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The Silencing of Mental Health (and How to Stop It) by Jessica Sankiewicz

My dear friend (and YA/NA writer and poet) Jessica Sankiewicz (some of you may know her by her romance-writing alias Lilly Avalon) wrote an amazing post that, as soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to close out the event with. This post sums up why an event like Shattering Stigmas exists and why I will continue to kick and scream about mental health awareness. Thank you for writing this. You can find Jessica on Twitter and on her blog
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about these days is mental health. Not just my own mental health, but also people I personally know and even the ones I don’t. When you struggle with a mental illness, you can usually empathize with someone else who has one, or at least to some degree sympathize. And when you discover someone else who has experienced the same feelings and emotion as you have, you feel less alone.
Although a large percentage of people have a mental illness, there is still a huge gap between those who understand it and those who don’t. This gap has created a divide, and this divide has caused a fear of open discussion. While I’m more than willing to discuss mental health with certain people I trust, and to openly talk about my anxiety and depression online, I’ve been feeling that fear anytime it is brought up elsewhere.
Since I want to help others understand mental health better, I tend not to shy away from bringing it up when a discussion occurs. When I do speak up, however, there’s a moment with my words hanging in the air where one of two things happens. Either the person fully comprehends what I’m saying, or the person immediately puts their guard up. If it’s the former, everything is fine because we’re on the same wavelength. But if it’s the latter? They will then choose to steer the conversation elsewhere or simply stare.
That moment where I’m hoping for a mutual understanding and the other person doesn’t get it or refuses to? It’s painful. It makes me continue to talk, to attempt to make my point, to achieve some sort of positive reaction out of them… or it makes me shut up and wish I had never spoken in the first place.
That look, as though they are uncomfortable with my honesty, and possibly now uncomfortable with me? It hurts. It feels as though a relationship has changed entirely based on one single conversation.
And it makes me question why I even bother.
Here’s the deal, though… I have to stop myself from the negative thoughts. Does it bother me when I receive that bad reaction? You better believe it does. But if I choose to stop talking, I’m not helping erase the stigma surrounding mental illness. Even though I’m going to come across people who squirm, I can’t let their reaction cause me to close up. I spent years bottling up my emotions, not being able to make sense of them. There’s no reason for me to return to a place where I’m unable to be honest about my feelings.
So I would like you to know that if you’re fearful of speaking up, too, you’re not the only one. I’d also like you to know that you’re strong enough to speak up. Sure, we’re both going to face challenges when it comes to discussing mental health with those who refuse to truly listen. But we will find those who need to talk, who are grateful for us being brave enough to. That’s why I will never be silenced again.
Thank you so much, Jessica! And thank you to EVERYONE who has supported, written and boosted Shattering Stigmas these past two weeks. I’m grateful for all of you. 

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

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Shattering Myths Around Addiction by Paula Stokes

Y’all, I am…stoked…to welcome our next guest, Paula Stokes, to the blog to talk about an aspect of mental illness that I don’t think gets nearly the amount of attention, compassion and conversation that it deserves: addiction and substance abuse. I am so happy to welcome Paula back to Shattering Stigmas. Her book, Girl Against the Universe, was a gateway and a game changer for my own consideration of my mental illness and she is such a wonderful, compassionate gem of a person. I’m going to let Paula get to it because we have a lot to cover, but you can find Paula on Twitter and on her website. You should sign up for her newsletter and read all of her books, which include Girl Against the Universe, Hidden Pieces and This is How It Happened. Take it away, Paula!

Hi. I’m really psyched that I was invited back to Shattering Stigmas, one of the most thoughtful (and helpful!) blog series I’ve ever encountered. This year I’m going to share some myths about addiction. I’m passionate about this topic because I’ve been working with Substance Use Disorder patients for the last year and a half as an inpatient nurse and I know a lot about the stigmas they face—both inside the hospital and out. I would like to continue working with this population in the future as a counselor, so I’ve begun the coursework and supervised hours needed to become a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor in the state of Oregon. Although I’ve never been addicted to drugs or alcohol, I overcame a severe addiction to internet gaming back in college (the kind where my GPA went from 4.0 to 1.5 and I nearly lost my scholarship), so I can speak a little about the topic from my personal experiences too. Okay, let’s get started!

