Review Wednesday: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve been meaning to talk about 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher for nearly three years. It is one of the most moving books I’ve read, and it goes well with this month’s topic. I believe, quite simply, that it is the best book ever written about suicide.

Synopsis: Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker—his classmate and crush—who committed suicide two weeks earlier.

On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out how he made the list.

Through Hannah and Clay’s dual narratives, debut author Jay Asher weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that will deeply affect teen readers.

Review: 

I think that every teen should read this book. I think that everyone who works with teens or has teens or lives in the human race, possibly, should read this book. It’s about more than suicide. It is also, strongly, about the affects of sexual objectification, harassment, and assault. It’s possible that the teen boys who treat girls like pieces of meat don’t know how deeply that can affect them, so this book is for them. But it is, also, about suicide. About a girl who has given up hope, and about a good boy who wanted to help and couldn’t.

It’s not an easy book, but I think it’s important for everyone to read for a number of reasons. For anyone who works with teens, this book provides a roadmap of what to look for and listen for in students to indicate that they are considering suicide. Sudden changes of appearance, giving away possessions, actually reaching out for help and saying you feel hopeless. For non-suicidal students, it is an exercise in awareness-raising, how your words and deeds can affect someone else. And also, a call to have a little courage and go the extra mile when you can tell someone is struggling. But for suicidal students, and this might be the most powerful–and delicate–point to the book, it is a voice of reality saying you always have a choice.

The book is written as an extended suicide note interspersed between the narration of the boy who could have helped Hannah. Who wanted to help Hannah. Who was perhaps too cowardly, in the end, to help Hannah, but who would have been there if she’d tried. And she didn’t. Over and over he asks, while he listens, why she didn’t tell him. Why she didn’t get help. And he guesses the answer: she didn’t really want help.

No two people can ever know each other, really. We can never know what is going on in another’s life, or how another is feeling, or what they are really thinking about. But our lives are inextricably linked, nonetheless. And in each interaction, we have a choice: we can choose to listen, and we can choose to open up and speak. We can choose to connect. In the end, this book is a plea to do just that. If you are hurting: speak. If you are with someone who is hurting: listen.

Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

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Suicide & Mental Illness Theme Read at Resistance is Futile

I’m so glad to discover how many thoughtful, articulate people are engaging in discussion about this topic in the blogosphere right now. I re-posted Ann Jacobus‘ and Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s thoughts about national suicide prevention month. And now I’ve discovered someone else, Rachel Bradford, who is hosting a whole two-month mental health “theme read” on her blog, Resistance is futile. Her post is especially useful because she has compiled a number of very good resources and book/movie recommendation lists.

Hey everyone. September has come and the first week of the annual Suicide and Mental Illness Awareness Theme Read has begun!
As I’ve said repeatedly during my “plug-my-own-event” campaign, it is very important for people to be open and supportive about mental illness and suicidal ideation. Some people have absolutely no empathy for suicide – they feel that if someone wants to die, let them die. What these people fail to see is that suicidal people are ill. Their perception of reality is often distorted, and they honestly feel that death is the only way out. They need to be reminded of why life is wonderful. They need (and want!) help. Suicide is a tragedy – not only for the individual, but for all the friends and family.
Stigma pollutes our culture, discouraging people who need help from speaking out – it’s the people who talk who end up healing. We need more healthy people in the world, and suicide and mental illness advocacy is one way to promote this goal.
To participate, all you need to do is post about something related to suicide and / or mental illness. This can be a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve watched, or just some random thoughts you want to share. You can share publicly on FB or Goodreads etc if you don’t have a blog. So anyone can participate.Here is a list of movies and book suggestions that I posted a few weeks ago:

Popular Mental Illness books (Goodreads list) – Several of the books on this list I have already read or are on my TBR mountain.

11 of the most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels – This is a pretty interesting article with some good suggestions. And don’t miss the embedded list of 20 Greatest Memoirs of Mental Illness.

