Dialogue Scene from “Sleeper”

(Reed’s song of the day: High, by Sir Sly)

Hi all,

Just wanted to share some dialogue I just wrote and thought turned out pretty well for a first attempt. For context, Melira (the daughter) was caught talking to a member of a different race and social class during work, something Benn (the father) forbade her to do.

Enjoy!


The Government Ordinance building was a long rectangle, forming one of the five sides of the pentagonal middle sector of Kalin. Both the external facade and the internal decor were constructed from Renewal oak and pine, lacquered to a dull shine under the light of massive Hilan crystal chandeliers. The majority of the building was an indoor atrium, open and echoing, but there were also thin corridors running the outer perimeter at each floor and connecting to small offices.

From where Melira stood on the third floor, she could see all the way across to the opposite side of the building where managers and higher-level government workers paced these corridors in quiet conversation. But she ignored them for the frenetic pace of the Ordinance ground floor, or just “the floor”, as the workers called it.

Here, in the bottom of the atrium, desks and cubicles were crammed into the space with hardly a thin dividing wall between them. Workers scribbled frantically on paper or parchment or vellum; peelees scurried in between hurrying operans, carrying notices and requests; and every once in a while, a person would stand triumphantly, clutching a paper, and hurry towards the nearest staircase to the upper corridors.

These lowest level workers mostly gathered data on the workings of the city. They collaborated with the Cityscaping Ordinance and to some extent with the other three Ordinances to collect information which they then passed on to employees at the analysis level to ultimately bring to the Head Governor. They were exclusively middle-tier operans with dreams of glory and putting their family’s name on the list for a barony. Their determination and dedication could be felt in the energy of the Ordinance floor.

“Orderly chaos, isn’t it?” Benn said, leaning against the rail next to her. He offered her a tired smile.

Melira nodded, still watching the workers below. “All those people pushing themselves to their utmost, just for a chance at being where we currently stand.”

“It’s humbling.”

“It’s irritating.”

Benn raised an eyebrow.

“Why can’t they have aspirations beyond this?” Melira swept her hand over the Ordinance floor. “Why does it all have to be so rank-and-file? They could be doing anything, achieving anything, with the kind of tenacity they have. Instead they sit here and wait for someone to notice them.”

“Maybe they don’t mind operating through an established path. Perhaps it gives them comfort. After all, it is jarring to everyone involved when someone suddenly stops doing what is expected of them.”

Melira finally looked at her father. He was watching her with one elbow leaning against the railing. “You mean what’s expected of me,” she said.

“I thought I told you to stop meeting with the other races in public.”

“You didn’t tell me anything, Dad. You made a request, which I took into consideration.”

“Mel….”

“Look, how was I supposed to know Hugo would come in? No one saw her enter, no one would have seen her leave – ”

“He’s your supervisor, Melira. It would be folly not to check in on you every once in a while. And you’re ignoring the fact that you specifically disobeyed me after we spoke about this.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, it’s not disobedience. It’s open-mindedness!”

“It is both. And there are reasons rules have been established – ”

“Seriously, have you ever tried to consider that they might be due for a change? That perhaps your precious rules might be outdated, inapplicable, or just foolish?”

Melira’s shout echoed out into the open space of the atrium. One or two workers on the Ordinance floor glanced up at the two of them before hurrying on their way.

Benn let out a long sigh. His one hand went to the side of his face, scratching at his hairline. “Mel,” he said softly. “Why do you think everyone is trying to control you?”

“Sun, I don’t know, Dad. Perhaps it’s all this talk about blind obedience.”

“And is there ever a reason?”

“A reason to what?”

Benn turned back to her, and she was astonished to see tears glinting in his eyes. “A reason to obey. Even if it were absolutely the wrong thing to do, or if it were silly. Would there ever be a case in which you would just obey? If it were for the sake of your father’s peace of mind? For stability?”

Melira’s stomach turned inward. His every word was like a little barb in her skin, inevitably pulling her towards what he wanted for her. “Dad, you don’t get to say that,” she muttered.

