HWA Mental Health Initiative BEING A “WEIRDO” by D.P. Wilson

I always wondered why I couldn’t think straight.

Then, when I hit sixty, I got myself a patient with ADHD. He described his affliction as being akin to watching two TV channels at once and trying to keep up with the plots and that struck a profound chord. The body of this article is simply a personal history which leads you back to this point, so why not skip to the Conclusion?

At primary school, my teachers had always called me a “dreamer” and I received many a scolding for simply not paying attention. But I was, as far as I could. My mind was on many other things at the same time. 

Academically, I was always near the top of the class even though the effort it took to study was indescribably superhuman. I did this for my parents, who were pretty much my world. And that’s another thing; I was raised an only child and more or less a shut-in. Mummy and Daddy didn’t believe in letting their little darling rub shoulders with the hoi-polloi, so I had no one with whom to compare my feelings and experiences.

Crucially, it also meant that the normal process of socialization did not take place in my brain and that’s like language; if it hasn’t happened by a certain age, it never will. That part of the brain never develops.

I made it through high school by means of an effort I would struggle to find words to describe while being the “weird kid” who was bullied until he grew big enough to kick the sand right back in their faces.

University life was qualitatively easier although focussing enough to study was still a near impossibility. Having obtained my first degree (psychology!), I dropped out of the mainstream and bummed around France and Italy for a couple of years, then settled in the country, doing physical labour for a wage. I had hoped that the solitude would calm my raging mind. It didn’t.

My second degree was in medicine and I got used to the pain of 120-hour weeks trying to keep my mind on what it was supposed to be studying. I went on to run three clinical practices, teach in college, supervise in the teaching-clinics and act as an expert witness in court.

With the subject of this article in mind, it should have been a big, red hint when I grew bored with this life and decided to move to the Isle of Skye, where I bought myself a restaurant and applied the culinary skills I had learned in France and Italy. 

Thanks mainly to my wife, Ann, it was a success but here’s the point:

During this whole time, ever since I began studying for my first degree, I was self-medicating with alcohol. Vast amounts of alcohol. Every day. Looking back, I see that I was what is now termed a high-functioning alcoholic. For decades. It was the only thing that gave my churning mind some respite.

I got on top of that in my fifties by a simple act of will and, as I sobered up over the following decade, a number of things became clear;

1) I was mildly dyslexic. 

In my school years, dyslexic people didn’t have a problem; they were just “stupid.”

2) I had never achieved socialisation.

This meant that I responded just like a sociopath; by mimicking others.

3) I had an “artistic temperament.”

Whether or not one has any degree of talent, “artistic” individuals feel things far more profoundly than the average and are therefore prone to depression. I was raised in a society where depression didn’t exist. You simply “pulled yourself together” and got on with it.

4) There was still something wrong with my thinking.

My ADHD patient was the trigger for a revelation. 

Naturally, when I was younger, ADHD didn’t exist. Certain individuals were merely “disruptive” or “dreamers” and frequently wound up in the prison system and I could certainly understand why. From my own experience, it wasn’t like watching two TV channels at once; it was like watching four, while someone was playing loud and intriguing music next door.

My mind would thrash itself to pieces on the myriad tiny details of some problem and have them all lined up and standing to attention in seconds, while completely ignoring a major and obvious flaw in the solution.

There are also major elements of imperative instant gratification, as well as an obsessive-compulsive component.

Following our conversation, I decided to do some research and it took no more than thirty minutes to make a self-diagnosis of ADHD. Diagnosing or treating oneself or one’s family is never a good idea however, even if the solution seems obvious; it is quite simply far too subjective in ways that are completely invisible. I was therefore a good boy and consulted a psychiatrist in order to have my diagnosis confirmed. It was. And, to my almost-homicidal irritation, she asked me two questions;

“Why didn’t you see someone earlier?” And;

“There is some effective medication for ADHD these days. Would you like me to prescribe some?”

So, at the age of sixty, with life-long ADHD, dyslexia, depression, alcohol problems and loss of social skills, having been a successful medical consultant and a well-known chef and restaurateur, as well as an author and broadcaster, I was now faced with a young and fashionable head-shrinker criticizing my lack of awareness and offering me some Ritalin!

