Mental Illness in Steampunk

This article was set to be published in a Steampunk magazine back in 2014, but alas, the lost funding before the issue was released. I wrote it back in 2013 and rediscovered it during some housecleaning. It fits with Mental Health Awareness Month. I hope you find it interesting.

Mental illness. The words alone conjure up images of straight jackets and padded rooms. Lost souls who wander around muttering nonsensical things to themselves. The dreaded Bedlam. In the realm of Steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction, we think of mad scientists. Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Horrible. In real life, we avoid the mentally ill at all costs, dismissing a traumatized woman as “crazy” or “hysterical,” and therefore a liar. Not to be trusted. We scoff at the show of “negative” emotion and flippantly ask if people are “off their meds.” If someone shows a socially unacceptable display of anger or grief or emotion, we write them off as “unstable” and distance ourselves, putting up protective walls between us and the dangerous, crazy people. 

At Aetherfest 2012, Jaymee Goh, JoSelle Vanderhooft, and I hosted a panel on mental illness in Steampunk. It was the most well-attended panel I had ever done. Seriously, standing room only. What started with the intention of covering Steampunk tropes, like the mad scientist, quickly turned into a beautiful sharing session of what it was like living with the social stigma of mental illness. The three of us all live with some form of mental illness, and several members of the audience also came forward to share their stories. Those in the audience that did not live with mental illness, or weren’t comfortable sharing that they, too, struggled with mental illness, learned a great deal. Unlike the fear that comes with telling a friend or lover or coworker or boss that you suffer one of the invisible disorders, in that room on that day I watched a supportive community express compassion and empathy. Some felt less alone; others had their eyes opened and stereotypes demolished.

The most shocking thing happened after the panel. As people filed out and formed their own groups to share stories and embrace one another, a grey-haired man approached me and asked me what my credentials were for discussing mental illness in public. I was flabbergasted at the question and said, “Living with it for forty years and doing extensive research on different forms of mental illness for not only my fiction but also for personal growth.”

This man, who was a psychologist of some sort, said that it was extremely dangerous for us to discuss mental illness in public. We were opening a huge can of worms, he said, one we would not be able to contain. I replied with my head held high, perhaps for the first time in my 40-plus years not ashamed of struggling with mental illness, “What I saw was a community coming together and supporting those of us who live with mental illness. A community where it was safe enough for some people to speak out for the first time.”

Although, I’m not sure why I was so shocked, as the psychologist’s reaction reflects the cultural stigma, held even by (maybe especially by) mental health professionals, that mental illness should be something of which to be ashamed and hidden away, and, of course, extremely dangerous. In every instance. Period. 

This is perpetuated in every single television show and film that comes to mind. Although, I’m finding more are leaning away from the social stereotypes, with films such as the Silver Linings Playbook (although not perfect, definitely a step away from portraying people with mental illness as unstable, violent criminals), and even current episodes of Castle where the murder suspect is always “crazy” or “mentally disturbed.” However, I’m pleased to see, that the “crazy” or “disturbed” person usually turns out to be truthful and innocent, despite the amount of “meds” they take and “history of mental illness” on their record. The actual murderer is the “stand-up member of society,” usually someone who is quite sane (by society’s standards), like the greedy, entitled attorney desperate to get the $500 million of his inheritance all to himself.

What isn’t clear is that the attorney is just as mentally ill as the woman who struggles with bipolar disorder. The attorney is a sociopathic narcissist, far more dangerous to others than someone who suffers from bipolar, depression, or even schizophrenia, in most cases. The only difference between the sociopath and the person suffering from bipolar disorder is public perception, especially in this capitalistic culture where we must WIN WIN WIN and “be positive” all the time. Where we value physical beauty and level of financial status more than we do attributes like kindness and loyalty and even intelligence. In a society like ours, the sociopath is the hero. Incapable of empathy and ruthless in his rise to “the top.” 

We live in a world where “normal” people are afraid of those with mental illness. Whereas they might’ve had a horrible experience with someone diagnosed with Bipolar I or Borderline Personality Disorder or Clinical Depression, suddenly everyone who carries the same label lose all individuality and are defined solely by their pathologized label. One of the many problems with this kind of bigotry is that diagnoses are often wrong.

Psychiatrists are in the business of prescribing drugs, so they lump their patient into the closest-fitting box. Someone with most of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, will be labelled with BPD, one of the most stigmatized personality disorders. So stigmatized, in fact, many doctors won’t even treat someone labelled BPD. Another doctor might look at another group of symptoms and say Bipolar NED (Not Elsewhere Defined, formerly know as bipolar NOS, not otherwise specified), which means that you’re kinda bipolar but not really bipolar, but here…take this stigmatized label anyway.

