Cozy mystery typically calls to mind bakeries, quirky characters, and the sweeter side of life paired with a mystery to solve; they rarely call to mind mental illness. But my book isn’t a typical cozy mystery. With a hoarder, human trafficking, and a possible ghost, Dumpster Dying is a cozy mystery gone rogue, walking a balance between darkness and light.
I didn’t set out to write a book about hoarding. My first goal was to write a cozy with Southern Gothic elements, and since SG so often deals with mental illness, I needed an eccentric character who is struggling with life in an atypical manner—while avoiding becoming mired in darkness. Enter Birdie Harper.
Birdie came to me while watching one of my favorite shows, Hoarders, a reality series where cameras follow a hoarder to learn how their illness began, and how it manifests. As a cleanup crew works, the “collection,” which has become a defensive wall for the person, begins to dwindle, ending in an emotional breaking point for them. What results is an enthralling, compassion-provoking view into a mental illness few of us can relate to, or understand.
Because the hoarding manifests itself outwardly, frustrated friends and family may attack, insisting the person get their act together, clean up their junk, and stop bringing in new items. These frustrations can destroy relationships, and cause isolation, guilt, and shame for the hoarder—who doesn’t understand why they can’t just stop. They won’t make new friends, or find new mates, because they’re afraid of exposing their home’s darkest secrets. Or, if they make friends, they refuse to bring them home.
If our homes are a reflection of ourselves, then refusing to bring friends there is a both a coping mechanism and a block to intimate connection; thereby, the isolation, guilt, and shame increases, provoking more of the hoarding behavior, as well as depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. The hoarder may recognize they need help, but are in denial as if they can’t see the piles in front of them.
These were the elements I wanted to focus on when drawing up my character, Birdie. She’s flawed and struggling, but lovable. I expose the reasons for her behavior, how it links to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and is comorbid with anxiety and grief over the death of her husband. I show her struggle first with denial, then how she begins to realize her problem and act on it. She will have setbacks, as hoarders do, and she will try and try again as the Hazardous Hoarding series continues.
In early conversations with my editors, Kent Holloway and Britin Haller, we decided it was important there be no pest activity in Birdie’s home, something which sadly often occurs in hoarding. We didn’t want readers to focus on the grimmer aspects, but instead appreciate Birdie as a proud woman and a great baker, whose home is messy, but clean. So, we added a Terminix pest control sign to her front yard, and some appropriate dialogue. Problem solved.
From the beginning, I was nervous writing a character with a hoarding disorder because I wanted to strike the right balance. I wanted to handle Birdie with the sensitivity and compassion she deserves. Yet, I recognized too much sensitivity, or pity, could make her seem pathetic. So I injected humor in the right places to humanize Birdie, and to show she’s no one’s victim. She’s strong, in her way, dealing with real problems the best way she knows how—like anyone does—whether or not they struggle with a mental illness.
Readers, do you know of anyone with similar struggles? How do they–or you–cope?
Born and raised in the beautiful Bluegrass state of Kentucky, Michelle Bennington developed a passion for books early on that has progressed into a mild hoarding situation and an ever-growing to-read pile. When she’s not creating contemporary or historical fictional worlds full of mysteries, she obsesses over all things British and historical. Michelle still lives in central Kentucky with the best husband and the best dog ever.