Mental Illness in Fiction (Wikipedia) – This interesting list includes some much older books as well as some unexpected inclusions (LOTR? – Ok, yeah, I guess Golem was mentally ill, but…it DOES make kind of a fun list, though. And you can feel free to be )

Contemporary YA books featuring mental illness – What is a list of books without YA these days? <img style='border: 0; padding:0'  src='http://us.i1.yimg.com/us.yimg.com/i/mesg/emoticons7/3.gif' alt=';)'/>

NAMI Blog: The Top 10 Movies about Mental Illness - This is a really good list (should be, coming from NAMI). I’ve seen 6 of them. 

10 Gripping Films about Mental Illness – This list seems pretty good, as well.

10 Best Portrayals of Mental Illness in Modern Movies – This list, I suspect, is more about the acting than about psychology. From I totally agree with the assessment of great acting on this list!

 

 

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Thoughts From Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Suicide Prevention: The Special Day Over, the Work Begins

Lyn Miller-Lachmann (who I’ve talked about repeatedly, but most notably here and here) just posted a great article on her own blog about suicide prevention year round. I thought I’d include it below to add to our discussion. I especially like how she focuses on connectedness. (All the Lego photos are her own work, as well.)

Suicide Prevention: The Special Day Over, the Work Begins

We have a tendency to declare special days and months for important causes, and once the time is over, to forget about them. For example, we publish books and run TV specials for Black History Month in February, which then provides an excuse for the lack of diversity in media for the other eleven months of the year.

My contribution to the CSP's program on Connectedness.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. As a result of my Lego photography andtribute to Robin Williams, I was invited to contribute some photographs to the Calgary, Alberta-based Centre for Suicide Prevention’s display on the theme of Connectedness. The CSP planned to use the photos in association with a live Lego building event to demonstrate the importance of social connectedness in reducing the incidence of what is now the single biggest cause of death of men under 50 in the UK. In the US, suicide ranks second in causes of death among college-age men and women.

While helping the CSP with their social media campaign, I read various articles that deepened my awareness of the problem. This month Pam Watts is devoting her blog, Strong in the Broken Places, to articles, interviews, and book reviews on mental health issues. Ann Jacobus, who put me in touch with the CSP, offers a concise and well written overview on her blog, along with phone numbers for hotlines in various English-speaking countries. Cheryl Rainfield, an author for teens who has written powerfully about her own struggles with self-harm, posted links on various social media outlets to her list of “Reasons Not to Kill Yourself, If You’re Thinking of Suicide.” It’s worth reading carefully, because she’s been there.

The-Impossible-Knife-of-MemoryAt the time that Ann contacted me, I was nearing the end of Laurie Halse Anderson’s most recent novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory. A fan of her earlier Speak andWintergirls, I was especially interested in the new one because it features a teenager coping with her father’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — a similar situation to the one my characters Daniel in Gringolandia and Tina inSurviving Santiago face with their father. The circumstances are different — Anderson’s protagonist, Hayley Kincain, is an only child who lives with her single father, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and her novel highlights the challenges that veterans of those wars face along with their families. Hayley’s closeness to her father means that she has absorbed the hyper-alertness, paranoia, and emotional numbness and detachment characteristic of PTSD. She lives in fear that her father will kill himself, a fear that turns out to be well-founded. The conflict comes because Hayley needs to get on with her life, but she is the only person who connects her damaged father to the real world, and even she is starting to crack.

In my forthcoming (2015) Surviving Santiago the other characters are aware of Marcelo’s fragile state, and they have formed a “security detail” to watch over him. He believes, as does Tina when she first arrives in Chile from the US to visit him, that this security detail is to protect him from his political enemies, but within her first week she comes to realize that the political situation is far less dangerous to him than his own mind. Those around Marcelo have already taken away guns, knives, ropes, and access to pills (things that remain tantalizingly close to Hayley’s father), but they cannot change his reckless disregard for his own safety in what is still a volatile political situation. When Tina arrives, fresh and naïve and with her own agenda, she disrupts the balance, but can her desire to connect with her father give him the strength to save himself?

There are a number of books for teens that explore suicide and what went wrong, Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why being the most famous. From my own experience and reading, the most important thing to keep in mind here is — just as the CSP highlighted — Connection. In the articles I’ve linked, you will find myths debunked and suggestions made, both for the person considering suicide and for those around him or her. My number one suggestion is Don’t Be Alone/Don’t Let Someone Get into a Place Where He or She Feels All Alone.

