Ideal Heroes: Mental Illness in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive

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When you hear the word “hero”, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Someone big and strong and confident and perfect? Well, in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novels, the heroes aren’t quite what you’d expect.

In the following conversation, Sanderson beta readers Paige Vest and Ross Newberry take an in-depth look at these less-than-ideal heroes and how reading about their exploits has inspired more than one “broken” person to keep up their own fight. Please be aware that this article includes frank and deeply personal discussion of mental illness and touches on depression, anxiety, trauma, suicidal ideations, and self-harm, in terms of both fiction and personal experience—addressed with the intention of illuminating the experiences of the characters and the perspective of readers who see their own struggles reflected in the series.

Before Paige and I get started, we want to point out that neither of us is a mental health professional. The content of this article contains very personal anecdotal observations, and should not be construed as medical advice. If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others, it’s not enough to rely only on epic fantasy or any other fiction, no matter how good it is. Get help from people who are trained to assist you. In the United States, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or chat by visiting the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat.

This article also contains spoilers for all publicly released material in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer, and Oathbringer). You’ve been warned.

Ross: If I were asked to condense the overall theme of Brandon Sanderson’s ongoing Stormlight Archive epic fantasy series to a single thought, it would be: broken people save the world. Brandon has rightly received praise for creating this story centered around a cast of characters for whom mental illness or neurodivergence is not merely a hurdle to overcome, but a critical part of what makes them unique individuals, and also the key which unlocks their access to magic.

Whether working on a single sentence, a chapter, or a whole book, a good writer will always try to accomplish more than one thing at a time with their words, and Brandon is an excellent writer. In addition to serving as an engaging narrative, his fiction also gives representation to non-neurotypical people, who are often underserved as heroic or pivotal characters. But even beyond that, my introspection and contemplation of the books over the past several months has revealed a third major facet of Brandon’s writing. He’s giving his readers who live with mental illness a toolbox filled with ways to recontextualize their experiences, and to cope with the reality of their existence. This article was written during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and seemed an ideal time to shine a spotlight on the topic. But of course, there’s no wrong time to discuss these important issues, which so often go unremarked upon and unexplored.

All of this was brought to light by a series of deep conversations with friend, fellow Sanderson beta-reader, author, and Windrunner of the Third Ideal, Paige Vest. She will do a much better job of explaining the reasons leading up to this realization than I would, so I’ll shut up for a minute and let her have the soapbox.

How about it, Paige? How did we end up this far down the rabbit hole?

Paige: I think doing the beta read for Oathbringer made us look at the story in such depth that we are actually living (or trying to live, in my case) the Ideals. That’s what’s great about this series; you visit Roshar enough and you start carrying it around inside of you.

So…when I first read The Way of Kings in 2010, I was utterly blown away. The character of Kaladin Stormblessed resonated with me on a level I was unable to fully comprehend for years; I only knew that I understood him. Words of Radiance was even more spectacular, if only because this reluctant, broken hero inspired me as much as he inspired the members of Bridge Four, and even Adolin, Dalinar, and Elhokar.

Then came Shallan’s first forays into being someone else, wearing a different face…and oh my Harmony, did her POVs hit me in the gut. I’ve never been professionally diagnosed with a personality disorder, but on a couple of occasions during my sporadic therapy, there has been mention of Borderline Personality Disorder. I tend to believe (but again, not a mental health professional!) that what may mimic BPD is, in actuality, an extreme manifestation of my two confirmed diagnoses of bipolar disorder and chronic anxiety, which came about a year before the release of Words of Radiance.

Lift’s resolve in Edgedancer to remember the forgotten and listen to the ignored were selfless and noble sentiments which touched a place in me that I didn’t quite realize needed soothing. That starving little novella provided me with one of my favorite literary characters because she would remember me, she would listen to me.

The Oathbringer beta read in early 2017 was two months of sheer, heart-shredding emotion. I felt Kaladin’s pain and helplessness, struggled along with Shallan to figure out who I was and which mask I should show the world, and hated Young!Dalinar’s cold and dismissive brutality even as I understood Old!Dalinar’s shame, self-loathing, and need for forgiveness.

As I’ve learned more about my illnesses, I’ve come to realize that The Stormlight Archive touches me so deeply because it features people like me who, for lack of a better descriptor, are broken in some way. They are less than ideal as epic fantasy heroes, yet they still manage to be heroic and honorable. They’re enviable and they inspire others, despite their self-perceived cracks and flaws.

These characters don’t conveniently overcome their illnesses and addictions when they gain access to the healing power of Stormlight, and this seems to disappoint many readers. If Lopen can regrow his storming arm, surely Kaladin will stop brooding at any moment. And Shallan will stop being a whiny teenager and start acting normal. Right? Well, no. Per Word of Brandon, these disorders and illnesses aren’t injuries or flaws, they’re part of each character’s personality and how they perceive themselves. If they accept those parts of themselves as who they are, then there’s nothing for Stormlight to heal, unlike Lopen’s arm, which he talks about as if it were still there and making rude gestures at people. Alternatively, let’s take a look at Renarin, whose eyesight was healed but whose seizures were not, because he sees one as a flaw and the other as who he is. Additionally, Teft’s addiction isn’t banished by his ability to use Stormlight because it’s a part of his identity; it’s how he sees himself.

As we all know, it’s not exactly common to find the subject of mental illness and neurodivergence so openly addressed in mainstream fiction, and rarely to the extent that Brandon Sanderson has done in The Stormlight Archive. The Radiant heroes of Roshar could likely benefit from some medication and therapy (because getting some sunshine and frolicking about in nature, while therapeutic, is not a cure for mental illness…fight me), and they are very much my literary soul mates. They’re broken…beaten down by their experiences and their pain. They are confused, overwhelmed, and so often feel alone in their respective points of view.

