What Do People With Mental Illness Really Look Like?

So, for anyone who doesn’t know, one of the things you do when putting a book up for sale is go around to different bloggers and provide them with free copies of your book in exchange for an honest review. I’m a big believer in not getting angry with people when they are honest, especially if you have asked for that honesty. In short, you can’t ask someone to tell you what they honestly think of your work and then be angry if you don’t like what they have to say.

However, one of those reviews came in today. While the reviewer did have some nice things to say, there one was thing I read that I feel needs to be addressed. I want to make it clear though that I have no ill will toward this person. I’m not angry and I don’t hate them. I don’t wish for ‘karma’ (whatever that really is) to do anything to them. I believe it’s just a sad commentary on the attitude we have toward people with mental illness.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me to write this blog post. It could have very negative consequences for me, as well as my family. It could prevent me from getting a job, or a place to live. I may even lose likes on my page or followers of this blog, or even real world personal friends. I’m moved to do it however, and not just on behalf of my character, but on behalf of myself and anyone else who’s ever suffered from a mental illness.

When I first started blogging the second post I made was called, “How The Vampires of Soldiers Cove Came To Be.”  If you read that post you know that in it I disclosed the fact that I have depression. What I didn’t say (although if you read between the lines you might have picked up on it) is that I don’t just have run of the mill depression, I have Psychotic Depression. For those of you who’ve read the book you know that this is the same illness that the main character, Rachel, is suffering from.  What does that have to do with the book review, and why did I feel the need to say something about it?  Well, here’s what it said:

“I wanted to love this book, it had some of my favourite things; Vampires, peril, swords and a relationship. But there was just something off about Rachel, her character development just felt unnatural for me. For someone who has spent half her life hiding and trying to not hear the voices in her head, she adjusts awfully quickly to being around people.”


I was very saddened to read this…but not at all surprised. This is the attitude that society has fostered about people with mental illness.  When you have something like this, it’s presumed you are a certain way. I was also 17 (like Rachel) when I began to hear voices. From the age of 17 to 24 is not ‘half your life’.  I was pretty much a recluse during that time period (with some brief reprieves in between) but when I became well again I didn’t need to ‘adjust’ to being around people. Before I got sick I had been very outgoing. I was by no means popular, but I had a lot of friends and was always on the go. I was active in music, and drama, and my school newspaper. I was well socialized, loved people, and knew how to be around them.

When I became well I wanted to be around people again. By that time I had moved to Halifax and was the mother to a baby. I used to go out and seek people’s company on purpose because I missed being social. I would dress up my baby and go sit in the public gardens with her just so I could talk to them. My daughter was perfect for this because she was a show stopper. A beautiful kid with long dark curly hair, blue eyes and the sweetest disposition a little one could have. She’s 14 now and still all of those things, pardon me for taking a proud mommy moment but I can’t help myself.

Aaanyhoo… I kind of used her to talk to people because, well, I just wanted to talk to people again. I was hungry for that social interaction. Adjustment? What adjustment? It felt like a weight had been lifted and I wanted to enjoy it. I was free of the torment for the first time in many years, I felt free.

People still seem to be unable to grasp the fact that those of us with mental illness are just like everyone else when we’re well.  Granted there are still certain limitations on me, but mostly I’m a normal person. I am certainly a socialized person (when I feel well and am able to be) and didn’t have any problems going back out into the world when the storm had passed. I had problems with other people’s perception of me, but that’s about it.

Saying, “for someone who spent half her life hiding and trying not to hear the voices in her head, she adjusts awfully quickly to being around people” is akin to hearing people say things like:

“You don’t look sick.”

“It’s all in your head.”

“If you can go out with your friends and laugh once a week you must be perfectly fine.”

“You’re just lazy.”

All of these are used under different circumstances with those of us who have experienced mental illness, but what it comes down to is believability. We watch movies and read books that portray people with these problems in a certain way, but when one comes along that’s a little more realistic, people think of it as unrealistic because they don’t know any better. It doesn’t follow the template and so people don’t know what to think.

I could have portrayed Rachel in a more stereotypical way so that she’d be more ‘developed’, but that would have been disingenuous. People with mental illness are like everyone else and run the gambit personality wise. Rachel is who she is and if people feel she’s undeveloped in some way that’s fine, but if the reason is because she’s had a mental illness and now is unapologetically flourishing I don’t feel that’s a good, or realistic reason. That may not be the fault of the reader though, but perhaps it’s the fault of a society that refuses to let us be seen as anything other than abnormal.



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7 responses to “What Do People With Mental Illness Really Look Like?

  1. Thank you for writing this! It was very brave and we all needed to read this. I come from a family history of mental illness, and it has been something our family has been hiding for generations. I myself have been non-medicated but in talk therapy for two years. I am the sole caretaker of my brother Jordan who cannot work due to his issues, I have been taking care of him for over ten years- my family spent years telling me to have him committed and throw him out. As authors we tell our stories in our novels and hope to spread awareness. I thank you for writing this message, I would like to share it at my activism page Umbrella &Beyond which is dedicated to informing and teaching understanding to all people who have a different story to tell about life. I’d like your permission before doing so. 🙂

  2. Thank you Aubrey! You have my permission. That sounds like a great page. I’ll check it out and be sure to share. ❤

  3. in my opinion, who you are before mental illness defines the kind of person you are after and even during. I’m glad you didn’t portray Rachel in the stereotypical way, but perhaps this reviewer and others who share the opinion (I by the way am not one) would have benefited from a more detailed look into who she was before she got sick, or in actuality before she discovered her gift. A slower build up might have more clearly shown them that she wasn’t magically adjusted as much as returned to normal and that in itself explaining why she didn’t follow the stereotypical scenario.

  4. Jessica,
    Thank you for honesty and openness. While I hope that the reviewer you mentioned did not have a malicious intent I can understand your feelings. Putting your work out there for others to comment on is courageous and I applaud you and all of your hard work. Not everyone will understand or “get” it and taking criticism in any form is always tough. I hope you don’t let it dissuade you.
    I am always looking for something that moves me, challenges me, takes me out of my comfort zone and otherwise lets me “experience” something I might not otherwise;that’s what makes fiction so great. I am confident that I am not alone in this regard. Keep on writing.

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