I felt it as my heart started racing, tightening deep in my chest. Before I knew it, my whole body started to tremble, an earthquake starting somewhere inside me, threatening to cause a collapse as it spread and took over my whole being. Suddenly, I was invaded by the deepest certainty that I was going to die. Not “someday”, as we all know we will, but right now, at any given moment. It was as if there was a hungry lion at the corner of the room, looking at me with ferocious yellow eyes. Except the lion was invisible. To everyone, including myself.
That is a brief overview of what it feels like to have a panic attack. I have experienced that first-hand a few weeks ago when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
It has been tough, learning how to cope with this illness. That’s why I spent so much time away from this blog. But I like to think that anxiety made me braver, stronger, and wiser.
So I thought it would be cool if, for this comeback post, I shared a little of what I learned from the past few weeks, as a storyteller.
You don’t always control your mind (or your body)
As a straight-A student (call me a nerd, if you will), I always relied on my mind a lot. I liked to think I had full control over it. That’s why anxiety freaked me out when I had my first major panic attack.
Mental illnesses can take over your mind and give you the weirdest thoughts. Anxiety, in particular, can be absolutely irrational. And the worst part is that you know it. You know nothing you are thinking is making sense. But you just can’t silence the thoughts.
Likewise, you can’t stop your body from trembling. You can’t avoid fidgeting. During my first panic attacks, I couldn’t stop biting my fingers and scratching my arms, even though it hurt. I didn’t want to do those things. I just didn’t have control over my body.
The thing is: if you don’t always control your mind or your body, neither does your character.
Your character doesn’t have to have anxiety or to experience a panic attack. Other things can cause them to lose control. Alcohol, for example. Or a curse, if you’re writing Fantasy.
The question is what would your character fear the most? Losing control over their mind or over their body? What if you made that happen to them, even if it was for a short time? What would they turn to, then?
You don’t always understand your feelings
While I was having a panic attack, my parents kept on asking me what was wrong. All I could say was “I am terrified”. And when they asked me “terrified of what?”, I’d simply shake my head, “I don’t know”.
That is, in my opinion, the scariest side of anxiety. You feel dread, deep down in your guts, but you have no idea what you are afraid of. You look around you, and everything seems fine. Yet you are still scared. You can’t explain it, not even to yourself. You start to think you are going mad. That is fear.
Humans have feelings they can’t explain. I have always been one to rationalize everything. Literally everything. In school, when I had a crush on a guy, I’d search for rational excuses to explain to myself why I fancied him. Feeling wasn’t enough. I had to understand it.
Some of your characters might be like that. If you show them they can’t understand their feelings, it can be scary. It can make them want to send the feeling away. And the more you fight, the stronger the feeling tends to get.
How can you destabilize your character’s understanding of their feelings? How would they react to that? Would they try to run away? Or would it make them embrace the feeling even more fiercely?
Your character’s mental state is exactly as important as their physical state
When we think of causing trouble to our characters to create conflict and push the plot forward, we tend to think of physical problems. Maybe they will get hurt, a friend of theirs will be kidnapped, or they will be robbed. All those things create good conflicts.
But sometimes, the conflict can be internal. Sometimes, changing your character’s mental state can change their whole behavior and in turn, the whole story. If they are psychologically affected, their goal in life can change. Maybe they will no longer want to pursue that one thing they have been pursuing for the past ten chapters. Change their mind, and everything changes.
When I discovered my mental illness, I decided my top priority should be recovering from it. I then proceeded to sign the papers at college saying that I wanted to defer for a year. This year was supposed to be my last year in college. I was going to graduate by December, after 4 years of focusing exclusively on getting my degree. But right now, I decided to leave that for the next chapter. I changed my mind.
Giving your character a mental illness is much more than just adding new features to their behavior
When you say someone is “depressed”, you tend to imagine someone acting sad, being quiet in the corner. When someone is described as “anxious”, you imagine someone fidgeting all the time, biting their nails and generally acting unquiet.
Having a mental illness is not like that. Or better said, it is not just that. That is only the “visible” side of mental illness.
When you have depression, or anxiety, or any other mental struggle, it is not only your external behavior that changes. Your way of seeing the world changes, too. Your feelings change. Everything changes.
I had some days when I was sitting at home, calmly reading a book, and my mother would say, “Oh, you seem to be ‘normal’ today again. I think your anxiety has gone away!”
People with mental illnesses often look “normal”. It is what is happening inside that counts. On those days, not having a panic attack (thankfully, they do not happen every day) made my mom think my anxiety was not there. But it was. It is always here. Every day, I feel it making me avoid certain situations and generally messing with my life.
I will eventually heal, of course. But it will take time. Even then, I won’t be the same person I was before getting ill. Anxiety changed a lot about me.
So the next time you choose to label one of your characters as “depressed”, “anxious”, “bipolar”, “OCD” or whatever, please make sure you do your research. If possible, try googling things like “how to help someone with…” and “things not to say to someone who has/is…”. That way, you will find websites where people who struggle with the mental illness in their daily lives tell you how it feels. It is really the best way to learn.
And please don’t forget to be compassionate and read with empathy. That way, you will make your character look real, and not a caricature. That is very important to help end the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.
That’s it for today. I am sure anxiety still has a lot to teach me. This won’t be the last time I write about it. I hope that these little insights will be as useful to you as they have been to me. See you next time! Hopefully, with a more cheerful topic, haha!
How is your main character’s mental health doing? Have you ever stopped to think about it? Have you ever written about a character who struggled with a mental illness? Please share your thoughts in the comments bellow!