For far too long people with mental illnesses have suffered in silence, and too many still do, and a great many of these people find themselves drawn to speculative fiction communities. #HoldOnToTheLight is a blogging initiative of over 100 science fiction and fantasy authors who are determined to start the conversation about mental illness. Today I’d like to contribute part of my own story to this crucial conversation. I don’t know if it will save any lives or help you write better stories, but I do know that refusing to let ourselves be silenced is the first step to improving mental health care and decreasing the power of stigmatization around the world.
I had my first bout with severe depression when I was eleven years old and I realized my dad’s cancer was terminal. During the first few bouts of depression I filled many notebooks with dark poetry, most of it awful but all of it cathartic.
The first time I contemplated suicide was the night my dad passed away. As an angry middle schooler who already had few friends, little academic success, and no idea what worth I could provide beyond the stories I wrote, I couldn’t see any point to the suffering that was my present life. In the end it wasn’t my own commitment to life which stopped me, it was the knowledge that my family would suffer if I died–and after a fairly significant string of recent deaths in the family mine just might kill some of them too.
So I survived. I made a lot of the familiar dumb decisions you’ve heard in other stories about depressed teenagers: dropped out of high school for two years, picked up smoking, started having sex young, dated awful men with even less purpose and self esteem than I had, and went to a lot of parties. But I also managed to improve my life piece by piece, moving in with my grandmother, switching to an alternative school, and dating progressively nicer guys.
I’ll admit that I didn’t seek professional help for my condition no matter how bad it got. A terribly mishandled visit to a psych ward at the beginning of my illness dissuaded me from trying again, as did the horror stories I heard of other people like me being locked up. You see, I wasn’t only depressed. I also had terrible insomnia and brief periods of rage and excitement I can only describe as miniature manic episodes. And everywhere I turned I found another story about someone with all of these symptoms being mistreated because doctors couldn’t figure out what the overall problem was.
So I skipped professional treatment and instead built an incredibly solid network of supportive friends(and some family) that I still have today. More importantly–at least in my opinion–I continued writing, and not just the poems and journals tracking my misery. I wrote a new book every Nanowrimo, often writing first drafts of several books instead. I started a blog, took writing classes, honed my skills, and eventually landed work as a freelance writer. No matter how much I suffered, I always had my words, my stories.
Many of my stories involve characters who already have mental illnesses or who develop them over the course of a series. Depression and PTSD are almost like my trademarks; there are more characters with one or both than there are without. I get compliments on the realism of my characters’ mental decline from every beta reader. Madness is something I understand, something I’m able to write incredibly well, and something that’s often cathartic to write.
But it isn’t always that way. Sometimes I go in too deep, entrenching myself so thoroughly in my characters’ suffering that it brings back or amplifies my own. Mental breakdown scenes may be my specialty but if I’m not careful they can transform into my own real world mental breakdown. A single scene can take several weeks to complete because I am walking a tightrope between my mental illness and my character’s.
So what do I do? I journal about the problem, and sometimes it’s enough. Other times I have to take time away from the story, sometimes as much as several weeks. Every once in a while I simply skip ahead to a scene I’m more excited about. The important thing is that I prioritize taking care of me. I know the demon of mental illness will never fully leave me, but I know that I can survive–hell, I have a duty to survive. A duty to live well, to show others it can be done no matter how hard the struggle gets.
Most importantly, I have a duty to start the conversation.
I hope you’ll join me.