Mental Health · Sara Dobie Bauer · Writing

The perils of writing a character with mental illness

Photo by Chris Loomis.
Photo by Chris Loomis.

A week ago, I finished writing my third novel of the year. “Hambden” (working title) was the most difficult novel I’ve ever written. It took me a little over two months to write, but the short birthing period says very little about the emotional toil it took for me to reach The End.

The plot evolved from watching news coverage of the Paris attacks last year. Then, the attacks didn’t stop. The shootings increased. Living in Chardon, Ohio–a small town that suffered its own school shooting in 2012–kept me surrounded by red, cardboard hearts, silently commanding all of us to “Remember.”

I suppose my husband is the only person who can speak from experience about my consistent emotional breakdowns whenever I heard about some other psycho with a gun. Although he perhaps didn’t understand my hysteria, people with anxiety disorder surely do. When you’re already afraid to leave your house just because, multiply that with the fear of getting murdered by some asshole teenager with “Killer” written on his cheap, white t-shirt.

Buried beneath my anxiety and depression, an idea bloomed. Instead of ignoring what was going on in the world, I would write about it–namely, I would write about a shooting at an Ohio college, only I would write about the aftermath of the tragedy instead of the tragedy itself. How does a community rebuild? How are individuals affected?

My “individuals” (we writers call ’em “characters”) soon echoed in my head like gunshots. Meet Isaac Twain: emergency English Department hire who’s new to Hambden University and knows very little about the shooting that stole six lives the prior June. Meet John Conlon: hero teacher who stopped the shooting and desperately tries to hide how fucked up he is by being charismatic, funny, and brave.

I’m not giving anything away when I tell you surviving the school shooting messed John up big time, and, as I wrote my novel, I found it alarmingly easy to slip into his shoes day after day as he battled depression, PTSD, anxiety, and night terrors. However, what surprised me was how hard it was to take those shoes off at the end of the day.

In my past and present, I’ve battled the same demons as John Conlon. No one’s ever put a gun in my face, but depression is in my genes. A hellish job shoved me into PTSD and anxiety. My colorful imagination makes me a writer by day and sufferer of vivid, bloody dreams at night. Immersing myself in “Hambden,” in John and Isaac’s world of broken pieces, was more destructive than I’d expected.

I would never suggest we only write about happy things. I would never suggest we stop writing about mental illness. I’ve found that sharing my own mental health problems has helped my readers be open about their own–and that’s important, having that open dialogue. The more we talk about mental illness, the better we can deal with it. The more likely we are to heal. And yet, writer beware. There must be a strict delineation between the fiction you create and the life you live.

Halfway through “Hambden,” I came to the realization that writing is my job. It’s not my life (no matter what the passionate cliches on Pinterest want you to think). It is necessary for all of us to keep our work and our lives separate. Once I came to terms with that–once I made an agreement with Isaac and John that they had my mornings and life had my afternoons–I stopped feeling so comfortable in John’s sad, cold shoes. I could escape and stop thinking about the book as soon as I hit “Save” every morning.

Due to editing deadlines for next year’s Bite Somebody Else, “Hambden” will not be touched again until December. Then, I will revisit that world of violence and tragedy. Yet, even in that world, there are laughs and there is love. Writing might not be life, but sometimes, it sure does imitate it.

The “Hambden” theme song:

6 thoughts on “The perils of writing a character with mental illness

  1. As a person with a mental illness myself, I found this commentary very pertinent and penetrating. I have written stories that feature characters with my malady (Asperger’s Syndrome) as a way of increasing notice for it, since it has little positive expression elsewhere in the media, and have felt good doing it. One is a superhero character, who is equally troubled by being a teenage girl as she is by Asperger’s. I should know that growing up biologically and Asperger’s don’t mix, and I have tried to use this character as a way of showing how people with the disorder should be treated by others- fairly, with respect and as an equal. I hope people who have read or will read the stories I have written about her will get that message when they read it.

  2. The only way to raise awareness and create change in our world is to tell the stories, especially about mental illness. I love you for your willingness to be so vulnerable and raw. Your story and the stories of your characters are important pieces of this complex puzzle.

  3. Having that separation between fiction and reality is important. I can’t say I practice it too much because I pretty much live in fantasy land full time. But it does work to my advantage with the kind of stories I like to write. And I do have a tendency to step away from projects that are either disturbing me on a mental level or making me feel disoriented because I’ve been wrapped in the world for too long. That’s what fun television is for, I think. 🙂 I used to hide from what I call “crazy characters.” I was afraid it would have a negative impact on me and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it because I’m crazy myself. But embracing it has had a very weird opposite effect. My current story has two very depressed characters in it, and they are both suffering in different ways, but it makes me feel better. It’s nice to be surrounded by people who are so imperfect. Dare I say that I find it comforting.

  4. I am both excited and terrified to read “Hambden.” I know you will handle this difficult subject matter with grace and emotional resonance. And it’s important to write about these things. Thank you for your bravery.

  5. Enjoyed reading about your honest writing/living experience.
    A comment on your working title of “Hambden” — How about just “Hamden”?

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