Ross and I have had many a conversation about these broken heroes, about their struggles and their pain, about their resilience and their Ideals. And though it’s difficult for me to accept, deep down I know that they are me. Maybe they’re you, too. Not everyone will feel this way, of course, but I hope you all still join us in this discussion. After all, pain shared is pain lessened, and perhaps by sharing mine with you, we can bear some of our burdens together.

And now, Ross and I will talk about life and strength and journeys…so, whether you love or relate to these characters, or whether you hate them and wish they’d get over it already, I hope you join us as we explore the ways in which this series and its broken heroes have helped me personally find strength. Through my unique relationship with Roshar’s Radiants, we’ll examine how they’ve guided me on my own journey toward a destination that remains unknown, even to me.

 

The Immortal Words

We should start at the same place every Radiant does, with the First Ideal of the Knights Radiant. Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination. On the surface, this seems like a fairly cut-and-dried distillation of a code of ethics. Rules to live by, to guide people faced with difficult decisions. As it turns out, the two of us have very different approaches to the deeper meaning of these words.

Ross: Life before death, the Words say, and I hear never kill your adversary when leaving them alive is possible. Killing is the easy way out. We can all change, right up to the point where death obviates the possibility.

Paige: Life before death has different connotations for me. I have not only had suicidal thoughts at times, even oftentimes, but I’ve actually longed for that specific escape from the pain and chaos in my mind, so I consider the onerous task of getting through day after agonizing day of life before finally attaining the rest and peace of death. However, on the rare occasions when I feel uplifted, this phrase relays the idea that if I find something to live for, then perhaps I can stave off the ever-present desire for escape.

Ross: Strength before weakness seemed to me like a generic positive admonition. Don’t quail in the face of difficult challenges. Pour your entire strength into opposing whatever stands against you, and, while you may not prevail, you’ll certainly stand a better chance than if you’d given up. Basically a more graceful version of, “you miss every shot you don’t take.”

Paige: Strength before weakness, to me, feels like an unattainable Ideal. We all have a primitive fight, flight, or freeze response when the brain senses danger of any kind, and I am definitely the flight or freeze kind of girl when my amygdala lights up. Note that I don’t make a conscious choice to do this—rather it’s a symptom of my illness which allows emotion to gain too much power over my behavior. Add anxiety to that mix and it’s often difficult to function.

I’ve been referred to as a doormat more often, and by more people, than I care to admit, and it’s rare that I find strength to defend myself. However, call this the Windrunner in me (a title which came from Ross, by the way, because I never would have claimed it myself), but the only time I do feel the urge to fight is when I am moved to defend someone else.

Ross: I absolutely named you a Windrunner of the Third Ideal, and I stand by it. You had stuff going on in your life, and you acted precisely as a Windrunner would. Those behaviors are an inseparable part of you, and you deserve the recognition.

Paige: Well, if being a Windrunner encompasses putting the needs of literally everyone else before my own, then I suppose I should own it. Though it still feels presumptuous because my brain rejects the idea so vehemently. But then, we both know that my brain is an asshole. ;)

Ross: It certainly tends to lie straight to your face at times, which is pretty rude. I’ll leave that there.

Finally: Journey before destination. We are, all of us, headed to the same place. Each of us has a finite number of days in our life, but what we make of them is all the difference. It is not the fact that we reach the end of the race that matters, but how we ran it. To pull an excellent explanation from Nohadon’s in-Cosmere text, “The question is not whether you will love, hurt, dream, and die. It is what you will love, why you will hurt, when you will dream, and how you will die. This is your choice. You cannot pick the destination, only the path.”

Paige: Journey before destination echoes Life before death to an extent. To me, it implies the need to complete the often dreary and difficult struggle of my journey prior to arriving at the destination I so often desire.

This part of the First Ideal also echoes my point of view during my not-so-dark moods. Then, I’m able to align with Ross’s view that the journey is the most important part of this statement and that I need to make the most of it. In Way of Kings, Chapter 43, The Wretch, Kaladin thinks, Death is the destination. But the journey, that is life. That is what matters.

It’s just unfortunate that this sentiment is so often lost in depression where I, and other sufferers, spend so much time, because it can be a positive and reaffirming take on life.

Ross: No matter the meaning we take from these words, I know for a fact that they help. I know because I have numerous friends who’ve told me that, when Shirley’s anxiety or Randy’s PTSD or Chris’s struggle with weight loss or … any number of things … threatens to overcome them, these friends focus on the words, and what they mean to them. And they feel better. My friend Deana used them just the other day to intercede with an artist who’d never read Stormlight, or any of Brandon’s works. And the community grows.

 

On Kaladin, and Depression

Apathy vs. Emotion

Way of Kings, Ch. 2: Honor is Dead:

This was his lot, and he was resigned to it.

There was a certain power in that, a freedom. The freedom of not having to care.

Way of Kings, Ch. 16: Cocoons:

Other times, he found it hard to care about anything. His dreary feelings were like a black eel, coiled inside of him

[…]

He lay back down, emotions welling inside of him. He had trouble sorting through them.

Way of Kings, Ch. 43: The Wretch:

Just let me be. Let me go back to apathy. At least then there’s no pain.

Paige: I one hundred percent relate to Kaladin’s thought about sorting through feelings, as they sometimes feel like a jumbled knot of string in my mind. His thoughts also verge on apathetic quite often, and make me think of my frequent urge to feel nothing when emotions pull me in every direction. What a treat it would be to take all of the feelings I can’t sort out, that drag me down or cause me to introvert, and just turn them off. Surely, it would provide some much-needed relief from the oft-exhausting avalanche of emotion, right?

Not exactly.

After I was…let’s say, ‘emotionally assaulted’ recently, I was crippled by a myriad of overlapping emotions that I couldn’t control or suppress: anger and anxiety, sadness and shame, self-loathing and frustration, loneliness and regret. Oh, so many flavors of regret; I could taste nothing else. Somehow, I did the very thing I’ve often wished for and shoved my feelings aside. It was as if I’d stuffed them into a box, which I then stuck on a high shelf inside the closet of my mind. I found myself with that power and freedom that Kaladin has experienced. I didn’t care about anything: work, other people’s wants or needs or feelings, bills, chores…myself. Especially myself.