“So now you’re telling me to obey you?”

“Look, can we not talk about this now? We were going to have a nice lunch in the Sprawl.”

“We never talk about this, Mel. At least not in a way where a conclusion is reached.”

“Well, I’m done talking.” Melira turned on her heel and started walking down the corridor towards the staircase.

Benn hurried to catch up. “Fine,” he said. “We don’t have to speak of this today. As a matter of fact, we’ll never speak of it again. Instead, here’s what I’ll do. The next time I find out you’ve been meeting with a tixan or kudran friend – in any capacity – I’ll have Orrie step in and have a chat with them.”

Melira spun around, feeling the guilt in her stomach twist into something else. “Is that a threat? Are you threatening me?”

“Not you, certainly. I couldn’t say the same for your friends.”

A bark of angry laughter came from her throat. “And you think Orrie is just going to respond to your beck and call like a bitch?”

“We have a preexisting arrangement that covers matters like this.”

Melira gripped the railing with one hand until her knuckles turned white. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see down below the workers writing and walking and pushing themselves. And in front of her stood Benn, his arms folded across his chest, his expression cold.

“You know, I suddenly don’t feel very hungry,” she said. “And I had a report that was supposed to be due before we left. So if you’ll excuse me, this obedient daughter is going to go back to her office.”

Benn said nothing, allowing her to brush past him. It was only when she was halfway down the hall that his voice came echoing after her: “It’s what’s best for you, Melira. Perhaps someday you’ll see that.”


Hope you liked it! And have a great Tuesday.

Yours, making slow improvements,

-R.R. Buck

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Editing Discoveries [#5 – Filler Chapters]

(Reed’s Song of the Day: Purple Rain, by Prince)

Hey HEY folks! Coming to you from (finally) rainy Los Angeles, it’s yet another blogger who thinks he can tell you how to write better!

I’m using this post to stall for time while I try to figure out what content I want in my next chapter, so let’s get right down to it. Let’s talk about those “filler chapters”.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Those beloved chapters with a really great character moment or some awesome banter between your protagonist and antagonist, but very little happening in the way of plot? Maybe there’s a really cool specific part of your world you wanted to include to spice things up, but other than that, nothing’s happening? Sound familiar?

It does to me, sadly enough. In my earlier projects – of which Sleeper is one – I used to spend months writing out my world. I would gather information about society and culture, arts, money, politics, gender roles, character backstories as they applied to their home cities, flora and fauna, travel routes, seasons, time dilation, et cetera, et cetera. I would build so much world that I could barely fit it into my books.

And that was the problem – all my worldbuilding would make it into the book, but far too much to be interesting to a reader. It would come out as these long chunks of expository text – because how else are you going to explain the nuances of the world that your characters wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to? – sitting dense and fat in the middle of my books. When I or my readers would go through them, it would simultaneously feel like nothing was happening, and too much was happening.

I bet you think I’m going to tell you to cut all those unwieldy filler chapters, right?

WRONG.

See, that was how I used to edit, before I really examined what editing was supposed to do. I would ruthlessly cut away everything that didn’t push the plot forward or compel characters into the next scene. I did this for one of my projects last year, Symphony of Legend. Guess how it came out?

Like a pancake to the face. Like a scrunchie made out of plot points.

It hit so fast, readers (including myself) were left disoriented, still trying to understand the basic concepts of the world while already getting into the higher-level complicated magics. It was a pretty big turnoff, and I pulled off on having people read the second and third parts of the novel for that reason.

So I’m not here to tell you to remove your filler chapters. Because honestly, in genres that take a lot of worldbuilding like science fiction and fantasy, you need to slow down every once in a while and let things sit. Let your audience absorb some of your amazing creation when there’s not a battle going on or a character about to die. Give them some time spent staring at your world.

Brandon Sanderson does it. Patrick Rothfuss does it. Most other notable fantasy and sci-fi authors do it (and it even happens in a lot of other genre fiction).