Mental illness, as much of a stigma it has today, has actually made great strides in the past 150-200 years. In the Victorian Era, and especially before, the mentally ill were treated as a side-show attraction. In the 17th century, Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital) was something straight out of a horror novel. Deplorable conditions with patients kept chained to their beds or kept in cages. Punishments like the “rotating chair” and other horrific “treatments” exacerbated the patients’ symptoms and caused further trauma. Although my young adult Steampunk book The Zombies of Mesmer takes place in 1880, the image of Bedlam is much more like this. My villain: a mad psychiatrist, insane with his own genius and hunger for power that used mind control implemented by a steam-powered machine to form a mesmerized army. In Avalon Revampedthe sequel to Avalon Revisitedanti-hero Arthur Tudor threatens Avalon with a stint in Bedlam due to hysteria, a catch-all illness mostly used to keep women in their place. Hysteria covered everything from PMS symptoms to postpartum depression to sexual desire or frustration to having far too many independent thoughts. 

There are of course mad-scientists in Steampunk literature and film (or mad-psychiatrists, as it were), but there are many other forms of mental illness in both the protagonist and antagonist roles, and everywhere in between. The mad-scientist, usually a genius drunk on power and control, who generally doesn’t fit into society due to his great intellect. He also believes he is better than everyone else. He knows the best way to rule the world and, furthermore, he deserves to rule the world; i.e. a grandiose sense of self. Similar pathological arrogance is shown in characters like Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, both fictionalizations of sociopathic narcissists. Even my depiction of vampire Arthur Tudor in the Avalon books is a fictionalization of a sociopathic narcissist. In the first book, he gets carried away during an erotic seduction and kills his lover, but it doesn’t phase him. He goes off and dances the night away. Such is his life until he meets Avalon, who fulfills both the Narcissist’s need for “perfect love” and society’s delusion that the love of the right woman will cure any ill; that is, until the sequel Avalon Revamped. Here Arthur shows both the sociopathic narcissist’s convincing mask and the terrifying emptiness beneath. True to someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), he puts Avalon on a pedestal one moment and then tears her down the next, devaluing her completely. This phenomenon is called splitting. The victim of the Narcissist is left confused and often shattered at this Jekyll/Hyde-type behavior.

Like my Arthur Tudor and Ashe Tanner (The Ghosts of Southwark), vampires in modern fiction are little more than romanticized, fictionalized sociopathic narcissists, and some would even say rapists (or pedophiles, as in the case of teen romances with 16 or 17 year-old girls engaged in romantic or sexual relationships with 150 year-old vampires) who forcibly penetrate their victims in an eroticized embrace. The vampire is charming and beautiful, and also soulless: devoid of empathy and filled with a grandiose sense of self, the very definition a sociopath. Somehow, as a culture and fandom, we overlook the dangerous pathology of the vampire because it’s sexy crazy, not uncomfortable, emotional crazy. 

Sherlock Holmes, another mentally ill character, as well as one who struggles with addiction, is a hero to many generations. Each reincarnation of Holmes comes closer to showing the true pathology behind the genius, behind the legend. Although readers don’t think of Sherlock Holmes as “mentally ill,” he suffers quite significantly from mental illness. Modern portrayals of Sherlock Holmes truly emphasize his struggle with it. In the BBC’s series Sherlock, he’s a “high functioning sociopath,” according to Holmes, himself. Not a likable guy. Not someone I want to be friends with or even know, really. He’s highly abusive to Watson in that series to the point I wonder why Watson puts up with it. Watson’s tolerance for such abuse shows his own struggle with PTSD from the war and how it has fundamentally changed him. He’s alone in the way he now views the world and feels useless, until Sherlock comes along. 

Guy Richie’s films (with Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes) also portrays a man who struggles with mental illness, but Richie’s Holmes is no sociopath. His Holmes is more along the lines of someone with Asperger syndrome and a deep social anxiety. There are also symptoms of a form of bipolar disorder, with the racing thoughts and inherent need to be distracted, to have a problem to solve. Moriarty, Sherlock’s archenemy, is also mentally ill. In A Game of Shadows Sherlock psychoanalyzes his foe and comes to the conclusion that “there’s suggestion of acute narcissism, a complete lack of empathy, and a pronounced inclination toward moral insanity.” Even Sherlock himself displays signs of narcissism, but his are much more out of the necessity to find meaning in his life. He’s brilliant. He knows it. He knows it alienates people, but he still can’t help but be his genuine self. It’s as if all his filters are broken and he spills out with every utterance, much to his own horror. This is exactly what makes him unable to form relationships. In the first film, the scene in the restaurant with Watson and Mary says it all. Downey, Jr. deserves and Oscar for those few moments on screen. All at once, as soon as Mary throws her drink in his face for doing exactly what she asked of him, to read her and use his powers of deduction, the expression on Sherlock’s face and humiliation in his eyes betrays the lonely, confused man inside the genius. Here is a man who performs his intellectual tricks, as it’s the only way he’s beneficial to society, but it’s also the very thing that keeps him alone. Outcast and ostracized. 

