Depression, Suicide, and Literature: How Undiagnosed Mental Illness and My Latest Novel Nearly Killed Me

Daulton Dickey.

Decoupled from Reality

img_4485At some point, severe anxiety decouples you from reality. Psychologists refer to it as derealization. As someone who’s experienced such a state, I find it impossible to describe. Imagine locking yourself in a virtual reality game with photorealistic graphics: you go through the motions, retain your habits, work, spend time with family, interact with people, and so on. It simultaneously feels real and simulated, as if you’re in a moment in space and time and also outside it, peering it. The VR analogy doesn’t convey the experience but it’s as close as I’ve come to describing it. In a way, it’s like trying to describe the color red to someone blind since birth—it’s not possible; you only understand “redness” when you experience its sensations. The same holds true for derealization.

In 2013, I experienced this state for several months. It threatened my job, my relationship, and, eventually, my life. Combined with mania stemming from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, my self-induced hyper-anxiety also fueled a sustained period of writing in which I produced nearly a half million words in less than six months. Two novels, one novella, one novel rewritten from the ground up, and upwards of a dozen short stories burst from my brain as I hovered in this state.Near the end of this explosion of mental illness and creativity, I slipped into a deep depression. Nothing meant anything. I perceived everything as a shade of gray. Some foods tasted like ash. I perceived darkness as cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy took root. As I remained decoupled from reality, and as I slipped deeper into the chasm of depression, I fell away from my family—my wife and kids. I barely spoke to friends and family.

Literature obsessed me. My mental state tightened the grip on my obsession. As I finished one set of short stories, I moved onto a novel—one inspired by Slaughter-House FiveNaked LunchSoluble FishMaldoror, andThe Recognitions. I sought to use literature as a means of conveying my experience, and I thought I could do it with this novel, which I later called Flesh Made World.

Gambling with Mental Illness

It’s important to pause here to explain my mental state. At the time, I wasn’t diagnosed as having any mental disorders. As I slipped farther and farther from reality and rational discourse, I didn’t write it up as any kind of mental illness or deficiency. External stimuli often snagged my focus—I’d obsess over x or find myself despondent over y—and I blamed it for my situation. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t suffering from mania or depression, etc.; instead, other things pushed and pulled me. In short, I often didn’t realize I was suffering from mania or depression, and so on. My narrow focus allowed me to blame other things—whatever they might be at any given time—for the sensations I experienced. One exception held, however: anxiety.

To explain:

Salvador Dali has intrigued me since 1989. I was 10-years-old the year he died. I hadn’timg_4427 heard of him until television obituaries showed strange art and strange interviews by and with a stranger man. He captured my imagination. To this day, I consider myself a surrealist. In writing Flesh Made World, as well as the preceding novel, I sought to channel Dali by developing a peculiar writing method.

To help latch onto his bizarre imagery, Dali employed a method he called the Paranoiac-Critical Method. Essentially, he’d cultivate a paranoiac state, enabling him to make irrational associations, which gave birth to surreal scenarios and imagery. I couldn’t figure out how to trigger a paranoid state, however, so I couldn’t replicate his method. I did, however, understand anxiety—it’s something I’d lived with for years—and I knew how to trigger anxiety attacks.

Every night—when my wife and kids slept—I lay in bed and wrote on my iPad. I’d trigger an anxiety attack before each writing session and feed on the skewed state and perception as I wrote. In my naiveté, I thought I could control my anxiety, and in the end it helped push me into onto of the darkest periods of my life. That my experiments with a method of anxiety would help compose a crescendo of disharmonic catastrophe didn’t occur to me at the time. I thought I had stumbled onto a novel way to write hyper-kinetic and surreal books and stories. I didn’t think it’d play a part in my eventual unraveling.

