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[GUEST POST] Jennifer Brozek, Author of NEVER LET ME SLEEP, on Portraying Mental Illness in Fiction

jenniferbrozekJennifer Brozek is an award-winning editor, game designer, and author.

Hugo Award nominated and winner of the Australian Shadows Award for best edited publication, Jennifer has edited fifteen anthologies with more on the way. Author of In a Gilded Light, The Lady of Seeking in the City of Waiting, Industry Talk,and the Karen Wilson Chronicles, she has more than sixty published short stories, and is the Creative Director of Apocalypse Ink Productions.

Jennifer also is a freelance author for numerous RPG companies. Winner of both the Origins and the ENnie awards, her contributions to RPG sourcebooks include Dragonlance, Colonial Gothic, Shadowrun, Serenity,Savage Worlds, and White Wolf SAS. Jennifer is also the author of the YA Battletech novel, The Nellus Academy Incident.

When she is not writing her heart out, she is gallivanting around the Pacific Northwest in its wonderfully mercurial weather. Jennifer is an active member of SFWA, HWA, and IAMTW. Read more about her at www.jenniferbrozek.com or follow her on Twitter at @JenniferBrozek.

Melissa Allen and Mental Illness

by Jennifer Brozek

“I live by the clock but I survive by the pills.”

This is the reader’s introduction to Melissa Allen in Never Let Me Sleep. She is a paranoia, bi-polar, schizophrenic with bad nightmares—the very definition of a troubled teen. But, she is well medicated and the medication is working. This is something that is rarely seen in popular media where producers often use mental illness for entertainment rather than as an aspect that millions of people deal with every day.

The tendency is to use mental illness as a superhero power as seen in Alphas in the character of Gary Bell or in the main protagonist of Daniel J. Pierce in Perception. Or to show the character as harmless (TV trope: G-Rated Mental Illness). But most portrayals of people with mental illness in entertainment have them as evil and dangerous threats to be destroyed.

In reality, while some mentally ill people are dangerous, the vast majority of them are just normal people trying to make it through the day.

This is one of the main reasons I wanted my protagonist, Melissa Allen, to suffer from mental illness. She’s a bright girl who knows she has this illness. When the first book starts, the chemical cocktail she’s on is working and she feels good. Diagnosing and treating mental illness is far from an exact science and so many who suffer from it need to go through a lot of trial and error before they hit on a mixture that works for them.

The thing I wanted to do with Melissa and her mental illness was to neither have it as a super power nor to have it as a criminalizing influence in the story. I wanted it to be just something else she deals with on a daily basis—like gastric reflux or migraines. These are invisible but painful conditions that people suffer with around the world. I wanted Melissa to be a normal teenage girl (as normal as any teenager is) and I wanted to show some of the many coping mechanisms that people with mental illness use to help them function in everyday society.

More than anything else, I wanted to give teens who are suffering from mental illness a protagonist they can identify with. Melissa may be a paranoia, bi-polar, schizophrenic but she really likes baseball and she still worries about her complexion. She copes with her illness daily, but it doesn’t stop her from being a teenager with teenage worries. And it doesn’t stop her from dealing with the unfolding apocalypse that happens around her. It’s just one more added complication.

I grew up with undiagnosed autism. I was treated for other symptoms: a lisp and a stutter, but not for my dyslexia. I grew up knowing I needed to be really careful with numbers. I also grew up coping with my reading issue by memorizing what a word was supposed to look like rather than reading what was actually there. When people tell me their name or the name of a street, it either pops up in my head as an image, or I must write it out—either on paper or in the air with my finger—in order to get it in my head. Otherwise, it doesn’t stick.

This can lead to some embarrassing moments. Stina is a person I first met online. When I first read her name, I read it as “Sinta.” From that point on Stina=Sinta. That’s how I said her name “Sin-ta.” One day a mutual friend mentioned her as “Stina” and I was confused. It took a bit of mental wrangling but when I figured out what happened, I had weeks of mentally recalibrating Sinta to Stina. Right down to changing my mental picture of the word.

I thought I was the only one who did this until I met another person who identified with me. There is a relief to find out that you are not the only person with a particular problem. Invisible illnesses can be polarizing and make you feel alone or broken in an unacceptable way. No one should feel like this.

I wanted to give my readers a protagonist they could identify with. Especially if no one beyond their family knows about what they’re going through. Mental illness is not a super power. It’s not something that means you are evil or need to shunned. It’s a condition that can be treated most of the time. It’s just one more facet to the human condition and I think it’s time more teenagers have the chance to see that, and themselves, in their books.

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