The key to a good filler chapter is not in pushing the plot, but rather the story. You don’t need to have a major plot point every single chapter, or even most chapters. But what you do need to have is something compelling the audience forward. A conversation that leads into the next chapter, maybe. A period of observation where a character is allowed to sit back and enjoy the world, but in the end they notice the thing they were looking for. A simple character-establishing scene where a minor decision reveals something about your protagonist, but also comes back to affect the plot later.

Unless you’re an incredible writer with a ridiculously deep world (read: Tolkein), you won’t be able to captivate an audience just with your worldbuilding. But what you can do is give them a taste of it in these every-so-often filler chapters while also keeping some sort of a progression. Not necessarily a plot progression, just… a progression. Of some kind.

Of course, it’s one thing to remark upon this in your blog. It’s another to sit down at your computer and try to write a chapter of just filler to input between major events. I’m having difficulties with it right now, and you may have those same difficulties. It’ll be okay. I promise. We’ll figure something out.

And the best part is, if we can get the flow right – that waxing and waning of tension and progression – we find ourselves with an exciting, very readable project. So, like all annoying parts of the editing process, it’s worth it in the end.

Hopefully I’ve stalled for enough time to form a latent chapter storyboard in my brain. I’ll keep my fingers crossed (for me and for you!)

Yours, with his numb little toes in his wet little shoes,

-R.R. Buck

Book Review – Who Fears Death

(Reed’s Song of the Day: Dying of Thirst, by Kendrick Lamar)

Hello and what’s up, good people of the world. I’m in a weirdly good mood today – actually, I have been since last week. I hope wherever you are, you’re doing all right and not letting life beat you down too hard.

Today I have the pleasure of reviewing one of the newest books of the season – a book which has influenced my recent writing like the soil in which the wine grapes grow.

How disgustingly pedantic of me. Eh, takes too much time to backspace.

Here we go!


Title: Who Fears Death

Author: Nnedi Okorafor

Genre: Post-apocalyptic fantasy, sci-fi

Premise: Onyesonwu is born an Ewu, a child of weaponized rape. Her people, the Okeke, have long been enslaved and brutalized by the Nuru tribe, and her very life is a testament to their lust for domination. But she is also born special – a sorceress with unique powers that give her the possibility of enacting revenge upon her Nuru father. Her journey, though, is anything but straightforward.

Damn, y’all, I loved this book.

I honestly don’t know what else I can really say but that. It’s kind of funny, because I picked it up on a whim – I was at the Amazon Bookstore and saw one of those displays with the “If you like this, you’ll like this” theme, and this was one of the suggested titles. I’d never heard of it, didn’t know they were planning on making it into an HBO show… nothing. It just looked like a good read, and seemed to have some strong women of color in main roles.

Of course, when I did find out they were making it into a show, I said to myself, “Well, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” Because this book is freaking awesome.

The story is very much a hero’s journey as we watch a young woman struggle with her upbringing and newfound powers, learn to tame them, and then make a trek across the desert to meet her father, who is pretty much Sauron. But it reads so much less like traditional fantasy and so much more like traditional African storytelling. There’s a whole mythos to the culture that comes through naturally, and any hints of post-apocalypse or science fiction are woven through rather than jutting out. It’s like we’re reading a grown-up Lion King. A… really grown-up Lion King.

I guess I should say that, while I’m dwelling on it – this is your official trigger warning for graphic rape, violence, sexuality, language… pretty much the whole HBO shebang. The beginning of this book is so very dark that I almost had to put it down. The main character, Onye, has so much anger because of her birthright as an Ewu, and because of this, the social justice themes – both race and gender – shine brightly through. The darkness is counteracted by the light in the characters, in their relationships with one another.

And that’s another thing I love about this book – the characters. They don’t fall under any one archetype (except for, ironically, Onye) and they have so many layers of depth. You simultaneously feel like you know them immediately and that you have so much more to learn about them.

Honestly, the whole thing is good. If you aren’t turned off by adult content, I think it’s a must-read. Even for those who don’t particularly like fantasy, I would still suggest it. It’s so off the beaten path compared to most fantasy novels I read.

