WRITING LIFE: I’m a Writer with Mental Illness: How I Work Through, With It by Molly Bilinski

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My dad diagnosed me at the age of 10 with a brain that wouldn’t shut off. Hours after bedtime, I’d make my way to the living room, the fuzzy blue light from the television guiding my steps. Without a word, I’d join my dad on the couch, wrapping myself in a blanket and settling in to watch whatever late-night comedy show or war movie was playing. He had trouble sleeping, too.

Falling asleep after my mother died was difficult. As soon as I closed my eyes, my thoughts would race, one after another in quick succession. I described it to my dad as a train speeding down a track while rapidly picking up additional cars; the conductor just couldn’t keep it organized. Sometimes, it would take me hours to fall asleep. Often, I had trouble falling asleep at all — that’s when I’d end up on the couch. I craved deep sleep. Once I got there, I was out cold, as if my whole system was focused on rebooting. Bliss.

At some point, after weeks or months, I started reading, chewing through fiction titles at breakneck speed. It backfired, though. While reading helped me concentrate on something soothing, I’d stay up late to finish a title and start the next. Then, I reached for a tried-and-true strategy that has been used for thousands of years, if not longer, by people the world over. I’d tell myself stories, created in my overactive brain. The Molly in my mind could be anyone, anywhere, anytime. She could be a huntress or a hero or a witch, adventuring through time and space to overcome anything in her way. I don’t know why there was a marked difference in success between imagining my own stories and reading those written by others. It didn’t, and doesn’t matter. When I was pouring all my energy into imaginary-Molly, I could finally fall asleep.


Anxiety, and its sibling, worry, are incredibly normal human emotions. In typical people, they can be a force of protection when things don’t seem quite right, or motivation if a deadline is approaching. They can become problematic when those feelings persist so often and so strongly that they become obstacles, preventing a person from participating fully, and meaningfully, in life.

In people with anxiety disorders, those feelings can be uncontrollable, often disproportionate to the reality of the situation and can be long-lasting, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms, which can include an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, trouble concentrating or sleeping, and a sense of impending danger, panic or doom, can start in children or teenagers and continue into adulthood. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and other psychiatric research and advocacy organizations have outlines of a whole family of anxiety disorders, including generalized, panic and social, among other flavors. They’re the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting more than 40 million adults. Common treatments are therapy, medication and lifestyle changes to help decrease stress and improve relaxation. There isn’t a cure for it, specifically — only strategies to manage it.

I didn’t know any of this, and neither did my dad. It was the early aughts and his wife was dead. We held space for each other, on the couch in front of the television, not caring why we couldn’t fall asleep, but patiently waiting together for it to come.


It wasn’t until almost two decades later I was formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, after sobbing in my doctor’s office because I couldn’t articulate how quickly my brain was constantly moving. As an adult, my anxiety manifests in recurring, intrusive thoughts. They flow into my brain the second I close my eyes to sleep. Most of the time, it’s the running, never-ending to-do list of things I have yet to accomplish. Sometimes, I’ll be plagued with flashbacks from every awkward interaction I’ve had since I was a teenager.

My brain tells me, You haven’t done enough. Do better. Be better.

During the day, it’s easier to keep them at arm’s length, especially because I design my schedule to be busy. Developing a writing schedule with benchmarks and goals is crucial, both for my day job as a local reporter and my work as a literary journalist. Lists and spreadsheets have always been my security blankets, evidence of the work I accomplished and reminders of what still needs my attention. Here, my anxiety becomes a pseudo-strength or a tool, catalyzing me into efficiency. It can be exhausting.

Last year, I started bullet journaling. It’s a popular, aesthetically-pleasing method of tracking tasks and appointments popularized after Ryder Carroll in 2018 published The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future. I never read the book, but I saw sample pages on social media and figured I’d give it a shot. I’ve never been consistent with journaling, but this style works for me. The freedom to create any layout from the gridded dots on each page is exciting, and I started decorating each page with doodles and stickers. My bullet journal is messy and dog-eared but also full of affirmations, mantras and mementos from experiences. On the first page, I wrote a simple, actionable goal: To remember the things I need to do and record the things I did.

Nights are still hard. Most of the time, I try to tire myself out during the day. As I settle into bed, I rationalize with myself and decompress using breathing exercises, or really concentrating on the white noise created by the black screen YouTube video looped on audio of gusty blizzards or crashing waves.

But, sometimes, especially during times of high stress, those strategies just don’t cut it. It’s then I tap into the part of my brain that’s become my personal late night library — full of stories I’ve already told to myself.

There’s help available for those in a behavioral or mental health crisis. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988. 

Meet the Contributor

Molly Bilinski writerMolly Bilinski is an award-winning journalist and storyteller based in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. She writes on the environment and science beat for LehighValleyNews.com, but her byline has also appeared in the Reading Eagle, The Press of Atlantic City and The Morning Call. She was the first-place winner of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s 2022 Diversity Portfolio.

Molly will earn her master’s of fine arts in creative nonfiction in the summer of 2024 from Wilkes University’s Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing.

Molly is Hippocampus Magazine’s interim articles editor.

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