One of the characters in Leave of Absence is Penelope, a woman who experiences Schizophrenia. In this scene, she is lamenting one of the ways it has impacted her life: “I used to be proud of myself. I graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as an advertising executive at Anderson Fletcher.” She paused and hugged the beach ball against her chest. When she resumed, she spoke quietly. “But then I changed, and I’m not the same anymore. I had to take quit the job I loved. At first, I thought I could take a leave of absence, just a little break to get well and then go back. But I never got better enough to go back. I had to quit completely, and now I’m just a loser.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and splashed onto the ball.
I wrote Leave of Absence because no one experiencing mental illness should ever have to feel like a loser. I’d like to be one of those who is working to correct the existing negative stereotypes and increase understanding and compassion.
I possess a unique combination of experiences that I carried with me into my writing of Leave of Absence. I carry it into all of my writing, actually—the articles that appear on my blog as well as the new novels I will write. That I write about mental health is no coincidence, for I have experienced mental health and mental illness from both sides of the proverbial couch. Having been both a counselor and a patient, I have a deep understanding of how people can suffer emotionally in so many ways, how people can triumph emotionally in so many ways, and of how every human being deserves empathy and understanding. I use my many experiences to create stories that, while themselves fictional, are a very real manifestation of mental health and mental illness. It is my hope that Leave of Absence will help people understand each other more deeply.
I have a rather intimate relationship with mental illness. I understand it intellectually thanks to an intense graduate program, and that lends a solid factual background to my stories. I understand it professionally thanks to all the people I have counseled with in various capacities; in working with people, I have developed a real-world understanding of what people need in order for them to help them help themselves heal, and I weave this into my stories. And I understand mental illness personally thanks to my own experiences with it. I try to draw on all of these aspects to infuse my novels with not only facts but feeling. (As I reader, I love character-driven stories, so I set out to make Leave of Absence character-driven. I hope readers connect with Oliver, Penelope, and William!)
My own roller coaster ride with mental illness officially began in 2004 when I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Because I could walk, talk, and physically care for myself, I didn’t qualify for brain injury rehabilitation programs. That didn’t mean that I was functioning well in other areas of my life, though! Over the course of several years, I saw a psychologist for counseling, and when that wasn’t enough, I was admitted into a behavioral health hospital. The Airhaven Behavioral Health Center that is the setting for much of Leave of Absence is actually based on the hospital in which I stayed. The characters are completely made up, of course, but the physical description and other little details (such as Oliver’s hatred of the ticking clock in his room) are based on my own personal experience in the hospital. I was in and out of that hospital five times over the course of several years, and it was there that I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder. Understanding Bipolar I disorder and looking back over my life, I firmly believe that I experienced it long before that car accident; however, I was able to manage it until the brain injury threw everything into chaos.
So it’s on multiple levels that I understand what it means to suffer mentally and emotionally, how mental illness impacts every single facet of one’s life, what it’s like to live with the stigma and have people shun you both personally and professionally.
I believe passionately in the importance of bringing these issues it to light. When we learn about each other as human beings, when we take time to really listen and look, we begin to understand. Through understanding come empathy and compassion.
Coming tomorrow, my review of Leave of Absence.
Coming May 8, a Q&A with the author you don't want to miss!