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.


Emma said...


Thanks for writing this post. At the risk of sounding like a creeper, I've watched you at writing conferences and in the community because you always seem like someone who has life figured out. You always seem so happy and "together". I'm glad you're finding the help you need, and I'm glad you are brave enough to write in ways that will help others who feel vulnerable.

I picked up your book recently and look forward to reading it!

Shallee said...

Emma, you are so sweet, and you don't sound like a creeper! I'm honestly flattered that's what you thought. I will say that when I'm out of the depressed/anxious part of my cycle, I am usually a happy person-- not sure about having life all figured out, though! lol

I'm glad to have figured out this part, at least for now, though! Thanks again, and hope you enjoy the book.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think you did a very good job describing what you've gone through, and I appreciate your honesty, especially because a lot of people keep their own depression to themselves and never tell anyone. And I like your idea of incorporating your experiences into your character's life; it's true that when a reader recognizes certain aspects of a character's life or story as a whole, it can give them a new understanding and it also can make them feel less alone if they're going through the same thing.

Michelle Merrill said...

It matters to me too. I deal with anxiety as well, as do my kids. It's good to have something out there for them to relate to. I love that you put it into your writing. Like you've told me, sometimes the things you write best are the things you fear the most. As a hypochondriac, writing a book about dying was really hard for me. But it's something I think about, and fear, all too often...which really brought it out through my words. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

I actually thought while reading the book, "How did she get it so right?" I should have known you had a mental illness just from reading it because it seemed you knew what you're talking about.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

My husband and I have both struggled with anxiety at various points in our life, and our daughter is dealing with it now. It is so very important to communicate about these illnesses so that people can recognize them in themselves and get the proper treatment.

Mindy said...

Oh my God, that is/was me! I never knew that such rage and anxiety was a sign of depression, but I realized it when I had a moderate case of post-partum depression and knew I had to get help for it. Otherwise, I highly doubt I would be here now. Bravo to you that you shared your story - you're right, it's incredibly hard to describe or explain to someone who hasn't gone through it. I'm still an anxious person, but use CBT as a way to keep my thoughts in check.

Emily R. King said...

So brave of you to share this, Shallee. Many, many people have gone through similar rough spots. Good for you for getting help and talking/writing about it. I think more people should be open about depression; it's such a common mental illness that often goes untreated.

Haneen Ibrahim said...

Wow! I feel you, what hurt me the most when I knew about my mental illness is that I was oblivious to it all those years, in my case it was from my childhood. And again like you I wrote my main character in my first novel as suicidal and depressed when I didn't know I had depression, the knowledge had the same affect yours had on your writing, it made my character way better and much more real. Great post :)it was actually another writer who wrote a similar post years ago that helped me recognized I needed help, I hope yours helps someone else like me.

Saumya said...

You are so brave for writing this post and sharing your experiences. I've always wanted to write about a character with mental illness so that others can understand what it's like. I'm training to become a psychiatrist and am grateful there are strong, talented people like you who can share their stories so that others can felt both understood, comforted, and educated.

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Speaking from the heart. Just freaking honest. Thanks for sharing, Shallee.

alexia said...

I applaud your realness! I'm sure your book touches people, and it's great you used your art reach others in that way.

Unknown said...

Hi Shallee! Honest and wonderful post! It took me such a long time to realize I have bouts of anxiety and depression too. I remember thinking that finding it exhausting to plug your phone to charge meant I was a "little tired" and wanting to disappear to a far away place meant I was a "little sad."
Thanks for bringing more awareness about this!

Tanya Reimer said...

It is wonderful to see authors leave this imprint in their writing. It makes it powerful. It makes it meaningful. It is what has changed lives. We all have experience and a story to share. I am so proud of you and how you were not only able to recognise it but help others. I know how hard each breath can be.

Romance Book Haven said...

Hi Shallee,

I loved reading your reasons and now I'm thinking this story would be so powerful to read.

Thanks for sharing about it.

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