And, seriously, the end of the book is awesome. No spoilers, as I promise every time I do a review, but it subverts reader expectations so wonderfully and I just wish I could talk about it. But I won’t. So you can enjoy it.

There’s really only one thing keeping me from giving it a perfect score. As I said, Onye is a great character, but she kind of feels single-faceted to me. She has a lot of anger and it continually gets the better of her as she meddles with forces she can’t control. It’s a good archetype, but when all the other characters are so unique, I kind of wished the protagonist had a bit more depth as well.

But seriously, that’s the only thing I can think of. You need to read this book.

Reed’s Rating: 9/10

Yours, also 15-ish books through Animorphs,

-R.R. Buck

The Departure of Hokobe Mana [Part 2]

(Reed’s song of the day: No Sleep Til Brooklyn, by the Beastie Boys)

As before, if you’re associated with the Campaign of Death and Destruction, please don’t read this post. And for those of you who are getting caught up, here’s the link to part 1.


Okay, so I intend not to be as boring and/or bitchy in this post as in the previous one. I actually did have a point I wanted to get to, which I failed to do at first, so let me put it right here at the beginning.

I feel like, as an writer, I’ve come to place my characters on the same emotional level as real people in my life. Meaning, I agonize over their struggles, share their triumphs, and when they die or leave, I feel it like the loss of someone close to me.

I created Hokobe with the idea that he was just a good guy who’d taken some serious missteps, and who was trying to right those wrongs now. Yet somehow, by the somewhat magical process of character creation, he became entirely different than that. He was prideful, sometimes even arrogant, but also self-hating. He was naturally suspicious of everyone around him, but when he formed bonds with the other party members, he wouldn’t break them for anything. Even so, he experienced a deep sense of loneliness and isolation when he was with them, as though he never really fit in.

When I played Hokobe, I became Hokobe. I could feel his depression weighing on me, all the weight of his bad decisions. I felt his impatience with the group for not coming to conclusions quicker. I felt his moral rectitude and the way he considered every decision on every level, both rationally and ethically. I felt his horror at seeing bad rulership, selfish decisions, and wanton destruction.

It was like an addiction. I couldn’t stop being him, even when I wanted to. There were times when Reed was fully convinced that we should do everything, but Hokobe was not, and so I had to spend (in one case at least) literally hours arguing with another party member until I was satisfied.

I know these experiences were horrible for some of my other party members, and on multiple occasions they asked me why I couldn’t just tweak Hokobe’s character, even a little bit, to make him easier on the party. All I could respond with was the same dogged statement – that he was a person, not a character, and not really subject to my desires or changes.

Man, it drove some of my friends nuts to hear that.

But I’m being serious here, and not just stubborn. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change; by the time I retired Hokobe, I was sick of playing him and being constantly controversial. I didn’t know how to. It was as if once I started playing him I couldn’t conceive of being any other way.

And that’s why things came to an end. I sensed Hokobe was on a long journey, a character arc that might take years or more to conclude. I knew, somehow, that at the end of that journey he would become a much easier person to deal with. But in the meantime, everyone, including myself, was exhausted with him.

So I let him go.

It was actually a really difficult thing to do. I contacted my DM and asked him if I could create a new character and phase Hokobe out. I really wanted it to matter as much to him as it did to me, but I think by that point he was just too tired to care. He told me to do whatever made me happiest. I kind of wish he’d reacted with a bit more surprise and gravity, but what can you do?

Honestly, it made me feel horrible to phase Hokobe out of the campaign. By this point, he was so tied to his companions that nothing would have made him leave them. And I had to find an excuse for him to do just that. So it involved (finally) making a whole bunch of decisions as Hokobe that I know he wouldn’t have made. By that point, I was so dissociated from him that I was able to do this, but it really felt like the final slap in the face to end his whole depressed, traumatized journey.

I felt like I was abandoning him. I felt like my friends were abandoning him too, not that they cared, or that they should care. It just felt like this person who had so much potential, such an ability to grow, was put out to pasture. Neglected in the worst of ways.

