Has the question of “What If?” ever changed the trajectory of your life? Author Sarah Adlakha “found the question of what if too fascinating to ignore,” which inspired her to start writing her speculative fiction debut She Wouldn’t Change a Thing. Read more about the question that kick-started her career shift and created the spark for her upcoming novel!
You don’t believe me, do you?
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was those six words, spoken to me behind the closed doors of my psychiatry office more than ten years ago, that would change the trajectory of my life. Writing as a second or even third career is certainly not unique to me; I think it’s more the norm than the exception these days, and I don’t know that I would have been able to craft a novel worth publishing without the experiences that I gained from being a psychiatrist.
The real-life scenario from which those six words came, or at least a variation of it, would end up finding its way into my first novel, She Wouldn’t Change a Thing. The characters are different, of course, and the conversation has been changed to fit the story, but the heart of the question remains the same: Could some of the illnesses that we perceive as psychiatric in nature be instead phenomena that we have yet to experience?
In my debut, Maria, the psychiatrist doing the evaluation, doesn’t give her patient’s story about coming back from the future a second thought. She labels her as psychotic, dishes out some medications, and goes on about her day. It was what I did all those years ago, as well, within the confines of my office where my patient confided in me that he would visit all the other planets in our solar system each night. I’d been trained to diagnose and treat psychosis. I was adept at explaining abnormal symptoms to people who were convinced that what they were experiencing was real. I was proficient at getting people to listen to me and heed my advice. I’d seen it so many times, it didn’t even give me pause when the words came out of his mouth.
What stopped me in my tracks that day was the question he asked as I was placing the prescription for an antipsychotic into his hands.
You don’t believe me, do you?
I suppose I had been asked that question in various forms throughout my career, but for some reason, on that particular day, it took me by surprise. Perhaps it was in the way he asked it, the calm of his voice, the candor of his words. Aside from the story he had just told me, he didn’t seem psychotic. His thoughts were otherwise lucid and clear, his speech wasn’t pressured, his focus was on target, his grooming was hygienic.
And that’s when I started asking myself, what if? What if he really did visit other planets in our solar system? What if he isn’t psychotic? What if something like this happened to me, and I couldn’t convince anyone of the truth?
The implications of it were severe and complex. The rabbit hole I traveled down upon imagining myself in that situation was so convoluted that I found it almost impossible to dig my way out, one scenario leading to the next. It didn’t take long before Maria was born from my imagination and sent on her own tortuous journey back in time. She was me if I had woken up as my seventeen-year-old self the day after that patient had walked out of my office all those years ago. Unprepared, naïve, and terrified that she might never find her way back home.
In many ways, Maria’s character was based on my own experiences and my own life as a psychiatrist. But in many more important ways, she is a means through which we can explore the mysterious and often unexplainable aspects of life. She is the embodiment of what if in the world of psychiatry.
It’s all fiction, of course. As a psychiatrist, I understand the pathophysiology that goes along with these diagnoses, and I think it is a disservice to psychiatry, to both practitioners and patients, to suggest that there isn’t a biological basis to these illnesses. There absolutely is. But as a storyteller, as an author of speculative fiction, and a believer in the divine, I have found the question of what if too fascinating to ignore.
Pre-order a Copy of She Wouldn’t Change a Thing—available August 10th!