However, it’s not natural for people to feel nothing, and I’ve been clued into the fact that dissociation like this can be very harmful in the long term. Whether we realize it or not, we need to feel, to laugh and cry, to rage and love. The absence of those feelings changed me and I needed to feel, and so I found myself turning to self-harm in order to feel again. But let me assure you, the dopamine rush that accompanies pain is not an acceptable replacement for one’s naturally occurring emotions and can become somewhat addictive, which is a danger in and of itself. If self-harm is something any of the broken Radiants reading this are doing or have considered doing, seek help. Advice. Therapy. Something. Message me, we’ll talk. I might just direct you to get the help you need, but I’ll listen. I won’t ignore you.

Ross: In addition to opening you up to self-harm, those burning emotions have been the driving force behind your writing output for a decade or two. There was some pretty serious backlash turning them off, right?

Paige: Truth. My writing is fueled by my emotion, and at the same time is an outlet to keep emotion from overwhelming me. So to deprive myself of the very tools which allow me to maintain some semblance of sanity wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done, but reason and logic are overwhelmed by my emotion. Smothered, crushed, obliterated. When emotion drives you, you don’t generally make the best choices.

Setting Goals to Combat Hopelessness

Way of Kings, Ch. 11: Droplets:

One more try.

Kaladin opened his eyes. He was cold and wet, but he felt a tiny warm candle flame of determination come alight inside him.

[…]

It was the warmth of decisions made and purpose seized. It was responsibility … He would find a way to protect them.

Way of Kings, Ch. 34: Stormwall:

He wanted to stare at the highstorm straight on, though it terrified him. He felt the same panic he’d felt looking down into the black chasm, back when he’d nearly killed himself. It was the fear of what he could not see, what he could not know.

Way of Kings, Ch. 43: The Wretch:

I could fly, he thought. Step off and fall, wind blowing against me. Fly for a few moments. A few, beautiful moments.

[…]

Step by step, he was turning back into the wretch he had been. He’d always known it was a danger. He’d clung to the bridgemen as a lifeline. But he was letting go now.

[…]

He recognized what was happening to him, this melancholy, this sense of despair. It had taken him often when he’d been younger, most frequently during the weeks of the Weeping, when the sky was hidden by clouds.

Paige: “One more try” and “The next step” are, again, sentiments that echo one another. We’ll get to Dalinar and his epic next step later, but I feel it’s important to point out that people suffering from mental illness often exist in this state, especially when untreated and/or unmedicated. We’re constantly trying to get through one more day, one more shift at work, one more hour. One more storming moment. It’s a struggle, and anybody reading this who experiences the same struggle will agree that taking the next step and giving life one more try is a constant battle.

At this point I feel it’s important to point out that when someone loses their battle with pain and despair, they’re not giving up, and they’re not taking the easy way out. Remember that they’re under assault by their own minds, constantly. They’ve likely taken numerous trips to the Honor Chasm, as so many of us have, and decided to step away from the edge to give it one more try. Don’t lay blame, don’t cry selfishness, and please don’t discount the fact that they were battle-weary and unable to continue the fight.

It’s imperative to know how much it helps to have friends and/or family to offer encouragement, as Tien once gave and as Syl and Wit/Hoid have both given for Kaladin. And as I get from a few close friends who have seen inside my mind and haven’t run away. It helps to have a purpose, such as Kaladin’s determination to protect, and as I have in the upcoming birth of my natural daughter’s first child. I try to keep my eye on that distant light that I’m striving to reach.

Ross: I don’t deal with this kind of thing, but it seems to me there’s a danger in using one particular person or event as a goal to keep you fighting. What happens if that talisman becomes unattainable, or even if the goal is met? Isn’t there the danger of nothing to fight for leading to a plunge into the abyss?

Paige: Definitely. There’s a great deal of danger in both of those scenarios. Putting all of your hope/focus/effort on one person/event/goal is always risky. Take Kaladin’s failure to protect Elhokar in Oathbringer…he was torn between who to protect and, in doing nothing, he was unable to protect anyone. He froze, and people died all around him, including Elhokar. Kaladin had to be rescued from the fray and by the time Shallan had transported them to Shadesmar via the corrupted Kholinar Oathgate, Kaladin was despondent. And what brought him out of that despondency? What else but another goal on which to focus: protect Dalinar. This isn’t the only time we see this behavior in Kaladin. It’s a running theme with him from childhood through the Battle of Thaylen City, and it’s one which I understand perfectly, because it’s also my theme: set a goal, reach the goal, then set a new goal.

On a small scale: I get out of bed each day (not all days, but most days); I make myself go to work where I struggle until lunchtime, and then until five, and try to accomplish something as I muddle through the day. That’s one day down, one goal accomplished, and I set a new goal to do it again tomorrow.

On a larger scale, I focus on upcoming events: a visit with my daughter to create a baby registry; then four weeks until I go to her next ultrasound and learn if we’ll have a Mia or a Braxton; ten weeks after that is my writing retreat; another six weeks until the baby comes and then several weeks helping with the baby; then it’s time to get through the holidays; and focus on JordanCon a few months later. Then I set another goal, then another one.

To be honest, having goals set for an entire YEAR in advance is pretty phenomenal for me, when I generally can’t see more than a few months into my future. I may skirt the edge of the chasm, but I try to keep taking the next step, and then the next.

Stigma & Support

Way of Kings, Ch. 16: Cocoons:

Other emotions had to do with the strange blanket of melancholy that smothered him at times when he wasn’t expecting.

[…]

“I hate talking to you when you’re like this, you know.”

“Like what?”

“Like you are now. You know. Moping around, sighing.”

[…]

“You’re cheerful suddenly.”

“I don’t know. I feel better.”

