(This was written in Los Angeles, at the end of my book tour. On the small chance that any journalists read it, I kindly ask you please not to quote this in media outlets. It’s a personal thing, it took a lot writing it, so please don’t make it into a headline. I won’t do interviews about this right now, I mean no disrespect, this is just the only way I feel comfortable talking about it at this moment. Thank you.)
Someone’s mother heard me talk on my book tour recently, about my depressions and anxiety, and came up afterwards and told me about her daughter struggling with the same things. The mother asked me to write all of it down, so she could bring it home, I said I don’t know if that will help. Demons are personal, the ghosts in our head are never exactly the same.
But by the end of my tour I found myself talking more and more about this. So I’ll give writing it down a shot. I’m sorry about my English grammar not being all great. Bare with me.
Depression is a difficult thing to explain. It’s an aching of the soul. I’m with my family by a swimming pool in sunny Los Angeles right now, we’ve just finished a 7 cities and 3 week long book tour, and my new novel “Us Against You” made the New York Times bestseller list this week. It’s a great day, I know that. Which makes it odd to talk about feeling bad. But sometimes you need to be in a really good place to feel able to talk about the other ones.
This is the fifth of my novels to make the New York Times Bestseller list. I remember when the first one did, I thought to myself: “I made it”. This time around, honestly, it’s more a feeling of “I made it…out”. Because this book took nearly everything for me to finish, and I ended up in a breakdown late last year. I started waking up in the middle of the night with nosebleeds. Got headaches. Forgot things, small stuff at first, but then later on I looked at pictures from our family summer vacation and had to ask my wife “where is that from?” I started feeling really stressed out, the pressure and expectations of everything around this…career thing…really started wearing me down. I got terrible migraines. Started having panic attacks. A couple of times I had to go the hospital, once in a hurry because the doctors thought I might be having a stroke. It turned out the stress was just shutting my body down. In the end, I crashed. I had tickets to the biggest football game of the year but had to call my best friend and tell him I couldn’t go. I felt weird. Exhausted. So I went to bed and more or less slept for two weeks.
I’m blessed in a lot of ways, but none bigger than having family and friends who knows me and loves me. They got it. They cancelled all my events and arrangements and deadlines, sent me to a psychiatrist, and I started a long walk back to finding myself. I’m still doing that. I’m not done, I still have a lot of health issues, I still sleep a lot and cry a lot, I’m still slow at almost everything and get stressed out over very small stuff. I don’t know if I will ever be ”well”. I’ll settle for…okey.
I’m married to the smartest person I know, that helps. My best friends are the same friends I had when I was 18, they don’t care what I do for a living, that helps too. I have an agent and a publicist who listens and look out for me. And I have two kids to whom I’m not famous or successful, I’m just the guy who needs to put away his computer now because we’re going swimming. Having ice cream. Playing with dogs. The book tour is over and there’s a New York Times bestseller list. It’s a great day, a good place, that’s why I can write about the dark ones without falling into them.
Here’s what it is: I went to a specialist who told me I have a disorder related to panic anxiety. My brain lies to my body, it tells us we can’t breathe, that we’re going to die. It shouldn’t. I should be fine. I’m lucky. I’m well aware of how blessed and privileged I am, believe me, but the thing with self esteem is that it very rarely has anything to do with success. I’ve been in and out of depressions since I was a kid. That’s no one’s fault. It’s me. I wasn’t cut out for reality, that’s why I write. I’m fragile and emotionally unstable, always have been, I’m too sad or too angry or too loud or too silent or sleeping or burning…rarely anything in between. I’ve been told I have no normal levels, I’ve gotten better at pretending I do but the inside of my head is never between 4 and 7, it’s always down at 1 or up at 10. My wife at one point said: “You’re an introvert. You’re just really bad at it.” That might be the reason why I can tell some stories that people relate to, but it might also be the reason why I have so few friends. I’m difficult to live with. I have a very active imagination, and I use it to go to places where I can hide. When it works, just for a second, everything makes sense there. But in real life? I never know what anyone wants from me. And then all of this happened: Bestseller lists and movies and book tours. Attention. Lights. And I never really found peace in it.
I know I’m ungrateful. I know I sound like an asshole. If I heard myself talking like this I would think I was an asshole too. Being a writer is a dream. But I didn’t write to become an author, I did it because it’s the only way to silence the voices in my head. I don’t do drugs, I rarely even drink anymore, making up stories is my only way of self medicating. And the thing is that being a “writer” and being an “author” are very different things. A writer just writes, but an author is expected to wanna do things: Do business, do interviews, travel, be a celebrity, dance on tv. It’s no one’s fault. It’s mine. I just don’t fit into all that. And yeah, I know, “then just don’t fucking do those things?”. Well, I made it harder than it sounds. I felt things were expected of me, so I ended up feeling I was always either doing things that made me uncomfortable or making people I worked with disappointed.
