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The Mental Instability Scale: Mentally Unstable or Just Not Perfect?

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Last week I was discussing a comment in a review that made me realise I perhaps hadn’t been as clear as I wanted concerning the dynamics of some of the relationships in Chasing Azrael. Today I want to further comment on that same review.

Last week I was in complete agreement with the reviewer.

This week…not so much.

The author does an amazing job of capturing psychotic mental health problems and then ruins it by making almost all the characters mentally unstable.

As criticisms go it’s perfectly fair and understandable, and as mentioned last week, even if I didn’t find it reasonable, I still wouldn’t mind – to each their own.

I understand the perception the comment in question, and it’s one shared by many. I feel the need to comment, not because I disagree, but because it’s a fundamental misconception shared by so many.

Chasing Azrael by Hazel Butler Urban Fantasy Fantasy PhotographyOne of the things I wanted to do with the Deathly Insanity series was raise awareness of mental health issues. With Chasing Azrael I was very overt in this. I’ve taken a slightly more subtle approach with Death Become Me, but the theme is still there.

While I am extremely glad to hear my portrayal of mental illness was successful, I do find the later part of this statement…irksome. Not because I mind the reviewer pointing out the difficulty with having numerous mentally unstable characters in a single novel, but because of the perception that ‘almost all’ the characters in the book are ‘mentally unstable’.

This doesn’t bothers me as a criticism of my work. It bothers me because it’s a misconception.

It is a misconception concerning what is and is not mental illness and mental instability, and it’s shared by many.

There is a difference between having a mental illness and being mentally unstable.

There is also a difference between having issues, and having a mental illness.

For the sake of simplicity I will give you a brief rundown of the main characters in the novel so we can discuss the point being made here. Before reading further, this is rather obvious, but needs saying anyway:


Andee – narrator, archaeologist, goth, depressed, and borderline suicidal following the death of her husband.

James – Andee’s husband, now deceased, appears as a ghost throughout the novel. Bipolar in life, died when he comitted suicide, serious anger/jealousy issues.

Lily – Andee’s best friend. Surprisingly stable considering her family history and personal life.

Josh – James’s best friend and Andee’s love interest throughout the novel. Angry womaniser and general chauvanist.

Robert – detective, perfectly well adjusted aside from a slight issue with alcohol, that is fully under control by the time of the novel.

Natalya – Josh’s girlfriend at the start of the novel, and the main antagonist throughout. Suffered a single psychotic break precipitated by numerous miscarriages, the breakup of her marriage, and her husband getting his mistress pregnant. In life she kills once, in the midst of a psychotic break, and runs. In death, her spirit is overcome by an angry and vengeful force called a Rusalka. Under its thrall she kills several more times.

Natalya’s Husband – Nasty, selfish arse hole, revenge killer.

The Mental Instability Scale - Mental Illness, Mental Instability, Mental Health in Fiction

The Problem

I can understand the complaint that all of these characters being mentally unstable strains credibility. There aren’t that many characters at work here and they all have issues. If they actually were all mentally unstable I would agree, it’s a little much. Unless your book is set it a ward for the mentally ill, everyone showing signs of mental instability is unrealistic, and even if your novel is set in such a place, there would still be ‘normal’ people. Doctors, nurses, family and friends of the patients.

The fundamental point here is that we must be very careful not to confuse bad people, and people who have understandable hang ups, with people who have mental illnesses and genuinely are mentally unstable. It is further imperative that we do not assume that simply because someone has a mental illness they are mentally unstable.

I would like to point out that the reviewer probably didn’t over-think this as much as I’m doing. Please don’t take this as a direct retort to this one review. It’s not at all. The reviewer’s comment simply made me think, and realise how many people are unable to distinguish between arse holes, damaged souls, mentally ill individuals, and people who are psychotic and/or mentally unstable.

Lets take the character in Chasing Azrael. How many actually are mentally unstable during the novel itself?

There is no question that when James committed suicide he was unstable. James’s bipolar resulted in regular phases of depression, and he had a history of suicide attempts. This eventually led to his death. HOWEVER the thing you really have to understand about James is that he wasn’t just bipolar, he was also an unmitigated jack ass.

Not because he had a mental illness.

That was just his personality,

After his death his actions are questionable to say the least. But these actions are not driven by mental instability. They aren’t even driven by mental illness. Bipolar is a disease of the brain. Released from his physical body, James’s bipolar is gone. Everything he does after his death he does because of his obsession with Andee and his genuine belief that she wants to be with him, in death.

When he realises he’s wrong, he does everything he can to make up for his mistake.

If he had continued to believe he was right, even after she told him point blank he was wrong, if he were delusional, rather than simply mistaken, we could call this mental instability.

He’s not delusional, he’s just arrogant and a little self-obsessed. It never occurs to him she wouldn’t want to be with him until she tells him.

Once he realises the truth, he hates himself for it.