MYTH: Addiction is a choice.

Addiction is a brain disease. Sure, it’s technically true that unless someone is given something against their will (e.g. the way sex traffickers will try to get their victims addicted to drugs as a way to keep them controllable) that the person does make a choice to first try gambling, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or drugs, etc. But that choice is often legal, and one that many people make without ending up addicted. Sometimes the choice is even recommended by a physician. (Plenty of people got hooked on opioids after being prescribed them for post-surgical or post-injury pain.) Other times it’s simply a bad decision made without much thought when someone is feeling alone or in pain. We’ve all made bad decisions. The thing about addiction is that some of us are at a much higher risk of getting addicted after bad decisions than others.

Have you ever asked yourself why some people can go to a casino or have a few drinks and be fine while others get caught up in the spiral of addiction? I don’t want to bore everyone with a lot of biology, but you should know there are not only genetic components and environmental factors, there’s also an increased risk for people who endured multiple childhood traumas. There are even things that can happen when a baby is still in the mother’s womb that make them more likely to struggle with addiction later in life. I’m talking actual changes in brain development where the parts of our brains devoted to impulse control and decision-making suffer long-term impairment. So if you’ve ever compared yourself to an addict and assumed you were smarter, more disciplined, more moral, etc., the reality is you just might just have been blessed with different genes or a more stable childhood. For more on how adverse childhood experiences predispose people to addiction and other issues, read this short report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.CYCLE.jpg

MYTH: If addicts wanted to stop using drugs or alcohol, they would.

Once you become addicted to something, it’s really, really hard to quit. Again, there are multiple factors in play, but one reason has to do with the body’s natural tendency to work toward homeostasis. All of us are born with a certain amount of neurochemical receptors. When we experience pleasure, the brain releases neurochemicals like dopamine that make us feel good. When a person drinks alcohol (or uses other substances/engages in addictive behaviors), the amount of dopamine released is a lot more than when that same person experiences a natural high, like watching a sunset or getting a smile from someone we like.

This means the brain’s dopamine receptors get flooded and the body’s response is to try to return to a baseline level of dopamine by turning off some of the dopamine receptors. And that means after the first few times someone drinks, it’s going to take more alcohol to get that same euphoric feeling. And the more they drink, the more the body responds by shutting down additional receptors. Until eventually, the person is drinking because if they don’t, those natural highs aren’t nearly enough to make them feel good. Forget feeling euphoric. Now this person has to drink more and more alcohol just to keep from feeling terrible—sick, lethargic, depressed, etc. For more info on how addictions combine with our biology to trap people in a vicious cycle, check out this blog post from Harvard Medical School.

It is especially hard to quit if your life is full of other stressors. Whether it’s the stress of homelessness, the stress of mental illness, or the stress of being forced to work eighty hours a week as a brand new lawyer, it’s hard to fight an addiction if you’re already rundown from dealing with other difficult things. Just think about the last time you tried to make a healthy change in your life. Would you have been successful if you had to start from a place of balancing multiple struggles and feeling awful?

MYTH: Addicts are mostly criminals/homeless/impoverished/insert your generalization of choice here.

This is a thing people say because addiction is devastating to witness and no one wants to admit “Hey, that could be me someday.” Reality check: That could be you someday. Some addicts are criminals. Some are poor or homeless. And then some are wealthy country club members and some are CEOs. I personally have worked with corporate executives, doctors, nurses, cops, military officers, college athletes, models, upper-middle class new moms, and seventy-five-year-old grandmas, all of whom were addicted to alcohol or opiates. Addiction is a huge problem that affects all segments of society. If you have noticed the prevalence of addiction in certain groups over others, that’s probably because people of privilege have better access to treatment, and can also more easily hide their problems from the public.