Flesh Made World

As stated above, I set out to write a pure surrealist novel inspired by Slaughter-House FiveNaked LunchSoluble FishMaldoror, and The Recognitions. Surrealism had started as a literary movement, envisioned as a branch of psychology. Its founders revered Freud and his understanding of the subconscious. Through techniques the surrealists developed, they hoped to tease out personal and universal truths hidden from our conscious states.


I’d long felt its founders’ literary endeavors lacked the power and imagery of the surrealists’ visual work. Soluble Fish by Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was a rare exception—as were the works of Antonin Artaud. My ambition was grand, and I knew my method of triggering anxiety might provide the edge I’d need.

Thematically, the novel centered on death and the nature of reality, two topics which had fueled my work for years. I aimed to subvert traditional structures in favor of a slightly chaotic logarithm—to keep things brief: I wanted the “structure” to mimic the neurophysiology of a human brain as it encoded, stored, or retrieved memories.

As ambitious as it sounds, I set out to write a fairly simple and easy-to-read novel about a woman coping with death—her mother’s, her wife’s, and, recently, her father’s death. A couple days into working on the novel, awful news upended my universe: my father had died, felled by a heart attack.

My mental state, which had deteriorated over a number of months, partly—and unwittingly—at my behest, shattered altogether. My father’s death pushed me over the edge, deepened my depression, heightened my mania and anxiety, and permanently—it seemed—decoupled me from reality. Yet I wrote: I slipped deeper into my little universe, and I wrote.

As I wrote, Flesh Made World transformed into a myriad-headed hydra. An iteration of myself made his way into the novel. He retained my name, his wife retained my wife’s name, his situation was nearly identical to mine at the time. Like Sarah, the lead of the novel, and me, the fictional version of Daulton struggled to cope with his father’s death, with memories, with reality, with the meaning of reality. The novel’s structure further shattered and fragmented, coinciding with my shattered, fragmented state in the wake of my father’s death.

I deteriorated physically and emotionally and slipped into a downward spiral seemingly without end. So, too, did the characters of my novel. Then the concept of suicide entered the book’s lexicon. It appeared in a flash, as a piece of imagery. Soon, it permeated the novel, then it slipped outside the page and spun around and around my head.

img_4466In a sense, the novel contains two endings. The true ending is embedded as subtext running throughout the book. The final page closes on darkness, one of the darkest ways to end a novel, I suppose: suicide. The closing pages mirrored my mental state more closely than other sections of the book. In real life, I had deteriorated, trapped in a state of depression so viscous I couldn’t budge. Thoughts of suicide reared its head. It weighed on me. It threatened to devour me.

A day after I completed the first draft of Flesh Made World, I voluntarily admitted myself to the local behavioral medicine and sciences ward on suicide watch. While there, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I’m now on meds. They’re not cures but they do help.

I wrote the novel five years ago. Recently, Rooster Republic Press, an indie publishing house, released it. For years I thought of the novel as an extended suicide note. Now I see it for what it is: a work of pure surrealism, one that teased out—and reflected—the darkest state of a troubled mind. It’s a record of obsession, deterioration, and, hopefully, an artist in the process of creating a genuine work of art while inflicting psychic pain on himself and his family.

Click here to buy Flesh Made World on Amazon

About the book:

Death surrounds Sarah and Daulton. While grieving for their loved ones, they eachimg_4484 must navigate a universe where time isn’t linear, where memories and fantasies collide, merging with reality. The dead haunt them, the world shifts and changes, and time disintegrates. Slipping in and out of the present, they relive moments from their past—and they never know when they’re in the present. As the shifts increasingly dominate their lives, as their grips on reality loosen, Sarah and Daulton struggle to find a way to orient themselves in the present, to escape the infinite loop of pain, suffering, and confusion. If they can’t find a way out, then will they be trapped in a kaleidoscope of torment and grief? An experimental novel about death, the nature of memories, and reality, Flesh Made World thrusts readers into a hallucinogenic universe where space and time constantly unravel.

daultondickeyA self-professed surrealist, Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com

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