Creating Characters With Mental Health Issues:
Because nearly every main character I write suffers from one or another mental illness, a common question I receive is:
I'm not a psychologist. In fact I never went to school.
My inspiration and research for Roderic? I was removed from school at age 8, I was told I would never be able to live on my own, get a job, drive a car, attend college, or function as a meaningful member of society.
I write what I know.
I have both Autism and Schizophrenia; later hit my head and developed new issues from that; and then later was the witness to an event that left my 5 best friends in a pile of body parts, which resulted in my having PTSD. And I had Agoraphobia for nearly 10 years.
Speech is very difficult for me. My verbal words are desperately slurred and stuttered and go from either way too fast or way too slow. Most times I know what I want to say, but the words that come out of my mouth are mixed up and in the wrong order so sound like nonsense. Folks often consider me "dumb" due to my being near-mute and desperate lack of getting words out in the correct order. I write 7k words a day just as part of my daily non-verbal speech. That is how I am able to pound out 15k a day during NaNoWriMo every year.
It is very frustrating when I want to talk to someone and they pat me on the head and say something like: "It's okay, here have a candy. Poor thing she can't understand us at all."
Roderic speaks in the same quasi-non-verbal muddled up speech I do. Roderic's dialouge is a blundered mes because my verbally spoken dialouge is an embarrassingly blundered mess.
Roderic is very shy and self conscious and terrified of how others will respond to his lack of ability to speak verbally in any real coherent manner, because I am very shy and self conscious and terrified of how others will respond to my lack of ability to speak verbally in any real coherent manner.
Roderic AND his flamboyant drag queen son, Etiole, wear long flowing, bright colored, gaudy, heavily beaded and embroidered silk robes, because wear long flowing, bright colored, gaudy, heavily beaded and embroidered silk robes.
Etiole drive a great big orange 1964 Dodge 330, because I drive a great big orange 1964 Dodge 330. Etiole was born September 23, 1664, because I bought my 1964 Dodge on September 23, 1975.
Are you starting to see a pattern here?
I write what I know.
I write what I know. And I know Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia very well.
The world as the reader sees it through Roderic's eyes...that is the
world as seen through my eyes. Roderic is an accurate portrayal of
someone with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia, because he is
written by someone with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia. I
know how Roderic would react to things, because it is how I react to
The Dazzling Razzberry? Roderic's son's car in the book, the one covered in quotes and beads and rhinestones? guess what, it's a real car and I own it. It's my daily driver, and here's a picture of what a car with 2.5million beads, buttons, marbles, and rhinestones glued to it looks like.
The nightmare world that Roderic lives in every story, is the nightmare world I live in, every day. I don't do any research into anything to write Roderic, I just write the world the way I see it.
My advice to other authors on writing characters with mental health issues is limited ONLY to Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia because I have Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia. I can advise other authors what it is like for a character to live with either Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and/or Agoraphobia because I live with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia and thus I know what it is like to live with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia.
My advice to other authors regarding writing a character with either Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and/or Agoraphobia is not based on an formal study or research, nor is it wide spanning across the wide and varied spectrum of each. There is no medical lingo nor will you find any "I believe they much feel ___ because I have observed them doing ___" talk. I am not a doctor or psychologist or psychiatrist and I couldn't tell you heads nor tails of all their medical mumbo-jumbo-speak. My advice is simply the perspective of one who lives with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia and I tell you simply what it is like to see the world through my eyes. Nothing more, nothing less.
There are many types of Autism. More than 75 different illnesses are listed as "being a type of Autism". I only have one of them. While 1 in every 9 children is born on the Autism Spectrum, the type of Autism I have is the rarest form and has had fewer than 300 cases ever diagnosed world-wide, that is 1 in 266million, so even if you know someone with Autism, chances are pretty high, you don't know someone with m type of Autism. I have Schitzotypal Aspergers (which IS NOT Asperger's Syndrome, please do not confuse Schitzotypal Aspergers with Asperger's Syndrome! They are VERY different.) Chances are also high that if your character has Autism, they will NOT have the same type of Autism as me. Please keep this in mind when considering my advice of writing a character with MY TYPE of Autism. I do not advise you on writing a Autism character in general, rather just the type of Autism I live with and how it effects my every day life.
