Why I Write Mentally Ill Characters

The basics of (1).jpg

She grabbed her purse and fumbled around it desperately. Her hands were shaking so much she could barely control them, but her fingers finally closed over what she’d been looking for. She withdrew the small plastic bottle, removed the lid with a quick twist, and popped a tiny yellow circular pill into her mouth. She let it rest on her tongue for just a second before she swallowed and closed her eyes in gratitude, like a penitent receiving a communion wafer. The pill left a bitter taste on her tongue, but she didn’t care because she knew the unpleasant flavor heralded the arrival of chemical bliss. Her heart rate slowly but steadily lowered, and she found it easier to breathe.

When she opened her eyes, she found Cameron staring at her, the stubby piece of chalk dangling from his fingers and leaving smudges of powdery residue on his blue jeans. He didn’t look smug anymore. “You’re still dealing with that, then, huh?” he asked. His voice was soft and inviting, drawing her mind back to better times: a finger twirling through her shower-dampened hair, a copy of Herodotus’ Histories spread open across both their laps.

She shook her head. Now was not the time. “Sure am,” she said shortly. What else was there to say? She stuffed her midterm—the midterm she had failed—into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, not bothering to zip it completely closed.

“Hattie.”

She looked up, and as their eyes met, she heard the question he hadn’t asked out loud. Who helps you with that now? She set her jaw in a firm line as she shot him a look. No one.

—The Partition of Africa 

 

A question I usually field at author events, signings, speaking engagements, and online communication is a simple one: “Why does Hattie have generalized anxiety disorder?”

This is not a bad question, especially considering that disorders like GAD don’t get much screen time, as it were, when it comes to contemporary YA and NA literature. If mental health is addressed, the author usually follows the somewhat familiar paths of depression, addiction, suicide, and self-harm. These are all important facets of mental illness that should we should all read about and try to understand.

But mental illness is more than those more extreme manifestations. It is more than someone being a danger to himself or others. Between the scope of “normal” and “dangerous” lies a whole host of problems that don’t seem to fit neatly into either category. The people who struggle here in this no man’s land often feel confused and alone, strung somewhere between just fine and falling apart.

People like me.


I’ve always been a worrier. Racing thoughts and infinite loops of “what ifs” have been my constant, unwelcome companion since childhood, riding my shoulder like a cartoon devil and whispering imagined calamitous possibilities into my soul. As a young child and teen, and even now sometimes as an adult, I find that the simplest hypotheticals can terrify me into a stupor.

As a child, I had no reason to question whether my mind behaved differently from those around me. Just as I took my nearsightedness in stride until about ten, when I casually asked my mother, “Why do we only see good out of our right eyes? Why are our left eyes so blurry?” I had no idea the way I felt and thought was not normal. So when the people I trusted told me not to worry so much, I tried my best to follow their directives. The guilt and stress of not being able to stop my reckless whirlwind of anxiety through sheer force of will nearly broke me.

My entire life was laced with anxiety. It was woven into the fibers of my spirit, soaked into the essence of my thoughts. I could not sleep. I could not connect with anyone. I could not withstand any measure of conflict without an almost physical pain. I could not stop eating. I could not stop crying. And still, I tried to stop worrying.


On a hot mid-September day in 2013, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I received the news with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, knowing that doctors had a name for what I’d been experiencing my entire life was rather comforting. My failures in the “just stop worrying” department weren’t an expression of my inadequacy, just proof that I was different from the people around me.

On the other hand, I was mentally ill. This is not information anyone wants to receive, especially not a self-proclaimed control freak like myself. The medical confirmation that no, I could not exert control over my body, was a tough pill to swallow.

Had I been managing better on my own, I probably would have ignored the doctor’s diagnosis and walked away, but my anxiety had grown and developed during my years of attempted suppression. On top of the usual undercurrent of worry which ran constantly in the background of my thoughts, I was now experiencing panic attacks that were completely disrupting my life, which was why I was sitting in a doctor’s office in the first place.

After a near-sleepless night filled with lucid nightmares and an irrational fear of dying, I’d hyperventilated and nearly blacked out on my morning commute a few days prior. Parking on a narrow, litter-covered stretch of grass, surrounded by flashing lights and being hooked up to a portable EKG monitor is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

It was time to stop trying not to worry, and start trying to understand myself.

