Writing Mental Health: Mundane Magic & Anxiety

When I was young, I looked to books to find myself. In the characters I read about, I tried to understand this mortal shell I was trapped in – what it meant, what it could be, how to survive it. By their examples I found aspects of myself; solace in seeing them succeed and strength in seeing them recover from failure. But there was one side of myself that I never saw: the part of me that had started to run and hide. The part that made me hyperventilate when abuse was hurled at me by my peers – the same abuse that I had endured for years, now reducing me to a shattered mess where it hadn’t before.

I never saw this because I never really read any books where the characters had mental health problems. There just weren’t any. If there were, they were about the ‘sexy’ and ‘marketable’ sort of mental illness: inaccurate portrayals of schizophrenia that showed it as “genius, but”; PTSD that is clearly present, but never named or addressed. There were never people who had depression, or social anxiety disorder – the two conditions that I would come to be diagnosed with. Perhaps if there had been, I would have been diagnosed earlier, rather than three years after I started to show major symptoms.

It makes me truly happy that things are much better now. In text and film and games, people are going out of their way to portray mental health more often and more accurately. It’s not going perfectly, of course; there are plenty of examples of where it’s gone wrong, and much of the movement to improve awareness hasn’t reached the poorer regions of the world. But millions of people have watched Tony Stark have a panic attack – children included – children who can now ask their parents what is wrong and whether someone they know goes through that too. There is a war going on to improve the global understanding of mental health, and we might just be starting to win it.

I wanted to be a part of that. Not least because I wanted to write a story that was mine, and it seems impossible for me to write a story that is truly mine without including the illness that decimated my life for a decade. But when I started to write, I started to worry. Was I forcing this into the story? Was I losing the truth of the story by shoehorning in this aspect? Would people want to read it, if it was so obviously placed? Had I just made Odette the ‘token mentally ill character’? With the stubbornness of someone who had done so for a while, I ignored every single one of these questions. I packaged them away and I focused on finishing the novel. And somewhere along the way, I stopped asking them.

Why? Well, when I started writing Mundane Magic, it was 2014. I was 27 years old, and I had made a turning point in my recovery. A decade of medication, dozens of counsellors, and an ever-loving support network had gotten me to a place where I could have a life again. I wasn’t cured – I’m still not, and I never will be – but I had a job and hopes and dreams and had finally accepted that my partner and friends loved me for who I was. Little did I know that I had gotten into the hardest bit of recovery.

When I was very sick – when I would spend entire days in bed, only getting out of it when dragged – a bad day didn’t mean anything. My average days were so bad that it made hardly any difference. A bad day was where I spent the whole day in bed and spent most of it crying. That sounds horrible, but it’s not a tremendous difference to the status quo. But as I got better and better, a bad day started to mean a hell of a lot more.

Now, if I have a bad day, it is like a flashback to those years I spent crushed under the weight of my illness. I am so much better, and thus I have so much further to fall: from a good day to a terrible day, rather than from a bad day to a slightly worse one. Even when I don’t flash back all the way to what I was at my worst, it hurts so much more. As a result, I relapse significantly 2-3 times a year. I am always getting back up from it, and each time I am stronger, but it still happens.

And through those relapses, I wrote Mundane Magic.

As Odette went through her story, I went through mine. I found myself capable of writing aspects of her life that had previously been almost incomprehensible to me. When I had started writing, I was still rising to my best; the idea of writing someone as resilient and as strong as her was out of my skill set. As we went through it together, this all changed. I understood her in a way that I never had before, this character who had shown me my future before I had lived it.

I would write scenes that involved her mental illness and I would step away from them sobbing, not because I was sad but because writing them had been like an exorcism of everything I had carried around since I was a child. I wrote for myself, and I stopped caring if I was forcing her illness into the story or not, because I desperately needed to write it. I began to see that this was an irreplaceable part of Odette, just as it would always be a part of me.

Now, at the end of this journey and the beginning of another, with the novel finished and about to go into the world, those questions have come back. So what is my answer to them now?

Firstly: well, I just don’t care. Is it forced? Does it have a place in fantasy? I don’t care. It changed my life, and that is worth anything. The second side, which is a little less emotion and a bit more thought, is that I do truly believe that we need to increase the representation of mental illness in fiction of all genres. I also believe that this illness was always as much a part of Odette as of me, and to write her any other way would have been to do her a disservice.

I am proud to become part of a fictional canon that dares to make mental illness – in all of its complexities, all of its blessings and curses, all of its varieties – prominent and acknowledged. To not just show people with mental illness, but to make that illness explicit. To show it honestly and without glamour.

I hope, very much, that Mundane Magic does this justice.

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