Mental illness is a theme that plays heavily in my novel Wanderer Among Shadows, a theme that was not present in the original version of the story. However, after suffering from depression, I figured that if there was ever a story where a character would suffer from mental illness, it would be this one. One of my goals therefore with this novel became to help people struggling with mental illness. To better understand my reasoning for putting such elements into the novel, I need to explain my own experiences with mental illness.
When I was younger I had a very nervous temperament. In elementary school, I developed my first mental disorder, Trichotillomania. Also known as Hair-Pulling Disorder, it is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which a person has the recurrent urge to pull their hair often leading to noticeable hair loss. The condition was at its worst from my junior year of high school through college when I was the most stressed out due to the intense level of school work I had. During this time, I had visibly short pieces of hair which I tried to hide by changing my hairstyle. When one of my classmates saw the short pieces of hair and I explained to them why I had them, they replied that it was “weird.” But for all those reading this, please know there is nothing “weird” about mental illness; it is no different than having arthritis or any other physical condition. It is something that needs treatment not ridicule. I still suffer from the condition, but it is not as severe as it once was.
Being a nervous person, it was only natural that I acquire some general OCD as well. I got into the habit of checking things three times, especially when it came to school work. I also had a problem with replaying things in my head. For instance, if I had a close call while driving, I would keep thinking about it. I also got into the bad habit of stress eating and I put on a lot of weight in college. I lost most of it, but I still struggle with my eating habits. And all of the stress I was under during my last year of college almost certainly caused me to develop chronic hives. I went for an allergy test and everything they tested for came back negative, so it had to be the stress that caused it, especially because it is not as bad now but I still have to take allergy medication for it.
So I suppose it’s fair to say that with my anxiety issues I was already at risk for developing depression should the worst happen, and it did. During college I was incredibly stressed out, with perhaps my senior year being the worst. I lost one of my cats in my last semester, which really broke something inside of me, and I was so burned out that final year that I didn’t know if I would make it till the end. I pushed through and when I graduated I wasn’t sure where exactly I wanted to take my career path so I started by applying to jobs related to my fields of study. I thought I would get a job no problem after a few applications, but that turned out to not be the case and I had to work retail. My lack of career prospects while having two degrees and graduating summa cum laude lowered my self-esteem significantly. There were many times when I would cry because of my situation. I felt embarrassed and like there was something wrong with me at having gone from so high to what felt like so low.
Eventually, after a recommendation from a friend, I got a full time job in an office as a receptionist. Just when I thought things were looking up, they plummeted even further. My new boss took any chance he got to pick on me personally and micromanage me and my coworkers. This made the workplace incredibly hostile and stressful. Even though I fought back when I could, my self-esteem dropped even further and I was exhausted from constantly feeling inadequate. It got to the point that every Monday I would cry at my desk, trying furiously to hide my tears. Thankfully for me, the business closed due to poor finances and I was laid off. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cried happy tears as I walked to my car after finishing my last day there. Although this experience was horrific, it did make me realize that maybe a full time office job wasn’t for me. I remembered that I had three novels I had worked on from middle school through college and figured that now that I would have a lot of time off, I could start writing again.
As the summer was just beginning when I got laid off, I figured I would take a few months off to rest and enjoy the nice weather. But then all the crying I had been doing on and off for months turned into full blown depression. I guess because I wasn’t working and had nothing to distract me, my brain was able to process everything I had been through. But the process was painful. I suddenly felt hopeless, like the future would be bleak, and that there was no point to life. I balked at the idea of having to go to work again, afraid I would be stuck in another horrible workplace. I was still single as well and felt like I would never experience love or have children. I didn’t feel strong at all and knew that it was hard for me to handle conflict. Any little thing that went wrong would upset me. Overall, I didn’t feel happy at all and I no longer found joy in things I used to love doing. I would cry all the time, even when doing something simple like eating or gardening. It got to the point that as soon as I would wake up in the morning, I would feel the sadness in my body even before the negative thoughts entered my mind. These negative and ruminating thoughts never stopped. I was doom and gloom all the time. Eventually, I had to go to therapy and see a psychiatrist who put me on anti-depressants and I have gotten a lot better.
So how did all of this influence my novel? Well, I decided that it needed to go beyond the typical Salem Witch Trials story that focused on mass hysteria or neighbors turning against neighbors. I needed to add an entire new layer to the story; one that not only showed what mental illness would have looked like in the colonial period, but also one that resonated with readers. I also wanted to showcase how the traumatic events of the witch trials could affect someone’s mental health. I incorporated many of my experiences into the novel and a lot of what the main character goes through, I went through. I incorporated how I felt when I lost someone I loved, some of the many incidents when I cried, my many fears about the future, and so much more. I also found out through my research that one of the members of the historical family actually did suffer from mental illness and it was only natural that I included this in the story as well. So I hope when you read the novel, it feels real and personal because it is. I mostly want people who suffer from mental health issues to know that they are not alone when they read this book and to help those who have not experienced mental illness themselves to understand it better.
2 thoughts on “How Mental Illness Influenced My Novel”
I first experienced mental illness at age 18. Depression hit hard and I was also living with drug psychosis (weed) as well. Much more like melancholia than depression.
It was downhill after that as my PTSD really began to kick in. Had a lot of difficulty holding down a job. Took to alcohol for the PTSD.
Today I live on a disability pension. Am abstinent from drugs and alcohol, and work a 12 recovery program specifically for mental health called ‘Grow’.
I hope you’re doing better now. That’s difficult to overcome, but you did.