Learning the medical side of the monster that controlled my life for years was a long, strange process. It’s strange to know that things like nutrient levels, water intake, exercise levels, and amount of sleep can adjust the way your thoughts tumble around in your mind. It’s strange to know that your body can go through a cycle of anxiety when you’re not even really worried about anything at all.


When I wrote The Partition of Africa, I was struggling to wean myself off my anxiety medication. While I knew there was no shame in treating anxiety with medication, the pills I’d been prescribed just weren’t working for me anymore. They neutralized my panic attacks and helped me sleep, but they were also warping my hormones and messing up my natural rhythms. At times, they caused more anxiety than they cured. I worried about withdrawals, dependency, and possible birth complications if I became pregnant while taking them. It was time to begin the quitting process.

I was desperate for someone to relate to during all this, someone fictional who would understand everything that I was going through. I’d already given Hattie my bookish tendencies, my control freakishness, and my shyness. I decided to give her my illness, as well.

I didn’t stop there. Gavin Reue has anxiety as well, although I don’t explicitly name it. Cameron Wolcott and Molly Marshall both have problems managing their anger. Claire James is a recovering alcoholic, former drug user, and suffers from depression.

At times, I wonder if giving my characters mental health problems was a wise idea. Not everyone struggles with issues like these, and I’m not exactly basing my plots around these illnesses. The stories would function without them, with a bit of tweaking.

But at the end of the day, I’m glad for siphoning this bit of myself into my characters, and for the opportunity to show what it’s like to experience mental illness. I want to show characters who suffer from mental illness and don’t try to harm others or themselves. I want to show that mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean “crazy” or “dangerous.” I want to give hope.

 

This blog post is not meant to be taken as medical advice. I am not a doctor. If you are exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, please contact your primary care physician or search for a mental health care provider in your area here.

 

Advertisements

Top 10 Ways to Use Instagram as an Author

Top Ten.jpgI’ll admit, for a long time I didn’t really see the point of Instagram as an app unto itself. I basically just used it as a photo editing app for everything I wanted to post to Facebook. I never only posted a photo on Instagram. I rarely added captions, and never utilized hashtags. I let people follow me and I followed them back, but I never checked the feed or interacted with others.

I realized a few short months ago that this was a mistake. To help out one of my favorite indie authors, I joined forces with a couple of other fans and helped start a grassroots Instagram campaign. I was amazed at the book culture that is alive and well on a social network I’d largely considered pointless. Instagram has a thriving booklover community, and it is dying for more author-reader interaction.

I’m by no means an expert, having only danced around the fringes of #bookstagram culture for a couple of months, but there are some valuable things I’ve learned that I think more authors can take advantage of.

1. Pay Attention to Hashtags

The hashtags that will be important to you vary depending on what genre and age group your books fall into, but some of the broad ones to use are #bookstagram, #booksofinstagram, #bookish, #booknerd, #bibliophile, #readinglist, and #amreading. Use these hashtags when you post about your books, but also search to see who else is using them and interact with people who look like they might enjoy reading your books.

2. Form Relationships

When you come across users who look like they might enjoy your books, don’t spam them with buy links or suggestions right away. Instead, take the time to look through their photos. Leave a few likes and comments. Ask questions that show you’re interested in getting to know them, not just making a sale.

3. Participate in Challenges

There will almost always be an ongoing photo challenge that centers on books, reading, or writing. In February, I participated (half-heartedly) in the #AuthorLifeMonth challenge. This month, I’ve been doing the #YABookADay challenge. Next month, I’m planning my own! This is a great way to connect with readers, book bloggers, and other authors, and it really helps get you in the habit of posting at least once a day.

4. Host Giveaways

Last month, I participated in an Instagram giveaway with several other indie authors. We all gave away a printed copy of one of our books. People entered to win by following me, liking the post, commenting with the hashtag #iLovePrinted Books, and tagging a friend who also loves printed books. Each of the participating authors linked to another author in our post, so theoretically an Instagram follower could click through the chain and enter each author’s giveaway. I had a blast participating in this–I received several new followers, met some great authors, and I gained a new reader in England thanks to the giveaway! It was a great experience and I hope to do it again soon.

5. Increase Blog Traffic

Create free graphics for your blog posts on sites like Canva and post them on Instagram with a sample of your blog for the day. Believe it or not, people will actually hop on over to your blog if you ask them to! I’ve seen increased traffic since I started doing this.