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MYTH: Rehab doesn’t really work.

Not all types of rehab work for all people. Luckily there are lots of different types of programs, from inpatient medical detox to residential treatment to partial hospitalization to outpatient therapy. Not sure which path to take? Speak to your primary care provider or call around to find a treatment facility that does free assessments. No insurance? Google free or low-cost therapy for your town, or search via the SAMHSA website. Even no-cost support groups vary widely, from traditional twelve-step programs, to the cognitive behavioral therapy-focused SMART Recovery, to the Buddhism-inspired Refuge Recovery. Most support groups also offer online sessions for those who are housebound or lack access to transportation. There are options for everyone. People just need to find the right program that will work for them and their particular addiction.

Also, not all rehab is going to work the first time. Have you ever tried to lose weight or start a new exercise program or learn a new language? Were you immediately successful with no setbacks or relapses into your old habits? Probably not, an overcoming an addiction is even harder than doing any of those things. So if someone you love is on their third try to quit drinking or their fifth try to quit smoking, instead of being upset about how long it’s taking them, consider just being glad they haven’t given up, that they’re still committed to becoming a healthier person.

MYTH: People aren’t addicts if they can hold down jobs while using.

There are plenty of functional addicts. You are an addict if you meet even two of the eleven criteria as set forth in the DSM-V for Substance Use Disorders. If I use these criteria and extrapolate out to addictive behaviors, I am addicted to writing, Twitter, caffeine, chocolate, and exercise, among other things). And maybe you think, “Ah, but those aren’t bad addictions. Some of them might even be healthy!” I would disagree because…

MYTH: Some addictions are healthy.

Okay, this one is my opinion since what constitutes “healthy” is highly subjective. Sure, some addictions are less likely than others to kill you or make you wish you were dead. But if we’re using the official criteria for addiction, being addicted to anything represents a fundamental lack of balance. It says, “I prioritize this substance or activity so highly that I’m doing harm to other important areas of my life.” Nothing should be that important, should it? You tell me.

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If you’re interested in learning more about addiction, I highly recommend the book IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS, by Gabor Maté. He’s a Canadian physician who works with some of the country’s most severely addicted people. I read this for a class and it’s written in interesting, accessible prose that intertwines the author’s personal feelings with the medical, social, and political realities of addiction. CW: Maté is unflinchingly honest when describing the traumatic histories of the people he works with and the difficult realities they currently face. There are mentions of gross neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, as well as graphic descriptions of drug use.

One thing I learned from the book was this “equation” for addiction:

ADDICTIVE SUBSTANCE/ACTIVITY + RECEPTIVE ORGANISM + STRESS -> ADDICTION

I want to end with this because I think it’s a really good summary of addiction. We can’t do much about how receptive we are as organisms to addiction—a lot of that is coded into our biology and genetics. And some of us can’t necessarily avoid addictive substances/activities. After all, cigarettes and alcohol are available at most grocery stores and Facebook is available via almost every phone.

But what we can do is reduce stress—both our own and the stress of other people. Individually, we can start by practicing self-care. And I know that term has been distorted to mean a lot of silly things, but what I mean is simple stuff anyone can work toward—taking five minutes a day to meditate or relax, getting more sleep, taking breaks from being online, eating healthy at least occasionally.

Self-care also means asking for help. My internet gaming addiction was a direct result of a reality I couldn’t handle—I ended an emotionally abusive long-term relationship with my first serious boyfriend at the same time my parents were going through a bitter and contested divorce, which left me feeling completely alone to handle the aftermath of both events. I wasn’t really alone, though. I just opted to try to handle everything by myself instead of reaching out to a friend, a sibling, a counselor, or even my college advisor.

And yes, I know that in some cases (clinical depression for example) that it’s almost impossible for a person to reach out for help, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I could have sought assistance in dealing with my own breakup and my parents’ divorce. I didn’t because I thought needing help would mean I was weak. Wrong, wrong wrong! If you take one thing away from this post, please let it be this: ASKING FOR HELP IS BRAVE.

