In their own voice
Chico author sheds light on mental illness with e-novel, Letters from the Looney Bin
During her six years working at Butte County’s Department of Behavioral Health, Heidi Nalley met a lot of people with mental illnesses. She saw their torment as they dealt not only with their affliction but also the stigma that a psychiatric or psychological condition can carry.
“People who have depression and stuff can’t talk about it,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re one of those.’ It’s an embarrassment, and it shouldn’t be that way.
“They’re not their diagnosis—they’re people. It’s just something they have to live with.”
Hoping to demystify mental illness, and perhaps cast aside the stigma, Nalley wrote Letters from the Looney Bin. It’s an e-book that came out June 12 for Amazon Kindle, which she released under the pseudonym Thatcher C. Nalley. (Thatcher is her maiden name as well as a nickname people use for her; C is the first initial of her mother’s maiden name.)
The book took about seven years to write, predating her start at Behavioral Health. While she did not base the fictional book on experiences there, her work validated her writing.
Nalley is the first to say she’s not an expert. She is not a licensed therapist, or a clinician. She worked as an educator for Rape Crisis in Chico for a year, then for the Child Abuse Prevention Council, before joining Behavioral Health in the business office. She soon started handling intakes for the youth center and then for the crisis unit.
Nonetheless, to ensure she was on the right path, she ran her writing by clinician colleagues, including licensed therapist Steve Haws.
“My first impression was, ‘Wow, she really captured the essence of this,’” said Haws, who worked for Behavioral Health for 21 years before going into private practice in Roseville. “She really has nailed it. I think she’s done a really amazing job of getting inside the head of a patient, which a layperson may try to do but very seldom is accurate in any way.”
Nalley strove for authenticity without becoming too technical.
“My book isn’t a textbook,” she said. “I have family [members] who have bipolar disorders and depression disorders; I have friends, and I worked with amazing clinicians. I just got the people side of it, and I like having that.”
Nalley set her novel in the 1970s, in a mental institution. As the title implies, the book contains letters from patients there, letters that tell the story not only of the asylum but also of the people themselves.
A common thread connecting the characters is the impact of childhood on adulthood. That is one of the realizations she hopes to convey to readers.
“There are a lot of different dynamics behind behaviors that we don’t understand,” Nalley said. “Some people are born with mental illness; some develop it after severe abuse. The brain doesn’t develop, [there’s a] lack of nutrition, the body doesn’t develop, and socially you’re not developing—all because at one point there were these parents who did some type of abuse, because of some type of abuse they had. It’s a vicious cycle.
“From my experience and passion about child abuse, and wanting people to understand what happens when they become adults, I think this book was just meant to be.”
The “domino effect” of childhood abuse and adult mental illness is “a lightbulb I wanted to share with the world,” Nalley said. She came up with her book’s title a year before joining Behavioral Health, then spent years honing the letters.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “I had 12 different [characters] who’ve gone through some pretty hellacious stuff, and I had to embrace that. It was exhausting. It was emotionally draining at times, just taking on their stuff, but I couldn’t tell their story without being their story.
“I did each one individually—I took each one, one at a time, and completely submersed myself in that character. It was almost like 12 different books at that point.”
Nalley went on a hiatus in 2009 after getting diagnosed with breast cancer. Two and a half years later, she resumed writing Letters from the Looney Bin and began shopping it around to literary agents.
None accepted her work, so she decided to release the book on her own electronically. It’s actually the third book she’s released this way—she’s also written The Lunatic Memoirs and Scorched: A Wicked Collection of Wise Tales.
With Letters, Nalley hopes to reach readers through their hearts as well as their heads.
“There are a lot of groups that do go around and in a factual way present this kind of stuff,” she said. “So I feel that’s already out there; that’s not an avenue I needed to take. I feel like I can be another way to help with that, rather than adding to what’s already there.
“I’m hoping that readers will see it at that level. Maybe not; maybe they’ll just read it as fiction and move on. But maybe they’ll read it and the next time they encounter somebody who has depression or any of the other issues I have going on [in the book], they’ll stop and think and be more empathetic to that person instead of turning away from them.
“If I can do that with just one person, then I’ve done a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment.”