There are many types of PTSD. Again, I have only one of them. Doctors debate on what specifically caused my PTSD. There were multiple events involved: at the age of 12 I became to obsession of a Mormon high priest who declared God had told him I was his wife and I was basically little more than his sex slave from the time I was 12 until I was 27. Being one of the wealthiest men in town, my parents looked the other way and completely ignored my pleas for help. Money talks louder than love, I learned that at an early age. No one cares about you when they can have money instead.
At age 14 I was the only surviving witness of a mass murder that left my 5 best friends dissected alive and cut to pieces, I stopped talking during the 6month long court trial and would not speak again for another 15 years. The high priest would be my only human contact after the murder of my 5 friends.
I had a miscarriage at 16, which the high priest, to this day continues to deny due to the fact that he is 30 years older than me and values his holding a "Temple Recommend" over taking care of the emotional well being of the child he raped. Why does the LDS Sanford Ward give this man a temple recommend and allow him to remain a priest after what he did to me, I do not know.
At age 17 it was the high priest that took over full control of my life and refused to allow me to drive a car, have friends, or leave the yard except to go to his church. He was extremely obsessive and possessive and I was his prisoner. Isolated from all humans except the sex crazed high priest, I began taking in every stray cat and dog that entered the yard.
The Agoraphobia set in at some point after that. I spent the rest of my life living in a swamp in the Ross Forest in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with no electricity, no running water, no phone, no toilet, basically living off the land, my only companions being 500+ cats, dogs, horses, birds, and other assorted animals. The high priest "took care of me" but looking back today I can see that I lacked even the most basic of survival things (electricity, etc) and he only barely took care of me just enough to keep me alive, not enough to thrive.
I gained partial freedom from the high priest when I turned 27 and he suddenly lost interest in me because it occurred to him that I was no longer young enough to satisfy his sex drive for little girls. While he now considered me unfit for sex, he still views me as his property and wields a jealously obsessive and very possessive amount of control over every area of my life, and to this day refuses to allow me to have friends. In a dramatic attempt to limit my freedom, in 2003 he took away the only human contact I had: the 3 hour church meetings ever Sunday.
We (me and my animals) lived in a 700sqft "beach cabin" (which was actually little more than a shed - it was not winterized and most of the glass panes had been broken out and replaced by blankets nailed over the hole), until it was knocked over by Hurricane Katrina.
I began rebuilding, but unknown to me rumors were circulating around town of "The Sea Witch of Old Orchard Beach" aka "Maine's Crazy Cat Woman" who lived in the woods.
Though I am not now, nor never was a witch, a local church leader incited his congregation into an "anti-witch" frenzy, which resulted in on October 18, 2006 one of his congregation members building a bomb out of a grease fryer stuffed with fly tapes, broke into my house at 1AM in the morning while I was asleep, turned it on high and left it in my kitchen.
The thing blew up and leveled my house with me and my pets trapped inside. The men behind these actions (though not the high priest who is still a high priest in the LDS/Mormon Sanford Ward in Sanford, Maine) are now in prison.
From October 2006 until May 2013 I lived under a 8x6 tarp with no protection from the rain or snow.
Things took a dramatic change in 2007 when I gained a car, and took to learned how to drive it, and for the first time in more than 30 years I suddenly had access to a world far removed from the isolated forest I had lived in since childhood. I tried to get help from the only people I knew: members of the LDS/Mormon Church (Saco Ward and Sanford Ward), but I was unaware at that time, that it was the members of these very congregations who had built the bomb and burned my house down.