CONCLUSION

I sometimes wonder, if you are “artistic” in any mode, are you almost bound to have had some kind of mental health issue? In fact, I often wonder if “being a horror writer” could be classed as an issue in itself.

My advice from sixty-three years of unnecessary but rewarding struggle is simple and threefold:

1) TALK about it!

2) See a professional sooner, rather than later.

3) In my personal experience, which is not unique, I have found that writing fiction of any kind is an even more effective way than alcohol, to calm the churning tumult of a disturbed mind and don’t let anyone tell you different! It requires a combination of linear and creative thinking as well as a kind of meditative concentration that excludes distraction.

I am calmer and healthier (both mentally and physically) for it.

Of course, “Why horror?” is a different question altogether. Perhaps we’re all just a bunch of “weirdos”!


 

DP Wilson is a Scottish author and broadcaster who has been, at various times in his life, a food bum, a medical consultant, a lecturer, and a well-known chef and restaurateur. He has written for many years, primarily for his own psychiatric self-defence. His short stories have been longlisted as well as shortlisted for the Crowvus Scottish Horror Prize, published in the anthology; “Seasonal Spectres,” and are broadcast regularly on radio. He has also been published in the prestigious; The Horror Zine magazine.

He lives on the mystical Isle of Skye with his wife Ann and son Finn. Send wine.

HWA Mental Health Initiative : 13 REASONS WHY HORROR SHOULD PUT ON A HAPPY FACE by Nzondi 

 

(An Author’s Responsibility to Mental Health Awareness)

In Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in his portrayal of Batman’s most notorious villain in The Dark Knight, he said, “As you know, madness is like gravity … all it takes is a little push.”

The film, the actor, and real-life, orchestrated a cacophony that sends a chill up my spine to this very day. When I used to run the ScHoFan Critique Group in the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society, I remember a time when I introduced a story with a suicide narrative. It was then that I learned how using the wrong language could trigger a negative response. I never wrote that story, becoming aware that reinforcing certain stereotypes of people with mental illnesses was dangerous and could cause real-life discrimination and worse, harm. There have actually been novels, which I will not name out of sensitivity to the subject, that led to a copycat effect that increased by more than three hundred and thirteen percent after one of those novels was published. That is a stunning number. In this article, I’d like to discuss if horror writers should start exploring how to develop characters with severe mental illnesses in a fair and more accurate representation, how writing certain stories actually increase copycat responses, and what stories are out there in the horror genres that chose to tread different paths of presenting mental illness.

Does the DC film, Joker: Put On A Happy Face, portray the character as a psychopath or a mentally ill person? The film creates empathy for the character and portrays him as a person that has a difficult time dealing with an array of physical abuse. Since the supervillain first appeared in the debut issue of the comic book, Batman (April 25, 1940), the joker was introduced as a psychopathic prankster with a warped sense of humor. Forensic psychiatrist, Vasilis K. Ponzios, M.D. says, “There is still a misunderstanding to the portrayal of insanity in the Batman films and movies and what it means to be legally insane.” He goes on to say, “For instance, the Joker has been hospitalized at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, even though, in real life he probably wouldn’t qualify … Just because a behavior is aberrant … it does not mean the behavior is a result of mental illness.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not list insanity as a disorder. According to one article I read, hallucinations, delusions and incoherent speech, which are traits of a severe mental disorder, are not usually the characteristics of a master criminal. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the main character we all hate to love in a series of suspense novels by Thomas Harris. A brilliant and sophisticated forensic psychiatrist in the day, and a cannibalistic serial killer by night. To my knowledge, the portrayal of that character was not diagnosed with a mental illness. However, iconic horror characters in the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth franchises play with the idea that psychopathic serial killers are mentally ill. Eventually, both characters are committed to mental institutions. In real life, these characters would be in a penitentiary, and/or on death row.

So how can horror authors take a fresh approach to presenting attitudes of mental health issues? First, before I get into the next subject area of mental health, let me start by explaining exactly what I mean by the copycat effect, or perhaps, a better usage would be suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is the characteristics of media portrayals of suicide, and characteristics of individual adolescents that increase the rate of suicide, and that magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage. A news program may not be as negatively effective as a New York Times bestseller or a hit TV show on the matter. Dr. Madelyn Gould, PhD, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University, believes that indirect influence occurs in both real and fictional characters portrayed in the media.

