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July 29, 2013

N. K. Smith: How Mental Health Shaped My Storytelling

I’ve recognized a trend in my writing: mental health. Not every single piece outright deals with a mental health issue, but the theme runs throughout. It’s taken me a little while to realize it was there. Sometimes I set out to write a story about friendship, but then I find it’s laced with undertones of mental illness.

While it took me a while to realize the underlying theme of many of my stories, it took next to no time to identify why I write about it so much. First, since some of you don’t know me, let me say, I love angst. I love reading it; I love writing it. There’s something angsty inside of me that only comes out through reading or writing.

In high school, before I truly found creative writing, I wrote in my journal. It’s hard looking back on those passages, but at the time, it helped me process my world. When I read them now, it helps me understand who I’ve been, how far I’ve come, and how I’ve become this version of me. 

Nowadays, I use made-up stories and pretend people to deal with emotions I don’t otherwise know how to deal with. Not every story I write tells my personal story or a story of someone close to me, but the emotions within my novels do.

When I was young, someone very, very close to me was admitted into a mental health facility. It was a hospital and a scary one at that. I remember going to visit once when I was nine or ten and there was a guy who had the strangest, wildest eyes I’d ever seen. To say it frightened me when he looked right at me would be an understatement. His eyes and the way he roamed around what had to be a recreational room has stayed with me for over twenty years.

The diagnosis of my loved one was something along the lines or bipolar (I was too young for me to say this with all certainty), and I remember hearing the words “Shock Therapy.” So I grew up with a loved one with a mental illness. I grew up surrounded by my extended family members’ gambling issues, drug addiction, alcoholism, OCD, and sexual abuse.

Mental illness was a fact of my life.

By the time I reached high school, I was angry and depressed. I entered into therapy with a lovely woman who gave me some tools to manage my anger and some pills to control my depression (interestingly enough, they no longer give that medication to teenagers as it increases the likelihood of suicide).  I took the pills for six months or so but then weaned off of them. It wasn’t until college that I could say my chronic depression relaxed into just occasional bouts, although I was wracked with self-doubt and a negative self-opinion.

But the mental illness in my life didn’t stop there.  Another person very close and dear to me is suffering from what a pre-diagnosis labels as dysthymia with episodic mania, but is most likely more along the lines of full-on bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.

I cannot tell anyone who doesn’t know mental illness themselves what’s like to live around such illness. There is guilt unlike any other, both from the person suffering from the ailment, and those of us surrounding that person. I don’t know what to do to help, and if I’m honest with myself, there is probably very little I can do beyond just give support.

I grew up thinking people were just like me. People had all this stuff in their everyday life. It took me until my late twenties to really understand that there are people out there not touched by mental illness. If you’re one of them, take a moment and give thanks, because having a mental health issue or loving someone who does is a complete life changer.

Since I’m writing about how it’s affected my storytelling and not about how it’s affected my entire life, I’ll turn my focus onto my stories. In my first book, Old Wounds (and the remaining three in the series), both main characters have serious mental battles to conquer. They each struggle to find acceptance for each other and for themselves. It shows the way two wounded souls lean on each other for support and help, but it also shows how no one but yourself can drive your recovery. That’s not to say every person can control their recovery or that they do not need outside intervention.

Buy Old Wounds  at Amazon

Ghosts of Our Pasts is similar in nature, only instead of teenagers, this novel deals with adults, and instead of dealing with traumatic violations happening to them, they are dealing with loss. Will and Emily share a bond, but process their grief so differently. She goes out seeking sensation, covering herself in whatever emotion she can find, while he hides away and wraps the pain around him like a warm blanket on an autumn night.

Buy Ghost of Our Pasts at Amazon

My Only deals with Adam James. His narrative is subdued, and he’s obviously depressed. His mother died during childbirth, and this has affected his outlook on life and love. When Olivia arrives across the street, they couldn’t be more different in their worldview if they tried, but Olivia knows the loss of her mother as well. Again, these two are bonded by loss, but one is stuck while the other is free.

Buy My Only at Amazon

Okay, so Hollywood Lies isn’t some psychological masterpiece that details every mental health issue faced by Hollywood elite, but it does hinge on the pressures of celebrity. It’s these pressures that cause the main characters to make poor decisions, become addicted to the limelight or become a recluse, unable to go out into public without suffering from panic attacks.

Buy Hollywood Lies at Amazon

In August, I’ll release Are You Mine? Again, it’s not a deep psychological narrative, but it does feature a young man who has been deeply affected by the mental illness of a loved one.  Fox Harrington seems like the perfect guy with a fantastic life, but not everyone knows—or wants to acknowledge—the difficultly of loving someone whose brain chemistry isn’t like everyone else’s.

I write stories that weave mental health issues through them in order to figure things out for myself. I hope some of my writing can help others process their own experiences with grief, loss, depression, trauma. I’ll probably never stop writing these kinds of stories because they are what feeds my soul and help my world make sense.

About the Author:
Based in the American Midwest, N.K. Smith is a Technical Writer for a Fortune 100 company. The author of the Old Wounds Series, Ghosts of Our Pasts, and My Only, she is a mother of two who finds the time to write very early in the morning when the rest of the world is still fast asleep.
An avid lover of history, art, music, books, and people, she is interested in telling stories that speak to the human condition.
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  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I believe that anyone who’s been touched by mental illness is touched for life. So, little wonder the theme runs through all your writing. I was raised by a widowed mother who suffered from bipolar disorder. That experience has found its way into my writing, too. On a personal level, it’s cathartic to express unspoken feelings from the past. For readers, perhaps it’s an invitation to understand mental illness on a more immediate level, or to find some common ground. It’s not easy to share so intimately, but there’s a raw honesty in writing about painful experiences that resonates. Sounds like you're doing just that.