When it counts, Gabby the Skate Girl listens.

I have never attempted suicide, but I have thought about it, and there have been times when I have felt all alone in the world. It’s a terrible place to be.

There are times when I have been all alone and tried to reach out, and people have slapped my hand away. That will happen to you too. Some people are jerks. Others are trying to save themselves, and they think this is the only way to do it because we live in a dog-eat-dog society. Others may want to help but don’t know how — like Kiara in my novel Rogue, they don’t know how to be a friend. But just because one person turns away doesn’t mean the next person will. People also change, as shown in The Impossible Knife of Memory. If you haven’t been there for someone else in the past, you can change too. The resources in these links can help you become more aware, more capable of connecting with someone who is hurting and bring him or her to a place where there’s expert help.

Suicide prevention is a year-round effort. It’s time to learn more and do more to help.

 

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Writing Mental Illness: An Interview with Debut Author Rachel M. Wilson

I’m very excited today to feature the fabulous debut author Rachel M. Wilson, whose novel Don’t Touch  I got to review last week. (Remember: the person who comments the most this month wins the ARC!)

I knew when we were in workshop together at Vermont College of Fine Arts that Rachel was a wonderful writer. But after reading Don’t Touch, I also think she’s an important writer. There are not many books that are so honest about mental illness and so empathetic towards teens who are struggling. We need many more narratives like this. I was delighted that she agreed to sit down and answer a few of my questions about her own experiences, about writing about mental illness, and about kids who are struggling. Thanks for tuning in to join us!

Would you be willing to share a little more about your own experiences with anxiety and OCD?

Sure. Around age ten, I started experiencing OCD symptoms, mostly magical thinking and handwashing. Magical thinking is akin to a very strong superstition—believing that something you do or fail to do might have consequences. In one of the first episodes I remember, I was watching TV and saw a disturbing commercial—there were several that really bothered me, one about AIDS and one about the destruction of the environment—and I had the thought of making a bet that I could keep my eyes closed for three minutes straight or else something horrible would happen. I closed my eyes, and then realized I had no way to time myself, so I sat there with my eyes closed through a whole TV show to make sure it had been a full three minutes. The tricky thing about OCD is that you know these rules don’t make logical sense, but there’s enough doubt that the idea of breaking them is terrifying. It isn’t worth the risk.

The handwashing attracted attention because it made my skin raw. I saw a psychologist for a while, but I didn’t like talking to her, and I was really good at pretending nothing was wrong, so I shifted to compulsions that were easier to hide. The people around me were caring and perceptive, but I kept my OCD hidden for about four more years. Eventually, I was under so much stress and so upset all the time that it became clear I needed help. I visited a psychiatrist and started taking medicine. Throughout high school, I continued to be anxious and shy, kind of coming to terms with what all this meant. The experience raised a lot of questions for me about the brain and personality and how much we’re in control of ourselves.

What was it like for you to write this book? Every book is challenging, obviously, but was it a triggering experience for you, or was it freeing? (Or anything else . . .)

I wouldn’t say it was triggering. I experienced some anxiety while writing tense scenes, but in an excited writerly way – like, ooh, I’m feeling this. When I first started writing about a girl with OCD, I did feel like I was doing something a little taboo and daring. I felt very close to the text and to Caddie, and that’s probably part of why I abandoned it for a number of years. I think I needed more distance from my own experience to be able to write fiction inspired by it. By the time I was writing the version that currently exists, I had a good bit of distance, both from that experience and from Caddie as a character.

What is the difference and relationship between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder?

OCD is one of many types of anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder. When people talk about “anxiety disorder,” they may be referring to generalized anxiety disorder, which involves ongoing and exaggerated worry and stress but not the compulsions associated with OCD. It’s common for people who experience one type of anxiety disorder to experience another, and it’s also common for anxiety disorders to co-occur with depression or other mood disorders. Whatever combination of biology, genetics, and life stress makes a person vulnerable to one of these disorders often seems to include a vulnerability to a spectrum of symptoms.