One fresh approach, that was bold and controversial, was taken by creators of the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, based on the eponymous novel by Jay Asher. According to the CDC, suicide is now the second most common cause of death among teens and young adults, accounting for nearly 6,000 deaths annually in individuals between the ages of 15 and 24. I, for one, do not want to write a novel that participates in any mental health contagion. Therefore, seeing how 13 Reasons Why approached the issue is intriguing to me for my own writing. For one, the executive producers, Selena Gomez and writer/producer, Brian Yorkey, have gone above and beyond in showing their sincere motivations behind adapting the novel for Netflix. There’s a genuine sense of empathy to the subject matter. In the video portion of the teenlineonline website, the creator of the non-profit organization realized that when teens have a problem, they are most likely to go to other teens than to their parents. She set up a hotline using teen volunteers to help troubled teenagers address their problems. 13 Reasons Why resonated with teens because it was a story brilliantly told by young actors.

13 Reasons Why tackled issues like suicide and bullying, head on, yet still presented it in a way that got popular culture talking about these issues, which was the most important asset to helping real-life youths to open up a dialogue with teachers, parents and health professionals. In writing this blog/essay, I learned many things to do and not to do when writing about mental health issues. I recommend that all authors researching these do’s and don’ts before writing about any characters that have mental health issues. As a horror writer, however, you may feel like your story is not there to preach, teach or raise awareness. However, given the fact that there have been documented accounts of novels affecting an increase rate of contagion, wouldn’t you want your literary themes to reflect a more accurate perspective?

I remember hearing at a literary awards show recently, that early science fiction pulp writers didn’t care about whether their science was accurate or not, but today, that is frowned upon in the science fiction community. I remember reading a David Gerrold interview done by JG Faherty of the Horror Writers Association that elaborated with more insightful perspective. In the interview, David explained how the internet is both a curse and a blessing. Like any science fiction writer, he loved to do research, of course for accuracy of his stories. He was discussing research regarding characters in his Chtorr series. The more he thought about the ecology of his species, the more it grew: what was the interrelationships of the species, of plants and animals, the apex predators. I remember he once did a workshop at a GLAWS special speaker’s event and asked, “How are you going to write about a character taking a spaceship to start a colony on the moon if you don’t know about the speed of ships? How far and how long it will take? How will the humans survive on the moon? How do they account for water? Is it shipped to the moon?”

Since the popularity of novels like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Longmans, Green & Co., January 1886), there have been many literary works that play with the concepts of how the human mind’s battle between good and evil interplay between characters with dissociative identity disorder. As brilliant a performance that James McAvoy gave in the psychological horror thriller directed by M. Knight Shyamalan’s Split (and Glass), I challenge you to go back and revisit whether or not the protagonist struggling through twenty-three personalities presented a true depiction of a man with a “split personality”.

Look, I get it. I’ve worked as a stand-in on a show called How To Get Away With Murder, and I have had many conversations with attorneys who say that the show is too sensational, especially in the courtroom. I’m like, “Thank goodness, the creator of the show doesn’t depend on you to write their episodes, we’d be bored out of our minds!” They are the same people who can’t suspend belief long enough to get past the fact that when Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk, he’s always in those purple short-pants, instead of being nude. We are writing fiction, aren’t we? We create a way for the reader to escape reality and travel to worlds of fantasy, science fiction, dystopias and horror. Still, when writing about characters and stories involving mental health, shouldn’t we ask questions that breathe life into the “who, what, when and how” of the tropes we use?

***

So how do we get it right?

Here are some facts to know about mental illness by Kathleen S. Allen, an author who also has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree which is a clinical doctorate:

Having depression doesn’t mean your character can’t still have fun or laugh or be social.

A character who has bipolar disorder may have manic episodes or they may not. Bipolar Disorder has a spectrum of symptoms from moderate depression to severe.

No one who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly called split personality) would kill someone when they are in one of their alter personality states unless the core personality would also kill. 

Your character would not have amnesia after killing someone. The disorder is rare and some medical professionals don’t believe it exists at all, so be careful using it.

Talking about suicide does not mean your character will push the person into attempting suicide. It was already on their minds.