The reaction was devastating: and resulted in me being beaten up on multiple occasions by said church members, resulting in a broken hip, and both wrists broken. I would not be aware of "The Sea Witch of Old Orchard Beach" accusations and rumors until 2010, when the church excommunicated me on false charges of being a witch, so I was clueless as to why these members reacted so violently to my church attendance.
Being excommunicated from the Mormon church means God has removed your name from the Book of Life and you are barred from Heaven, condemned to walk eternity alone in Outer Darkness, thus there is no point in my dying as there is nothing for me in the afterlife, and yet being alone nothing I do in life feels like it matters any more. I have nothing to live for yet death is worse.
When you are excommunicated, they erase everything: your marriage becomes a divorce only worse, it is like it never happened, they go so far as to fully deny you were ever his wife, he even denies you were ever his wife; your family shuns you and speaks of you past tense as though you were dead, so do your friends, and your fellow church members, they see you with blind as as though you were invisible. They do not speak to you, they do not look at you...they don't even acknowledge you, if they looked away, that would indicate they saw you, but they don't even do that, they look right through you, walk right into you, act fully 100% like you are not standing there.
When you are a Mormon you are not allowed to have friend outside of the church, all your family are Mormons too, and when they excommunicate you, they and their god all abandon you, turn their backs on you, and act as though you were never born, which is worse than if they acted as though you were dead.
The high priest was the only friend I have had since my 5 friends were murdered more than 25 years ago. For 27 years he was the only human I had contact with. With the excommunication he declared if the Church found me unworthy of membership, I was therefore, in his words: unrightious, unfaithful, and not worthy of love. After 27 years together, he abandoned me, because the church told him to.
The excommunication, or rather my beloved high priest's reaction to it, was the final blow that resulted in many suicide attempts and the police orders that I am not to be left alone.
October 21, 2010 I had a stroke which left me unable to walk until well into January 2011, and with very limited mobility ever since.
Doctors suspect that it was these events
which caused my PTSD, that each event made it worse than it was, and
that it was because it was left untreated for more than 20 years, that
it developed into Agoraphobia. But my really bad PTSD symptoms did not show up until October 21, 2010, the day m high priest abandoned me after the excommunication. I've had 3 strokes since than a 2nd on on October 21, 2011 and a 3rd one on October 21, 2012. I've suffered night terrors, tremors, panic attacks, seizures, and black outs on an almost daily basis ever since the day of the excommunication. Since than I barely sleep more than 2hrs a day and I write on average stead none stop for 16hrs a day.
Please keep this in mind when considering my advice of writing a character with MY TYPE of PTSD symptoms. I do not advise you on writing a PTSD character in general, rather just the type of PTSD symptoms I live with and how it effects my every day life.
There are many types of Agoraphobia. The type I had allowed me to leave the house, but not to leave the yard.
There are many types of Schizophrenia. There are 26 confirmed types of Schizophrenia and some doctors argue that there are more than 40 types of Schizophrenia. I only have one of them. There has been confusion between doctors on my diagnose.
To be exact I have never been diagnose with Schizophrenia, instead I have been diagnosed as "having learned to act Schizophrenic, by being raised by two parents who both had Schizophrenia". Doctors have suggested that "Schizophrenic habits" can be taught to children, who have a Schizophrenic parent. Unfortunately I was 31 years old before I had contact with "the outside world" and doctors say that because of my extreme isolation and total non-socialization, combined with my Autism, they can not be certain if I ACTUALLY have Schizophrenia or if I just picked up on my parents actions and do not act normal simply because I had never seen anyone act normal before.