I either did shit or I felt like shit. It’s not a great place to be.
Artists and authors often refer to the business part of their careers as “the industry”. Like it’s one big evil corporation. But honestly: I don’t think the industry is to blame for me crashing, I just think the industry is built in a way that’s destructive to people like me. I love being a writer, because you’re a writer whenever you write. Being an “author”, on the other hand, that’s a…career. And I was never suited for a thing like that. I’m not tough enough.
And I know: “Then just…don’t do it?”. You’re right. But it’s a little bit of a vicious circle, you can get lost in it. See, to become an “author” you need to get published, and that involves a lot of people. And if there’s one thing the book “industry” does very well it’s letting you know that most writers never get to become authors at all. So you know you’re lucky. So when your book actually starts selling, you feel a lot of people are depending on you. And now some of those people are expecting a lot of things. All of a sudden there’s publishers and marketing departments and PR persons and agents and producers and contracts and meetings, lots and lots of meetings, and you don’t understand any of it, so you have to hire lawyers and accountants. Because everywhere you go now people ask you to sign documents and tell you ”just trust us!”, and you learn real fast that’s a sure way to know you really shouldn’t. So you have to find good advisors. So you have to have more meetings. The more books you sell, the more meetings you find yourself in. And in ALL of them you get asked: ”So when’s your next book coming out?”. And you start wondering how the hell anyone thinks you’re gonna have time to ever write anything at all in between all these meetings.
Then parts of the media starts noticing, and you’re told that’s “great”. It just doesn’t feel great. Because at first they review your books, but pretty soon they start reviewing…you. And from there it all goes too fast, gets too big, and you never have a moment to process any of it. So you start feeling frustrated and lost and tired. You need a step back. But you’re constantly reminded by a choir of voices now how lucky you are, always reminded what others would give “to be in your shoes”, repeating “you should be so grateful!”. And you are. You’re overwhelmed. And from there it all goes faster, gets bigger, you’re published abroad and there’s a movie and there are award ceremonies and with that comes more decisions and more meetings and expectations because…this is “success”. It moves way faster than you thought, way higher up, it’s a long way down if you fall now. And a lot of people keep pulling your arm asking you how you “feel”, and you can’t tell them the truth. “Scared”. You feel fucking scared.
Because you’re up in the air. And when you’re in the air for long enough it’s getting really difficult to know the difference between flying and falling.
And everyone keeps reminding you to be grateful, and you are, so you start feeling that you owe a lot of people a lot of things. You create a cage in your head out of guilt and shame, because you know you don’t deserve this. And you start feeling like whatever you do, no matter how many things you say yes to, it’s still not enough. Everyone is still disappointed in you. You try to explain it, but that just makes you feel misinterpreted and misunderstood. So you start feeling weak, insufficient, you sit at meetings where everybody is telling you how “great” you are and all you can think is “you wouldn’t say that if you knew I’m broken, that I’m a fraud, that I don’t know what I’m doing”. You wonder how “great” you would be if you had no value to them. You start feeling less like a person, more like a product. You try to be what you think they want you to be, and you end up lost.
You go to another country and talk on a stage in front of 600 people, and when they applaud at the end all you can think is “you don’t know me, you wouldn’t like me if you did, I’m not likeable, I’m fake.” You carry around a great invisible fear all the time of letting people down. Your chest start hurting, you wake up in the middle of the night with nosebleeds. It’s no one’s fault. Everyone in “the industry” is just a human being with a job. Your books are their products now and they need results and profit. And you? You don’t know what the hell you need anymore.
People tell you all the time ”you must be so happy!”, and you are, but you’re still…not. And you should. So you start thinking there’s something wrong with you. You’re told to ”not take life so seriously, just enjoy and have fun!” but you don’t know how to do that. So you start feeling all of this must be some cosmic mistake. This success is wasted on you. It should have happened to someone else, someone who deserved it.
You start losing yourself, badly. You fall into an identity crisis. The mirror’s empty every morning. You start messing up all your relationships, you get into fights with everyone you work with, you’re told you’re ”overemotional” and that you ”think too much”…but how the hell do they think your books got written without that? You can’t choose when to be sensitive and not. There’s no off-switch to sadness and fear.
You’re told to “toughen up”. That you’re a ”public figure” now. You find a picture on Twitter that some idiot took without asking of you and your kids when you were at a theme park, and you go into a rage. You’re not supposed to. You’re just supposed to be cool about it. But you don’t know how. You get invited to parties and events, you don’t understand why, but if you go to them you feel awkward and out of place and if you don’t go someone who didn’t know your name five minutes ago is offended and writes on the internet that you’re rude and overrated. If you do interviews you’re a “sellout” and if you don’t you’re “arrogant”. You start getting a lot of emails, most of them are overwhelmingly nice, but some of them are from people who ask a lot of things from you. And some of them get really angry when you don’t have time to answer. Your phone keeps ringing. Deadlines, marketing, PR, meetings. More meetings. More emails from people who are pissed off you didn’t answer their last emails. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”, they ask you, and you think to yourself “you tell me”. You disappoint. You let them all down.
