying for that now, trying to catch up with all these readings! But thankfully I’ve kept up with assignments), and then I was down for two weeks with an awful bug and fell behind in my ghostwriting work, too.

Needless to say, pushing myself too hard triggered an awful chain reaction. It toppled all of the structure I’ve built up around me and left me floundering on the floor trying to recover from being sick and struggling with mental health. (This is usually what happens. The chain reaction. I don’t account for the unexpected, and I plan like everything is going to go perfectly according to that plan. So I’m often quickly forced to compensate for my aggressive planning by working even more aggressively which… doesn’t work. People are not machines! We need breaks! Funny how this was to my current April burnout.)

I learned two important lessons:

1. That I can still accomplish a LOT without having to push myself as hard as I was. When I was writing 5k words a day, it felt pretty damn good (which is why I was doing it so long!) but I don’t yet have the discipline to maintain writing at that level for more than two weeks at a time in addition to all the other responsibilities I’m juggling. But if I have the flexibility to adjust as I went along, I can still complete my goals with plenty of room to breathe and experiment throughout the year. (The problem obviously being that I still haven’t learned how to do this…)

2. It’s better for me to give myself the time I need to recouperate between writing sessions and spend time reading, playing games, hanging out with friends, etc. to make sure I don’t start feeling like my life is all about work, work, work. AKA: Maintaining a strategic sense of self-care, better aligning my goals with what I’m actually able to produce given other constraints (such as work and school), and then not punishing myself when circumstances I can’t control get in the way of my completing a goal on time. (This, I really did internalize! I have been much better about it over the past two years, but there are some extraordinary circumstances that have led to this current burnout, so I’m trying to give myself a lot of grace for not being perfect.)

These two lessons are easier said than done. It’s difficult for me to stop at “just” 2.5k words, or really at any specific amount, when I’m on a roll and the story is coming out like an open faucet. However just because the words are cooperating, that doesn’t mean my other responsibilities just disappear….) In other words, I need to get better at balancing the satisfaction of meeting the demands of my writing instincts, while also abiding by those restrictions as much as possible so I’m not prone to burnout. (Let’s be honest, there are a million other things I could pour that productive energy into if I had to.)

As someone who’s very large-picture focused, who can see the end-goal clearly, but also picture the million steps it will take to reach it… sometimes all those million steps get in the way and lead to anxieties. Like I’m not moving fast enough, like I’m not accomplishing enough because completing two or three minor (but necessary) tasks doesn’t feel like it’s getting me toward that end goal any quicker.

This leads me to think, sometimes, that if only I can do a few extra things every day, at the sacrifice of a bit of sleep, or going to the gym, or my free time, I’ll reach that end goal quicker.

Which isn’t true at all. Two weeks of burnout, depression, and being sick was not worth the few days of time that I might have gained by adding in all those extra hours. For anyone working in a creative discipline, I think this is something we can all agree on: it’s not worth it!

I would like to work up to the point where I can write 5k+ words a day, plus maintain all my other objectives and goals, but I need to work up to that point gradually, and probably graduate from university first (in case I wasn’t clear, it’s a huge time sink…). Once that stamina is build up, then it will be worth it. Until then, I toe the line between my limits and slowly push my limits instead of opening the flood gates.

And I have to say, two years later, that I was on the right track. Proper maintenance makes sure your equipment keeps working well, for longer, without needing to go down for urgent repairs. Our brains and bodies are no different. While overall I can say with confidence that I’ve vastly improved from that point in my life, as evidenced by my current burnout… I’m not perfect. No one is.

But we can always strive to be better at taking care of ourselves. It’s especially important for people like me who are pre-conditioned to be affected by changes to our environments and life structures. Because the constant battle to maintain my mental health has been ongoing forever, this is one of the most important themes in my writing and always will be.

That said, I changed my tagline from “Mental health in fantasy worlds” to “Asian Fantasy, Powerful Women, Mental Health” because I also recognize that as I’ve developed as a writer and an author, so too has my brand.

Strong female characters have always been present in my stories, but it was about time I made it one of my focuses. Don’t get me wrong, I love my male characters just as much as my female ones; I’m not changing how I tell stories to accommodate more female characters. What I’m merely striving to do is share my intent to continue to write about well-rounded people who have their own struggles and strengths. Like every one of us.

However, that’s a discussion for another day… as is the addition of Asian Fantasy.

—Erynn

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My Ark Survival adventures continue with the tale of Roslyn, the spinosaurus my friends and I tamed during our first few hours playing our latest playthrough of the game. Over the next 24 hours that we had Roslyn, we went on several fun adventures: monching sharks, piranhas, raptors, regular dinosaur survival things.

For a while, she was the only dinosaur that we ran around fighting with because she was so strong. But because the map for Ark is so large, we had to get birds so we could fly around and collect essential resources to advance our playing.

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