“How does he do that? I wonder.”

“Who does what?”

“Your brother,” Laral said, looking toward Tien. “He changes you.”

“It’s just hard to be gloomy when he’s around,” Kal said.

Way of Kings, Ch. 44: The Weeping:

How is it you can always smile? Kaladin thought. It’s dreadful outside, your master treats you like crem, and your family is slowly being strangled by the city lord and yet you smile. How, Tien? And why is it that you make me want to smile, too?

Paige: Kaladin suffers from chronic depression, and has since childhood. He’s not just moody and he’s not feeling sorry for himself. He is genuinely depressed, especially during the Weeping, which is indicative of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) on top of the general depression. Tien made him feel better; he walked beside his big brother in the darkness, he accepted him and loved him, just as he was.

Laral, on the other hand, derided him; she hated talking to him when he was feeling melancholy. This is one reason why I—and so many sufferers of mental illness—wear a mask: the fear of unacceptance. The stigma of mental illness and the widely held belief that people like me can just choose to stop feeling depressed keeps us quiet when things in our minds get too bad. It forces us to try to conform, to try to be normal, and we sometimes end up feeling that apathy that Kaladin experiences.

Ross: I think my high natural level of empathy aided me in this. I’m fairly certain you made an early decision to cautiously open up to me about your mental issues, and I responded by explaining that I didn’t see you as broken, but different. That it was precisely your overwhelming emotions that leant such a potent effect to your writing. Is that the kind of acceptance you wish other people had?

Paige: That’s exactly the kind of acceptance I wish others could offer more frequently.

I used to say that I wore my heart on my sleeve, but I view that phrase differently now. I’ve learned more about how my brain works and I’ve noticed changes in myself, primarily some deterioration as the disorder has progressed. I understand that rather than simply wearing my heart on my sleeve, I am saturated with emotion. All emotions, all the time. They ooze from my pores and drip from my fingertips. They smother me and there is no hiding them from the world sometimes.

To not see my illnesses as something wrong with me, or something that needs to be fixed, but to accept them as part of me—to accept me and value me despite the constant shuffle of emotions, the black depressions, the uncontrollable mania, the overwhelming anxiety—that is what I want. That is what everyone suffering from mental illness needs: a Syl, a Lift, an Adolin.

I try to remember that I do have people walking beside me who will catch me if I stumble, who will guide me when it’s too dark for me to see, who will hold my hand when I need stability, and who will kick me in the ass when I resist taking that ever-difficult next step.

Having loved ones who stay by my side and help me navigate the darkness is an incalculable asset. If I may plug a Pat Rothfuss quote (I’m sure Brandon won’t mind), “Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.” I’m fortunate to have some rare and pure and perfect people in my life who love me despite.

Ross: I’ve always loved that quote, and I actually think there can be no real love (whether platonic, romantic, or other) between people without friction. If there’s nothing about the other person which must be accepted as-is, where’s the challenge? Loving something because sounds to me more like infatuation or lust. Loving something despite is to love the whole, unconditionally.

 

On Shallan, and Coping with Emotional Trauma

Smile Anyway

Words of Radiance, Ch. 71: Vigil:

He saw it in her eyes. The anguish, the frustration. The terrible nothing that clawed inside and sought to smother her. She knew it was there, inside. She had been broken.

Then she smiled. She smiled anyway.

It was the single, most beautiful thing he’d seen in his entire life.

“How?” he asked.

She shrugged lightly. “Helps if you’re crazy.”

Paige: She’s not wrong. It really does help if you’re crazy. But kidding aside…as with many things, this can be read a couple of ways. She smiled anyway, yes, and to a lot of people that can mean that she smiled despite the pain, that she’s able to rise above it and find happiness, and so on. However, I tend to lean toward another interpretation because I wear masks to hide myself from the world on a daily basis, masks that society finds to be more acceptable than who and what I really am. They don’t want to see “the anguish, the frustration … the terrible nothing” that I have inside, they want to see the smile. So I give the world what it expects; I may feel the darkness, but I smile anyway.

Ross: I think the real world demands a mixture of both, but definitely both. Showing your true self to everyone at all times won’t work out in the long run, but constantly living a lie will eventually stifle your vibrant, secret self. So the approach I take (and yes, I absolutely hide certain parts of my personality from certain people) is to edit my external persona, but also cultivate a few true friends. People who I know can see the strangest, darkest corner of my brain and, instead of recoiling in horror, lean forward and say, “Iiiinteresting.”

Caveat: friends like this are rare. You can’t take one of your current friends and magically turn them into this confidante. It takes time, and it takes work. It also takes an iterative exercise in deepening and strengthening trust. But I believe the effort is worth the pain.

Paige: I agree that friends like that are rare. What’s also incredibly rare is for someone like me, who tends to hide most of my true self from most people, to be able to cultivate trusting friendships in which I can reveal my true self. And despite the fear of rejection and abandonment, because I’ve experienced both, I hesitantly share myself.

Ross: You choose to take The Next Step. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves….

Hiding Behind Personas

Oathbringer, Ch. 15: Brightness Radiant:

Her every muscle grew taut, and the corners of her vision started to darken. She could see only before herself, and she wanted to run, go somewhere. Be away.

No. No, just be someone else.

[…]

I can hide, Shallan thought, drawing at a frenzied pace. Shallan can flee and leave someone in her place.

Oathbringer, Ch. 82: The Girl Who Stood Up:

For a while, she’d been … everybody. A hundred faces, cycling one after another. She searched them for comfort. Surely she could find someone who didn’t hurt.

[…]

She’d shove all this into the back of her mind, with everything else she ignored. They could all fester together.

Oathbringer, Ch. 108: Honor’s Path:

“All memories are bad,” she said immediately, then looked away, blushing.

[…]

“It’s confusing, being all these people. I feel like I’m presenting different faces all the time. Lying to everyone, because I’m different inside. I … That doesn’t make sense, does it?” She squeezed her eyes shut again. “I’ll pull it back together. I’ll be … someone.”