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With respect to others, reducing stress means being supportive when it comes to your friends and family and practicing compassion when it comes to strangers. Addiction is a huge, huge problem worldwide and it’s true that we can’t help people who aren’t yet ready to help themselves. But we can behave in ways where we don’t make the problem even worse.

Do you need help? Start here. Or call the Drug and Alcohol Helpline at 1-800-923-4357.

Thank you SO much Paula! I learned a lot from this post and I hope if you’re reading this, you did too!

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

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Rooted by Cassandra Chaput

I love welcoming writers to talk about their work during Shattering Stigmas. Today, I am welcoming Cassandra Chaput, the author of the poetry collection Rooted to talk about mental health and share a lovely poem with us. Follow Cassandra on her blog, on Instagram @Folded_corners and on Twitter. You can buy Rooted here.

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Hi everyone! My name is Cassandra Chaput. I am a Canadian writer and blogger, here to talk about mental illness.

The stigma around mental illness continues to be a big problem in society today. It shouldn’t be something we feel the need to hide.

Everyone needs a safe space to talk about their struggles…We need more access to resources for mental health help.

Don’t be ashamed if you have anxiety, depression, any mental illness. It does not define you. You are so much more than your illness.

My debut poetry collection, Rooted, has lots of focus on mental health, as well as other topics such as love and heartbreak, self-improvement, and self-love.

The poem below is the first one in my book, inspiring the title of my collection.

Don’t let the winds tear you down.
You’ll make it through this storm.
Rooted
I am rooted.
A tree standing tall, resilient in the harsh, blowing winds.
Strong I stand.
I feel the storm arrive.
The clouds surround the sun, suffocating its light, allowing for dark days.
There are days when the ghosts whisper in my ears, making me question all that I know.
There are days when the clouds cry, making the ground muddy from their tears.
I walk, and feel stuck.
Unable to move
My feet are slowly sinking into the earth
I feel like crying with the clouds.
But I’m too strong for that.
The winds are powerful, and I feel like anything could knock me over.
I’m not the best with balance, but I’m getting there.
My feet are still learning how to support the body they were blessed to be a part of
although they don’t always see it as a blessing.
I want to hide
To block out everything around me and just, be
But rather than hide away, I need to force myself to grow and bloom.
I need to stand strong and face the ghosts, the demons, that try to attack me.
The storm blows strong, but I am stronger.
I am rooted.
A tree standing tall, resilient in the harsh, blowing winds.
Strong I stand.
Rooted

Thank you so much, Cassandra!

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

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Q&A with Em Ali

One of the joys about Shattering Stigmas to me is the chance to hear about mental health and mental wellness from so many different perspectives. Today I am so happy to welcome Em to the blog, who I talked to about writing anxiety, mental health recs and more. You can find Em on Twitter

Tay: In your book Soft on Soft, you include mental illness (anxiety) representation in a fluffy book. Can you talk a bit about your decision to include that representation and why it was important for you to include?

Em: It was more of instinct than decision that made me write June (the main character of Soft on Soft) as anxious. I felt like I had to portray my own experience with anxiety especially relating to June’s feelings concerning how social media has made so much of her life public even if she didn’t want a certain aspect to be so. I wanted to portray how some people like June who are comfortable with their sexualities, comfortable with their bodies, might still be extremely uncomfortable with sharing their lives with people online. That’s how I felt sometimes whenever I’d share something that’d get any kind of negative reaction.

Tay: Can you talk a bit more about managing your own mental health as a writer? How do you decide how personal to get when writing about mental health issues and how do you navigate the stresses of mental illness with the stress of being creative?

Em: Honestly, my mental health has taken a dip since the release of the book. Anxiety quite literally made me so unsatisfied with Soft on Soft that after four days of releasing it I thought to delete it. I wanted to refund people (which I have; in a moment of panic) and to disappear. This wasn’t because I was defensive but because I had extreme negative thoughts about my writing. Voicing these issues is extremely personal to me and I’m extremely cautious not to over-share on Twitter. As you have read, I don’t really know how to be creative and mentally unstable. I definitely am looking towards a solution, though.

