I was out to eat with some friends, one of whom had been going through a brutal divorce. I attributed something to “my mental illness.” Tears welled up in my separated friend’s eyes. She said, “My husband’s been accusing me of that.”
“Oh!” I apologized. “But I really am!” Then I sang out my latest diagnosis, this time from a psychiatrist’s nurse practitioner, one of a long list of attempts to pin down my exact departure from “normality.”
As I was telling my mom recently, after reading CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, CHANGE YOUR LIFE, about brain scans and techniques for overcoming ADHD, anxiety, depression, anger, OCD, and impulsiveness, “There was only one I didn’t have.”
She laughed, not because it wasn’t true but because I sounded so proud.
And why not? I’ve long treated my neuroses as amusing pets, to be trotted out for entertainment. I’ve made my peace with the ups and downs of my brain, trying to chart them, trying to remind myself that this is how I feel today, it’s not a reflection of reality, not even a reflection of who I am.
For example, because I fear going on trips, I pack just like Jack Nicholson in as Good As it Gets.
Also, when I take a walk in my woods, I wear what my husband calls my HAZ MAT suit: a huge buttoned white shirt of my father’s, black paratrooper’s pants, socks, shoes, and a large straw hat.
No, it’s not the sun I’m worried about. It’s Lyme Disease, carried by tiny, tiny ticks. My companions, wearing tank tops, shorts and TEVA sandals, think I’m hilarious. I think they’re flirting with death, or worse, years of incapacitating illness.
I have a niche in my brain that clings to details of catastrophe. For example, you say “exotic island vacation,” I say “Tsunami.” You say “Napa Valley Wine tasting,” I say “earthquake.” You say “fabulous raw oyster bar,” I say “fatal hepatitis.” You say “hay ride,” I say “recluse spider.”
See how it works?
When my kids were invited to play at someone’s house, I’d call the parents with questions: “Do you have a pool? A pit bull? A gun?”
And forget baby sitters. I couldn’t. Didn’t.
This is why I’m a novelist. I can always see the jeopardy coming. I’m like the kid in the movie, shouting, “No! He’s under the bed! Get out of the house!”
If I were Stephen King on his fateful walk, I’d have been dashing into the woods at the very sound of a car. Strangers driving by, especially in vans, they’re kidnappers. They’re all kidnappers. It’s true. Especially the ones without windows.
So, you’d think this attribute of mine for spotting danger, you’d think it would make writing novels easy. Because danger is essential to story.
Except, and here’s the difficulty, when you love your characters, you HATE to see them get hurt. I can’t seem to stop my inner mother from calling ahead and inquiring about firearms.
(By the way, that is not crazy parenting. Crazy parenting is not asking. The other child’s parent will either hesitate, or they’ll say, “No, of course not. We’re not gun people,” or “Yes, but it’s in a gun safe, all locked away.” It’s the hesitators you have to watch out for. Invite their kids to your house. Just sayin’.)
Back to my characters—yes my ADHD brain scan just lit up the whole West Coast – I cannot stand to hurt them. Even the bad ones. Thousands of readers wrote me to complain when Ted, the vile husband in DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN got away with less than disembowelment. (Of course, they couldn’t see what I could: into the future, aka, the sequel, but that’s another story.)
You see, they’re not fictional. Not to me. They’re voices in my head who take on weight and shape and scent and quirks.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight writing tips, number 6, to be precise: is “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Well, Mom, news flash! A second disorder I now realize I do not have, thank you very much. Sadism and me, we’re not an item.
So, what to do? Face the music? Nah. I prefer the indirect route, which is hinted at in Mr. Vonnegut’s writing tip number 5: “Start as close to the end as possible.”
For me, the least painful way to the heart of darkness is backward. I try to see my story from the finale, when my characters are looking back on their difficulties and thinking “Whew! That was close.”
I have to imagine it’s all good, that they’re okay now. Then I can muster the courage to view what happened, to distance myself and narrate the events as if taking dictation from survivors.
I suppose you might say I’m lying to myself in order to persuade myself to witness horrible things happening to imaginary beings that exist nowhere but inside my head. It might be the slightest bit touched, as we used to say. To which I’d ask, but by what? Inventiveness, creativity, outsized fear? All of the above? Who knows? At the end of the day, you’ve only got the brain you’ve got, and you might as well love the one you’re with.
Author's note: I apologize to all of those who suffer from more serious, debilitating mental illnesses. I know I've got "Insanity lite." But I do wish it wasn't so shameful to march to the beat of a different drummer. I'm not saying to stop taking your medications. I take mine. Every day. And I can report that I've not lost my edge. I'm just less likely to try and jump off it.