Oathbringer, Ch. 121: Ideals:

“If you wanted, I could be practically anyone.”

“But that’s the thing, Shallan. I don’t want anyone. I want you. ”

Paige: As we know, Shallan suffers from PTSD stemming from a childhood full of emotional trauma to herself, as well as to her brothers, and let’s not forget the matricide and patricide. Shallan creates these new personas to deal with memories she can’t face (“All memories are bad.”) as well as with situations she feels incapable of handling (“No. No, just be someone else.”).

I can relate because I wear masks daily. One problem with this approach, as it pertains to me, is that it’s difficult for me to gauge what’s normal and I tend to overact…talking too loud, laughing too much or at the wrong time, trying to be the social butterfly because I feel that’s what people expect, though I’d rather be in the corner or at the back of the room where I’ll be unnoticed. This behavior often surfaces when the anxiety is especially high, and the adrenaline rush pushes me to the edge of panic. This can happen in literally any situation, and as is often the case, I need to isolate myself and allow a breakdown in order to purge the stress hormones from my brain.

We also see Shallan struggling to find the real her amongst her creations. This highlights another problem with my need to constantly put on an act and pretend to be a “normal person,” because I don’t know who I really am at times. I don’t recognize myself among the faces I wear for the rest of the world, and I can so rarely be myself that I feel lost.

I’ve read that each person who knows us or encounters us has a different version of us inside their heads, so no one person knows who we actually are. But while we may be a different person to everyone else, most of us recognize the person looking back at us from the mirror because we also have our own version of ourselves in our heads. At least to an extent. There are days when I feel as though I’m standing in front of a funhouse mirror, and I wonder at the contorted image I see. So I can relate to Shallan because she is so lost in her selves, as well.

Ross: I think this, more than winning Shardblade duels or stabbing mean old nasty Highprinces, is where Adolin really fits into the narrative in Oathbringer. Brightness Radiant handles crowds, and Veil sneaks and snoops, but when Shallan is alone with Adolin, she seems to finally be able to relax a bit and be herself. The less she’s able to cope with her personality compartmentalization, the more she needs a trusted friend with whom she can take off all the masks, and simply be Shallan. In fact, I think it’s that realization, at the end, that finally pushes her to choose Adolin. She’s the most her when she’s with him. That’s going to be important, I think.

Paige: It’s incredibly important. Both for Shallan and for those of us who struggle to find ourselves beneath the masks, it means everything for someone to see the real us and to love us despite.

Ross: Not despite! Because.

Oathbringer, Ch. 82: The Girl Who Stood Up:

“It’s terrible,” Wit said, stepping up beside her, “to have been hurt. It’s unfair, and awful, and horrid. But Shallan … it’s okay to live on.”

She shook her head.

“Your other minds take over,” he whispered, “because they look so much more appealing. You’ll never control them until you’re confident in returning to the one who birthed them. Until you accept being you.”

“Then I’ll never control it.” She blinked tears.

“No,” Wit said. “You will, Shallan. If you do not trust yourself, can you trust me? For in you, I see a woman more wonderful than any of the lies. I promise you, that woman is worth protecting. You are worth protecting.”

Paige: Wit/Hoid urging Shallan to be herself, rather than the personas she’s created to deal with one kind of stress or another, was one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer. I knew she wouldn’t magically be mended, that her history of abuse and mental illness wouldn’t evaporate like an illusion running out of Stormlight. But I also knew that Wit telling her that it was okay to live on, that she is wonderful and worth protecting, was a huge moment for Shallan.

This is similar to things that I’ve also been told, and which I’m trying to make myself believe as I fight through each day. I fix that version of the me I want to be, that I know is inside of me, into my mind. I endeavor to let go of the versions of me who are afraid and ashamed, who want to hide from the world, and who turn to self-destructive behaviors to cope with fear and pain and despair. I try to trust that my own real-life versions of Hoid, or Tien, or Adolin, or Syl, are telling me the truth, and I continue to try to accept myself.

 

On Lift, and Justice for the Downtrodden

Avoidance Of Reality

Edgedancer, Ch. 10:

“Everything is changing,” she said softly. “That’s okay. Stuff changes. It’s just that, I’m not supposed to. I asked not to. She’s supposed to give you what you ask.”

“The Nightwatcher?” Wyndle asked.

Lift nodded, feeling small, cold. Children played and laughed all around, and for some reason that only made her feel worse. It was obvious to her, though she ’d tried ignoring it for years, that she was taller than she’d been when she’d first sought out the Old Magic three years ago.

Paige: As we see in Edgedancer, Lift has some strong opinions about growing up, about changing. She visited the Nightwatcher to avoid that very thing and, though we don’t yet know how that particular visit went, we know that Lift didn’t exactly get the boon she had been seeking. She is growing, she is maturing. And she’s pretending that she’s not.

Avoidance of reality is a very real practice when you suffer from certain illnesses of the mind. I can only speak for bipolar disorder and anxiety in this respect, but both of these conditions often result in sufferers creating their own version of reality, whether it’s a less bleak version of our own lives or some kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. We create a story in our minds, much as our little Lift has done, a story that either goes how we want it to go or, on the darker side of that, a story that’s worse than reality. Not believing that I deserve goodness and light, or that it’s fleeting anyway so why bother believing, causes me to scramble as quickly as possible back into the darkness and away from the light. It’s lonely and it hurts, and it skirts with the abyss, but I know it…I’m comfortable there. I’m not happy or content there, but at least I know I won’t be let down. The darkness doesn’t disappoint me and it definitely never leaves me.

I wonder if this might be one reason Lift wishes not to grow up: she’s unwilling to change. Perhaps she’s afraid of what the future brings, or is unable to see the future altogether. She’s more comfortable remaining a child with no responsibilities and no attachments. I hope to understand more about Lift as we get to know her better in future installments of the Archive.