As for writing about mental health issues…It’s just always going to be something I will do. I want to share the troubles people like me face. People who live in negative environments that don’t support them. People who can’t share who they are, whether it’s expressing their sexuality or gender. My people, who have to rely on social media to find validation. Who need books in which the characters share those anxieties and troubles. But I also decided that I won’t let mental health issues be the sole representation I give to people who read my words. I want to give them a happy ending no matter how unrealistic it might seem to people. I want to give them close to no conflict. I want to send a message of: your mental health issue should never be a problem for a significant other.

Tay: You’re a huge fan of romance books. Can you talk a bit about representation of mental illness in romance books that you’ve read, what you’ve liked and didn’t like?

Em: The very first time I read a depressed heroine, who is also a woman of color (Hawaiian-Japanese), I cried. Her name is Livvy and she’s the heroine of Alisha Rai’s Hate to Want You. Livvy’s struggle with depression, how it shaped her decisions and her life and ultimately what stirred her to snatch her happily ever after, resonated with me.

Another representation of depression I recently read and loved is Hannah of Talia Hibbert’s Untouchable. It’s Hannah’s anger and negative feelings that would surface through her mind and coat her tongue with all the negative things she couldn’t let in. It’s Hannah’s need to control so much of her life just to feel a semblance of stability.

Other romance books with mental illness representation I loved are Wrapped by Rebekah Weatherspoon (anxiety), The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (anxiety), and Mr. Hotshot CEO by Jackie Lau (depression.)

*Note: I know the questions asks about ones I didn’t like but I honestly don’t bother reading books without content warnings and if someone tells me MI is used as a tool to further the plot or to magically disappear when the big ILY moment happens, I don’t read it. So, I am glad I don’t have books like that.

Tay: Shattering Stigmas is an event centered on continuing conversations around mental illness to debunk the stigmas around it. Why is talking about mental health important to you? 

Em: Because I can’t pray away depression. I can’t just casually wake up at 7 am and work a 9 – 5 job. Because mental health has made feel alone and only talking about it opened the door for friends and family to reach out and help me.

Tay: What types of mental health issues or mental illnesses would you like to see more widely or better represented in books?

Em: I would like to see intersectionality when it comes to representation of mental illness. I want LGBTQIAP+ people to see that developing mental health issues is totally not something bad. I want Arab people to know that they can and should seek out help and that praying five times a day shouldn’t be their only way of finding peace. I want marginalized people to know they are not weaker for being mentally ill.

Tay: What mental health/mental illness tropes are you tired of seeing in books?

Em: If I’m talking romance, it’s definitely the way romance idealists think finding a partner erases mental illness, that “if you can’t love yourself you can’t love anyone else,” which is such a wrong statement, and the fact that people in relationships might even think that just because they’re in a relationship means they should be “happy.” Mental illness doesn’t disappear if someone finds companionship.

Tay: What do you wish bloggers did to make the bookish online a community a better place re: discussing mental illness?

Em: Definitely allowing space for mentally ill bloggers who aren’t white allo cis het to express their anger, their bitterness, their negativity. Let’s be real, we don’t really like talking about negative things when it comes to mental illness. I want bloggers to know that they are allowed the range of emotion and not fear that people will judge them for it.

Tay: What are your top self care tips, tricks and secrets?

Em: Sleep is my automatic response to a depressive episode. Also, crying. I’ve found that once I released my emotions whether talking about what’s bothering me or just crying over a sad line in a song (hello, Nobody by Mitski will give you a good cry,) always helps. I also like to ease myself into a good mood with the use of a good book. Sometimes I’d re-read an old favorite fanfic or short story.

Thank you so much, Em!

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

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Q&A with Fadwa @ Word Wonders

There are so many people in the book community that I look up to and admire for the incredible work they do. Fadwa, who you can find on Twitter and on her blog, is one of them. I am so happy to welcome her to the blog today to talk about her mental health series she’s been doing on Twitter, mental health rep in YA and more! 