Your characters don’t stop hearing voices after taking anti-psychotic medication, immediately. 

Sometimes, they won’t stop at all. It may take weeks to months for the meds to work. If they are having a psychotic episode, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to function in their daily lives by going to school, work, maintaining a romantic relationship, or maintaining any relationship. Psychotic patients are not dangerous. Are there exceptions? Yes. But as a general rule, they aren’t.

In conclusion, one of my biggest takeaways from researching horror writing for Mental Health Awareness Month was some of the things we shouldn’t do. 

For example, unless your character is politically incorrect, don’t describe suicide as an “epidemic”, “skyrocketing” or other exaggerated terms. 

Use words such as “higher rates” or “rising”. Don’t describe suicide as “Without warning” or “inexplicable”. 

Do convey that the character exhibited warning signs. 

Don’t refer to suicide as “unsuccessful” or “failed attempt”, or report it as though it was a crime. Do say, “died by suicide” “killed him/herself”, and instead of presenting the act like a crime, write about suicide in your story as a public health issue. 

Hopefully, as horror authors, we can continue to scare the jeebies out of our readers but at the same time, create a story which accurately exhibits archetypes of mentally ill characters, whether they are mad scientists, psychopathic serial killers or characters with dissociative identity disorders that assume their mother’s personality.

***

PRELIMINARY QUESTIONS: 

According to Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, most mass murderers belong to a category of the disgruntled and aggrieved, whose anger and intentions wax and wane over time, eventually curdling into violence in the wake of some perceived humiliation. Does the DC film, Joker: Put On A Happy Face, portray the character as a psychopath or a mentally ill person?

According to the CDC, suicide is now the second most common cause of death among teens and young adults, accounting for nearly 6,000 deaths annually in individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, what are some things that an author can do to stay as far away as possible to contributing to a suicide contagion?

According to one article I read, hallucinations, delusions and incoherent speech, which are traits of a severe mental disorder, are not usually the characteristics of a master criminal, what are some examples in horror where a story got it right and some where it got it wrong?

Forensic psychiatrist, Vasilis K. Ponzios, M.D. says, “There is still a misunderstanding to the portrayal of insanity in the Batman films and movies and what it means to be legally insane, did the writers and filmmakers get it right in their portrayal of the Riddler in the latest DC release, The Batman?

Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of 350 mass killers going back more than a century says that about one in five mass murderers are likely psychotic or delusional and the figure for the general public is closer to 1 percent, but the rest of these murderers do not have any severe, diagnosable disorder. 

Analyzing his database, Dr. Stone has concluded that about 65 percent of mass killers exhibited no evidence of a severe mental disorder; 22 percent likely had psychosis, the delusional thinking and hallucinations that characterize schizophrenia, or sometimes accompany mania and severe depression. (The remainder likely had depressive or antisocial traits.)

Many of these killers faced “long-term stress,” like trouble at school or keeping a job, failure in business, or disabling physical injuries from, say, a car accident. Substance abuse was also common: More than 40 percent had problems with alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. He says that the majority of people on this spectrum are not deeply ill; rather, they are injustice collectors. They are prone to perceive insults and failures as cumulative, and often to blame them on one person or one group. 

So the question I present to you and anyone else in the audience who has worked in the field of mental health is will mental health treatment make a difference for Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Leatherface? Why or why not?

“In almost all high-end mass killings, the perpetrator’s thinking evolves,” said Kevin Cameron, executive director of the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response. “They have a passing thought. They think about it more, they fantasize, they slowly build a justification. They prepare, and then when the right set of circumstances comes along, it unleashes the rage.”

This evolution proceeds rationally and logically, at least in the murderer’s mind. The unthinkable becomes thinkable, then inevitable. 

Would a hitman be considered a serial killer? If so, does the horror genre or fictional world, in general, portray these characters as having severe mental illnesses? Why or why not?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nzondi (Ace Antonio Hall) is an American horror author and is the first African-American to win a Bram Stoker in a novel category. His novel Oware Mosaic won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Young Adult fiction; one of the most prestigious awards given to horror writers in the world. His latest novel, Lipstick Asylum, won Book of the Year and Thriller of the Year awards from SW Book Reviews. It also received a 5-star rating from Readers’ Favorite.