It seems so strange to be writing about this and have to remind myself he’s not real. In some ways, he feels even more real than me. There was a nuance to him that I don’t think I’ve captured in nearly any other character I’ve written, and I’m so sorry to see him go.

The weirdest part to me is just that I care so much. Like, I want to stop caring so badly about this. I want to be a normal person who doesn’t stress out and lose sleep (literally) over the fate of a person who doesn’t exist. I wonder if it’s being a writer, or loving D&D, or just my own eccentricity, that makes me so invested in him.

But it’s a good thing to think about as a writer. I know when I was writing Sanctuary last year, a book where most of the main characters have a form of mental illness, I felt like I was living their experiences. It was a very frightening time for me.

Maybe it will produce characters that are more realistic, like actors who get into method acting. But it’s kind of terrifying to disappear into someone else for extended periods of time, especially if that person is depressed or has a lot of personal issues to work out. Sometimes I wanted to scream at my friends, “You think I don’t want Hokobe to change too? You think I don’t want him to be less of a bitch?! I want it more badly than anything else in the world. But change doesn’t just happen overnight. I can’t just make him be a different person. It has to come from within.”

Again, strange as hell that I’m talking about someone who isn’t real.

I wish I could tell my friends I’m sorry that I made things so difficult on them. I really didn’t expect everything to go the way it did, and now there’s some pretty permanent damage done to my reputation in my campaign. But honestly, even talking about it more right now would be exhausting for them – which is one reason why I asked them not to read this post.

The good news is, I get to start again with a new character. And I’m working really hard to make sure she’s fun, not traumatized, and party-centric. I think being able to disappear into her for a while will actually be entertaining for me, and hopefully enjoyable for my friends as well.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

R.I.P. Hokobe Mana. Even though you’re not dead.

Yours, marvelling at his strange week,

-R.R. Buck

The Departure of Hokobe Mana [Part 1]

(Reed’s Song of the Day: Say It Ain’t So, by Weezer)

First, I’d like to ask that if you’re in any way tied to the Campaign of Death and Destruction, you don’t read this post.

Thanks.


Something weird is happening to me. I’m in a period of mourning for a person that doesn’t exist.

Many of you know that Dungeons and Dragons constitutes a large part of my free time. I’ve talked before about how D&D can be a good way to develop writing skills and test out characters, but more than that, it’s a great way to spend a few hours with friends. More interactive than watching a movie, less expensive than going to a theme park or a nice dinner.

We’ve had quite a few campaigns ranging from serious to silly, some of them long-running, some of them quick and over with. Only a handful are ones I might consider the core of our D&D experience.

One of these campaigns, Death and Destruction, has been the longest-running campaign we’ve ever done. I don’t really know when they started playing, as I came in after the first act, but I would guess it’s been going on for two years?

There’s so much context here, I feel like I’m unable to summarize it all. So let’s do a quick bullet-point list:

  • I have historically not done well with making characters. For some reason, it seems all my characters are not “party-centric”, meaning they’re too aggressively different from the party to make decision making and general roleplay fun for anyone.
  • I set out in Death and Destruction with the goal of creating a character who was really just a good guy, haunted by his past but trying to make amends and become a better person.
  • I tend to take the character building a lot more seriously than at least half of the people we play with. Because of my desire to try out real, serious characters with obvious flaws, it’s often a pain to play with me (even when they’re party-centric characters).
  • I write long backstories for my characters, whereas some of the people I play with don’t bother writing them at all or make them as minimal as possible. I love seeing my backstory incorporated into the campaign and to have interactions with other characters that “reveal” my backstory as we go adventuring together.

So let’s talk about Hokobe Mana, the character I envisioned for Death and Destruction.

Hokobe was born in the City of Power (one of five cities in my DM’s world) where he was pressed into the military at a young age. His desire for greater combat prowess inspired him to take assignments in other cities, to spy and learn about their military.

