“This Is How You Disappear” appears in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Forewarning: it is not a happy piece. Tangent Online describes it as “frightfully depressing” while Locus reviewer Lois Tilton goes a step further, calling it “one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read.”
Under some circumstances, this would be disconcerting to say the least. In these circumstances—maybe not so much. Writers are constantly being asked where they get their ideas. I’ve heard some pretty funny answers. Neil Gaiman has said “From the Idea-of-the-Month Club” and “a little shop in Bognor Regis.” Harlan Ellison famously said, “Poughkeepsie.” Such answers—however flip they may be (and they’re plenty flip)—have at least the virtue of getting at the essential mystery of the writing process. Who can say where ideas come from? They just come, often without provenance or explanation. Yet occasionally, when a writer gets a more specific question—“Where did you get the idea for [insert particular story title here]?”—the genesis of the story can be readily traced. My story “In Green’s Dominion” was triggered by reading Andrew Marvell’s seventeenth century poem “To His Coy Mistress,” which includes the famous lines “My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.” My story “Touched” grows out of the old Appalachian superstition that those with mental disabilities—those who are “touched”—are compensated with some kind of supernatural ability (in this case to raise the dead). Which brings me back to “This Is How You Disappear.”
Usually I might take “frightfully depressing” and “one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read” as negative reviews—but in this case those lines get right at the heart of the matter: depression. As I’ve mentioned previously, if only briefly, in this space, I suffer from Bipolar disorder—specifically Bipolar I, the more extreme of the two types. As the name implies, the disease involves dramatic mood swings. There are periods of mania, marked by impulsiveness, sleeplessness, disordered thoughts, and risky behavior, among other things; and there are periods of profound clinical depression, sometimes (as in my case) accompanied by suicidal thoughts. When these episodes recede—when you wake to your normal “self,” if you’re fortunate enough to survive—you often find yourself standing amid the wreckage of your former life.
Medication helps—in my case, medication has helped a lot—but it can’t undo the wreckage. And it raises disturbing questions about identity: if your sense of selfhood is the product of chemicals in your brain, and if that sense of selfhood can be dramatically altered by the use of pharmaceuticals, how do you draw the line between you and the disease? If the disease is you, who are you without it? Indeed, are you anyone at all—does the self even exist, or is it merely a grand illusion? From the outside these questions may seem trivial: what does it matter as long as you feel better and you’re not wrecking your life and the lives of those you most love? From the inside, in my case anyway, they are crucial questions—and perhaps (probably) unanswerable ones.
But the story, in any case, was intended to get at these central issues: at the way mental illness (and enough with the stigma already) wrecks lives, alienates you from your family and friends, alienates you even from yourself. Is it depressing? You bet. Was it intended to be? Of course: how else to evoke the experience of mental illness than by plunging the reader into the middle of it? And of course, the most crucial—the most terrifying—question of all: Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes you live them.