In Don’t Touch, Caddie’s OCD becomes much worse when her father leaves, but it’s suggested that her struggles go beyond that, that perhaps there is even a genetic component. What is the relationship between anxiety and stress? Is OCD always brought on by stress?

Well, as a caveat, I’m no expert, and even among experts, the exact causes of most mental health problems still aren’t clear. With OCD, though, we do know that it’s related to an imbalance of serotonin in the brain, and also to heightened activity in some parts of the brain. There’s strong evidence that OCD is at least in part genetic—people with OCD are four times more likely than the average person to have a close relative with OCD. Studies have identified some potential genetic markers for OCD and even a causal relationship between strep throat and some types of OCD.

It’s also pretty clear that stress alone doesn’t cause OCD—a lot of our storytelling tropes around mental illness suggest that there’s always some single, triggering event that brings it on, but that’s rarely the case. That’s why I wanted to make it clear that Caddie’s father leaving wasn’t the start of her illness. It is true that stress makes these disorders much worse—someone with a vulnerability to anxiety may not have major problems until an extreme life event creates so much stress that regular coping mechanisms no longer suffice. Other times, the symptoms appear with no triggering event, seemingly out of nowhere. That’s how my own symptoms were, and it’s very frustrating to have people seek out some underlying cause for (or completely dismiss) a disorder that’s largely biological.

Several of Caddie’s friends realize what is going on with her by the end of the book, and they are very supportive of her. How easy is it to tell that someone has OCD? Do people usually notice?

That probably depends on the symptoms. Very young children are less likely to hide their symptoms, so it’s often easier to see it in them, and when OCD is very severe, sufferers of any age are less able to resist or delay acting on compulsions that draw attention to the problem. But secrecy does seem to go hand in hand with OCD, and it’s probably under-diagnosed because of that. People with OCD are often very good at hiding their symptoms, and even when the symptoms are noticed, they may be misinterpreted. For example, when I washed my hands raw, my parents and doctors thought I might have an allergy, and when I repeatedly asked to go to the bathroom to wash my hands, my fourth grade teacher thought I might have diabetes. When circumstances made acting on compulsions very difficult—like when I was at summer camp—I was able to set them aside for a time. Of course, the pressure to keep the problem secret creates its own stress and is incredibly isolating. Once a sufferer gets past the shame and secrecy associated with the disorder, it’s much easier to approach treatment.

What signs can we look for in the children and teens we work with to tell that they are struggling with anxiety or OCD?

For OCD, some signs are repetitive behaviors like tapping or flicking a light switch, a need to have objects or rituals just so, dry or raw hands, an obsessive approach to cleanliness or exercise or religion, repeated questions as if double-checking to make sure the answer was heard correctly or rereading passages to make sure no word was skipped. One tricky sign is an exactness of speech—repeating or clarifying something that’s just been said or apologizing for a statement that was inexact or metaphorical. Many compulsions (and worries in general) happen in thought—repeated praying or counting or mantras—and from the outside, this might look like spaciness, poor attention, or aloof contemplation.

For kids with OCD or anxiety, tension is a major symptom, and this might show up in the form of headaches, jaw pain, stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, or nightmares. Worries and fears that are blown out of proportion and that don’t pass with time are another sign. A kid who won’t talk about their compulsive rituals might still be willing to talk about the obsessive thoughts he or she finds disturbing.

On a positive note, it seems that creativity and intelligence are often associated with anxiety and mood disorders. They don’t always go together, but if a gifted child seems to be under unusual stress or troubled excessively by fear and worry, it’s worth delving deeper.

How can we support them once we do realize it?

It’s important to let them know that you support them and that you’re open to talking about anything. At the same time, I think it’s important not to get maudlin or pitying or to treat them like a victim. You might feel very bad for a kid who’s suffering, and expressing empathy is great, but no one likes to hear, “I feel so bad for you,” or, “this must be so hard for you,” or, “I can’t imagine how awful it must be to be you,” over and over. OCD and anxiety are both treatable and common—certainly not the end of the world—so while it’s important to take them and the suffering they cause seriously, I also think it’s important to normalize that experience, to share what’s known about the biology of the disorders, and to keep a sense of humor.

Do you have any suggested resources?

