Healing through Creating Characters with Mental Illness
By Emily Glossner Johnson
I’ve written all my life, but in October of 1995, the same month I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I got very serious about my writing and decided to try to take it someplace. I started writing many short stories, but didn’t get one published until 2005 when “Lonesome Tonight” appeared in the journal Lynx Eye. And I didn’t get other stories published until 2012 and beyond. My bipolar episodes have often interfered with my writing, but at present I have ten short stories published and one forthcoming.
Three of my published stories and one as-yet-unpublished story contain characters with mental illness. My characters with mental illness have aided me with my own condition and helped to heal wounds I’ve received from battling my disorder.
In “Shadow People” (The Linnet’s Wings, Summer 2012), I created Trey Herlihy and David Herlihy, cousins who are both suffering from schizophrenia. While I don’t have schizophrenia, I can relate to the struggles that Trey and David go through: the delusional thinking, the loss of control over one’s mind, the psychosis, and the yearning for a reprieve. I’ve experienced all these things, and writing about them was cathartic. While Trey continues to struggle by the end of the story, David works to overcome his illness. I saw myself in this. I saw my own efforts to maintain balance and wellness.
I created James Andrews in “The Escape” (Lost Coast Review, Volume 5, Number 2, Winter 2014). James is a deeply troubled young man. He suffers from agoraphobia and tremendous anxiety, and perhaps worst of all, he’s suicidal. I’ve experienced agoraphobia and anxiety, and while the thought of my son and family has always kept me from being truly suicidal, I have experienced suicidal ideation. This is a condition in which a person obsesses about suicide and death and may even go so far as to make a suicide plan without actually intending to go through with it. Suicidal ideation is a very painful, scary, and despairing state of mind. My character’s thoughts of suicide helped me face the demons of suicidal ideation and get past them. By giving James his thoughts, I learned to rid myself of many of my own.
I’ve been fortunate to have never developed an addiction, but in “Mr. Gribbles Eats a Beetle” (Literary Brushstrokes, Volume 1, Number 1, June 2012), my character Jimmy Gemini, a washed-up rock star, has previously suffered from addiction. Jimmy’s addiction reminds me that we, the mentally ill, sometimes walk a fine line between sobriety and succumbing to addiction. Alcohol, for example, is so easy to obtain, and self-medicating with it is unfortunately all too common. I have self-medicated with alcohol before, but I have never developed an addiction to it. I believe that creating Jimmy Gemini helped me to “get it out” and see what addiction can do to a person.
Finally, in an as-yet-unpublished story called “The Affair”, Jack Bowen falls into a deep depression. I know the feeling of depression all too well and this part of the story was easy to write. I felt for Jack and related to him—I understood what it was like for him to slip day by day. And yet, he helped me with my own depressive episodes because I was able to “share” them with another person, albeit a character I created.
I’ve put some of my characters through a lot, but I’ve found that there are great rewards in creating characters with mental illness. Writing these characters helps to prevent me from feeling either self-pity or loneliness. I’ve learned that I should neither feel sorry for myself nor feel that I’m the only person who knows what it is to struggle with a chronic illness. I’m not alone. Even in the world of my imagination, I’m surrounded by characters who I know would be able to relate to me.