The reason they debated this is because they said that if I do in fact have Schizophrenia, it is not a type of Schizophrenia they have ever encountered before, they said I was an anomaly, because of the rarity of finding a person who lived 31 years of their life with complete 100% zero contact with outside society, and they did not know how to diagnose me because I suffered from a type of Schizophrenia that was only seen in "feral children" and because there are no detailed studies of feral children like me, they didn't have a proper name for the type of Schizophrenia I had. They said there have only ever been 3 other cases of children who were raised in the same extreme social isolation I had been raised in. They said that I was only the 4th time this type of "Feral Child Schizophrenia" has ever been seen and that it had no scientific name, because there was lack of studies and too much debate as to whether or not it actually is Schizophrenia. They said I would likely never be able to integrate into normal society.
The doctors tell me that they do not know if "Feral Child Schizophrenia" is actually Schizophrenia or if it is just a case of the person acting, talking, and dressing strange because no one ever taught them how to act, talk, or dress "normal". The doctors finally concluded that I have Schizophrenia-like habits, and that I talk, act, and dress like someone with Schizophrenia, but that in all likelihood I have "Feral Child Schizophrenia" which has not been confirmed as actually being "real" Schizophrenia. So it's up for debate whether I have Schizophrenia or not.
Only 4 in 8billion (numbers the doctor quoted to me) have ever been diagnosed with my type of Schizophrenia. Chances are also high that if your character has Schizophrenia, they will NOT have the same type of Schizophrenia as me. Please keep this in mind when considering my advice of writing a character with MY TYPE of Schizophrenia. I do not advise you on writing a Schizophrenic character in general, rather just the type of Schizophrenia I live with and how it effects my every day life.
While I was diagnosed with Autism, PTSD, and Agoraphobia, doctors have not officially diagnosed me with Schizophrenia. They say I have Schizophrenia-like symptoms but not enough of them and not bad enough for an actual diagnoses of Schizophrenia. They say they are "on the fence" as to whether I have Schizophrenia or not.
They said initially they had thought I had Schizophrenia because they did not believe the story of my life and said it was not possible in this day and age, and in a town as built up as Old Orchard Beach, for this to happen. However, they did their research, contacted church members, visited the 8x6tarp-tent in the 300 acres of Ross Forest that sits in the heart of Old Orchard Beach, contacted police and FBI, looked into the men now in prison, saw the charred remains of the burned down house, and came back to say "OMG! You were telling the truth!".
The Salt Lake Church Headquarters refused to comment (to the doctors) on the excommunication, and the bishop who actually did the act was kicked out of his role as Bishop, and though they have tried everything they could think of to get it, the identity of the high priest was never handed over to the doctors, because of their threat to start court proceedings to have him put in prison. I could never let them do that to him. When they asked why I would protect such a horrible monster, I explained that I do not see him as the monster they say he is, I have never seen him as anything but my husband and the man I love. He's 30 years older than me, here I am in my 40s, he's an elderly man today, and he has Alzheimer's, he rarely remembers anything of his life let alone what he did to me, and he remembers me as being the only friend he's ever had.
Though I'm not diagnosed with it, the doctor's say that I likely have Stockholm's Syndrome as well, given the fact that I remain completely unmoving at revealing the identity of the high priest to them. The thing they do not understand is, a lot of people hurt me, and he never did. What he did, he did in an attempt to try to protect me. Looking back I can see that he suffered from some serious mental health issues (he has been diagnosed with OCD and DID and Schizoefective Personality) and probably was not the best person to try to protect me, and obviously did not use conventional methods, but I also don't believe he knew of a more conventional method either.
They point out that he lives in a mansion, safe warm, and dry, indoors, while for all these years he has forced me to live outside, under a tarp, cold, wet, outside, unprotected during 5 hurricane, 3 blizzards, an ice storm, and the coldest day in Maine history when temps reached -48F. They point out that he always has food every day, and yet, I often go days on end between meals.
They are correct, this is true, but he is the one who bought the tarp for me to live under and he is the one who buys me food once or twice a week. No one else did that. No one else did anything at all. Five church congregations totally more than 2,000 people knew of my living conditions, knew of my lack of food, of course they knew my house had been burned down, my relatives all knew, my blood family knew, the neighbors knew, everyone living in Old Orchard Beach, Saco, and Biddeford knew: 45,000 local people knew, and one one of them did a single thing to help. Just the high priest. He's always been there for me. I can't say that about anyone else.