As a kid, I benefitted a lot from reading Judith L. Rapaport’s The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. It includes really interesting accounts from a variety of OCD patients, but it was first published in 1989, so the science around OCD has developed a lot since then.

Parentbooks also has a pretty great booklist geared toward a range of age groups, some of which delve more specifically into a particular type of OCD: http://www.parentbooks.ca/Obsessive-Compulsive_Disorder.html

The internet was not a thing when I was in high school, but there are tons of websites for kids with OCD, and online support can be really helpful.

 

And just for fun: the book trailer for Don’t Touch just came out and it’s great.

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National Suicide Prevention Month: Thoughts from Ann Jacobus

Ann Jacobus posted on her blog about National Suicide Prevention Month. I’m reposting because there are a lot of important facts on thoughts here that directly relate to this month’s discussion. Thanks Ann! Also, stay tuned for an interview with Rachel Wilson about Anxiety, OCD, and her debut novel Don’t Touch on wednesday.

Granted, it’s not a cheerful subject, but what we should be upbeat about is that suicide is slowly emerging into the light to be discussed, and understood and diminished.

In the U.S. death by suicide is the third largest killer of young adults, the second of college age kids. It’s the single biggest cause of death of men under 50 in the UK. Yikes. #mandown 

Some 40,000 people kill themselves in the US each year. As many as ten times that number make an attempt. And yet for so long almost no one has wanted to talk about it, at all.

Suicide has been a problem for humanity since recorded history. In the west, during Roman times it was considered tragic, but sometimes noble. By the Middle Ages however, a suicide’s corpse was desecrated, their estates were stripped of property and their families ostracized.

Harsh.

Even though that was many hundreds of years ago, maybe that’s why the stigma is still hard to shake. And families of suicide victims can still feel like that.

The recent death by suicide of actor Robin Williams brought the subject into the limelight once again.

A person who is having suicidal thoughts or worse, more actively planning it, is suffering under tremendous pressure with inadequate resources to cope.  It can happen to almost anyone.

Think of it like a balance.

Stressors versus ability to cope

On the “coping” side is that which gets us through hard times: our attachments and relationships–both intimate and with our community(s); our fundamental feelings of worth as humans; physical and mental health; and our abilities and habits to process stress.

If this coping “side” is lacking, then it takes less on the other side to push us into crisis.

On the other side is the tough stuff: familial and societal pressures, past trauma or abuse. Personality factors, such as sensitivity, and impulsiveness, can play into the equation as well.

Substance abuse magnifies anything on this heavy “side” significantly.

If we get out of balance during a normal developmentally stressful time, such as puberty, when leaving home, marriage, birth of children, or retirement, the “scales” are further tipped against us.

Then, a precipitating event such as recent trauma, death of a loved one, a break-up, lost job, health set back, etc. sometimes even seemingly positive changes such as a move, or a new job happens, and wham. We’re fully overwhelmed.

We can support the mental and physical strain of being overwhelmed–in crisis–only so long (not very).

When a person feels isolated and alone with their pain, or it’s simply too much to bear even WITH support, a person starts to consider the only thing that can put an end to their suffering. Death at their own hand.

No one really wants to die. They want the pain to lessen.

Fortunately, there are more and more resources available in most communities to help those in crisis.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call a local crisis line.

In the U.S. and Canada, it’s 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In the U.K., contact the Samaritans at +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK – local rate).  And from 5pm – midnight, GMT call the CALM Helpline at 0800-58 58 58

It’s 13 11 14 within Australia.

If you know someone who might be feeling desperate or suicidal, talking about suicide with themDOES NOT put the idea in a person’s head.

It’s already there.

Talking about it with someone (and listening) can begin to relieve the unendurable pressure and may make a lifesaving difference.

SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE.

Please talk about it…

And have a balanced, happy week.

 

 

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Review Wednesday: Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson (w Giveaway!)

I think I read part of what would become Don’t Touch when I first met Rachel Wilson at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I seem to recall that there was a dolphin in it at the time. Anyway, Rachel was a worldly and impressive upperclasswoman. I was always struck by her warmth and sense of humor. And I was in awe of her writing. But I had no idea that she had ever struggled with mental illness, herself.