6. Promos, Sales, and New Releases

Continuously spamming buy links is no more successful on Instagram than it is on Twitter or Facebook. However, Instagram is a great place to share occasional promotional posts for your books, as well as eBook sales and new releases! Use hashtags like #ebooks, #kindle, #freebies, #FreeEbooks, and #newrelease in conjunction with the usual book-related hashtags I listed above to get the best coverage.

7. Provide Regular Updates

Did you just finish an amazing outline? Do you have impressive, serial-killer-like notes stuck all over your desk? Did you just print out your manuscript in all its several hundred page glory? Readers love seeing these kinds of visual progress reports. They’re fun to share, and you just might snag some future readers by keeping your followers informed about your WIP.

8. Help Boost Author Friends

Help your fellow authors out by taking a screenshot of their photos and reposting them with the hashtag #regram and tag them in the caption. It feels easier and more natural to promote others rather than ourselves, so it won’t be as obnoxious as us constantly reposting stuff about our own books, and it shows that authors are friends, not competitors.

9. Create Your Own Hashtag

Before doing this, make sure to search Instagram for it to ensure it’s not being used by another group already.

10. Post Non-Writing Related Photos

This probably seems counterintuitive, but think about it for a second. I’m sure you appreciate when the celebrities you follow on social media post about their movies, shows, albums, and books, since that’s probably why you’re following them to begin with. But don’t you really love it when they drop that persona and just get real with you? Aren’t we all dying to know what Stephen King is having for dinner, or what Nathan Fillion’s backyard looks like? Obviously, most of us self-published and indie authors aren’t celebrities by any stretch of the word, but people love to see what lies behind our writing persona. It makes us seem more like real people and encourages connection.

Don’t Ask For Free Stuff: A Lesson in Creative Etiquette

I’m convinced my mother is one of the last vestiges of the true Southern Belle. Throughout our childhood, and I’m sure throughout her marriage to my father, she has cooked delicious homemade meals, baked sinfully tasty homemade goodies, kept a spotless house, and extended a helping hand to anyone near her as she was able. All this while usually holding down a full-time job, and for several years, homeschooling at least one child. The woman radiates courtesy and hospitality, and she made sure that all of her children did, too.

To that end, one of my fondest childhood memories was when she sat me down at a young age–probably six or seven, but don’t quote me on that–and began giving me etiquette lessons. She taught me the dos and don’ts necessary to anyone interested in being a part of civilized society–you know, shaking hands, holding open doors, offering our seats to pregnant women and the elderly, keeping our nose out of other people’s affairs, etc. I’m sure that as a small child I found these lessons rather dull, but as a grown woman I’m extremely thankful that my parents took the time to instill a sense of common courtesy and decency in all three of their children.

Unfortunately, judging by what I encounter on a day to day basis, most people didn’t receive as formal an education as I did in the area of politeness. Or maybe they didn’t receive an education on the subject at all.

There are plenty of everyday, real world examples I could share that would have you all nodding and mmhmming in universal agreement–a man slamming a door in my face, ignoring my box filled arms; someone with a full grocery cart barreling in front of me to cut in line at the 10 Items or Fewer line–but that’s not really what this post is about. I don’t think I need to vent my frustrations for those universal kinds of breaches in the social order, because we’re all acutely aware of them. We probably all see them at least once a day.

No, the issue here is a little more specific. The issue here is how we as a society treat creative professionals.

When I say creative professionals, I’m not talking about Stephen Spielberg or B.J. Novak or the New York Symphony or John Green, at least not exclusively. I’m talking about anyone who uses their mind, heart, and body collectively to create something–a painting, a novel, a souffle, a song, a pair of baby booties–and then sells their creations. They don’t have to be a household name to be a creative professional. They don’t have to be well-known, or a millionaire, or self-sustaining. They don’t even have to turn a profit. If they have, even once, exchanged their work for cold hard cash, they’re a creative professional.

Now that I have my terms defined, here’s the problem with how we as a society treat creative professionals:

We treat them poorly.

I didn’t realize this until I became one myself, but it’s quite true. We do. I’ve witnessed and experienced it first hand, on social media and in the flesh-and-blood real world, both passively and overtly. I don’t whine or stomp my foot about it when it happens, and I’m not whining or stomping my foot now. Honestly, I’m more upset when I see my friends affected by it than when I’m the target. I’m just trying to find a reason behind the madness, and through that, a possible means to put an end to it.

