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On Mental Illness and Reading About Mental Illness

I am currently reading Folly by Laurie R King. It is about a mentally ill woman going to live on a private island, all by herself, to rebuild the house her great-uncle built years before.

I should note here the I adore Ms King’s writing.  I am a rabid fan of both her Beekeeper’s Apprentice series (a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes where he has retired to Sussex to raise bees and meets a young woman, Mary Russell, who becomes his apprentice) and her Kate Martinelli series (a series about a lesbian cop in San Francisco).  I have actually read the opening bits of Folly several times, as there have been excerpts of it at the end of other’s of Ms King’s work.  I have always avoided it, however.  I wasn’t ready to read about a mentally ill woman.  I guess now I was.  Also, I received $150 in vouchers between Christmas and my Birthday, and Ms King is hard to find here, as she is an American author, so I had a bit of a Laurie R King and Rita Mae Browne orgy with my vouchers!

Now, for the record, Rae, the protagonist, and I do not have exactly the same mental illness. She has hallucinations, which I never have had, and she’s tried to kill herself several times, which I have never done. But there are some similarities that make this a bit of a hard read for me.

Ms King’s descriptions of the way Rae feels, and thinks, could have been written by me. Descriptions of fog on the brain, of blackness surrounding everything.

There are two scenes so far, and I am about half way through the book, that hit me so hard I had to walk away from the book and read something stupid instead.

The first was when Rae was found, after her most recent mental break, curled up against a wall, shivering. Her daughter and grand-daughter walk into this, while Rae is surrounded by police officers. Rae sees her grand-daughter and starts whispering “I’m sorry.” over and over again.

I will never forget, and probably neither will Simon, the time I called him at oh so early in the morning Belfast time (I was still in California when this happened) and all I could say was “I’m sorry.” Over and over again. Sorry for waking you. Sorry that you have to hear/see this. Sorry that I’m sick. Sorry that I can’t be the way I am ‘suppose’ to be. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Even right now, it brings tears to my eyes. Even now, on occasion, that mantra goes through my head. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

The other scene that Ms King gets right on the money is one where Rae heads to the nearest populated island to do some shopping, make some phone calls and such.  Rae’s voyage from the dock to the newspaper office, where she is looking up the history of her little island and the fire that destroyed her great-uncle’s house, is so very realistic.  She stops in one shop for a bit, then literally forces herself out into the street, making it about half a street more before tucking herself into a coffee shop, near the back, against the wall, buying a sandwich and coffee she doesn’t want so she can stay where she feels safe for the moment.  Her feeling of inner triumph when she goes the rest of the way to the newspaper’s offices without pause after that is so very real.

I do that, when I’m shopping alone.  Stop into shops I have no interest in, if I see they aren’t crowded, to anchor myself for the next bit of crowd.  I also feel a bit of triumph when I make it without doing that.

I do not know if Ms King herself has a mental illness, but she writes it so well, I wouldn’t be surprised.  The book is, of course, about more than Rae’s illness.  It is actually a mystery and an intriguing one a that.  What really happened to her great-uncle?  And the even greater mystery of will Rae make it through without trying to kill herself again, out there on her island where it is a week between visits, so the likelihood of 59th minute of the 11th hour rescue is very slim.

As I said above I haven’t yet finished the book.  Bits of it are very hard going for me.  But I decided to write and post this before the end.  I’ll let you know if I make it through it and if there are any other parts that make me shudder with recognition of myself.

And do read any of Ms King’s work if you can find it.  She’s bloody brilliant.

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