Tell me, when there have been literally dozen of people who have treated me far worse, why would I turn over to the police the only person on this entire planet who's ever lifted a finger to help me? Yes, he is a rapist and used forced sex as a way to get "paid back" for helping me, but considering other people have beaten me up, cut my car in half, burned down my house, killed my cats, broken my bones...being raped in exchange for a tarp to live under and 1 or 2 meals a week is a small price to pay. He took advantage of me, yeah I know that, but he's also the only person who's ever helped me.
Who bought me The Dazzling Razzberry, and keeps it running? He did!
When other Mormons chopped up my Goldeneagle, who went out and tracked down all the pieces of it, bought them all and put it back together? He did!
Who buys $200 worth of catfood to feed each and every week for the past 20 year for all the feral cats that follow me around? He does!
Who buys these mink coats, fur cape, 100 year old silk kimonos, rhinestone ballgowns, and all the rest of my vastly expansive $13,000 wardrobe? He did, and still does!
When a disabled senior dog was about to be put to sleep because she'd been 5 months passed up by families in a shelter, who went out and bought her and than had all her medical work done? He did?
Every time one of my cats needs a vet, who takes them in and pays for the thousands of dollars for surgeries and meds? He does!
That man you are calling a monster, spends nearly $60,000 dollars on me, my cars, my cats, and my cloths every single year, for the past 27 damn years. So don't you dare, tell me that I ought to put him in prison! Yeah, he did it all in exchange for sex with a minor, but I'm not a minor anymore, and in spite of the excommunication he still pays all the bills to this day.
Did you ever stop to think: if he, the only man to ever help me, is as terrible as you say he is, how much worse does that make everyone else? All the members of the Saco, Sanford, and Cape Elizabeth Wards of the LDS/Mormon Church who knew what my living conditions were, knew what the high priest was doing to me, and still did nothing. Not only did they not try to help me, they never tried to stop him, either. And you call him a monster? He's not the monster here. All the members of the Saco, Sanford, and Cape Elizabeth Wards of the LDS/Mormon Church who sat on their asses doing nothing for the 38 years that this was going on - they are the monsters here.
Tell me this: if he REALLY belongs in prison, than why, when I went to the Church for help, did they excommunicate me, and simultaneously promote him to being one of the priests of The Boston Temple who oversees the baptisms of teenage girls and boys? Seriously, if you people think he's that dangerous and want him in prison, than why do you got him baptizing kids, now? Think about it. Really, stop, and think about it.
But yeah, there you have it, my life in a nutshell and how it is I qualify to tell you how to write about characters with mental health issues. I have several of my own, don't deny it, I was raised by so people who were far from sane themselves, and when it comes to psycho-billy nut jobs, I can't say I have ever known any body who wasn't of questionable mental health, of course I've not known that many people but that would be because the people I did know were so paranoid and full of anti-government conspiracies that they wouldn't leave the house except to go to church and pow-wow with other people too paranoid to leave the house except to go to church.
In my 3 years since being excommunicated (and thus being ignored by my fellow Mormons, which means they also no longer prevent me from leaving the yard, because they are too busy shunning me to stop me), I have gotten my driver's license, gotten a GED, gotten a job, joined college, and actually got to have my first contact with non-Mormons, and everywhere I go people are always calling Mormons cultists (and no one ever knows I'm a Mormon either, so they have no idea that when they confide their latest "Have you heard what those crazy Mormons are up to now?" stories to me that they are talking to a Mormon.) I have had (and am still having) a very hard time adjusting to "life on the outside" (as Mormons put it) but the more time I spend with non-Mormons the more I can see, that yeah, cult is the correct word for the life style I grew up in. Funny how I never saw it that way when I was in it. Funny how it took being excommunicated for me to leave the yard and see that there was a great big world full of people on the outside. Funny how I never noticed how insanely paranoid my fellow Mormons were until they turn on me and tossed me out amongst the non-Mormons. Funny how Mormons describe the rest of the world as evil and Satanic, and in 3 years on the outside, hob-nobbing around with my 8,000 fellow SMCC students, I've yet to find anyone who is either evil or Satanic.