I’d like to think that the perpetrators of this chronic rudeness towards creators of all types–writers, painters, crafters, chefs, musicians, and the like–don’t realize what they’re doing, and often, that’s what I make myself assume. They just didn’t have an upbringing like I did. They weren’t taught to think before they speak, or to hold their tongue and be diplomatic if their opinion was both negative and unnecessary to the situation. And I will continue to assume this about people who choose to be rude and condescending to those who create.

But I will also point out rude and condescending behavior when I see it. Not to the perpetrator’s face, and not in a way that would betray my own responsibility to courtesy, but right here, right now, with this list of things you should never say to creators.*

*Well, you shouldn’t say them to ANYONE , actually.

“I don’t want to buy your book, but I’d still like to read it. Can you lend me a copy?”

I can (sort of) understand the reasoning behind this statement if the author in question is somehow personally connected to you–a friend or an acquaintance, or maybe a distant cousin of some kind. Perhaps you want to show your support, but you either a) don’t have the financial ability right now or b) aren’t all that interested in the book itself. Maybe you think offering to read it is a kind gesture. If they still only had a manuscript and were asking for volunteers to do a read-through, it absolutely would be a kind gesture.

But they’ve already made it through that step. They have a real book (or eBook) that they’re selling for real money in a real marketplace. It’s a product now, a product they’ve spent hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of hours honing, and they’re ready for all that hard work to pay off. The last thing they want to hear is that their own friends and family don’t think it’s worth buying. Especially when they’re 99.9% sure you wouldn’t walk into a retailer with a similar request.

If you’re ever in this situation, try one of the alternatives listed below instead:

“Wow, a completed book! That’s quite an accomplishment. We’re very proud of you. I hope to pick up my own copy soon.”

or

“Wow, a completed book! That’s quite an accomplishment. We’re very proud of you. YA literature isn’t really my thing, but I wish you success!”

or

“Wow, a completed book! That’s quite an accomplishment. We’re very proud of you. I have a niece who loves YA literature, I’ll be sure to tell her about this series!” 

“I read your book and I absolutely loved it. Did you know there were some typos, though? Here, I made a list of all of them so you can see.”

I’ve only had this happen to me once or twice and it didn’t really make me angry, for two reasons: 1) there were some typos in my book and 2) the person obviously meant well.

Here’s the thing: with books (and with other types of art, too), sometimes you don’t catch mistakes until it’s too late. You miss the smudge or the snagged thread or the burnt edge of bread and you don’t notice it until someone has already started consuming what you’ve created. At that point, you are more acutely aware of every single imperfection than ever, and you have zero ability to fix it.

We creators know that by pointing out these flaws, you’re only trying to help. But it isn’t constructive to point out errors once it’s out of our hands.

If you were viewing an album full of your friend’s wedding photos, for example, and you happened to notice that in several of the shots, she had spinach stuck in her teeth, would you say, “These are beautiful photographs, Phyllis. I absolutely loved them. Did you know you had spinach stuck in your teeth in half of them, though? Here, I dog-earred all the pages so you can see.”

It’s kind of the same thing here. There’s nothing that can be done about the typos or the smudges or the snags or the burns. The most polite thing to do here is just keep mum about them.


 

Most of the condescension that creative people encounter on a regular basis are variations on these two themes. Most of them come from well-meaning friends and family members who honestly don’t understand that what they’re saying is hurtful.

But there are also comments from strangers, too. Things like

“You’re charging money for this? I could make this myself at home for next to nothing.”

and

“My sister paints better than that, and she’s never even taken an art class.”

and

“It’s nice that you write. I bet your family and household suffer from that!”

and

“I won’t buy my son books, because reading is for girls. I need to find him boy stuff.”

Etc.


 

All that is to say, if you encounter a creative professional doing their best to sell what they have crafted with their own hands, heart, and mind, consider this before you open your mouth. Is what you’re about to say constructive or helpful? Is it something that you would welcome, were it you on the other side of the table or the Internet, doing your best to fulfill your passion? Is it something that a Southern belle, etiquette-minded mother would approve of?

If not, consider holding your tongue, just this once. You might not think that art is important, and when it comes to the basic, biological survival of mankind, I suppose it isn’t. C.S. Lewis has voiced this sentiment best, so I’ll close with his words:

friendship-is-unnecessary-like-philosophy-like-art.jpg