Don’t Touch is a beautiful portrait of a young woman’s struggle with anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and the fear and longing to connect with others. Written deftly and with deep empathy by an author who has obviously owned her own experiences and used them to create something that has the power to help countless others.

Summary:

Caddie has a history of magical thinking—of playing games in her head to cope with her surroundings—but it’s never been this bad before.

When her parents split up, don’t touch becomes Caddie’s mantra. Maybe if she keeps from touching another person’s skin, Dad will come home. She knows it doesn’t make sense, but her games have never been logical. Soon, despite Alabama’s humidity, she’s covering every inch of skin and wearing evening gloves to school.

And that’s where things get tricky. Even though Caddie’s the new girl, it’s hard to play off her compulsions as artistic quirks. Friends notice things. Her drama class is all about interacting with her scene partners, especially Peter, who’s auditioning for the role of Hamlet. Caddie desperately wants to play Ophelia, but if she does, she’ll have to touch Peter…and kiss him. Part of Caddie would love nothing more than to kiss Peter—but the other part isn’t sure she’s brave enough to let herself fall.

From rising star Rachel M. Wilson comes a powerful, moving debut novel of the friendship and love that are there for us, if only we’ll let them in.

Review: 

This is a beautiful book. It brought tears to my eyes several times. It sent chills down my back. I recommend it to everyone just because it is really well-written, perfectly paced, and ultimately heart-warming. We know from the first chapter what Caddie struggles with and how it drags her life down and keeps her from doing what she really wants. The backstory of her parent’s divorce is flawlessly woven in, and her problems get worse and worse before they ever show signs of getting better. It is a brave book–it never flinches away from the real darkness in its portrayal. Yet somehow Caddie herself is beautiful enough and what she wants is hopeful enough, that the reader is never dragged down into too dark a place, herself. It is a lovely portrait of a young woman’s struggle to connect, which anyone can relate to.

But here’s why I think it’s an important book. It shows that someone can have the thought, “I’m crazy,” and still be OK and lovable. It shows that someone can struggle with severe mental illness and still be lovable. And it closes the gap between the “mentally ill” and other people. Human creatures are complex and we each deal with stress differently. Don’t Touch shows how one person deals with stress and pain, and it realistically explores how unique and metaphoric our experience of grief is. Caddie’s OCD belief is that she will literally break if someone touches her. Because she emotionally broke when her father left and didn’t touch her. So she becomes untouchable.

It also shows that we don’t need a degree in Psychology to help someone who is struggling with a severe mental illness. We just need to love them enough to learn to “read” the pattern behind their behaviors. But it also shows that even if someone struggling with a mental illness has the love and support of others, she ultimately still has to take responsibility for herself. Friends, family, therapists, lovers, drugs, can all help, but the person who’s struggling ultimately has to decide that she wants to get better and to take those first steps. I think this is a brave and empowering stance that sometimes gets denied.

I would recommend this book for all teens (and adults, really). Those who know nothing about mental illness will learn something that might help them with people in their lives or will create empathy by making them more aware of how others struggle. And they will probably see something they recognize in Caddie’s fear of following her dreams. Those who do know something about anxiety will see that they can choose to move towards health, and they will see what that journey looks like.

Stay tuned for an interview with Rachel next wednesday. And, again, the person who comments most this month will win an ARC of Don’t Touch.

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September Discussion: Mental Illness

When I was thirteen years old, things weren’t going so well for me at home. And at school, I was being bullied a lot. I was an honor roll student, so I was allowed to go out by myself into the courtyard during my lunch break–a privilege that few students enjoyed. There was a particular staircase that I would go hide behind to cry every day.

One day, my best frienemy said something a little crueler than usual at the lunch table. I left and went to the library, intent on shelving my books quickly (I was a school media aide) so that I could get to my safe hideaway. I entered the library and looked over at the shelf of non-fiction books to be put away and saw none for my section (the 700s), so I started to sign out. Then, out of nowhere, a boy appeared.

He was tall and skinny with wild, curly black hair and glasses. He looked a lot like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park  (who I thought was so dreamy.) But he also looked like a kid who I had probably seen a million times before but had never noticed. He told me his name was Roberto.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’ve got no books to shelve, so I’m leaving,” I said.

