a torn map, a candle stub: writing mental illness

WILD AWAKE is coming out in five days. I've been hiding from the internet, but Techie Boyfriend informs me that there are already more words written about WILD AWAKE (in reviews, comments, note-comparing, and general chitter-chatter) than the 75,000 in the novel itself. I know this is just what happens with books in the internet age, but the speed and intensity still feels like one of those elevator rides where the ground rushes toward you in a stomach-dropping whoosh while you're still saying not ready! not ready!

I realize I've been rather secretive about basic WILD AWAKE questions like "What is it about?"—less from actual secrecy than from the bewilderment that comes when you get so used to waiting for your novel to come out that when it finally does, it catches you off-guard.

Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, I'd like to belatedly and somewhat redundantly tell you that WILD AWAKE is a story about a teen musician who has a summer of chaos, first love, mystery and adventure while her parents are away on vacation. It's a story about family; a story about grief; and yes, a story about mental illness, although you won't find that term in the book.

Many people experience some kind of mental Thing (to use Kiri's word) at some point in their lives, whether they self-identify with a word like "bipolar" or "schizophrenic" or not. As most of you already know, I am one of them. Mental illness can make you feel alone and terrified, especially as a young adult—like you're on a distant planet where nobody can reach you. Novels like Janet Frame's The Edge of the Alphabet saved me from that terror by giving voice to the strangeness, horror, and profound beauty of that place.

When people find out that I've written about mental illness, they often tell me about their friends and loved ones who didn't make it. They always use that expression—"didn't make it"—which I've always found interesting for its connotations of journeys and quests. Not everyone who gets called to the underworld makes it back alive. Not everyone who wrestles with the Minotaur wins.

The better I get to know my own underworld, the more I believe that the stories we tell ourselves about mental illness are a crucial factor in determining how many people do make it. Our songs, poems, and metaphors—the language available to us for talking about experiences which are more complex than almost anyone is willing to acknowledge—these things matter both for our survival as a society and as individuals.

I used to think that mental illness had clear answers, that you could take it apart like an IKEA desk and spread the pieces out neatly on the floor. Now, I'm not so sure. What I do know is that stories are powerful, and the right one can make the difference between coming back from the underworld and getting consumed by it. The right story can act like a torn map or a candlestub: imperfect, but maybe just enough to light the way.


  1. The experts will tell you there ARE no clear answers in mental health. Look at the controversy over the just-published DSM-5, which replaces the long-standing DSM IV-TR as THE reference for mental health professionals.

    In my mind, a bigger problem is getting people to seek help. Nobody talks about their MH problems in public, so we get the impression that only nut-cases seek treatment. We think that since we don't hear voices of space aliens that go away if we put our tin-foil hats on, we're okay. But a lot of us *aren't* okay.

    A big and impressive study by Sweden's Karolinska Institutet found that while creatives in general tended to be more prone to being bipolar, "being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide." That's quite a list.

    Speaking of those "who didn't make it," that same study also found, "The likelihood of authors successfully committing suicide is about 50% higher than for non-creatives."

    Me, I've been on medication for unipolar depression and generalized anxiety for many years. I'm also in talk therapy for existential discomfort — and making considerable progress on that front.

  2. So well said. One summer of college I spent a week in my room with The Bell Jar. Holding onto it as the one thing that told me I wasn’t alone in how I felt or saw the world.

  3. I'm so excited to hear more about Wild Awake, and so impressed you've taken on the M H stigma. I can't wait to read it.

    I struggled with depression for many years. I've finally found contentment and security that outweighs it and haven't had an episode for years. But I remember the black hole and feel so strongly for the friends and family close to me, still struggling with that demon.

    Good for you incorporating a voice on this issue into YA. I'm sure it will save lives.

  4. Dear Hilary,
    Applause! Give Techie Boyfriend a big hug. Both of you should do some "Snoopy Dancing" and feel free to go off on a private retreat.

    It's an honor to have followed a tiny part of your journey, through your posts and previous book. Feel free to shun all media hype and let the story speak its truth. Have fun writing an entirely different story because when it comes to our mental skills, the term "illness" is a judgment that no one is qualified to make.

    You've written books that lots of people have worked to get published and into readers hands. Mark Twain would have loved that option. :D

  5. You are both brave and exquisitely talented, Hillary. A real artist.

  6. This is a beautiful post. Well-said. Congrats on the book. Very exciting!!

  7. "The better I get to know my own underworld, the more I believe that the stories we tell ourselves about mental illness are a crucial factor in determining how many people do make it."

    I think this is true of everyone. The stories we tell ourselves about _everything_ determine our outlook on ourselves, our lives, and our place in the world.

    It's easy to find and listen to the voices of the demons trying to keep us down, isolated, and in fear. It's harder to find and believe the voices of encouragement, telling us that we belong, are worthy, and are loved.

    That's one of the important gifts you are giving the world, Hilary: the voice of survival, spreading the light of hope to others.

    Keep writing. We need you.

    -- Tom

  8. Yes, it's always nice to have books that help you feel less alone.

    Of course, sometimes seeing a professional and getting the proper medication is necessary too, but books can help you take that step too by helping you understand you aren't a lone freak of nature and there is help out there.

    So nice topic choice.


Post a Comment