Writer’s Insights: Why I Write about Mental Illness
In July 2017, Chester Bennington, one of the lead singers of the band Linkin Park, committed suicide. Bennington had struggled with substance abuse previously, and it appeared the death of fellow rocker Chris Cornell—whose children Bennington was a godfather to, whose funeral Bennington performed at, and on whose birthday Bennington committed suicide—had played a role in Bennington’s decision to take his own life.
Of course, Bennington’s lyrics also point to an ongoing struggle with mental illness. The band’s 2000 debut, Hybrid Theory, included tracks like “Easier to Run” and “Crwling,” while their 2003 follow-up, Meteora, featured a track called “Breaking the Habit,” which could easily be interpreted as a suicide-in-progress, and “Numb,” which appears to be about drug addiction.
Not that rock music is any stranger to such subject matter. Rock songs often adopt “edgy” topics in their lyrics, speaking to a largely teenage fanbase—a fanbase often struggling with their own emotions, confusion, frustration, rage, and depression.
It’s also not uncommon for rock artists to experiment and struggle with substance abuse and mental illness.
Anyone, Any Time
Bennington is, unfortunately, another in a long list of rock musicians and celebrities more generally who struggle and cope with mental illness and ultimately succumb to it. In some ways, it adds to the myth that true artists are tortured souls—mentally ill and unstable. You must be, so the theory goes, to create truly passionate art.
Perhaps what this points to, however, is something a bit more universal: Mental illness is widespread and affects people from all walks of life. Bennington was a forty-something white male, married with six children, and frontman of a very successful rock band. He didn’t appear to be hurting for money. He was respected by a large number of musicians he’d worked with, and he’d been able to let his creative talents play out in many ways.
Another example: Robin Williams. Williams was a successful comedian with a TV and movie career spanning decades, known to many generations, and especially beloved by the Millennial generation who grew up watching his movies.
By all counts, Williams was a funny, warm, and caring person. He had his struggles and his issues, of course; that he’d wrestled with depression was not a secret. Yet he still took his own life.
Here in Canada, many young Indigenous people feel hopeless enough to take their own lives. Living in remote communities which are underserved, often with disrupted family lives (thanks to generations of trauma and abuse at the hands of colonization), they do not see a bright future. Many struggle with addictions before they ultimately commit suicide. These people are young, Indigenous, and very poor—a stark contrast to like Bennington and Williams. Perhaps some of them are artists; some of them are not. Yet they still come to see suicide as a way to end suffering.
What I’m getting at here is depression and suicide affects many, many people, from all walks of life.
A Personal Connection
I myself have suffered bouts of depression. I usually find myself in a more depressive mood in the fall and winter, while I function more “normally” during the spring and summer. I’ve also had lapses into more major depressive episodes.
One of the ways I’ve worked with my mental illness is through writing. Writing is therapeutic for many people. Journaling is one way we can connect to deeper emotions. It forces us to pause, to take stock of what’s going on around us. It asks us to explore our emotions. It’s, in many ways, similar to yoga and other meditative practices. We must be mindful of the present moment, to see what’s going on, to feel it, and then to let it go without judgment.
It asks us to engage and disengage at the same time. We become objective observers at the same time we’re subjective emoters. It’s a difficult balance, and journaling doesn’t always seem to be a helpful practice immediately. For me, journaling—writing about personal experience—is actually not incredibly helpful. It encourages me to “hang on” to my emotions or to push them further in order to truly “experience” them. Obviously, that practice exacerbates feelings of depression and anxiety.
The workaround is to write fiction. I’m moving the location of the emotion outside of myself when I write fiction. I’m still exploring and experiencing it, but the process of centering the experience or emotion on another allows me to move into the role of “objective observer.” I have more trouble separating myself as an objective observer when I’m also the subjective emoter. (I also practice yoga; becoming an objective observer and subjective emoter simultaneously is easier for me in that space.)
Representing Mental Illness
Some people might accuse me of including darker themes about rape, PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation, and other issues as a gimmick—either as reader titillation or as a way of making my writing seem “edgy.”
That’s not what I’m trying to do, nor what I hope to achieve. My characters struggle with these issues because I myself struggle with them or know people who are struggling with them. I want to explore these issues, and I want to write fiction that portrays these characters in a realistic and sympathetic light. Perhaps I achieve that; perhaps I don’t. Each individual reader will likely come to a conclusion about whether or not I’ve successfully portrayed this mental health issue in a sympathetic way. Some will agree; others will disagree. Representations are fraught.
