Tag Archive for PTSD

Mental Illness and CRAZY TIME

Lily Henshaw, the central character in my novel Crazy Time, suffers so many traumas in such a short time that she becomes convinced that she’s a target for God and Satan, similar to Job in the Bible. The first chapter describes one of those traumas in detail, and the second chapter opens with a sentence stating unequivocally that, three months later, “Lily [is] not okay.” As she associates environmental triggers with her earlier trauma, bringing on a panic attack, astute readers might guess that Lily has PTSD, and indeed, PTSD and its effects are a major concern of the entire book. I wrote it while coming to grips with my own diagnosis of PTSD and struggling with a long depressive dip in the rises and falls of my bipolar disorder (type two). Although Lily’s traumas and mental experiences are far more extreme than my own, I can still claim that we overlap. “Crazy” is a pejorative word for the mentally typical to use as a description for those of us with mental illnesses, but to use it as an in-group term: Lily’s crazy time is in many ways my crazy time. Maybe that’s why she’s closer to my heart than virtually all my other characters.

The key feature of Lily’s experience with PTSD is repetition, which manifests in several different ways. The most famous kind of repetition tied to PTSD is the flashback, a kind of full-on replay of the original trauma. I didn’t write any long, involved replays for Lily, in part because such moments would be boring in a novel and in part because my dealings with trauma, like Lily’s, have involved multiple incidents, and my repetitions don’t work with cinematic scenes of primal moments. Don’t get me wrong. Associating the right trigger with a traumatic incident can send me briefly back to the horrible moment, and likewise, if Lily sees something she associates with (for example) one of the men who attack her in the first chapter, her mind will briefly take her back to relive some of the first chapter’s circumstances. However, going back doesn’t have to involve a sensory replay, and it doesn’t need an environmental trigger, either. Repetition also occurs through seemingly random, intrusive thoughts. Unbidden, a thought related to a trauma might simply pop into Lily’s (or my own) head, and then it will be there, summoning all the negative emotions associated with it. Intrusive thoughts relate closely to what my therapist calls “obsessive rumination,” what happens when the trauma-related thoughts get into Lily’s and my heads and run around in circles, refusing to leave. The idea of “crazy time” itself, which Lily’s attackers bring up in the first chapter, intrudes on Lily’s regular thinking and circles around, haunting her and gathering new meanings as she tries to make sense of it and dispel it. As she obsessively ruminates, her thinking evolves coping strategies. The repetitions are deep ruts, hard to escape, but each repetition at least has the potential to be a repetition with a difference.

PTSD, the associative nature of its triggers, the seeming randomness of its intrusions, and its obsessive lingering become structural principles for Crazy Time. The novel doesn’t follow a standard narrative line, which would rely on a causal chain of incidents (A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, which causes D, etc.). In a standard horror novel, some big bad shows up at the beginning, and a chain of events leads to the big bad being shut down at the end (or, less often, the big bad achieving total victory). Again, not so in Crazy Time. The opening chapter might seem to carry the weight of a causal, original incident, but on the surface, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the rest of the story—except the trauma it causes repeats and shapes Lily’s thinking, which shapes the path she takes toward improving her situation. Indeed, from the first chapter on, Lily’s traumas seem to lack a logical, traceable tree of causes, and a remedy for causality’s absence gives Lily something else to obsess about. A major example of a traumatic phenomenon that seems to lack logical causality but affects Lily repeatedly is suicide. People close to her and people she randomly encounters keep killing themselves. Suicide makes a kind of thematic sense because her traumas leave her depressed, but because she can’t see a more logical, common root for the suicides to be happening around her, she concludes, ““Suicide [is] a rhizome, like certain mushrooms and plants, popping up in bunches here, bunches there… clusters of crazy-time mushrooms” (and yes, I am tipping my hat to Deleuze and Guattari).  Other events and images, such as the intoning of nursery rhymes, seemingly lack logical reasons to recur but do in crucial ways for the story’s development.

Due to a relentless self-reflection that comes with obsessive rumination, Lily at least sometimes recognizes this structure governing her life and book, but she rejects it, insisting on finding a root for the tree that she believes should causally connect her experiences. Her search for the root, which she hopes will point to a remedy, leads to the craziest of her adventures, but she is not wholly resolute in her quest. Doubt follows her everywhere, as she knows “she [has] good reasons… to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and couldn’t that involve hallucinations?” She doesn’t trust her mind or her senses, and others doubt her as well. Such doubt can be one of the cruelest aspects of mental illness—feeling you might betray yourself, and that others don’t take you seriously—and it deepens her desperation while strengthening her determination to discover an all-revealing root for her difficulties.

No matter how mentally ill Lily may be, her strength when faced with doubt and circumstances that lack traditional sense make her heroic. A mentally ill hero—especially one so smart and self-determined—is a rare creature in any form of fiction, especially in the horror genre, which too often uses “the crazies” as villains. Despite the fact that most people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent or dangerous than people without, many horror writers are ignorant, prejudiced, and/or just plain lazy. I encountered enough prejudice and hate associating with certain horror writers that I mostly avoid them now. Lily would gladly show them her middle finger and then go about her quest. She’s admirable, much more so than I. She’s a hero both apart from and because of her struggle with mental illness, which gives her a good chance of coping with her history and, if you’ll give her story a try, having a bright literary future.

Find Lily and Crazy Time on the Amazon Kindle or in paperback.