Tay: Can you talk a little about the experience of dealing with mental health issues on a person level, but then also seeing them from the perspective of the medical field as a student? How has that been illuminating and/or frustrating?

Fadwa: It’s definitely been…enlightening to say the least. I’ve dealt with PTSD since I was five, anxiety for the past decade, and a few depressive episodes in the same amount of time and studying these mental illnesses as well as others in depth has been both incredibly validating and difficult. On the one hand, I keep thinking “yes, my struggles are real, I have all these symptoms and here’s why, so I really am not making it up” especially when it comes to depression, since the kind I have isn’t really chronic. On the other hand, it makes me feel exposed (even if no one in class/the hospital knows that I actually struggle), it makes me feel as if I’m being looked at through a magnifying glass and every part of me is being dissected. So it’s a struggle, but the good of it outweighs the bad by far.

Tay: Recently, you started a Twitter series called #WWTalksMentalHealth where you talk about various mental health issues and debunk myths and stereotypes around them. Why did you start this series, what has the response been like so far and what are your hopes for it in the future? 

Fadwa: Yes! I have psychiatry classes this semester and they’ve thought me so much already, and made me realize just how many misconceptions most people have when it comes to mental health issues and how much lacking the overall knowledge and education around mental health is, so I took it upon myself to share what I learn (not all of it of course, since a lot of what we learn is specific to health professionals) in the hopes of shattering the stigma (ha!) and bringing more awareness. So far, I have two threads and they’ve unfortunately gotten less attention than what I hoped for, don’t get me wrong, they’re getting interaction and being read by people who either feel seen or educated, which is the goal, but I hope that in the future, the series starts gaining more visibility as to reach as many people as possible.

Tay: So many of the conversations in the bookish community are focused on the experience of it within the United States (and maybe the UK, but almost exclusively the US). Can you talk a little bit about the perception, management of and stigmas against mental illness in Morocco?

Fadwa: Mental health awareness is unfortunately almost non-existent in Morocco, which breaks my heart because a lot of people struggle with mental illnesses, like everywhere else. And it all comes down to the lack of education. Most people hear think that if you need to see a therapist, need to get meds, then you’re weak or cr*zy, or something that they don’t want to deal with, which automatically puts you on the margins of society and get people to look at you either with pity or disgust and really, who wants to deal with that? So when you struggle with you mental health, you either refuse to go see a therapist or hide it from the world. The treatment of mentally ill people in our society is pretty bad, and it breaks my heart.

Tay: Shattering Stigmas is an event centered on continuing conversations around mental illness to debunk the stigmas around it. Why is talking about mental health important to you?

Fadwa: Like I said, in my country, talking about mental health issues can be seen as rather shameful and I sometimes feel like I’m screaming into the void when I try to get into the topic, but that won’t stop me. Because there’s so much work to do, and if I let that silence me, there will be no progress done. I just want people to be able to talk freely about their struggles without being scared of the way society will view them or reject them. It’s also to get neurotypical people to recognize signs and manifestations of mental illnesses in their loved ones, the more educated about these issues they are, the easier it will be for them to actually be helpful.

Tay: What types of mental health issues or mental illnesses would you like to see more widely or better represented in books?

Fadwa: All of them! But especially those that are stigmatized the most like schizophrenia, personality disorders, bipolar disorders, etc… people with these illnesses are often viewed and depicted as dangerous which can be pretty destructive, so they need accurate portrayal the most, to end that stigma around their illnesses. Also, I’ll be selfish and say PTSD, there are SO MANY different ways it can manifest, and I’ve only read one book that gets it close to my own experience (Girl made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake) and the more it’s represented in books, the bigger a chance there is for people with different experiences with PTSD to see themselves.

Tay: What mental health/mental illness tropes are you tired of seeing in books?

