Pens and the art of mood disorder maintenance.

When I was younger, hypomania was bright and shining, immensely productive, thrilling, vibrant. I was a joy to be around in those days and weeks when art and music and poetry and friendship just flew fearlessly right out of me, right up until I burned up in the stratosphere and came crashing down, a smoldering lump, to the ground.

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As I’ve gotten older, I still see flashes of that sparkling energy, that proprietary brand of effervescence. But more often than not, my hypomanic episodes are a crackling flame of anxiety and irritability. Medication and strict management have hemmed in the dangerous, bankrupting highs, and while this has kept me breathing (and married, and financially solvent), it has transformed the once scintillating creative energy into agitated, tightly wound fear. My manic traits now manifest in panic.

I once believed that if I could track precisely, eat perfectly, medicate consistently I would be safe. But even if you starve this disease of every trigger, it breathes. It attacks unprovoked. After two decades with this diagnosis, and eight years with babies in my belly or on my breast (and therefore unmedicated), I have become hyper aware of its movements. I have learned that the best defense is to move with it. It is not unlike holding a very hot cup of coffee in a moving car, anticipating the stops, starts, and potholes, inevitably spilling here and there and burning your mouth trying to drink it down to a manageable level.


These movements are subtle. Taken out of context they are silly and strange. But these movements are purposeful, powerful, medicinal, so it’s no surprise that they become habit.

Pens are one of my small movements. Fountain pens require regular cleaning, inking, maintenance. They must be taken apart, inspected, thoroughly cleaned and reassembled. By modern standards, they are a ridiculously tedious and inefficient way of writing, but a remarkably effective method of managing anxiety. Pens, unlike children or husbands or most things living, have steady, predictable, constant needs. Pens have problems I can solve.

When I begin to buzz with panic, I clean my pens. I spread my ink cloth on the ugly blue laminate beside the bathroom sink, set up my little yellow bowl and baby blue bulb syringe just so. I select the most needly pens in my collection, remove the caps and unscrew the barrels from the sections. The eviscerated shells sit quietly and wait while their converters are twisted, pinched, plunged empty. The water runs wild in the sink, stained with Damson, Tsuki-yo, Tanzanite, and Ancient Copper. I fill the yellow bowl with cold water, suck it up with the bulb syringe, and cram the nozzle into the section forcing out the old ink. Again and again, until the water runs clear. Again and again until my nervous system is convinced that the threat is under control.


Sometimes there are nibs to remove, breather tubes, feeds to reset, but no matter how elaborate the deconstruction, the goal is always the same. Empty the pen and make it new.

Often there are children pulling on me while I do this surgery. One might be clawing at my leg, another desperate to spray the mirror with water. All of them fascinated by the mess I’m making, the magic of ink and water and towels and mama’s intense focus. With each pen laid to dry on the cloth, my anxiety eases. My brain, satisfied by this focused, non-threatening, dopamine producing activity calms. My shoulders drop, my breathing slows, and I frequently forget the emergency that drove me to the sink. The trigger may still exist, but I have moved beyond the initial jolt, the panic that accompanies interruption.

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I get by with a little help from my pens.

My first fountain pen was a burgundy Sheaffer No-Nonsense. I taped a feather to it and kept it in a writing slope with some gilded stationery, sealing wax, and brass page points. I was thirteen and very sophisticated.

I didn’t have the patience to learn much beyond my first name in Gothic script, but that pen provided a still, quiet place in those early days of my mental illness. I could be raging and desperate when I picked it up, but the sound of the nib scratching at the paper, the feedback vibrating up the pen into my fingers, the ink flowing from the silver tines like a ribbon being untied caught me, slowed me down.

Many years, many doctors, many methods and medications to manage manic depression later and I still come back to this simple practice of putting a pen to paper. Any form of dragging an inky stick across a page makes me feel better. It is action where I am helpless, motion where I am stuck. I push my mood forward with the pen, nudging it, heaving it across the page until it goes quiet. It is less of a hobby than it is medicine. I take it daily, whether I want to or not.

Pens are just a trick. Bait. The shiny object that lures my hand to paper and coaxes me to write. My husband gives them to me as often as he can, like some men give flowers. Birthdays, bad days, just-thinking-of-you, hope-you-snap-out-of-it days. Some are so painfully gorgeous they can be almost impossible to use. Some are plain and hardworking. Some are always, always with me. My therapist once had me count how many fountain pens I had in my bag during our session. There were eleven. She asked how much time I typically spend writing with them when I am out of the house, carting three small children around town. Zero minutes. But just knowing they are there, my tiny Ebenezers, gives me peace.

Would you like to meet them?