Why I Wrote a Character with a Mental Illness: because for a long time, I never knew I had one

Jan 8, 2015

When I was 19 years old and in college, I got very angry for no apparent reason, for a rather long time. I wasn’t angry about anything in particular. I hated the world, hated my major, hated my job, hated the driver in front of me on the road who wasn’t going fast enough. For months, I felt hollowed out, like I had a hole inside me filled with irrational anger that stemmed from a despair that had no source. I cried a lot, I yelled a lot, and felt very lost.

I suppose it feels a little something like this.
It was depression, but I didn’t realize that.

When I was 23, I got married, graduated college, and started my first “real” job. My entire life changed completely, and it was bewildering. Abruptly, I turned from a happy, energetic person into one who cried for no apparent reason and never wanted to leave the house. I went to bed every night for months dreading the fact I had to wake up in the morning and go to a job I despised. I hated myself for being miserable and being unable to snap myself out of it. I was heartbrokenly sure my husband hated me because he’d realized I wasn’t the girl he thought he married.

It was depression, but I didn’t realize that.

When I was 28, I had my second baby. I loved her, but I cried a lot for the first four months of her life. The burden of two children overwhelmed me, and I was filled with constant guilt and a belief that I was failing at everything. I yelled at my children all the time, and that confirmed I was a terrible mother. The tiniest thing added to my load would send me into frantic fits of panicked breaths and pounding heart. One day, driving down the road with my kids in the back seat, I looked at the gloomy world and saw no point in any of it. There was no reason for it to exist, or for me to exist in it.

It was depression and anxiety, and I pulled off the road in shock, finally realizing it.

I went to a doctor and got a diagnosis, medication, and a counselor. My depression and anxiety is cyclical, and is also affected by my Multiple Sclerosis. I recognize it when it comes back now, and have strategies for treating it. But it still unnerves me when I look back at my life, even as a teenager, and see how often I didn’t know that’s what was going on. In fact, when I started writing The Unhappening of Genesis Lee and gave my main character anxiety and panic attacks, I hadn’t reached my own realization of my mental illness yet.

Gena’s anxiety started out as a plot point. But when I recognized that it was something I dealt with too, it changed things—for me, and the book. I rewrote the moments where Gena had her panic attacks, making small changes to echo what my own felt like. That part of Gena’s character arc became so important to me. I tweaked it all the way up until my very last revision with my editor, trying my best to represent it accurately and with a strong personal connection.

Because I wanted to share my own realizations about mental illness. I wanted it to be in the book not as a plot point, but so that maybe someone who didn’t know what they were feeling—like me—might read it and recognize it. I wanted people who don’t experience mental illness to be able to read it and start to understand, even just a little, what it can be like. I wanted to show my character as a real person, someone who struggles with mental illness, but has other parts of her that are good and bad and important as well. There are things that make her strong and weak, things that make her her, and some of them are about her mental illness, and some of them aren’t.

It’s so hard to describe mental illness. Even writing this post, I feel frustrated because it doesn’t really convey the way I feel when I experience it, or how for so long I viewed the world through a kind of distorted lens and didn’t even recognize it.  I’m afraid that even in the book, I didn’t write Gena’s own experience well enough, that I didn’t communicate what it truly is.

But at least I tried, because it matters to me. And it matters to so many others.

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