Even funnier is how psychologists tell me, that the fact that I have come so far in my integration into "normal society" in such a short time, that they now say they are questioning their earlier diagnoses of me. They say it is possible I don't have Autism or Schizophrenia at all, that I was simply "deeply repressed by cultists" and was completely shut down. They say the very fact that I have learned how to talk is proof that their initial diagnosis of Mutism Autism was wrong. They are also "astounded" that someone who had Agoraphobia as bad as I did in 2006, could be now the social butterfly I have become at college. They now say they misdiagnosed the Agoraphobia and that it was more a "learned habit of fear" caused by living with other people who feared everything, saying that children mimic the adults around them, and I had no point of reference because I grew up in a cult.
I do not know what to believe about anything the doctors tell me. They can't seem to pin down a diagnosis and they persist in calling the church that was the only thing I knew for nigh on 40 years a cult. Was it a cult? I don't know. I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that they ganged up on me and threw me out of their "fold" based on some stupid hysterical, ludicrous false accusation of witchcraft! It's too much for me to deal with as it is, I can't even begin to try to question was it a cult or not! Which if any mental illness do I actually have? I don't know. I won't even know how to tell one from another to begin with, I only know what the names of these things are because it is what doctors tell me. All I want is for someone to love me. I don't care about anything else. Sleeping alone at night is unbearable. Before the excommunication I've not been alone at night since before I was 12. The loneliness is unbearable.
But than I write about Roderic. More than 200 stories about a character, whom readers can not stop telling me is the most accurate portral of Autism and/or Schizophrenia they have ever encountered in fiction, and all they want to know is, how do you do it? How do you research to write about him? What is your training in psychology? How can you write mental illness so accurately? How did you create a character so true to life on what it is like to live with Schizophrenia?
I just write what I know. Everything that happens to Roderic, is based on something that actually happened to me. All of it. There is far more truth than fiction in the stories I write about Roderic. His life mirrors my own in so many ways. But the thing of it is, I don't write Roderic as being mentally ill, I never have, at no time do I ever say he has this or that - he's not diagnosed with anything and it is purely readers who are saying he has Autism and/or Schizophrenia. I don't know what Roderic has, I don't write Roderic as though he has anything, I just write Roderic living everyday normal life, the same everyday normal life I live, which I guess is a far cry from what other people see as everyday or normal. Roderic is me; his life is mine. I write what I know. So sure, you can ask me to tell you how to write meantally ill characters and sure I can tell you what I know and how I write my characters, but yo got to understand I do not research for Roderic what so ever, I just write the world the way I see it, so I suppose, it's a case of it takes one to know one, when it comes to how it is I write Roderic so "accurately" as a fictional character with mental health issues.
That is why I say I can not advise you on "specifically" writing a character with "specific" mental illness, and rather can only advice you on writing characters who see the world as I do, and live with the issues I live with.
It is no secret that Sir Roderic Lincandonia Swanzen, owner of The Twighlight Manor, is my favorite character, and you don't have to read very many blog posts, articles, site pages, etc to realize, I talk about him A LOT. While you see him mentioned in passing on just about every page on this site, there are some pages where I go into vast detail about his life. I am going to make a list of them all and tack it to the end of each of those pages, to make it easier for readers to find them all. And here they are:
The Twighlight Manor
Characters To Fall In Love With
TSoD: The Traveling Shovel of Death
Cliches To Avoid
Characters With Disabilities