Monster: Heroism, Love, and Coping with Mental Illness

Hello everyone! I’m Abby Bethke, the Editor-in-Chief of Periphery 58, and it is my pleasure to bring back both The Periphery Blog and the accompanying Story of the Week feature. Our first featured piece is Monster by Liz Dohrn, which is a short story from Periphery 56.  This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

When I first read Monster nearly two years ago, I fell in love with it as an example of low fantasy writing. Starting with the very first paragraph, we are drawn into a world that is vivid, realistic, and—with the exception of some key details—similar to our own. The characters are authentic, the pacing is superb, and the ending brings with it a strong sense of catharsis. Overall, Monster is the perfect piece for those such as myself who enjoy fantastical short stories.

Now, however, as we sit thirteen months into a global pandemic, I have come to value Monster’s underlying messages as much as I do its technical qualities—if not more. At first glance, Monster appears to be a story in which the protagonist mental illness (specifically depression and anxiety) is cured by love. In this piece, Monsters are clear metaphors for mental health issues. People who have them are discriminated against and are blamed whenever their Monsters break free of their control. Additionally, the Monsters themselves whisper constant litanies of insults into their owners’ ears, much in the way that individuals with anxiety and depression often practice negative self-talk. Throughout the story, the protagonist Addie faces multiple stressors, causing her Monster to grow until it is nearly strong enough to kill her. Yet Addie’s girlfriend arrives just in the nick of time, freeing Addie from her Monster and unilaterally saving the day. Thus, love conquers all, and Addie’s struggle with mental illness is over.

At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. However, closer analysis of Monster reveals that it differentiates in several ways from your average “true love saves the day” story. First of all, Cassie has a Monster of her own. She’s not some super-powered, mentally well savior; instead, she’s a girl who understands and sympathizes with Addie’s situation because she shares it. Thus, Monster doesn’t make the common mistake of claiming that only the love of a mentally well individual can help someone who is struggling with mental illness. In contrast, it argues that understanding, empathy, and shared situational knowledge can be some of the greatest tools in supporting people with mental illnesses.

Furthermore, the presence of Cassie’s Monster also highlights another important point: individuals struggling with mental health can be heroes in their own right. Often, mental illness is portrayed as something that a protagonist must overcome in order to achieve their full potential. In Monster, however, Cassie and Addie both help others while in the presence of their own Monsters. We’ve already discussed Cassie’s moment of heroism, but I’d like to dive deeper into Addie’s, which takes place after she sees a girl being bullied by a group of other children:

“I walked toward the girl, holding out my hand and clearing my throat. She startled, but grabbed my outstretched hand. I hauled her up to her feet. ‘Thank you.’ She sniffled. I searched my purse and handed her a Kleenex.

‘This happen a lot?’ I asked, pretending I did not know the truth. For this, I could be ignorant.

She nodded. ‘Th-they don’t understand…’ She paused, listening to her Monster whisper and squeak. ‘I… I’m a bad person.’

I shook my head, kneeling down to look her in the eyes. I believed that was what you did with children. Kneel so they are not intimidated. Kneel so they view you as an equal. Kneel to let them know you are serious yet caring. ‘You’re not a bad person. Your Monster’s just a liar.’”

By this point in the story, Addie has already had an extremely difficult day; she has witnessed a Monster attack, suffered discrimination in her workplace, and been forced to rearrange her Monster to hide its continual growth. Yet despite all this, she goes out of her way to show compassion and kindness to a child who is struggling with her own Monster. Although Addie does not necessarily consider herself to be a hero, this action makes her one, both in the girl’s eyes and in my own.

The lesson at play here—that individuals with mental health difficulties can be heroes—is especially powerful in the context of Monster’s ending, because even after Addie’s Monster has been defeated, it does not go away. Rather, Addie and Cassie spend “the rest of the night in each other’s arms, [their] Monsters wound together.” Therefore, this ending presents us with a fact of life: love is not powerful enough to eliminate mental illness. At the same time, it acknowledges that Monsters are easier to soothe when we share our troubles with the people we love.

At this particular point in time, many of us are dealing with Monsters of our own. We’re depressed, anxious, overtaxed, and exhausted; we’ve lost jobs, houses, and even people we love. Yet, as Monster reminds us, we do not have to carry these burdens alone. Furthermore, despite our Monsters, we can still be heroes through the acts of kindness we provide, whether they be big or small. So, over the course of this week, I urge you to reach out to the people you care about. Share your Monster with them, and if/when you are feeling strong enough, help them soothe their Monsters in return. Above all, know that no matter what you are going through or what your Monster whispers in your ear, you are brave, you are loved, and you are enough.

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