I have finally finished writing the third book in the Pandora Belfry Adventure Series: The Eldritch Affair and thought I’d share with you why I decided to write about a 14-year-old girl growing up in an insane asylum during the 1980s. The topic of mental illness can be very dark and, frankly, depressing, but it needs to be talked about. So I decided to do just that, knowing that if I wanted to inform and educate others, my best bet would be to entertain them while doing so.
My main character, Pandora Belfry, is a joy to write about. She’s quirky and feisty, she’s odd and rather morbid, and terribly opinionated. As a brief introduction to her, here’s an excerpt from book one (Mayhem at Nepenthe Manor) where she meets a new inmate…
New inmate: “I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but I’m telling you this. I. Don’t. Belong. Here.”
Pandora smirked. “I may not know much…” Lie. “But I do know you don’t get the mummy treatment for good deeds.” Her eyes swept over [his] straightjacket.
He frowned. “Yes, well, I suppose. But it wasn’t… I didn’t…” He gave up and slumped back on the narrow cot. “I just want out of here.”
“Yeah, well, you and everyone else in this place.” Another lie. But a necessary one. They had a reputation to maintain.
She turned to go, but his next words stopped her. “You didn’t really eat people…”
She gave him a ghastly grin. “I made them into stew. Added a few carrots and potatoes, some garlic and onion for flavor.” She stuck the feathery end of a black braid in her mouth and chomped on it. “It was delicious, if I do say so myself.” Smacking her lips and making yummy noises, she slipped out the door, making sure to lock it. Behind her the Newbie howled.
Per-fection, she congratulated herself, already plotting her next visit to the new arrival as she ran off to tell the inmates everything.
~Yes, Pandora told the new guy she’d been incarcerated for eating people…
Before we go further, I should probably tell you a little bit about my background. I have a B.A. and an M.A. in Psychology and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. I’ve worked with a wide of variety of clients in numerous settings, doing everything from therapy to career counseling to intelligence and personality testing. I liked my clients and I liked working with them, however, I haven’t practiced for a number of years. I learned too late that being an introvert is probably not the best trait to have when your job entails interacting with people in the most intense way you possibly can.
I got pregnant while working on my dissertation and literally finished it while in labor with my first son (my water broke, but since I wasn’t feeling any contractions, I decided to finish proofreading my work while leaking a lot of fluid). After my son was born, my husband and I decided I would stay home with the kids (we ended up having 3 boys) and he would go to work. In between nursing, diaper patrol, and monkey corralling, I was able to start a writing career, something I’ve always wanted to do and more fitting with my personality. Yet I still wanted to use my education to help people. When it occurred to me that I could do that via my writing, I knew I’d found the right path for me.
I soon discovered, however, that writing about mental illness isn’t easy. I wanted to be sure I got it right, that I wasn’t being disrespectful or missing the point or making light of the issue. Despite my worries, I still really wanted to make mental illness more relatable and visible, and the best way I could think of doing that was to write a story starring characters with a mental illness, giving others the chance to see them as more than just a DSM diagnosis…to see them as real people.
During the course of my education, I met a number of incredible clients…people who were in a lot of pain, yet amazingly strong. Seeing and working with these individuals was an eye opener for someone like myself. Having struggled with anxiety issues most of my life, and numerous depressive episodes when I was younger (mainly from an excess of bone crushing loneliness), I thought I had it bad. Then I started working with people who had chronic and/or severe mental illness. That’s when I got it. I didn’t have it bad. The funny thing is, most people struggling with mental illness don’t manifest it in obvious ways. In fact, they’ll try to hide it for as long as they can. And when they can’t hide it anymore, then, and only then, will you get a glimpse of their true suffering.
Of course, that’s also when society is most likely to lock them up.
The mentally ill do not get the same treatment as someone with a physical illness, like cancer or heart disease. They certainly don’t get the funding dollars or the extensive treatment facilities. There used to be more places for getting help, but due to budget cuts and patient abuse, institutions began to close down in the 1960s and 70s, culminating in a big shutdown in the 80s. This deinstitutionalization process sent hundreds of thousands of sick individuals out into the world to fend for themselves. There are still hospitals and community mental health centers, but they are often underfunded, understaffed, and the staff can be undertrained (partly due to lack of money and partly due to high turnover). You will find numerous homeless people who are mentally ill, and a high number of prisoners are mentally ill. Some argue that deinstitutionalization has been a success and others feel it is a whopping failure. Whichever it is, it’s obvious that we still aren’t doing enough for the mentally ill. We need proper funding, education and prevention, and training, so we can do better for this stigmatized population.
There are people out there who are trying to change society’s mentality about mental illness, but they are few and far between. We still don’t talk about mental illness like we should, though lately, brave people like Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) are getting the word out and showing us what it’s like to cope with mental illness on a daily basis. We need more of that bravery. We need to treat mental illness just like we treat physical illness, not as something you deserve, but as something that happened to you without your approval.
The goal of the Pandora Belfry Adventure series is to enlighten people, without being too preachy or judgey (okay, Pandora is a bit judgey). I hope that I accomplish at least some of this goal, and always appreciate any feedback so I can do better.
This is what I write at the beginning of every book:
“Sometimes the job of a writer is to reveal the truth, and sometimes it’s to create a more palatable truth. In writing about the residents of Nepenthe Manor, I have attempted to do both. While I hope to turn a light on the very real issues with which the mentally ill struggle every day, I also want to give these unique individuals a chance at a life I imagine few get to experience in the real world—one full of adventure, mystery, healing, and plain old fun.”
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Postscript: If you’re interested in reading The Pandora Belfry Adventures, here are links for books one and two…