 Among his many short stories that were published in anthologies and print magazines, Hall’s short story, “Raising Mary: Frankenstein”, was nominated for the 2016 horror story of the year for the 19th Annual Editors and Preditors Readers Poll. Additionally, three of his short stories were on the Horror Writers Association Reading list for the 2017 Bram Stoker Awards.

 A former Director of Education for NYC schools and the Sylvan Learning Center, the award-winning educator earned a BFA from Long Island University.

HWA Mental Health Initiative : FINDING YOUR NORTH STAR by Robert P. Ottone

The first time someone told me that my father was “always with me” was at his wake. He was in his casket in the center of the room and just looked … done. Not done in the sense that he was deceased, specifically, but exhausted. As though he was just so over it all. It was a look I’d seen a hundred times and it was fitting in a way that that was the face the mortician was able to put on him. Or maybe that was the face he had on when he passed? I don’t really know. I wasn’t there. 

I had heard that phrase about thirty or so times over the course of his wake, which spanned two days and was attended by hundreds of people. My dad had a lot of friends. People who looked at him like a father figure in many ways. As a teacher, he seemed to “collect strays” in a sense. Kids who grew up in his school district who may or may not have had a fatherly role model-type figure in their lives. I got to know them, too. They became almost like adopted siblings, I guess.

But once Dad was gone, not only had I lost my North Star, the one who guided and supported and nurtured me my entire life (with my mother, of course), something else hit me. The weight of how much he meant to people. This was a new feeling or thought or realization that began to weigh on me. Not only did I lose my father, I lost my closest confidante, my head cheerleader and so much more. We shared a name. In a lot of ways, once he was gone, part of me was as well. Robert Ottone had left the planet and yet, Robert Ottone remained. 

“He’s always with you.” Yes, I know. I have his name.

“He’s always with you.” Yes, thank you. That’s not as comforting as you think it is.

“He’s always with you.” Yes, please stop. There is nothing in those words that matters to me because he’s not.

He’s not with me. I am alone. With his first name. With his last name. Different middle initials, but that’s about it. I’ve even begun to look like him. My hair is graying rapidly. I’ve become forced to wear glasses. I doze off while watching TV on the couch. I laugh at all the same reruns of all the same shows that I used to watch with him. All with him.

Knowing that he was “always with me” had created a burden that had grown to be altogether too much. My wife (then-girlfriend) had been so helpful. So supportive and loving that any time I erupted into tears, she was there to talk me off the ledge. Then, during a panic attack brought on by losing a teaching job that I worked really hard to get, I knew I needed more than just the sweetness of my wife to help me.

I felt the burden of my dad being with me and I needed to lighten the load. I began to read again. I started with the works of Brian Evenson, then segued into John Langan and it all became clear. In reading these two masters, I knew that to help lighten the load of my dad always being with me, I needed to put him on the page. There had to be a way to find a new North Star. A new guiding light or purpose other than my previous one: to make my dad happy and proud.

I needed to transmute my guilt, my sadness, my heartache and anger into something more. Something that was therapeutic and helpful while also allowing me to return to a passion that had been my first love since childhood: writing.

It was in the pages of Sefira & Other Betrayals and Song for the Unraveling of the World that I found a way back. I began to do my best to mimic Langan and Evenson. I will always do my best to mimic Langan and Evenson. Their work, Langan’s in particular, was my North Star back to creativity. In that creativity, I found therapy. The creation of narrative, the crafting of character. It was all there. It was everything I was looking for and more. So very much more.

I discovered others. Lee Murray. James Chambers. Linda Addison. Paul Tremblay. Who were these people? How did falling down the rabbit hole of horror fiction turn me into a fan of so many when all I grew up on was my mother’s devotion to Stephen King and Dean Koontz? 

In reading these authors’ works, I found connective tissue to myself I never thought possible. I had connected to writing in the past, sure, but not on such a level as this. I was reading poetry. I was reading about zombie speed dating. I was reading about a possibly-possessed young girl. I was reading about a young woman from a broken home whisked off by a flying nightmare. 