In CBS’s Elementary, we also have a quite mentally ill Holmes. He’s not like everyone else, but he, like Holmes in every portrayal, has found a way to use his genius and mental illness to his, and society’s, benefit. Still, he knows that he cannot engage in any real intimate relationship due to his illness, as shown in this quote, “I’ve lived most of my life with the firm conviction that romantic love is a delusion. It’s a futile hedge against the existential terror that is our own singularity.” He goes on to say that he feels “liberated” being in the state of “post-love,” and is now free to “pursue a life of meaning.” This quote gives great insight into a character whose worldview is so different from “normal” people that he feels utterly alone and utterly hopeless at ever finding a real connection. He cannot understand others, although he convinces himself that he understands them all too perfectly, thus keeping his distance from everyone.

When looking at protagonists with mental illness, we have a tendency to use far less stigmatizing words, like calling it “their struggle” or “darkness” or some other noble-sounding euphemism for mental illness. Funny how we have a tendency to call rich, charming people or likable characters “eccentric” rather than “crazy.” Stigmatized words like “crazy,” “unstable,” and “mentally disturbed” are reserved for the antagonist, an unlikeable character, or the stereotypical over-emotional woman; i. e. the crazy ex-girlfriend or vindictive bitch, sexist stereotypes that perpetuate these horrific statistics: those who suffer with mental illness are two-to-four times more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence, including sexual assault and rape. Afterward, they are rarely believed when speaking out about their assault, which further traumatizes the survivor and exacerbates her mental illness.

The bottom line is that our society is uncomfortable with mental illness, and therefore they are afraid of it. If a character or person is liked or respected or handsome, culture reduces their mental illness to a quirk or eccentricity. As long as the person in question is charming, rich, successful, and/or makes others laugh, they’re not seen as “mentally ill.” However, if someone cries or has a panic attack or finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning or is drowning after a traumatic event, they’re crazy. Unhinged. Dangerous. 

Society finds it easier to dismiss mental illness or demonize it rather than learn to cope with it, which is rather unfortunate for the millions who suffer from some type of mental illness. From depression to generalized anxiety disorder, personality disorders, the various manifestations of bipolar disorder, and more, mentally ill people are all around us whether you choose to acknowledge them or not, to empathize or sympathize with them or not. Until you do, the cycle continues. 

Some mental health professionals are starting to truly understand the deep connection between mental illness and abuse. They’re beginning to realize that many of these mental illnesses are caused by (or at least exacerbated by) traumatizing abuse in childhood and throughout life. Developmental trauma, by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, causes the nervous system to develop in a different way in order for the person to survive. Unfortunately for the adult, those survival skills often no longer apply, so they’re left with a hyper-sensitive, or alternatively, diminished emotional response due to the abuse suffered in childhood and often throughout their life, since that is the way they learned, before they could even talk, that interpersonal relationships look. Symptoms of certain personality disorders, which all have been significantly altered or even omitted in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Published May 2013.), are virtually indistinguishable to symptoms of Complex PTSD. Borderline personality disorder, one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses, characterized by self-injury and a fragile sense of self, is one of these. C-PTSD is a psychiatric injury that has been created by neglect, abuse, and other repeated or habitual traumatic events. In the new DSM-5, there is a new section titles “Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders” that illustrates this evolving understanding.

The relative anonymity of the internet has given voice to many suffering from mental illness, making others who suffer from these silent diseases feel less alone, less “crazy.” One of the few benefits of social networking are the memes respectfully making light of crippling anxiety or dark depression. I’ve met several colleagues who struggle with bipolar disorder in one form or another, and they are open about what works for them. Organizations like To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) lessen the stigma of mental illness and suicidal behavior through education and support every day, making so many teens and adults feel heard and seen and loved. The days of hiding mental illness away in the closet are coming to an end because we’re finally talking about it. However, erasing the cultural stigma still has a long, long way to go.

That starts with you.

Just think if we treated people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or other form of physical illness the way we treat people with some form of mental illness. Can you imagine telling someone with cancer to just “get over it?” How about telling someone with diabetes that they can just choose to process insulin properly? Yes, even in 2013, I had a medical doctor tell me just last month that I could choose to not be depressed. I could choose to not worry so much or get triggered by reminders of the rape, because, you know, “there’s always a choice.” 

Embracing someone who suffers with mental illness is terrifying. I understand. It’s, if only for a few moments, entering into someone else’s hell. It’s the willingness to feel anger and sadness and despair. It’s admitting you are helpless to do anything about it. You can’t change it. You can’t stop it, but you can be there. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. Validation. Acceptance. Love. Just to be there with them in hell for a moment, then you can both emerge from hell together, closer for having shared the experience.

Just as the Steampunk community showed support for its members during the 2012 panel at Aetherfest, we can extend that compassion and understanding in every aspect of our lives, both personally and professionally. The more you are able to embrace your family members, friends, and co-workers who suffer from these invisible diseases, the more we, as a society, will be able to help not only minimize the stigma around mental illness, but we will also start to end the suffering for those we love. 

Leave a Reply