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.