I began therapy. Through writing and the unburdening of my emotions, I found a therapist during a particularly dark moment when I sat in the parking lot of my best friend’s condo and truly could not pull myself from the depths that I reached out and found help. My therapist, Bill, has given me strategies that I never imagined possible. Strategies to cope. Strategies to understand where my negative emotions come from. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers, instead, he helps me to find the answers. Even if it takes time, I know that my therapist is a light to guide me. Another North Star, in a sense.

My dad is always with me. But he’s in my work now, too. He’s beside me in the classroom when I teach. He’s in the pages of my writing, whether it’s silly, dark, or vicious. He’s in my laughter. Instead of in my mind, lurking in my consciousness, he’s in my heart. He’s in my voice. 

So yeah. He’s always with me. And through writing, through the work of a passionate and caring therapist, I’m alright with that now.


Robert P. Ottone is the author of the horror collection HER INFERNAL NAME & OTHER NIGHTMARES (an honorable mention in THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR VOLUME 13) as well as the young adult dystopian-cosmic horror trilogy THE RISE.

His short stories have appeared in various anthologies as well as online. He’s also the publisher and owner of Spooky House Press.

Robert is also an English as a New Language teacher, as well as a teacher of English Language Arts. He can be found online at SpookyHousePress.com or on Twitter/Instagram (@RobertOttone). He delights in the creepy and views bagels solely as a cream cheese delivery device.

HWA Mental Health Initiative: THIS IS ALL OF US by Mark Matthews

“Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.” ~Matt Haig, the Humans. 

If it’s true that some of the greatest horror fiction comes from the deepest personal pain, that the torment of the writer weaves itself into fiction, then Horror, the way it shines a light on the darkest parts of humanity, is in a unique position to look at mental health. 

The Horror Writers Association is continuing its initiative to honor Mental Health Awareness and how it uniquely affects the horror community, as well as ways to support anyone grappling with mental health issues. 

And this is all of us.

Nobody exists outside the realm of mental health, same as our physical health, it is always in flux and will deteriorate if not tended to. At times we do things for preventative care, at times we drag ourselves into urgent care in crisis, but mental health affects every human. Nobody is in perfect mental or physical health; it exists in scales that continually shift. 

Yet we so often see mental health as existing separate from physical health. We publicly share pictures of ourselves recovering in a hospital bed or openly ask our boss for time off to see a doctor, but talking with a mental health professional is treated as a weakness, something done only in private, for if others know, that seed of shame will sprout inside us and grow.  We offer simplified, insulting solutions, telling those with anxiety or depression, “try taking a walk,” or shame them with, “other people have it worse, be grateful you don’t live in that devastated city of WhatAboutIstan.”

These kind of statements, perhaps spoken with kind intent, are not only unhelpful but misunderstand the complexity and depth. It’s akin to telling someone with cancer to try getting some sleep or eating less carbs. Perhaps something healthy, but it’s throwing stones at giants, and something deeper is most likely needed.  

Talking to a therapist needs to be received the same as going to the dentist. It’s an act we do to take care of ourselves, a sign of self-care and courage that should be emulated. You are no less of a magnificent human being for having depression, anxiety, or any mental health condition than you’d be for having a broken leg from a biking accident, having a cancerous mole, or getting that colonoscopy.

Therapy, in all its facets and components, saved my life. That is not hyperbole. By age 23, I woke up each morning with a drink (god forbid there was no alcohol in the house) and I’d done every drug I could get my hands on.  I had been hospitalized multiple times, was bleeding internally, had alcoholic hepatitis of the liver and a swollen pancreas. I was spiritually despondent, wishing for death, but couldn’t seem to die. Finally, when it seemed my only option, I dragged myself bruised and bloody into a treatment center. I followed that up with years of therapy, major lifestyle changes, and have maintained sobriety ever since. 

Upon relying on the help of others, I went back to get my Bachelors in English and continued on to get a Masters in Counseling. I’ve worked for years with other addicts and alcoholics trying to give back what I had received, and branched out to work in behavioral health.

If only addicts could grant some understanding on what it is like to live with such a diagnosis, I believe the compassion for addiction would grow. Despite years of sobriety and having shed my skin, the snake still persists. I still have it inside me. I can taste it. Hear it. Point to the part in my body where it exists. 