Ross: Lift is by far my favorite Stormlight Archive character, partly because I identify with her more than any of the others. We both love food. We both have a goofy, irreverent, childlike wit. We both hate to see people overlooked or underserved (and I hate for people to fail to see their own inherent awesomeness). And neither of us is very big on responsibility. It took me nine years to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the only reason I burned through the last year-and-a-half was that I married a Type-A planner. I’m a horrible procrastinator, putting off responsibilities until the last possible minute. Dropped my tax payment in the box five minutes before the mailman drove by for pickup this year. So yes, when Lift plays the Child Card, and is Awesome anyway? That makes my inner procrastinator all kinds of happy.

Remembering Those Who Have Been Forgotten

Way of Kings, Interludes: Lift:

She set Gawx on his back, face toward the sky. He wasn’t really anything to her, that was true. They’d barely just met, and he’d been a fool. She’d told him to go back. But this was who she was, who she had to be.

I will remember those who have been forgotten.

Edgedancer, Ch. 5:

I will remember those who have been forgotten. She’d sworn that oath as she’d saved Gawx’s life. The right Words, important Words. But what did they mean? What about her mother? Nobody remembered her.

There seemed far too many people out there who were being forgotten. Too many for one girl to remember.

Paige:  Depression lies. I know this even as I believe its whispers in my ear as it perches on one shoulder clad in, let’s say, a little black devil outfit. It tells me that nobody cares, that I’ll always be alone. That I’ll drive everyone away because I worry incessantly, I’m too sad, too moody, too needy, too…pick a less-than-happy-and-content emotion. Boom, me. I isolate myself—cloaked by the darkness in my mind—to keep from being hurt; then feel hurt because nobody’s searching for me in the darkness in which I cloak myself.

I feel forgotten.

Ross: First of all, I want to reassure you that you’re not forgotten by your friends. And, in the same breath, admit that I understand you feel this way. In dealing with people who suffer from depression, I’ve often gotten the best results from this dual approach, because it recognizes overtly that, while the reality I see shows that you’re not forgotten, I completely understand how you could feel that way.

Arguing that you don’t actually feel the way you do is, in my mind, just low-key gaslighting.

Listening To The Ignored

Edgedancer, Ch. 19:

Too few people listened to anything other than their own thoughts. But what good would listening do her here? All she could hear was the sound of the storm outside, lightning making the stones vibrate.

Thunder.

A new storm.

I can’t defeat him.

I’ve got to change him.

Listen.

[…]

“I will listen,” Lift shouted, “to those who have been ignored!”

“What?” Darkness demanded.

“I heard what you said, Darkness! You were trying to prevent the Desolation. Look behind you! Deny what you’re seeing!”

[…]

“I’m sorry,” Lift said.

He looked to her, face lit red by the continuous lightning, tears mixing with the rain. “You actually are,” he said, then felt at his face. “I wasn’t always like this. I am getting worse, aren’t I? It’s true.”

“I don’t know,” Lift said. And then, by instinct, she did something she would never have thought possible. She hugged Darkness. He clung to her, this monster, this callous thing that had once been a Herald. He clung to her and wept in the storm.

Edgedancer, Ch. 20:

She tapped her head. “I got it figured out.”

“You’ve got what figured out?”

“Nothing at all,” Lift said, with the utmost confidence.

But I will listen to those who are ignored, she thought. Even people like Darkness, whom I’d rather never have heard. Maybe that will help.

Paige: Anxiety works much the same way as depression, as I refer to it just above. It sits on my other shoulder and it also wears a devil outfit…red this time. There’s no shoulder angel for crazy people, unless you count the fallen ones.

Ross: Oof.

Paige: Anxiety tells me not to reach out of the familiar darkness for help, not to call or text or message anyone with my boring, repetitive worries and sadness. They don’t want to hear from me, after all. I’m too much of a downer, it is known, and I don’t want to be a bother, a burden.

People ask how I’m doing, I tell them I’m good. They ask how my weekend was, I say it was great. I smile and I laugh when I think I should; I joke and exchange anecdotes. And they believe it. They don’t see behind the mask and notice the bloodshot eyes, the dark circles, the worry lines. They tell me I look pale, ask if I’m okay, and they don’t hear the quaver in my voice as I reassure them that I’m fine…I’m just tired…I have a bit of a headache. I don’t mention that my head probably aches from constantly clenching my jaw due to persistent, overwhelming tension.

I think that people accept the easy explanation, that they let their eyes slide away from the signs of me falling apart that I’m unable to hide completely, because it’s easier than confronting it. It’s easier than dealing with the crazy, easier to play along. And trust me, I don’t blame them. I understand and I can’t fault people for not wanting to see, or to hear, or to get involved.

But still…I feel ignored.

Ross: It’s a good thing these books have caused you to stumble into a small community of proto-Radiants who understand, if not completely, then at least better than most. And I have a feeling the responses to this article might end up making you feel a little less alone, as well.

Paige: I am incredibly lucky to have found so many wonderful friends through both Brandon’s writing, and before that, through Robert Jordan’s. I very much hope that our efforts here will resonate with others who relate to our beloved Radiants as I do.

Despite my alleged Windrunner tendencies (looks askance at Ross), I very much relate to Lift because she’s so bent on advocating for the forgotten and the ignored. She’s determined to remember and to listen, even to those she hates and fears.

In fact, the Third Ideal of the Edgedancers echoes the  Windrunners’ Third Ideal: “I will protect even those I hate, so long as it is right.” Lift says, “I will listen to those who have been ignored, even Darkness whom I’d rather never have heard.” On that note, let’s not overlook Teft’s Third Windrunner Ideal, regarding protecting those he hates, even if the one he hates is himself.