What I do hope to express, at the very least, is there are many ways to experience mental health issues. There is no single “correct” depiction of depression or anxiety. Each and every person will manifest their conditions differently. For me, my depression began as SAD layered on top of existing social anxiety issues, followed by burnout and work stress, ultimately manifesting in a major depressive episode. My counselor noted I had remarkable resilience: I went until I broke. Breaks were catastrophic, but short-lived. I “bounced back,” but the issues remained.
Other people will not experience that. I understand that. I recognize that. And I try to write from an informed perspective. My characters are not me, even if I use personal understanding and experience to inform them. Luke’s PTSD in Slapshot! is not a reflection of my own self, excepting I can sympathize with his struggles, having had my own. He copes by self-medicating; I coped by ignoring my issues. His issues are quite different than my own.
Exploring Mental Illness in Sport
I’m particularly interested in the current revelations about how sports affect mental health. One thing that’s more apparent is athletes are just as at-risk as any other population. They have different risk factors than other demographics. They’re particularly at risk for depression, particularly in rough sports like hockey or football, where chronic pain and injury are prevalent. Others become depressed after reaching ridiculous heights, such as winning Olympic gold.
I’ve read a number of interviews with former Olympic athletes now, and there’s a recurrent theme there: They achieve their Olympic dream, perhaps the pinnacle of their careers, and they still fall prey to depression. For some, it’s coming down after the high of the Olympics, in many cases fading back into relative anonymity. For others, it’s a sense of worthlessness that plagues them after the fact—they’ve achieved their dream, their goals, and they’re left with a sense of “what now?”
This is a theme I’m playing with in the Something in the Water series. Reese is already struggling with several issues which put him at risk for developing mental health issues. As seen in Submerged, one of his coping mechanisms has actually been the development of an eating disorder, which gives him the illusion of control over his body. Ultimately, Reese loses control of the control mechanism, which leads him on a downward spiral.
The fact of the matter is Reese encounters several risk factors in his life. He’s a gay male, in addition to participating in a sport which tends to emphasize a certain bodily aesthetic. Reese doesn’t fit that mold. External influences, including coaches and peers, repeatedly reinforce a negative understanding of Reese’s body. His status as an omega male further complicates his own relationship with his body, leading to body dysmorphia and self-hatred.
No Magical Fixes
One of my other goals in writing about mental health, mental health issues and conditions, and mental illness is to emphasize there are no magical fixes. In Submerged, Gabriel tries to be supportive of Reese after his condition comes to light, but even he’s under no illusions: Reese isn’t going to be “fixed” by the power of love or something stupid like that.
Support is necessary, absolutely vital, but the road to recovery and mental wellness is long, fraught, and difficult. Fixes do not happen overnight, and being in love doesn’t magically cure someone of depression or anxiety or body dysmorphia or anything else, just the same as it doesn’t cure someone from cancer or tuberculosis.
Mainstream media tends to gloss this reality over, which creates a harmful narrative for those who struggle with mental health issues and their supporters. It exacerbates the frustration supporters feel: “I love you, why aren’t you better yet?”
In this, I’m striving to achieve a more realistic portrayal of mental health issues. In fact, Reese is likely never going to be “cured.” Eating disorders are very difficult to recover from, and many experience setbacks and relapses. Reese developed this behavior as a control mechanism, as a way of coping with stresses and negative influences, so whenever times get tough or he feels something is out of his control, the temptation to reach for these behaviors is real.
It’s Tough to Read
Naturally, we have to acknowledge not everyone wants to read this kind of narrative. Some people may find it traumatizing or re-traumatizing. Those who have struggled with mental health issues themselves may find things that bring up unpleasant memories or trigger undesirable behaviors.
Some, having suffered themselves, will find the depiction insensitive or inaccurate. While I sincerely hope not, this is always the divide between writer and reader. I am but one writer with one (limited) perspective and (limited) understanding and experience. Not everyone’s experience will correspond to what’s written. They may even find it to be “false” or “harmful” in light of their own experiences. They may even see shades of harmful stereotypes being perpetuated.
While I work to subvert this and I hope to avoid being perpetuating of stereotypes as much as possible, it is the danger in this kind of work. If nothing else, I hope the work can bring more discussion about these topics to the forefront. Own voices are ultimately more important, and if a questionable portrayal can encourage those voices to speak even louder, this is not a bad thing. (Of course, this also acknowledges we must listen to and learn from those own voices, and we must also not leave the burden of speaking truth to them and them alone; it’s difficult work. Support through listening is also key.)
This doesn’t change the fact this kind of stuff is difficult for many people to read, whether or not they have experience with it. Nonetheless, it’s important to address. It’s why I write it. I’m compelled to explore these issues, to bring more attention and light to them.