“Why don’t you shelve someone else’s books?”

“Because there are none.”

“There’s a whole shelf of fiction books over there.” He gestured to the other side of the library.

“I don’t know how to shelve fiction,” I said. Then he took my hands in his. He guided me to that side of the library, and he “showed” me. No boy had ever held my hand before.

It will surprise no one that we told each other our whole lives that lunch period. And the one the next day and the next day and the day after that. He told me that he had been abandoned in a basket when he was a baby. We squeezed ourselves between close stacks, our backs pressed together, to shelve books across from each other. He followed me to my locker and flirtatiously read my locker combination over my shoulder. He put his arms around me. His breath was warm on my cheek. A week after we first met, I went to bed and thought, “I can deal with anything now that I have Roberto.”

He never spoke to me again.

Another week passed, I finally gathered my courage and approached him again in the library. “So, you introduce yourself to me one day, and then a week later you just stop speaking to me altogether?” I said.

“Yupp,” he said.

A few days later, I was sitting in science class and another boy told me that some kid at his lunch table, “Robert or something,” was talking about what a “ho” I was. I called Roberto out in front of the buses that afternoon and screamed that if he ever said anything mean about me or any of my friends ever again, then I would kick his a**.

And then I was suicidal for awhile. Weeks, maybe months. It was all I could think of. Ways to do it, mostly. I’ve always had a practical streak. How deeply did you have to cut? Would a fall from my bedroom window be enough? Finally, one day near the end of eighth grade, I said to myself: “Pam, you can either do it, or you can change your life. But you can’t live like this anymore.”

I’m not sure why I chose to live. In hindsight, I see it as grace. At the time, I thought I was just too much of a coward to actually kill myself. But either way, I sat down with a journal (I still have this) and I made a list of all of the popular girls in the school. I wrote down why they seemed to be happy (clothes, hair, boys, grades, athletics etc. . . ) Then I added and subtracted that list from my soul. I intentionally changed myself that day to be like them so that I wouldn’t be miserable and picked on anymore. That’s what I had to do to go on living that day.

This wasn’t my only brush with mental illness growing up. I had been told as a child that my birth mother couldn’t raise me because she was bi-polar. The woman who did raise me struggled with severe depression that kept her in bed most days throughout my childhood and adolescence. I clearly remember my aunt’s suicide when I was five years old. And my cousin, her son, followed her when I was a sophomore in college.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of Robin Williams, an actor whose work I’ve always enjoyed, whose presence in the world I have always respected and admired. He always acted characters who were full of life and integrity. People who struggled and grew and lived lives with quiet meaning, depth, and humor. And he mad us all laugh. So much. Since his death, I’ve discovered that he supported good causes, without any fanfare,  in his personal life, as well. From the outpouring of grief I witnessed on social media, I know that my sadness over his suicide is shared by many.

As an adult, I’ve learned that far more people than I ever would have guessed struggle with or have struggled with mental illnesses of one kind or another–not just depression. Sometimes it seems as though mental illness is even more prevalent in the writing community than in society at large. But whether or not that is the case, most folks seem to suffer in silence. When someone does tell a story about mental illness, it almost has the tone of a “coming out” story.

I’ve also noticed that while there are often clear signs that a child is living in an abusive home situation, it is often very challenging to tell that a child is struggling with serious mental health issues. Why is that?

Let’s have a discussion about mental illness this month.

  • Do you have a story about mental illness–your own or a loved one’s–that you’d be willing to share?
  • What signs do you use to tell that a child is struggling?
  • How have you helped kids who are depressed, OCD, dissociating . . .?
  • What counts as a “mental illness”?
  • How do we treat “mental illness” in our society, and how does this affect those kids who are suffering?
  • What resources do you know of for helping kids deal? What books–fiction and non–are particularly good at talking about mental health issues?

What do you think?

The lovely and talented Rachel Wilson, who received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was in the program, will be on here later this month to talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and her debut novel Don’t Touch which will be released tomorrow. Please, stop by often this month to share your thoughts and glean wisdom from the other wise people in our midst. A copy of Don’t Touch will go to the person who comments most.

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