He went to the City of Pleasure, another of the major cities, where he rooted out a mysterious underground organization called the Order of the Muse. Far from a military power, the Order used magic and music to bring peace and calm in times of trouble. Hokobe found himself strangely attracted to them, and to a member of theirs named Ta’ira. She saw him as a wounded war dog who might be converted to the ways of tranquility; he saw her as a fiery temptress who might give him the secrets of the Order that he could then pervert into a tool of oppression (somehow).

As they trained, Hokobe became of split mind and started to wonder if maybe bringing peace was just as admirable a goal as domination. When he forged his masterwork, a flute-staff he named Ta’ira in recognition of his teacher and then lover, he thought he’d conquered the old violent urges in himself.

He was wrong.

He fled the City of Pleasure and returned home, feeling shame chase him the whole way. It stayed with him even when his new magics from the Order helped him become one of the most formidable military officers in the City of Power. It stayed with him when he rose through the ranks too quickly to avoid suspicion and envy from other officers. It stayed with him even when his own brother, fearful and jealous of Hokobe’s power, made a plot to frame him for the murder of comrades, sentencing him to execution.

On the eve of his punishment, Ta’ira came in the night. She broke him out of jail, cursed his very name, and disappeared. Now he wanders the wilderness, exiled from both his city and the only people he’s ever cared about, wondering if there’s a path for him back towards being a Muse. Perhaps even a path to winning back Ta’ira’s heart.

So when I started the campaign, that’s where I was. A taciturn, war-torn man sitting in a tavern in the City of Law, who had just found out that the entire City of Power had been destroyed by some kind of storm. His entire home, gone. He could never repair relationships with his brother, who had died, nor with the city itself.

Now here’s where I begin to differ from other players of the game. About half of the people in Death and Destruction play their characters as characters. Meaning, there’s a kind of lack of seriousness in the way they make decisions or let the game affect them.

I can’t really describe it any other way than by juxtaposition. See, when I play D&D, I play my character not just as a character, but as a person. I react to what happens not as Reed, but as Hokobe. And if your home city were destroyed, along with any chance at redemption from your brother, you’d probably go a little bit crazy.

But that’s the thing. It’s not “party-centric” to go crazy when there’s a mission to accomplish. And people don’t really get why I can’t just “make” Hokobe be okay with things. I get the idea that they kind of see me as a puppeteer pulling Hokobe’s strings, and I’m pulling all the ones to make him do things that piss everyone off.

I see myself more as the sorrowful creator, watching Hokobe make bad decisions and feeling his pain because his world has been thrown upside down. Which, I have to admit, is selfish because it makes the rest of the party scramble to help.

Or, it actually doesn’t. But that’s for the second half of this post.

It also kind of feels to me like many of my friends are playing a game, whereas I’m trying to write a novel between all of us. They’ll do things that are entirely unrealistic – like, at the very end of a fight, looting corpses instead of checking to make sure there’s no other conflict happening elsewhere. And then they’ll be upset with Hokobe for calling them out for the greed.

It’s funny. In D&D, you’re allowed to choose an “alignment” which specifies whether you’re likely to obey the law or break it, and whether you are an inherently good or bad person. I chose Hokobe’s alignment to be Neutral (neither law abiding nor law breaking) and Good. That single choice – which I assumed would be helpful to a party – has caused so many problems as the rest of the players want to torture people for information or do other things Hokobe considers heinous. Which, of course, he strenuously resists – another way of not being “party-centric”.

I never would have thought being good would be a problem.

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll save it for the second half. I know this was mostly context, but I promise I plan on getting to an interesting philosophical point in Part 2. Til then, thanks for reading.

Yours,

-R.R. Buck

Awake (Short Writing Project)

(Reed’s Song of the Day: Mutt, by blink-182)

I’ve been sick all this week. I started composing this two nights ago as I waited to fall asleep.


It is 3:37 am.

A soft miasma of bruises hangs heavy in the air. It throbs in black colors. It presses on my eyes.

