Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing about Mental Health

I didn't set out to write a novel about mental health.  But like a lot of my writing projects, at some point the project became what it needed to be, and I was along for the ride.

His Other Mother began as novel about fertility.  Sherry Morgan, my main character, wanted to be a mother, more than anything else in the world. But she and her husband were not having any luck. Then she saw the baby:

Sherry had been watching them for a few minutes now.  The baby had to be about a month old. He was all wide blue eyes and chubby cheeks, riding in his car seat in his mother's grocery cart, not yet big enough to sit up in the built-in seat. Whenever his mother came into view, his face relaxed, and every time she stepped out of view, picking up some broccoli, squeezing an orange, his brow furrowed and he shook his little arms and legs in silent distress.  Oh, how he loved her.
    And she didn't even see it, that mother. Didn't know her luck.  Didn't stop to coo over her sweet one or let him smell the oranges.  She just piled groceries into her cart silently.
    Sherry followed them throughout the whole store, aisle by aisle, picking things off the shelves that she didn't even want or need. From time to time the baby would meet her eye. It felt like the world stopped--no, like it contracted, everything else was gone except the connection between them.  Sherry found herself hating the mother, who could so casually push this little miracle around the store and not even notice him. If that were her baby, she would talk to him as she shopped, showing him the things she chose, letting him touch them. She would pause to kiss his toes. Or even better, she would carry him against her body, swaddled in a patterned cloth sling.  She would be able to feel the warmth of his body against hers, and smell his milk-sweet breath every time she glanced downward.
Her obsession began. When opportunity presented itself, Sherry snatched up the baby and took him home with her.
The mother was on the ground, the grocery cart she had been pushing dented and thrown some distance from her.  A young man was yelling for help.  People were running to the woman from all around the parking lot.  Suddenly there were so many people.  Where did they come from?
    Without really thinking, Sherry went to the Honda.  She reached in to the baby, offering one finger. He grabbed it.  In that one moment, she made her decision. She took the keys from the baby's hand and jingled them at him, smiling.  She put one finger to his impossibly soft lips and said, "Hush now, sweet boy. Mama's here." She pressed the release button between his legs—he had the less expensive version of the car seat Sherry had bought for her sister-in-law at her shower last month—and lifted the seat, baby and all, letting him rock gently and cooing to him as she carried him to her car and buckled him in. She even thought to grab the diaper bag.
    The baby fussed in her back seat and she twisted around awkwardly to stroke his cheek around his backward-facing car seat.  “It's okay, Alex,” she said softly, “we'll go home now.”  She pulled out of her parking place carefully, driving around the back of the store to avoid all the commotion in front.
Mental health is slippery. It's hard to know when something is temporary and when it's a break with reality.  It's hard to know when your fantasy has stepped over into unhealthy separation from the truths of life.

Like my character, I didn't know that Sherry was schizophrenic at first. Writing the novel, I discovered with her that she had a dissociative disorder.  I followed her to her therapy sessions and hoped with her that she would find her anchor in ordinary life, that she would learn to manage her medications without feeling dull and disconnected all the time. She was doing well in so many ways. Then, she saw the child again:
She heard him before she spotted them.  Her head whipped around, just like it did every time she heard a child, but she didn’t expect anything.  She’d almost shrieked when she saw that it really was him, Alex, The Child from That Day.  In all her talk with her therapist, in all her ideas about how to build her life from here, it had never occurred to her that she might see him again.  In all the coping strategies they’d talked through, there wasn’t one for running into The Child, her Alex, at the garden store.
    Sherry felt as though the rest of the world had grown fuzzy and indistinct. The only thing in the room in bright focus was him, the baby. Her heart sped up and she had to restrain herself from running to him, scooping him from his seat and covering him with kisses.  She had convinced herself that she didn’t miss him, since he had never really been hers, but it had been a lie.  Seeing him made her alive in a way she hadn’t been in months.  Her mouth was suddenly dry and her arms ached. She had to be mistaken. It couldn’t really be him. 

 Of course it was him. I don't want to spoil the ride for any future readers, so I won't tell you what else happens now.

I've done a lot of thinking and worrying about mental health.  Several people I know and love have struggled with dissociative disorders, depression or other problems.  I listened. I observed. Autodidact that I am, I read a lot on the subject.

But getting in Sherry's head was a revelation.  As I wrote her story, I was in the experience in a new way. I understood from within.  And I sympathized. 

My subconscious is a wonder, bringing to the surface things I didn't even know I was pondering. The novel is finished now and I'm shopping it around to agents and publishers. But whether I ever see it published or not, I'm grateful for Sherry for helping me understand.

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