I am quite positive that those suffering from any disorder would wish the same, to give others a taste of understanding of what it is like to live with the disorder so we could stop minimizing and distorting it. Depression isn’t cured by a walk. Anxiety isn’t just a mild discomfort. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a perpetual internal beast that isn’t slayed by exercise alone. 

I still seek therapy and seek it eagerly. I have had a therapeutic relationship that has lasted years and still go back in times of need.  

Fiction has a powerful therapeutic component, for if we want the truth, what better way to find it than through a story? My work is full of addiction horror, with compassion for the plight of the addict but a look at it substance abuse in all its hideous forms. Nothing new to say that the greatest fiction comes from the writer speaking from the wound, those personal places when we stick the proverbial knife in our heart and bleed it all over the page (Que Mick Jagger). Show me someone’s most powerful work, and you’ll see what’s inside. 

Horror writers will always write about mental anguish, with settings such as mental health hospitals and cemeteries, anything that portrays our darker sides and is charged with trauma and the vulnerable parts of our fragile psyche. While I think a certain level of creative license should be granted, there is a duty, I believe, to write about mental health topics with accuracy. We need to do our research. Ask a colleague. Get a beta reader who knows the subject.  This will avoid clichés, simplifying, stigmatizing, and stereotyping. People are not their condition.

Have you seen a piece of fiction where a character who takes medications is a sign of their strength rather than some dark foreshadowing? Nope, that tab of Risperdal is a version of Chekhov’s Gun, bound to have some negative effect in the next chapter.  Works which show a degree of empathy for those suffering, even in the midst of villainous intent, can be the most powerful. 

So much horror fiction is a battle for mental health, navigating the minefield of the external darkness that matches our internal landscape. Heroes, anti-heroes, or whole communities, face down the monsters, and the reader understands they are taking an inward journey, tackling their internal demons personified.

The question then becomes, are we able to do in our personal life what we will have our characters do in our fiction? Look inside ourselves and navigate whatever darkness we find, shining a light through the cracks the way we want our protagonists to do? 

While we are all the heroes of our own story, we are also minor characters in the journey of others. Do we see it just as noble to help others on their quest?   Do we support each other tackling and addressing mental health symptoms, same way we might herald someone in horror fiction? 

By doing so, we can become the empathic catalyst to help each other.

I think Horror Writers have some of the finest hearts around because they are in touch with the fragile nature of humans. In body, mind, and spirit. Among writers of dark fiction are those who are ‘not afraid to go there ’ both in fiction and internal introspection, and also, I suspect, that among us are some of the most hurting, tormented people, who have overcome adversity enough to spin fantastic art.  There can certainly be redemptive value in suffering.  I’ve latched onto this quote from the Virginia University basketball coach:  “If you learn to use it right, adversity will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.”

I write horror not so much to scare others, but because I am the one who is scared; scared of what’s inside me, what’s inside you, but writing about it makes me feel less alone, more okay with bleeding on the page. It takes courage to show yourself through your words, so we connect when we write and read in a way we never could, had we not faced the fear.    

Disclosing our own battles with maintaining mental health, while it’s nobody’s damn business and shouldn’t matter, can free others to drop the false shame and share openly.

If she’s talking about how Zoloft helped her but Prozac didn’t, maybe I can do the same.  

If he’s sharing his social anxiety and how it feels so disabling, maybe I’m not so strange. 

If he’s offering a sober safe place at StokerCon, maybe I’ll say hello if I’m struggling with the same. (Raises hand – I’ll be in Denver) 

Horror writers can be an example of those who openly support each other with compassion and understanding while writing characters who display humans in all their frightening darkness and magnificent brilliance. The HWA Mental Health Initiative reminds us that we are on the same journey as each of our characters, and can decide how to respond when facing our monsters, and to be the supportive agent of change in the journey of others. 


 

 

* Mark Matthews is a graduate of the University of Michigan and a licensed professional counselor who has worked in behavioral health for over 20 years. He is the author of On the Lips of Children, All Smoke Rises, and Milk-Blood, as well as the editor of Orphans of Bliss, Lullabies for Suffering, Garden of Fiends. In June of 2021, he was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. His newest work, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, was published in January, 2021 and tackles the subject of mental health treatment. Reach him at WickedRunPress@gmail.com

 

HWA Mental Health Initiative : GIVE THEM A PEN AND PUT THEM TO WORK By Ronald J. Murray

Make your demons work for you instead of against you. This is a phrase that I have carried with me for years, and one that’s never exonerated me from the responsibility of confronting my issues directly. Rather, it catalyzed my ability to allow the hardships of life and mind to inspire creation, to find enjoyment even while in the dark.