Ross: There’s something else I wanted to bring up, and the fact that Lift seems to suffer more from emotional trauma than mental illness makes this a good spot to mention it. If you have ever been the target of emotional abuse at the hands of another, you should be very mindful of the fact that you very well may have been trained, over the course of weeks, or years, or decades, to doubt yourself. To constantly second-guess your feelings and turn to that other person for validation. Your apparent dependence on your abuser is one of the main factors that keeps you in an abusive relationship. If it seems like everything they’re saying is designed to keep you in one place, that place is probably under their thumb. Find better friends; they’re out there somewhere, and they’ll help.

Paige: They are out there, and they do help.

I’ve never considered myself to be a strong person; I don’t know whether all people who suffer from disorders such as mine feel the same kind of shame and self-loathing that permeate my mind, but it’s been a lifelong, personal belief that I am weak and pathetic and that everyone must see me as such. With therapy, from professionals and otherwise, I’m learning that these kinds of feelings are likely due to the fact that, yeah, I’ve been the victim of prolonged mental and emotional abuse. It’s more difficult to own this than it is to own the psychological diagnoses, if you can believe that.

Please know that this is not a request for sympathy or reassurance, it’s just a statement of fact from my perspective. Could I access the healing powers of Stormlight, it wouldn’t heal this because it’s how I see myself; it’s ingrained, it’s who I am. However, I firmly believe in standing up for others. So Ideals that include protecting those who cannot protect themselves—even if I hate them or they’ve hurt me—remembering the forgotten, and listening to the ignored, very much hit home for me.

Ross: I’m going to skew things sideways for a second with some theorizing. Can we talk about why Lift is so keen on people not being ignored?

Edgedancer, Ch. 15:

When you were always busy, you didn’t have to think about stuff . Like how most people didn’t run off and leave when the whim struck them. Like how your mother had been so warm, and kindly, so ready to take care of everyone. It was incredible that anyone on Roshar should be as good to people as she’d been.

She shouldn’t have had to die. Least, she should have had someone half as wonderful as she was to take care of her as she wasted away.

Someone other than Lift, who was selfish, stupid.

And lonely.

Lift has her own darkness lurking in the past, and my theory is that a large part of it revolves around abandoning her own mother when she got sick.

 

On Dalinar, and Acceptance of Failure

The Next Step

Oathbringer, Ch. 118: The Weight of it All:

The most important step a man can take. It’s not the first one, is it? It’s the next one. Always the next step, Dalinar.

Ross: Of course, the most recent Stormlight volume, Oathbringer, is Dalinar’s book, and this discussion wouldn’t be complete without him. It’s interesting, to me, that Dalinar’s struggles to cope aren’t ever really targeting the loss of his memory, but rather the confrontation with his own past when it returns. To acknowledge that who he was is part of who he is, that people were right to distrust overtures of peace from the Blackthorn, and to move on regardless in an honest attempt to be worthy of respect instead of fear, took true courage.

Paige: “The most important step is the next one.” Now this…oh my Honor, this hits me in the feels. This rips my feels from my chest and pummels them, shreds them, obliterates them. This is my mantra, to keep me fully in the journey and keep that destination out of the reach of my pain, because this is the journey: taking the all-important next step, and then the next one, and then the next one. Because truly, taking that next step is sometimes the most difficult thing to do when your own brain makes just getting out of bed in the morning a struggle.

For me, the other aspect of this statement is that deciding to take that next step is an affirmation that I’ll keep going, that there is a future for me to journey toward. That may sound like an alien concept to a lot of people, but trust me, it’s kind of huge because envisioning a future can seem impossible when I’m steeped in the grip of crippling depression, as I so often am.

Cultivating Forgiveness

Oathbringer, Ch. 118: The Weight of it All:

Trembling, bleeding, agonized, Dalinar forced air into his lungs and spoke a single ragged sentence. “You cannot have my pain.”

Ross: We’ve all done things we regret. And some of us have done worse. Things that haunt us. That cause us to wonder if we’re worth it. That’s the case for Dalinar, who was a pretty terrible person when he was younger. To see this one-time villain stand in front of Odium in Part Five, and refuse to deny responsibility for all of it, for any of it, to own his failures, and the very real chance he’ll fail again, inspires me to do the same. To be better.

Paige: “You cannot have my pain.” This is obviously a huge moment for Dalinar, as he refuses to become a tool for Odium. Cultivation pruned his thorniness and allowed him to grow as a person and a leader prior to doling out memories of the horrific things he’d done in his youth. She returned it to him, memory by memory, so that he could absorb each one and cope with what it meant, who he had been. Becoming the man we met in The Way of Kings because of the lack of those memories was integral, IMO, not only to his ability to resist Odium, but also to becoming deserving of Evi’s forgiveness, so many years after he had first asked that boon of the Nightwatcher.

To be completely honest, I envied Dalinar that respite from his past because I’m fully in Shallan’s “all memories are bad” camp. Okay, not fully…I have some good memories, some GREAT memories, even, that are bright spots in the darkness. They populate my pile of good things and keep me going. Yet, there are many bad memories; they plague me and hold me back from enjoying my journey, and forgetting them to allow me to grow as a person would be preferable to dwelling on them. Perhaps, with such a respite, I would more easily bear the weight of my pain, as Dalinar learned to do. However, as there is no real-world version of Cultivation to prune my memories, I realize that I’m responsible for seeking my own healing. It’s an ongoing process, and I backslide a lot, but I can almost see the glimmer of a future where my burden has grown lighter.

 

Hoid, Psychoanalyst Extraordinaire

Ross: It occurred to the two of us, as we researched this article, that where there is pithy coping advice to be had, or when one of Our Heroes needs a nudge (or a shove) in the direction of Radianthood, it’s more than likely the impetus is coming from Hoid.

In The Way of Kings, Kaladin is on the edge of discovering what he can do, or running away forever. Standing literally on a precipice, Kaladin runs into Wit, who tells him the story of the Uvara, then asks Kaladin what the moral was.

The Way of Kings, Ch. 57: Wandersail:

“It means taking responsibility,” Kaladin said. “The Uvara, they were happy to kill and murder, so long as they could blame the emperor. It wasn’t until they realized there was nobody to take the responsibility that they showed grief.”

