My main character in Winter Howl, Renee Chambers, experiences mental illness on a daily basis. She’s agoraphobic enough to have a service dog when she’s outside of her dog sanctuary, and due to her panic/anxiety and probably also because of her isolation, her social skills are a bit lacking.
It is easy to idealize the experience of those who live with mental illness, as though it’s an obstacle to overcome rather than something to live with. Or perhaps that it’s a tragic flaw. Or perhaps in order to create miracle cures. Within the realm of fantasy (idealized reality common in romance and erotica, not necessarily the genre), it’s even easier. And I touch upon that in Winter Howl, but as you might expect, it’s a fine line to walk between wishing for a cure and offering an easy out, as though anyone with mental illness can just be shaken out of their state of mind with a good bout of sex.
While my own issues have never gotten as bad as qualifying for a panic disorder, I’ve had a handful of panic attacks that were very Not Fun. I’ve also had some other problems and experiences that I would rather not dwell on, not because they are shameful but because they are embarrassing to me on a personal level. Suffice it to say, I borrowed from my own experiences to create Renee’s problems, although Renee’s issues are stronger and she deals with them differently than I do because she’s a different person. (More on that in the future.)
There are days when I’m so sick and tired of being in my own head, of internalizing myself into creating my own prison, that I wish someone would just come along and pull me out, someone with a stronger personality and a way to get me out of my head. This wish manifested itself in Grant Heath, the rogue werewolf who is one of Renee’s love interests in the story. (The other, incidentally and not coincidentally, is her service dog, Britt, who is a canine shapeshifter and Renee’s best friend.) Grant is intense, wild, impulsive, all the things that Renee is not, and it is understandably very attractive to her. When she’s with him, he’s so much a polar opposite and a strong personality that he pulls her more towards the middle between them. It makes her feel normal. So when he tells her that the reason he’s the way he is comes from his lycanthropy and he offers to change her, the potential to be someone else other than someone with a mental illness naturally tempts her.
But the question is, would it cure her? And more importantly, should it cure her?
It is often the plot of a romance or erotic romance novel that the man is the Fixer. The man teaches the woman love, corrects her behavior, rewards her with good love, and thus operant conditioning does its magic, a la Pygmalion. Sometimes it happens the other way around, a la Beauty and the Beast, but usually the woman is still somehow changed into something more appealing by the end of it, too. It’s too easy to see women as the hysterical creature that needs to be fixed by a doctor applying a good orgasm within the realm of romance and erotic romance.
While writing Winter Howl, I was very conscious of other issues throughout and struggled with them and talked them out with myself, but this was one that I only just started thinking about, worrying that I might have done something wrong. I’ve had to examine the novel with a new eyes, and I think I handled the issue okay. I hope I dealt with the matter of mental illness in a respectful manner, and I hope my own experience with mental illness helps legitimize both the fantasy of the story as well as the decisions I made with it. I can’t, of course, tell you what happens – I mostly just wanted people to know that I’m still going forward with the story; that I think it’s a good one that can be told without shame.
Readers and writers: What has been your experience reading or writing about mental illness in romance or erotica or even mainstream fiction?