Why I Write Mentally Ill Characters

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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.

 

Inside Out and the Importance of Story

When I went to see Inside Out with my husband about a month and a half ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d watched the trailers, so I understood the basic premise, but the plot eluded me. This was a movie…about feelings? I didn’t get it. But Disney Pixar has never let me down, so I entered the movie theater expecting great things. And I was not disappointed.

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I waited so long to bring this movie up here because I wanted to make sure I actually liked it. All too often, I’ve been swept away by the latest animated hit, only to find myself feeling ambivalent about it weeks later once the hype died down. Usually in those cases, I didn’t actually love the movie itself, but rather the stunning artwork or the fantastic music. Both of those are essential components to any film, especially those that are animated, because they’re right there on the surface. Visual and aural beauty are the first things we notice when the curtains slide back and the lights go down; they’re what hook us in and make us want to stay. They’re also ephemeral. When we return home and go about our lives, the memory of that stunning landscape or the heartrending sound of this cluster of notes fades until all that is left of that movie in our mind is the story. And, sadly, the story doesn’t always hold up.

But this wasn’t the case with Inside Out, at least not for me. Several weeks later, when I can barely remember what the main character looked like and the soundtrack has all but disappeared, the story still rings true. I still feel comfortable saying that this is the best film Pixar has yet released. It’s better than Toy Story, it’s better than Wreck-It Ralph, and – though it will hurt some to hear this – yes, it’s better than Up. Here’s why.

**Moving forward, there will be spoilers. Consider yourself duly warned.**

It reminds us that there are no such thing as “negative” emotions.

Throughout the course of the story, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and even Sadness prove themselves to be necessary elements of the human experience. No one likes to be afraid, angry, disgusted, or sad, but the truth is that without these emotions, we would not have as full a life. Without fear, there is no caution; without anger, no sense of justice; without disgust,  no appreciation; without sadness, no motivation to better ourselves.

Near the beginning of the movie, I noticed something strange: while Joy is unarguably in charge in Riley’s mind, this is not the case for her parents. The emotion calling the shots for Riley’s mom is Sadness, and for her dad, Anger.

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The interesting thing about this is that neither parent seems to be generally unhappy. This is fantastic foreshadowing for the movie’s epiphany, in which we realize the so-called negative emotions lead to a richer, more complex life experience.

This resonated with me more than any other aspect of the movie. From an early age, I struggled with general anxiety disorder and mild depression. I didn’t receive a diagnosis until I was an adult, but looking back, I can see how it shaped my childhood. For the longest time, I felt guilty because my default setting was not unadulterated Joy, but rather a nasty mix of Anger, Sadness, and Fear. I thought that I was doing something wrong, that somehow I was not living life the way I was supposed to. So it was nice to see those three emotions shown not only as positive, but necessary.

It reminds us that children’s emotions are just as valid as those of adults.

Something that bothers me about modern entertainment, and popular culture in general, really, is the lack of validity given to the feelings of children. Toddlers have meltdowns over the existence of shadows or the fact that they can’t become animals, children throw punches because their another kid was looking at them funny, and teenagers fall into periods of deep, inexplicable angst or claim that they’re in love. From the adult perspective, it’s easy to blow these feelings off as unimportant because we see now how insignificant those kinds of problems were in our own lives.

But here’s the thing: just because someone is young, just because someone doesn’t yet understand how insignificant this moment will be when viewed as part of the big picture, that doesn’t mean those feelings are not real. Just because children don’t have mortgages to worry over or jobs to get to or bills to pay, doesn’t mean they have no right to feel sad, to feel angry, to be afraid.

Initially, Inside Out shows the usual adult reaction to a child’s sadness. Riley, who in addition to leaving her friends and everything she knows behind, has endured a long car ride from Minnesota to California only to arrive at an empty, small house. None of their furniture or clothes have arrived through a shipping error, so she has no clean clothes and no bed. She has to sleep on her new floor in a sleeping bag in the dark. Oh, and when she went to go get pizza with her mom at the place down the street, she finds out the only flavor they have is covered in her least favorite food!

Honestly, this is more than enough to justify anyone being grumpy or sad. But how does Riley’s mom choose to respond to Riley’s less than enthusiastic attitude? She asks her to be happy again.

This input from her parents continues over the course of the movie. They constantly ask her why she isn’t happy, call her their happy girl, ask her where their happy girl is…on and on and on. And she tries. Joy puts Sadness in a tiny little circle, forbidding her to do anything, but it doesn’t work that way. Because sometimes, you’re just sad. And you can’t pretend you’re not.

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But when she finally breaks down at the end and tells them she’s sad because she misses home, they comfort her. They hug her, they cry with her, they commiserate…but they don’t tell her to be happy. Because she’s not. And because they finally understand she, like they, can’t be happy at the push of a button or the pull of a lever, so they stop asking her to try.

It reminds us that personalities change over time, and that’s okay.

At the beginning of the movie, Riley’s personality is defined by five Islands of Personality, each built around a core memory: family, friendship, hockey, sense of right and wrong, and goofiness.

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When Joy accidentally sends Riley’s core memories away from headquarters, everything quickly escalates to disaster. Without Joy (and really, without Sadness), Riley’s actions cause the islands of personality to crumble and fall down into the Memory Dump. The pervading fear of her emotions is that once all the core memories and islands are gone, Riley will be without a personality forever.

But when the final island falls, Riley is still there. She might not know who she is or what she wants, but she’s still there. And with the help of her family, she begins to rebuild. At the end of the movie, new core memories have formed new islands of personality, and she begins to live a richer, more complex life as she matures.

Everyone goes through an identity crisis like this at least once, a time in which we realize we aren’t exactly who we thought we were. And even though it feels like everything is falling apart, we come out on the other side with a better sense not only of who we are, but who we want to be. No one is the same person from cradle to grave – thank God. Because if that was the case, life would hardly be worth living.

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In short, Inside Out is one of the best animated movies ever created. It conquers the question “What does it mean to be human?” on a level both adults and children can appreciate, and it does so in such a way that encourages deep thought and interesting conversation. It acknowledges that human existence is rich and complex and fluid, emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit, and echoes the immortal words of Dr. Seuss:

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