“That’s one interpretation,” Hoid said. “A fine one, actually. So what is it you don’t want to take responsibility for?”

Ross: *shove* There are, I think, only five people in the first book who encounter Wit and remain un-insulted. Kaladin, Dalinar, Renarin (who gets picked on but not actually demeaned), Adolin, and Shallan. And while we’re on the subject of Wit and Dalinar, check out this passage that has a vastly different meaning post-Oathbringer.

The Way of Kings, Ch. 54: Gibletish:

“…Isn’t it odd that gibberish words are often the sounds of other words, cut up and dismembered, then stitched into something like them—yet wholly unlike them at the same time?”

Dalinar frowned.

“I wonder if you could do that to a man. Pull him apart, emotion by emotion, bit by bit, bloody chunk by bloody chunk. Then combine them back together into something else, like a Dysian Aimian. If you do put a man together like that, Dalinar, be sure to name him Gibberish, after me. Or perhaps Gibletish.”

Ross: Did…did Hoid just totally tease Dalinar that he knew not only what had happened with his memories, but also that he totally knew Cultivation’s plan?!

Paige: That’s our Hoid. All-knowing and all-seeing as far as we’re aware. And despite his pronouncement that he would essentially let the world burn in order to achieve his goal, he sure helps out our Radiants a lot. He shows kindness and understanding, he offers support and acceptance. And sometimes, he supplies a little kick in the ass to push someone in the right direction. I like his style of therapy; it feels familiar.

Oathbringer, Ch. 82: The Girl Who Stood Up:

“Do you wish,” Wit asked, “that you could go back to not being able to see?”

“No,” she whispered.

“Then live. And let your failures be part of you.”

[…]

“You tried to help the people of the market. You mostly failed. This is life. The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone. Trust me, I’ve practiced.”

Paige: Failure is a difficult thing to accept when I’m constantly being reminded by my brain how badly I messed up. I’m constantly ashamed for being a disappointment, for letting someone down, for causing a problem, whether it’s a small thing or whether it’s a spectacular failure, as Shallan experienced (okay, admittedly, I’ve never messed up on quite that grand a scale). It could even be just saying the wrong thing during a conversation, but my mistakes plague me. Anxiety won’t allow me to laugh it off or let it roll off my back, it sits there on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, making me remember.

Ross: It’s also important to note the subtext of Wit/Hoid’s advice here. He has some monumental failures in his prodigious past, and a Scadrian Imperial ton of guilt to go along with them. But if Hoid, who, at his age, has likely racked up more failures than 99.9999% of all people, is able to accept those failures and try again, perhaps we can, too.

Oathbringer, Ch. 82: The Girl Who Stood Up:

“You’re not a monster, Shallan,” Wit whispered. “Oh, child. The world is monstrous at times, and there are those who would have you believe that you are terrible by association.”

“I am.”

“No. For you see, it flows the other direction. You are not worse for your association with the world, but it is better for its association with you.”

[…]

“Many people have suffered more and they get along fine.”

[…]

“Wit?” she asked. “I … I can’t do it.”

He smiled. “There are certain things I know, Shallan. This is one of them. You can. Find the balance. Accept the pain, but don’t accept that you deserved it.”

Paige: It’s a common theme among those of us dealing with mental illness—and abuse such as Shallan has suffered, such as many of us have suffered—to have our brains tell us we deserve anything and everything bad in life, and that someone else always has it worse. To see Shallan express these sentiments was a veritable punch to the gut because she really has had it bad. To see Wit/Hoid counter each of those sentiments so effectively and eloquently was profound.

One of my psychiatrists once told me that while it’s true that many others do have it worse, that fact doesn’t discount the pain that I feel. It doesn’t make my fight any less grueling. That’s a difficult thing to remember when I encounter someone whose situation is obviously worse than mine, which is one reason I can relate to Shallan’s self-doubt here.

To be completely honest, I cried during most of Wit/Hoid’s chat with Shallan in Kholinar (shocking, I know), but when he told her that the world was better for its association with her, the mental and emotional gut punch literally took my breath away, because it was as if he was talking directly to me. I often feel, as Shallan did and as many of you may, that the world would be better off without me. Spoiler alert: it’s not. We all have something to contribute, as we all have someone who needs our contribution. I can know this without feeling it, without believing it, if that makes sense. I’m working on turning that perspective around and it’s a painstaking process. I have hope of succeeding, eventually, with a little help from my friends.

 

The Journey Continues

Paige: If you’ve gotten this far on our little journey through mental illness in The Stormlight Archive and how it’s impacted my personal journey, both before and after my own diagnoses, I thank you for sticking around. If you’ve faced your own struggles, and found solace in the pages of these books, then I salute you.

If you’re fortunate to be one of the four out of five people not afflicted with mental health issues, I also thank you for reading through this article. I hope that it might help to give you some insight into these characters, or into family members or friends who may be suffering. If so, then it was all worth it. It was painful to write and even more painful to share, and I’d like to thank Ross for his help and support as we slogged through this monster piece of writing…and for helping me to organize the jumble of thoughts in my mind.

If there are any particular quotes or segments in the books which have touched you and may have been omitted above (because did you see how long this article was?), leave a comment below and let us know. If there’s something you wish to share privately, please feel free to reach out to me via Facebook Messenger.

Ross: And again, if you’re experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or chat by visiting the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat.

Paige juggles two jobs, two cats, numerous writing projects, and her sanity. She’s honored to have received a scholarship to attend the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat in September and can’t want to flail about it when she gets back. She lives in Truth or Consequences, NM, which is a real, weird place. #goYankees

Ross is a software developer by day and an aspiring author by night. When he juggles, it’s mostly just normal stuff. Balls, other small objects, that kind of thing. He lives in Roswell, GA with his wife, two children, and a tiny dog named Hercules.

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