Creating a Shattered Mind: On Writing Crazy Dead

Creating a Shattered Mind: On Writing Crazy Dead

Posted on July 29 by Suzanne F. Kingsmill
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

My desolate mind cannot erase

The darkness within…it’s God’s disgrace

There’s not much left but a splintered soul

Why won’t my psyche let me be whole…

—Bradley, age 19, fictional patient at a psychiatric ward

When I wrote Bradley’s poem, the fourth book in the Cordi O’Callaghan mystery series, Crazy Dead, was born. My protagonist, university zoology professor, Cordi O’Callaghan, had suffered from depression in the earlier books and I had grappled with how well I could describe a person suffering from clinical depression while simultaneously have her solve a mystery during a stay at a psychiatric ward. Could Cordi do it?

While Cordi is recovering in hospital, she wakes one morning to find her roommate dead in her bed. Of course, Cordi sets out to find the murderer. I wanted to populate the book with suspects suffering from different sorts of mental illness, from schizophrenia and alcoholism to bipolar, panic, and obsessive compulsive disorders and clinical depression and to show that people with these illnesses are trying to live their lives and trying to control their illnesses through medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, with varying degrees of success. Having been there myself I know some of the problems.

The pain of mental illness, unlike a broken leg or a cancerous growth, can’t be seen or X-rayed. Too often the mentally ill are marginalized as people who just can’t pull up their socks. If only it were that simple. For example, clinical depression is common among people suffering from mental illness. All of us have been depressed at some point in our lives and have sucked it up and perhaps think we are experts, but clinical depression is desolation incarnate. It is a total loss of the desire to do, feel, think, or care about anything at all.  A monstrous void. An empty shell. A shattered mind. It can develop from nothing. Often there is no reason for it. It hits hard and is merciless. There is no pulling up your socks or sucking it up with clinical depression. It requires medical attention to ease the psychological pain, just the way a serious physical ailment requires medical attention.

I, too, have been where Cordi is, when I have her admitted to a psychiatric ward in Toronto. Also, I ran a drop-in centre for schizophrenic youth in my early twenties. It was here that I met a young poet who later inspired the poem “God’s disgrace”. While Crazy Dead is not autobiographical, the first chapter and the psychiatric setting are patterned after my own experiences. And true to my secondary plot of mental illness, Crazy Dead deals with the real and the hallucinatory, and Cordi must tease out which is which.