A few weeks ago I was in my Wise Woman Johanina's office weeping about career disappointments, and she suggested that I consider my occasional but overwhelming periods of despair, envy, malaise, and disorientation as a kind of flu. "Treat yourself as if you were sick," she said. "Take good care of yourself."
"But I don't want to wallow in it," I sobbed, scrabbling in the mud with the hogs as the rain poured down.
"You're not wallowing. Give it a little room. It will pass."
She was right, it did. But it made me think about the power of Envy Flu. It's a nasty, nasty virus. Here are some of the symptoms I experience (your symptoms may differ):
- Heart palpitations in bookstores, particularly around the front display tables.
- Grinding stomach action when I hear about friends' successes (followed instantly by remorse and true happiness for them).
- Antipathy towards my own writing.
- Nostalgia about my years as a waitress in many shitty restaurants.
A couple of days ago, Jessica had a small bout of Envy Flu. Her cure was to list three wonderful things in her life. I think it made her feel better, but her cure doesn't work so well for me. I can probably list thirty wonderful things -- I'm having a wonderful life. But when I'm having a bout of Envy Flu, I could list three hundred wonderful things and the raging virus inside of me would still shout, "Yeah, but what about your novel? Hell, what about your novels PLURAL? And look at what so-and-so just whipped out and got that huge advance for...? What about ME????"
When it arrives, Envy Flu tends to hit hard. With physical illness, I'm a bad patient. First, it takes me a long time to admit I'm sick. By the time I actually take my temperature ("102?!! That's a fever!") I've usually been shivering and feeling dizzy for hours. Then comes the spiraling denial/acceptance transition. ("Oh no, I'm sick. I guess I'm sick. Am I sick? Do you think I'm sick? I must be sick. I guess I'm sick. Am I sick? Oh no, I'm sick. I'm sick! I'm sick!") Then I'm sick. And when I have a body flu, in the moment of puking my guts out or coughing my lungs out or quivering from fever, I'm always somehow convinced that I will never recover, that this is the real experience of life, that I'm doomed to puke or cough or quiver forever and ever until I die.
Envy Flu is no different. When I'm in the throes of it, I'm convinced that I'm always going to feel this ungrateful, whiny, and jealous. I hate myself, and I hate you.
But then -- whether its Taiwan Flu or Envy Flu -- after a period of disruption from my normal state of wellness, I start to feel better. At a certain point I feel a shift -- I've defeated the illness. Something (ill humour?) has dissipated. I may still feel lousy, but I'm on the way back to health.
I'm not making light of this. Flu of any kind is nothing to mess around with. Some people die of the flu; my own grandfather did. (See also; Wikipedia, the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.) Envy Flu can become chronic. Some writers perish emotionally and spiritually from Envy Flu. They become bitter, depressed, paranoid. They do wallow in self-pity, instead of just giving the disappointment room, and letting it pass. There are writers who actually kill themselves after receiving rejection notices or getting bad reviews or living through a fallow period. Writing is linked to the soul, and you don't mess with the soul without danger.
I believe all writers are susceptible to Envy Flu. We work in a publishing climate that is always tough, we're judged by the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately criterion. We're creative, observational people which requires thin skin, and that thin skin is always being battered. Envy Flu is very contagious, and there's a lot of it going around, because rare is the writer whose "path to success" is smooth and uneventful and straight. (You notice how I put "path to success" in quotes? That's because success is not a place. It's not like you can pack up your life and move there. Or maybe you get "there" -- but you'll soon figure out you've moved to a place that really doesn't exist.) There's no flu shot for Envy Flu, and no instant cure. Listing three wonderful things might be the Tylenol that makes it tolerable, so go to it. But only time cures, and despite flu's dangers, humans are remarkably resilient.
I suggest following my Wise Woman's advice. When you're having a bout of Envy Flu, treat yourself as you would if you had the actual flu. Give in to it. Stop trying to power through and pretend you feel fine when you really don't. If it was a body flu, you would call in sick to work so that you wouldn't infect your coworkers, so take some time off from being a writer. Settle in on the couch with lots of water, warm blankets, chicken soup. Rest. Eat well, get some fresh air, love your people and pets, lay off the NY Times Book Review, do a crossword puzzle instead of reading that manuscript you've been asked to blurb. And by all means, stay out of bookstores. You'll feel better soon.
Related blog: Depressed Thinking Distortions for Writers