It’s time for another MHAM guest post! Today’s post comes from Lila over at The Bookkeeper’s Secrets. Lila’s post is about her experience with generalized anxiety disorder, and tips for authors planning to write about mental illness. Thanks for sharing your story, Lila!
Hiya! My name is Lila and I blog at The Bookkeeper’s Secrets! I’m so happy about this series of guest posts that Amber has put together for Mental Health Awareness Month and that I can be a part of it. My experience with mental illness has shaped a lot of who I am today and, consequently, mental illness is a big passion point for me. Today I’ll be talking about my experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and some tips that I, personally, have for authors writing about mental illness. So let’s begin!
MY EXPERIENCE WITH GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER
When I was about 4 or 5 I had my first true experience with fire. I heard a passing story on the news or in conversation or somewhere about a house burning to the ground and taking the family in it with it. It wasn’t personal. I didn’t know the family or anything. But it was enough.
From that point on, I was fixated on fire, on the way it could just take everything and everyone you love from you in an instant, with no thought to how you felt about it. And my fixation extended beyond fire in its pure form to anything that even caused fire. Lightning strikes a tree? Boom. Fire. Exposed electrical wires? Fire. The outlet sparks when you plug something in? There could be a fire. Stove left on for too long? You got it: fire.
My thoughts were plagued by worries and fears about these things to the point that even educating myself about fire and it’s causes and the likeliness of anything catching fire couldn’t assuage me. Everything I saw was colored by the question, “What if that could cause a fire?”
This was my first true experience with anxiety. You see, anxiety is more than just fear. It is terror and the fixation on that terror and the repetitive thoughts that fixation causes.
I eventually overcame my fear of fire, but it was replaced by a fear of elevators. I could barely ride in one without shaking with fear, plagued by thoughts of, “But what if we get stuck? What if the cables snap and we fall???”
That too I overcame, but I soon found that my fear of elevators would be eclipsed by the most powerful and all-encompassing fear which I have ever faced: my extreme fear of failure.
See, I thought I knew fear before and that I could face it. It’s easy when a fear is tangible, when you can see it, taste it, smell it, touch it, feel it. Then you can literally face it over and over again until you are fine. But imperfection? That’s intangible. And how can you fight an invisible enemy?
This is all that I struggle with every day. Fixation on an invisible fear that I have no clue how to rid myself of. But I try anyway. I get up despite the fact that I might fall (and despite the fact that my mind screams that falling equals death).
MY TIPS FOR WRITING ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS
Now, I tend to shy away from contemporaries dealing with mental illnesses because I can find them too triggering or overwhelming. BUT! That being said, I do love it when mental illness is represented in literature and I would love to see more books about mental illnesses across genres. I think, especially in the YA community, which is what I’m a part of, it is so very important for people to see that they’re not alone and to see that there is hope. Mental illness, when written about in a respectful manner, can be one of the most moving, inspirational topics. But you have to do it well. You have to be aware.
I must stress that these tips are based my personal experience. These are things that I personally would like to see. They may not be true for everyone with mental illness.
Here are some of the things I think authors should keep in mind when writing about mental illnesses.
1. I cannot stress this enough. Mental illness is not beautiful or profound and philosophical or romantic. Mental illness is ugly and raw. It’s life warping and life changing. It’s not always a vehicle of philosophical transformation and it most certainly is not something to be romanticized. It’s an illness, just like cancer or AIDs and to say or imply otherwise can be really insulting.
2. Mental illness is not always some big, dramatic thing. It can be, but usually, it’s quiet and insidious.
3. No one’s experience with mental illness is ever the same. There is no “formula” to write a great book about someone suffering with mental illness. That being said, there are “themes” which we all experience: the doubt, the fear, the sadness and heartbreak. It seems to me that the one root thing across the broad spectrum of mental illness that all of us have in common is fear, whether that be fear that you can’t discern between reality and what’s in your head or the fear of reality or relapse.
4. There’s never a “quick, easy, and simple” fix for a mental illness—in the long run or in the middle of an episode. You can’t simply “think different thoughts” or “change your perception” and have it go away instantly. These things take time and treatment.
5. Mental illnesses have physical manifestations which can be just as devastating and terrifying (for example increased heart rate, lethargy, migraines, etc.). These physical symptoms are part of what is so overwhelming about mental illness—you feel mental and emotionally like you cannot do something, but your body also feels like it cannot do something because you are sick. Research what physical symptoms go along with the mental illness(es) you are including in your novel and be sure to write about them when your character has an episode.
6. It is important to understand that under the banner of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, there are many subsets which affect people’s experiences. For example, I have anxiety but the form I have is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is very different from social anxiety. It’s like saying two patients have cancer, but one of them has lung cancer and one of them has brain cancer. Do the illnesses have general similarities? Yes. But are the specifics of the illness the same and are people’s experiences of those illnesses the same? Heck no!
7. It is important to remember and represent that people do recover and they can get treatment, but it’s not instant and to remember that it’s often is a fight for someone’s life. Because mental illness does take away and take people’s lives, metaphorically and literally. Often mental illness leaves you in a state of existence where the only emotions you experience are sadness and fear and as much as any medication may support healing, the person still has the major task of recovering their life.
8. It’s a delicate balance because the last thing I want to read about is the nitty gritty of someone else dealing with the same fears and anxiety I do, unless that book also gets to the heart of what I can do to regain everything that I sometimes feel that I’ve lost.
9. Lastly, you may ask why am I personally am such a big advocate for representing mental illness across grenres and not just in contemporaries? I have found that one of the best books for me that has helped me with anxiety is Veronica Roth’s Diivergent. Now Tris doesn’t have a mental illness, but she faces many things that I, as someone with anxiety, have faced. She is put in a fear simulator to face her worst fears and the only way to get out of it is for her to recognize that what is happening isn’t real and to face her fears head on. That’s something that I, as someone with anxiety, have to do daily! I could easily recognize the message about fear and anxiety that Roth conveys. If that same message had been presented in a contemporary about a character dealing with debilitating anxiety, I might have found that book too triggering and overwhelming to even begin. In a similar vein, many of my friends with depression have found J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the messages it conveys very meaningful. Again, it does not address mental illness head on, but the themes and messages it conveys can easily be applied to mental illness. If you are trying to write about how to handle mental illness or what it’s like inside the mind of someone who is struggling with a mental illness, sometimes it is best to come at it from the side, because a head on story can be too triggering or overwhelming.
That’s for my part! Again I must stress that this is based on my experience alone, but I hope you found it helpful!
Please keep in mind that everyone experiences their mental illness and/or mental health struggles in different ways. One person’s experiences may be different from someone else coping with the same diagnosis.
The views, opinions and positions expressed in guest posts are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, and positions of Book Stacks Amber. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. Copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them.