Have you ever felt trapped or powerless over your own fate? Imagine being only seventeen, living your young life in and out of a psychiatric ward, all because your parents believe you are mentally ill. Unfortunately, so does the psychiatrist.
This is the story for our protagonist, Bray Hoffman, in the first chapter of the dystopian novel, Sentient.
When I began developing the character of Bray Hoffman, I knew from the very early stages of writing—nine years ago now—that Bray had a gift. That she was an animal empath. I did some research and came to discover that some of the traits of empaths could be-hypothetically-confused with the traits of schizophrenia. Bray’s traits include being able to hear the voices of animals in distress (a.k.a. auditory hallucinations), mild depression, fatigue (misinterpreted as low motivation).
For a reference on empaths, check out these YouTube videos:
Full disclosure moment: When I was doing this research, I was beginning to wonder if I was an empath as well. I could certainly relate to feeling sensitive to the emotions of others, being very intuitive, and the like. But now I realize it may be nuerodivergence. Who knows…maybe Bray is neurodivergent as well. If you’ve read the book, what are your thoughts?
But I digress.
The research for Bray’s schizophrenia diagnosis came largely from my social work background. I spent two years working with the severely mentally ill population circa 2014. I served clients with schizo-affective disorder, severe depression, and schizophrenia. I learned so much from these individuals, and even created some bonds with a few of them. And so this is how my own life has instructed my writing.
Bray’s experience is not conducive to the legitimate diagnosis of schizophrenia. We find in chapter one that she connects with a sow held captive in a factory farm (Alice), who is four days away from slaughter. Not only does she communicate with this sow, she experiences physical pain in her lower back the moment Alice is stabbed with an electric prod.
The elements of captivity were emphasized in this first chapter and throughout the book to attempt to show the experience of feeling trapped. Bray, in a psych ward and with parents who did not listen to her. Imagine how lonely that might feel. What it must be like for an animal to remain in captivity all its life, unable to move or experience nature. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of isolation within this dystopian society. Citizens are trapped, in a sense, in their own avoidance of reality, due to their own fears, and as readers will find, for reasons I will not speak of right now. You’ll just have to read the book.
But it’s all a kind of symbolism. A metaphor to reflect the views I have as an author of our society, if things continue down a certain path. How, throughout my own life I have felt trapped by body parts that were not congruent with my true identity as a transgender man. How capitalism can trap us in a cycle of productivity. The ways we can deny our own truths and our own nature, or others try to deny it by taking away certain rights, such as abortion or the right to gender-affirming care.
The disorientation Bray must’ve felt, being admitted again and again into a psychiatric ward, no one listening to her when she would tell them she was able to communicate with animals. An animal unable to live out its rightful nature, its life not considered, trapped until death in order to be used for food. Heck, many neurodivergent people I have spoken with express a sense of being trapped living in a world that is built for neurotypical people. Can you imagine?
What about you? Has there ever been a time you felt stuck in the wrong place, maybe a wrong relationship or a wrong house, city, or job? Are you neurodivergent? Trans or non-binary? Leave me a comment below! Let’s talk about it.
**DISCLAIMER: As a social worker and licensed therapist, I want to note that mental illness is REAL, and effects the lives of millions of Americans and their families each year.
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