Guys. Just a warning. This author feature you’re about to read will utterly absorb you, and open your eyes to a way of thinking about mental health that you might not have previously had.
My Young Adult novel ‘A Tragic Kind of Wonderful’ comes out in paperback on May 4th, and I want to describe my process of writing about mental illness. It begins with me saying that I take medication every day to alleviate a number of atypical mental behaviours.
On the mild side, I often can’t think straight. And I’m forgetful. Because of this I make extensive lists, to a level of detail that raises eyebrows, so I keep them private.
Moderate symptoms include bouts of worrying, enough to cause trembling from adrenaline. I also sometimes lose motivation to do anything, even activities I enjoy. I occasionally lose the ability to feel any emotions.
More severe behaviours include checking things repeatedly. For example, if I’m off my meds and stressed, I walk through my house at night to lock windows and realize I’m just going through the motions, like when you read a paragraph and discover you didn’t really read it and have to start over. At my worst, I circle the house many times without pause before retiring.
Other times I can’t stop thinking about something, like a song stuck in your head, but actively, like trying to solve an unsolvable problem and being unable to stop. Even on good days, if I work on one thing long enough it gets hard to think about anything else, including stopping to eat lunch or even dinner.
No doubt you recognize these symptoms as expressions of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. So what do I have, exactly? After years of unsuccessfully trying medications and treatments, a doctor discovered the root of my problems, wrote a prescription, and everything improved dramatically. Today I take just one pill each morning to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, Primarily Inattentive (ADD-PI) Type.
What do all those symptoms have to do with ADD? And how can I have it if I’m able to perform one task all day and even have trouble stopping? Doesn’t ADD mean being overly distractible?
Mental illnesses are often mistakenly equated with their simplest manifestations. It’s commonly believed agoraphobia is a fear of leaving home, but it’s more related to not being in control of one’s surroundings. ADD is a reduced ability to control one’s thinking. It can make it hard to focus, or sometimes to stop focusing.
But what about all my other symptoms? To oversimplify things enormously, here is an extremely crude sketch:
ADD often makes my thinking jump around. Focus is required to store thoughts as memories, so I’m forgetful. Over time, wondering if I’m forgetting something important turns into constant worry, an unfocused anxiety leading to hopelessness and feelings of being overwhelmed. This spawns depression, and occasionally feeling anxiety and depression simultaneously; like lying in bed anxiously thinking about needing to do something, yet still not doing it. Further, checking things repeatedly in a way that seems obsessive comes from this lack of focus; an active, magnified, physical analog to being tired and distracted and rereading a paragraph over and over.
That’s a small glimpse into my backstory. And when the time came for me to start my second novel, I had a greater awareness of the need for more diverse characters in fiction, so I decided my next book would feature a protagonist with a mental disability, and one where I could tap my own experience. Not only the biological symptoms like depression and anxiety, but also what it feels like to talk to psychiatrists, to need meds, to forget to take them and slip into more severe neuroatypical thinking, to wonder how it feels to think like a person who doesn’t need pills, and to worry about how others will treat you once they learn you have a mental illness.
That’s how I started writing ‘A Tragic Kind of Wonderful’, about Mel Hannigan, a girl with bipolar disorder. But why not write about ADD-PI? I could have, and might in the future, but while I wanted to feature mental illness, my actual storytelling goal was to write about being afraid to let people see your true self. Bipolar disorder better suited the story I wanted to tell, while also being a mental disorder with some symptoms I’m personally familiar with.
Not everyone experiences bipolar disorder – or any mental illness – the same way, so for greater authenticity, I made Mel’s manifestation emphasize the symptoms I have – depression, anxiety, rapid circular thinking (ADD) – much more than the symptoms I don’t have – like mania and delusions. For those elements I did a lot of research into personal accounts. Not to internalize how those people feel – that’s impossible – but to learn how they talk about it, so I could come as close as I could to having Mel talk that way, too.
I want to be clear that I don’t know what it’s like to have bipolar disorder. ‘A Tragic Kind of Wonderful’ is not #ownvoices. I do know intimately what it’s like to experience some of its component symptoms, but as a whole? Not at all. Only people who have a particular mental illness can truly know what it’s like.
Yet while one can’t completely fathom the entirety of someone else’s experience, if it’s described in terms of feelings we’re all familiar with, it doesn’t sound like an alien language. You understand it to the degree your experience permits. I think effective fiction is about drawing what parallels are possible between us, both as readers and as writers. And this, I believe, is how we generate sympathy, empathy, and compassion for each other, even, and especially, with people whose lives and experiences are very different from our own.
To snap up your copy of ‘A Tragic Kind of Wonderful’ in gorgeous paperback – click here!