You’re not trying to make anyone upset, you’re just busy having a family and trying to do your job and just fighting to keep…breathing. You start having nightmares about drowning. Your wife wakes you up in the middle of the night because you’re screaming. You have no idea why she stays with you. She looks worried when she asks you: “When are you happy?”. And you answer: “With you, with the kids, and when I’m writing”. They are your safe places. So she says: “We’re here, we’ll stick together, I know everything feels too big right now but it’ll slow down”. And you feel better, you have a couple of good months, you know you’re blessed. Lucky.
You try to live a normal life, despite having a really weird job. Try to be an okey dad and a decent husband and a not terrible friend. Sometimes it’s working, sometimes it’s…not. Sometimes your kid’s friend’s parents ask you about your job and you lie. Sometimes someone recognize you at the grocery store and you start sweating and just run out. You wait for things to slow down, but they don’t really. You go to another city and talk in front of more people, you do a really big book signing and take selfies with strangers and your heart starts racing really badly. Afterwards you sit in a hotel room like you’re going through withdrawal, can’t breathe. You call your wife and cry. She tells you to come home, she’s frightened now. You can’t do this anymore, this business is killing you. So she takes over everything: Meetings and negotiations and decisions, publishers, agents, lawyers, contracts, emails. You look at her late one night after the kids have fallen asleep in your arms and you whisper: “Noone else will understand this, but I would have been dead without you”. And she whispers back: “You know what? We had everything we needed long before you had this career. We just need you to be okey.” So you take a break. You go on vacation. You wear really ugly shorts on a beach somewhere and you make her laugh again. Good God, it’s the best, right there. You feel peaceful, just for a moment. And it gets better. You have a few more really great months.
You write another book. You give it absolutely everything you’ve got. You read newspapers where strangers are having strong opinions about you, or whoever they think you are. They haven’t even bothered to read the book. You try not to let it get to you…but sometimes it does. You’re successful, so you get criticized harder now, because you’re no longer reviewed as a writer but as a ”phenomena”. Like you won the lottery. Deep down you know that’s fair. Some say you don’t deserve your success, some of them are other writers that you’ve really looked up to, and it feels like a punch in the throat…because you know they’re right. You really don’t deserve any of this.
And then the next book is also sold abroad, forty countries, there’s talk of a movie, there’s marketing and PR and a book tour and everything starts up again. Fast. Big. It’s a machine. You start feeling you owe so many people so many things, because everyone is working so hard for you and you’re lucky. So, so lucky. You stand on a stage in another country again, the room is sold out, and you can’t tell anyone that secretly you wish it wasn’t. That deep down you wish all of this was just a little smaller. Fewer people, less pressure, lower expectations. Just a little. Just so you could breathe.
You start noticing whenever you’re with your family that you can’t even think about work without feeling stressed out. You have to pretend to yourself this whole career thing doesn’t even exist. You forget your phone at home on purpose. You start writing all your stories while constantly telling yourself “no one will ever read them”. It’s a survival technique. Because you can’t stop writing, it’s the very thing that keeps you from going crazy, but it’s getting more and more complicated. So you write a story you love, but publish it on your blog, just so you don’t have to start the PR machine for a book again. Just to avoid having…meetings. And then you write another story but keep it…secret. Just to avoid questions. “When are you done? When can it be published? Do you like these cover ideas? Can you pick one right now? Can we change the title into something more commercial? Will you be doing interviews? Will you go on tv? Are you working on something else? What? When is it done?”
The worse you feel, the more you write, but it’s all hidden in a box somewhere now because you’re…scared.
Your agent and the publishers and the marketing people calls you, all excited about the next big thing and the next big thing and the next big thing, but you don’t tell them the truth: That you wish things were smaller. Your wife can see you losing your balance again so she starts protecting you more, getting into fights for you, taking punches just so you don’t have to. You feel really bad, because she shouldn’t have to. You should be fine. This should have happened to someone who deserved it.
Someone writes about you on social media. Someone talks shit about you on the radio. You’re expected not to care about criticism, of course, as if sales figures would make you immune to feeling bad about yourself. As if that’s how self esteem ever works. You want to apologize to them when they say you’re overrated. You want them to know that you never fucking meant for any of this shit to get so big. You just wanted to write stories and make a living and go home. But it doesn’t work like that anymore. There are expectations and obligations now. You owe a lot of people a lot of things. They tell you to be grateful, and you are. You’re so grateful you can’t sleep at night, because you’re convinced now that for the Universe to be fair something really awful must be coming your way really soon. Being in the spotlight just feels like staring into headlights, you’re just waiting to get run over by a train.