The writer is no stranger to suffering. I’m no different than any other. Throughout the year of 2019, I was writing Cries to Kill the Corpse Flower, a product of my realization and confrontation of my yet undiagnosed CPTSD and the resultant havoc it wreaked in my life at that time. The cathartic experience of taking my struggles and forcing them into the dark imagery of horror poetry allowed me to find an unshakeable sense of accomplishment, a shining pride in my talent, and to see a way to still cling to an appreciation for life.

Complex PostTraumatic Stress Disorder is linked to multiple traumatic events and is defined as a developmental trauma disorder. Though there are rare instances where the disorder can be developed during adulthood, it’s more often linked to traumatic childhood experiences. Its symptoms are like PTSD in that its sufferer will re-experience traumatic events, avoid traumatic reminders, and maintain hypervigilance against perceived threats in every avenue of life. However, it differs in that it affects emotional dysregulation, causes a development of a distorted sense of self, and can lead to disturbances in relationships. It often mimics Borderline Personality Disorder, and, in my case especially, can be misdiagnosed as such.

This darkness of course followed me into the next year, and it sought vengeance. During a time when so many, including myself, were learning to navigate the difficult struggles of the pandemic and its terrors, I saw the world crashing around me in the form of my first major loss: a decade-long unhealthy partnership came to an explosive close. Blessing in disguise as it was, I found myself suddenly without the home I’d known for years and having to learn to live without a person who’d been there for so long. I was only at the beginning of my journey in facing and healing my previous emotional afflictions, and this needed event exacerbated my symptoms to a degree I’d never experienced.

Lost Letters to a Lover’s Carcass was born through painful labor. Employing my demons, I wrote this collection to help me process this hardship and everything that led to it. More importantly, it reminded me of something almost lost: myself. My drive, my talent, and my lust for creation and its act kept me tethered to this planet and its bountiful, beautiful one-time chance at life. Without me, there is no art to create or, for me, to even perceive and interpret. Without me, there are no experiences and the healthy translation of them into narrative and verse.

But creating art from a place of suffering can paint the process as something that needs suffering to flourish. This is untrue, and a pitfall I’ve been able to avoid with the help of perspective. I’ve seen this misconception among some budding writers that may romanticize the clichéd tortured artist.

While the intermingling of internal and external hardship can be appreciated in this medium and enjoyment can even be found through it for the creative, it is not necessary to create more suffering for the sake of the written word, or to wear it as a writing badge of honor. Because without the appreciation and care for the self, creation can become a chore, or worse, a whirlwind of unhealthy self-criticism and a frustrated pile of unfinished projects.

CPTSD may likely follow me to my far-away death, but I will always find ways to stalk it in its own shadows. I will use it, crush it, and subvert it to find exactly what I need to tell my stories. And through my victories, I’ll bask in the sunlight of the lines and stories and characters that I write, which remind me of who I am: an intelligent, empathetic, and passionate creator.

None of this is meant to invalidate the struggles of others. I can only write from my own experiences and hope that they inspire hope and open the gates to new perspectives. The experiences of others are muddy and complex, and faltering along the path is to be expected. But I’d like to challenge my fellow Horror Writers to continue your therapy, eat your three-square meals, drink your water, be mindful and take time to enjoy the moment. And, lastly, let your work be the light switch on your wall that drives your ghosts back to their graves.


 

Ronald J. Murray is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His published work includes his two dark poetry collections, Cries to Kill the Corpse Flower, which appeared on the 2020 Bram Stoker Awards® Preliminary Ballot and was nominated for an Elgin Award, and Lost Letters to a Lover’s Carcass, from the JournalStone imprint, Bizarro Pulp Press. His short fiction and poetry has appeared in Space and Time Magazine, The Horror Writers Association’s Poetry Showcase Volume VIII, on The Wicked Library Podcast, in Bon Appetit: Stories and Recipes for Human Consumption, and Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and more. He is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association and an Active Member of the Church of Satan.