Breaths come from the back of my throat, unwillingly. They scratch my pharynx as they go by. My nose is a twelve-car pileup on the 405, so soundly jammed that not a single vespa-riding beach brunette can make it through.

Heat stifles me. I toss aside my covers, only to recover them momentarily when I miss the comfort. Because here, in this place, comfort is the only thing I have left.

I am awake.

It feels… anxious. Like I am a child waiting for Christmas morning to come. I wiggle my toes to make sure they are still there. I turn to one side, then another, let fluid gurgle down from one nostril to the other in acquiescence to gravity.

As if I am waiting for something. My brain is not whirring, but neither does it shut off. It just is. It considers the things around it. The fan my roommate does not like. The ever-so-slightly-sticky quality of the sheets I ought to wash. The sheen of fever sweat on my brow.

Chills I know. Chills I love, strangely. Wrapping myself in as many blankets as I can, curling up like a dog at the fireside, letting myself succumb to the tremors that toss my ship and rattle my sails…

I wish I had them now. I wish I had something keeping me up. Instead, nothing keeps me up.

I am awake.

I am warm. I can feel the heat coming from my body. But my skin is all the same. When I touch my hand to my head, it feels normal.

When I stand, I sway as though I am below deck. The wall steadies me as I make my way into the bathroom, swallow some tepid water. I collapse onto the toilet and piss sideways into the top of the bowl, so the liquid will make no sound as it trickles into the water below. I’ll flush it tomorrow morning.

Another few tottering steps towards my blissful roommates. One lets out a sort of half-snore. It reminds me of a question. A bear pawing the ground, confused.

My bed protests my weight. I run my slightly sweaty hands through my slightly sweaty hair. I press on my eyes, harder, wishing the pain to go away. It doesn’t.

Back to laying down, clutching my pillow in both arms like a drowning man on the ocean. Back to the snuffles, and the rasping, and the constant alertness. Back to the black-colored bruises hanging in the air around me, watching me.

I am awake.

 

Streed of Consciousness [Part 11 – Mental Illness]

(Reed’s Song of the Day – Dancing with Myself, by Billy Idol)

In keeping with my previous stream-of-consciousness posts, I’m going to try to keep this one as off-topic and meandering as possible. Hopefully I arrive at a point somewhere along the line.

I was talking to a coworker and friend today about mental illness and how it affects a person’s loved ones. It stemmed from a much longer conversation I’ve been having with myself about what I as a person can do to support those around me with various mental illnesses.

I see a lot of problems in the way we all handle mental illness today. We’ve made a lot of progress in removing certain types of stigma against those who suffer, but sometimes it feels like that’s only given power to other, more insidious stereotypes and assumptions. Like, now I’m not hearing so much that people just need to “get over it”, and I don’t see as much straight-up denial, but I’m still seeing people thinking that mental illness is something you just “get better” from.

As any recovering addict can tell you (and fun fact: neurologically, addiction is considered a mental illness), it’s not a “I am cured” kind of deal. You can be 30 years sober and still be an alcoholic, because a mental illness isn’t just something you come back from. It’s something you live with your entire life.

So that’s one thing I wish people wouldn’t think. It especially scares me when I’m talking to other family members and/or friends of the person with mental illness, and they tout how much “better” they are. “I really think they’ve moved past this,” is what I hear. It’s kind of like putting a person up on a pedestal and calling them perfect – it just puts so much pressure on them to be something they’re not. Eventually that pressure will cause them to crumble.

So the next time you’re thinking about asking a depressed person if they’re feeling better today, consider the pressure you might be putting on them to answer in a positive way instead of being real with you about their struggles.

It’s kind of sadly ironic, isn’t it? We want them to not suffer so badly that we unknowingly create pressure for them which increases their sense of isolation.

Aight, that’s point one. Point two is assuming that a mental illness is wholely due to [INSERT WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT HERE]. “Oh, it’s all my fault, I drove my husband to this.” “Ah, it’s just because they made some bad decisions. They’ll be fine as long as they clean up their act.” Or even more insidiously, “It’s just a brain thing, so if they get the right blend of pills and therapy, they’ll be fine.”