So, while he had a mental illness in life and undoubtedly had periods of mental instability, these were over two years before the book began.

And Andee? At the start of the novel she’s borderline suicidal, but as the book progresses we find she never truly wished to kill herself. She’s depressed, yes, but her husband died, and their relationship was a tumultuous one at best. She’s not only dealing with his loss, but the realisation their relationship was never what she believed it to be.

Wouldn’t anyone be depressed?

Andee has a history of depression but she also has a history of bereavement. When her parents died their death drove her into depression. She had recently embarked on a relationship with James and he understood how she felt. She believed he had depression, not bipolar, and was drawn to him precisely because they shared this illness.

This is often the case with people who have mental illnesses – we are drawn to each other, either as friends or lovers, because there is a level of understanding that is simply absent in people who have never experienced what we have been through.

Which brings me to the other comment in the review that is, sadly, another misconception:

There aren’t that many unstable people in the world and all of them hanging out together stretches credibility.

I hate to break this to you, but there ARE that many people in the world with mental illness, and we actually DO hang out together.

Because we understand each other.

1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness.

In the UK that’s 1 in 4.

Not one in four people over the course of their lives, but one in four every year.

So, we’ve established that both Andee and James have mental illnesses and can be considered to have been mentally unstable on occasion, but what about the rest?

Natalya is the obvious choice. But while she suffered from a psychotic break, this happened before the novel and was an isolated incident. It wasn’t a symptom of an ongoing mental illness, but the culmination of a series of extremely traumatic events. We don’t know how it would have progressed, but we do know she made it from Russia to a new life in Wales where she started trying to build a new life, and was stable enough that Lily made friends with her and didn’t sense anything off.

The confusion with Natalya is that she becomes a serial killer. BUT with the exception of the first woman she killed, the rest occur after she’s dead. Andee herself notices that Natalya’s ghost is entirely distinct from the Rusalka, the malevolent spirit responsible for the other deaths.

Their deaths are supernatural, not the result of mental instability.

And Nalaya’s husband? He killed her, but he’s neither ill nor unstable. That was a revenge killing, plain and simple. As the world-wide crime rate clearly indicates, you don’t need to be mentally ill or unstable to kill.

You don’t have to be mad to be a killer.

The Mental Instability Scale - Mental Illness, Mental Instability, Mental Health in Fiction

That leaves us with Josh, Lily, and Robert. There’s absolutely no argument to be made for either Lily or Robert being ill or unstable. They have history, they each have a past, but who doesn’t?

And Josh?

I believe I mentioned this last week but it bears reiteration.

Josh is not a nice guy.

It is easy to find him attractive because he is a) good looking, b) a bit of charmer, c) intelligent, and d) hides the fact he’s a twat remarkably well. But I didn’t write Josh to be the good guy, the nice guy.

I didn’t write him to be a knight in shining armour.

He’s not Andee’s saviour or soul mate. Her attraction to him is symptomatic of her attraction to bad boys, to people as damaged as she is, to relationships that keep her in the anxious, depressed state she’s known most of her life.

As unpleasant as anxiety and depression are, they are also oddly addictive. If you’ve seldom known anything else in your life, being happy is terrifying.

You don’t know how to deal with it. You don’t understand it. As a result, you often seek to perpetuate the cycles that keep you anxious and depressed. Not because you enjoy being that way, but because on some level you think you deserve to be that way, and you don’t know how to function any other way.

Josh has anger issues, he has jealousy issues, he cares about money far too much and his treatment of women – even the ones he professes to love – is appalling.

I used to live with a guy just like Josh. In fact, I wrote the novel while I was engaged to this man. They have a lot in common, and this is not a coincidence.

He wasn’t mentally ill, or mentally unstable.

He was just a jack ass.

Some people are.

Some people are just really not that nice. Add to this the fact that Josh is under the influence of the same Rusalka that has taken over Natalya, and you begin to see that the majority of what has been interpreted as ‘mental instability’ is not mental instability at all.

There are three characters in the novel who have, at various points in their lives, had mental illness and/or mental instability. Of these three, only Andee is currently suffering from illness and instability during the course of the novel.

There is supernatural influence that causes a lot of events.

And then there are people, who aren’t mentally ill, or unstable, they simple have issues.

Everyone knows at least one person with a really bad temper.

Everyone knows at least one person who had a breakup so bad they’re a little broken.

Everyone knows people who are obsessive, anxious, pick the wrong men, treat women badly, suffer from stress, OCD, PTSD, depression and yes, even attempt or commit suicide.

Some people are mentally ill.

Some are mentally unstable.

Most are perfectly sane people.

You get nice people and unpleasant people. You get weird people and dull people. You get people who are out right wankers. But they are still, one and all, just people.

When considering whether a person might be mentally ill or mentally unstable, I would urge you to consider the alternative:

They’re just not perfect.

And really, who is?

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Published inCharactersCharacter DevelopmentCharacter AnalysisBipolar Disorder
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