And you’re exhausted.
You have tickets to a football game, but call your best friend and cancel. Nosebleeds, migraines, panic attacks. You sleep for two weeks. Your family and friends cancels everything on your schedule and sends you to a psychiatrist. You start over, trying to find yourself again. You lie in bed next to your wife and whisper “I’m sorry I’m so weird”. And she whispers back “you were never normal, that’s why I fell in love with you”.
And you get help. You talk. You go back to the really dark corners of your brain and start trying to clean all of that shit up.
And…that’s where I’m at now.
And it’s no one’s fault I’m like this. It’s all me. I have zero reasons to feel sorry for myself. I’m a lucky, lucky, lucky human being. But depressions are not logical. Anxiety is not rational. It hurts in places I can’t point to. Maybe that’s where my writing comes from, I don’t know. A friend of mine said last winter: “Maybe you would have been happier if writing was just your hobby, not your career”. Another friend has told me several times: “You’re just a pretty sad person. That’s okey.”
And now? I don’t know. I’ve just finished another book tour in the US, but my wife and our kids came along this time, so it was…much less scary. They’re my happy place, I never have time to be scared around them because they keep me busy by driving me absolutely insane. We saw sea lions and nine million dogs and had ice cream in four different states. Laughed a lot. It was a great adventure.
I still love writing. I’m still obsessed with it. And yeah, sometimes I really enjoy talking about my books. I’m just still not very comfortable being recognized by strangers, it takes me several days to prepare mentally to do a signing event. At one of them during this tour a woman came up to me, crying, and told me I was her “idol”. I didn’t know how to tell her I’m not ready to be that to anyone. It’s a lot of pressure, and I’m barely hanging on trying to be…normal. Trying to be a dad and a husband and a friend. I’m not cut out to be an idol to anybody. I’ve published five novels and three novellas and all I can think about every time is still that this will be the end of my career, this is when you will finally figure out that I’m an imposter, this is where I’ll disappoint everyone. Anxiety is like tiny iron weights in my blood, making me heavy, holding me down.
Today was good.
My wife is making really stupid jokes, we’re in a sunny Los Angeles and we’re having seafood tonight, our kids need me to get off the computer and go swimming. They give me purpose and direction, I never had that before them. And when I get them to laugh…holy shit…that’s when I feel I belong to something. I’m not alone. I have a team. They know exactly who I am but they still love me. And the world is full of dogs to play with and ice cream to eat. It’s a great day, a good place.
Honestly? I don’t know if any of this helps the mother that came up to me, telling me about her daughter struggling with depression. But that’s all I’ve got. You keep fighting. You get back up. You treasure the great days and the good places. You do your best. Just your goddamn best. Eat the entire ice cream and hold on to who you love. One day at a time. That’s all.
And maybe you try to remember what a therapist told me a while back: “You like to be alone, Fredrik. But it’s not good for you. It brings out your darkness. Isn’t that the definition of addiction?” I’ve thought a lot about that.
When I was 20 years old a really good friend of mine, someone very important to me, chose to end his life. I’m thinking a lot about him, too.
So…this is the part where I ask your forgiveness. Because I won’t answer comments or emails about this text. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to disappoint anyone, but it took pretty much all of the energy I had left just to get all this out. So if we could just leave it at that, I’d really appreciate it. I know the internet is always supposed to be a discussion and an analysis and an argument, but maybe just this one time we can leave it at…silence? No comments. Just a thumbs up or down or a monkey emoji or something. I hope that’s alright.
And don’t blame anyone. Don’t point fingers at the “industry”. No one messed me up, I was messed up to begin with. And I’m working on it.
But if you want to do something nice: Ask a friend how he’s doing. Ask a co-worker if she’s okey. And if you’re struggling yourself, try to get help. Call your doctor or a psychiatrist, see your school counselor, tell your friends, talk to your family, go online and look for support groups. I can’t say anything to fix it, but there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just hurting. You’re just looking for peace. Most of us don’t get cured, ever, but many of us can learn how to live with it. Be happy in our own way. Some of us try to use it creatively, not to get an audience or fame or success but just to…silence the voices in our heads. The ones who tells us we’re not good enough, that we’re going to disappoint everyone, that we’re frauds. That’s when we tell stories, play music, do art, and when it works, really works…just for a second…the voices shut the hell up. And it all makes sense there, everything, just for a couple of moments. And there it is: Peace.
And then we fight. We cry. We break down a little and get back up a lot. That’s all I’ve got.
I have to go swimming now.