Let me just start off by saying this – mental illness is a complex, convoluted, tangled, snarled, Gordian Knot of an issue. It is neither entirely biologically nor socially derived. The factors that come into play when considering mental illness are as numerous and diverse as the factors that influence you in your own life choices and development.

Which means a “cure”, if it exists, is every bit as complex. It isn’t going to be a swallow-the-miracle-pill deal. Coping – truly coping – with a mental illness requires that everybody, from the sufferer to the support network, remains flexible, positive, and tolerant of setbacks. It requires trying a bunch of things and seeing what works. It requires being pissed off when nothing works. It requires not assuming that something is over with just because a person appears outwardly to be “healthy” again.

Mental illnesses are not caused by just one thing. They are not cured by just one thing. That’s all there is to it.

My last point is my most broad, and the one that makes me the most frustrated. It’s when people without mental illnesses assume that they can understand, on any level, what a person with a mental illness is going through. And I’m not talking about people who think that they know depression because they were sad for a year in high school; I feel like we all recognize the error there.

I’m talking about people who think that there’s a logical flow and order to the thoughts of a person with a reality-altering mental illness. I’m talking about people who treat a sufferer as though they’re a child, introducing a “reward and punishment” system to try to get them to make healthy decisions. I’m talking about people who try to apply rationality to a disorder that is inherently irrational.

“You know that’s not true, right?” is not a valid way to answer someone who tells you that they think everyone around them hates them. It’s not a valid way to answer someone who tells you they hear voices. It’s pretty much not a valid answer to anything in regards to a person with mental illness.

Or how about my personal favorite. “I’m going to punish you until you get back on your medication.” I can’t even honestly explain how much this saddens me. Taking the hard line with a person with mental illness assumes so much about them. That they can understand their actions or the consequences of them, that they can link the consequence you’re giving them with their actions….

I feel like I’m getting preachy. I’m probably even saying things my friends with mental illnesses would disagree with. I’m not an expert; I’m just a frustrated guy who wants to help the people around him as best he can. And sometimes that means getting everyone else on the same page.

Please, please. If you’re supporting someone with a mental illness, do me just one favor. Heed just one piece of advice.

Don’t assume anything about them.

Don’t assume they understand you or your intentions. Don’t assume they don’t understand you or your intentions. Don’t assume they’re “doing badly” or “doing well” based on their outward affect. Don’t assume that pills and therapy is the answer, but don’t rule it out, either. Don’t try to apply rules to them as though they were children. Don’t kick them out to thrash around in the deep waters like they’re an adult. Don’t assume they’re doing any of what they’re doing to hurt you personally.

Instead, talk to them. Tell them you’re trying your best to understand what they’re going through – and even though you will never truly be able to understand it, you’re going to learn how to help them cope. Tell them you love them, all the time, as often as you possibly can. Tell them you want to be their support system. Tell them you’re going to try, however much you can, to ease their burden.

There will be times when you can’t deal with it anymore and you need to withdraw. Don’t give yourself any grief over that; it’s a lot to deal with. Let some other part of the sufferer’s support system come in to help. Take your time to replenish your own mental health.

But do not go into a caretaker position with anger in your heart, or blame, or hatred (for yourself or for the sufferer). If you can’t come at it from a place of love, you shouldn’t be trying to support them right now.

I’m sorry, I guess this ran long. There’s a lot here to unpack, and honestly I feel like an asshat for even assuming I know enough about mental illness to write a post like this. I just think there is so much we have left to understand, and if I can help in any way by offering my thoughts and advice, I should do it. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone.

And in case you’re reading this and thinking I’m talking about you specifically, I’m not. Friends and family members are the basis for this post, but I’m not targeting any one specific person. The truth is, we are all (myself included) not great at being support systems for our loved ones with mental illness. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for that. We should recognize the problem and start taking steps towards solving it.

Don’t assume. Listen with love.

Thank you, and have a wonderful night.

Yours,

-R.R. Buck