Fadwa: STOP VILLAINIZING MENTALLY ILL FOLKS. I’m sorry for yelling, but it’s true, the most common way of depicting us is rude, lazy, abusive, neglectful, and for the most unlucky of us, dangerous. And yes, mentally ill people can be all of those, just like the neurotypical can be as well. It’s not because of the mental illness. There’s also another one I hate, it’s when the mental illness is used as a plot device or for shock value. Please trash that.

Tay: What do you wish bloggers did to make the bookish online a community a better place re: discussing mental illness?

Fadwa: Use content warnings. PLEASE. I’m begging you. It doesn’t take you much but it saves us from a whole world of heartache and spiraling down into dark places. Also, please try ridding your language of ableist terms, like crazy, stupid, and using actual mental illnesses as hyperbolic adjective such as “He’s so bipolar/psychotic/a psychopath/a sociopath”, I know we’re used to having them as integral parts of our everyday conversations, but if I managed to not use them anymore, you can too and it won’t change anything to your quality of life.

Tay: What are your top self care tips, tricks and secrets?

Fadwa: Oh lord. I suck at self-care and have only started putting a conscious effort into it a couple months ago so I’m definitely not an expert. One thing that has been my lifeline for as long as I can remember now is music. A lot of people say that you should listen to uplifting music when feeling down but that’s never worked for me, it only made me feel worse, I like listening to music that I can relate to, that feels like it understands me, it makes me feel less alone.

I’d say don’t be afraid to put yourself first and be selfish about your well-being, this is something I still struggle with but it can be necessary for your own sanity sometimes to just take a step back from life (if you can) and just focus on you and what you need to get better, even when what you need isn’t really what you want. Because self-care isn’t always a walk in the park, it’s making decision that might suck in the moment but that you know will be better for you in the long run. I wish I had more advice but self-care is such a personal thing that what might work for me might not work for you, so all I can say is figure out what helps YOU and do it, even when it’s hard.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

What Most People Don’t Know About My Depression by Silvia V.

I am close or friends with many of the people you’ve seen write posts for me over the course of Shattering Stigmas. But today, I get to welcome one of my best, best, best friends, someone I’ve known for years and who has been there for me in dark times and vice versa. I’m so happy to welcome Silvia to the blog today. You can also find her on Twitter

I’ve always been a big advocate for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. In college I joined clubs and organizations that tried to educate my peers on mental health. Now, mostly through social media, I share stories of people struggling with mental illness and those who advocate for them. Yet, apart from those close to me, not many people know my own story.

I’ve suffered from depression ever since I can remember, and most recently anxiety as well. Sometimes I think I was born depressed. And maybe I was. Yet, it wasn’t until high school that I found the word “depression” and realized that it applied to me. Growing up, I remember hearing the laughter of my siblings and cousins running around my grandmother’s patio while I was locked in my room crying. I did not understand why I could not feel as happy as they were and simply assumed there was something wrong with me.

I’ve always wondered about the cause of my depression and it is what led me to study the brain and its inner workings. I decided to study neuroscience and psychology because I thought it would help me understand my own brain or more specifically what was wrong with it, although my own shame has never allowed me to publicly admit this to anyone. When someone asks why I decided to major in neuroscience I always reply that we need more women in science, and although true and something I passionately believe in, it is not the whole reason.

My parents migrated to the United States when I was very little. I was 2 when my mom left and had just turned 4 when my dad did. I did not see them again until I was 9 and by then I did not remember their faces. My maternal grandparents raised me until I was 11 and they did a great job. But I’ve always wondered if that early experience led to my depression.

When I was 12 years old, I had my first panic attack. By then I had already migrated to the United States and had started to assimilate to American culture. My parents used to fight a lot before they separated for good. During one of those fights, I started panicking and hyperventilating. I assumed it was because of the fight. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what had happened.

During my first semester of college, I had suicidal thoughts. Until now it has been the lowest I’ve ever felt. My downward spiral started since that summer. I don’t know what triggered it. I only know that by the second weekend in October, I wanted to die. I remember being in a friend’s car, the car speeding up as it reached the highway and wishing it would crash against the wall so that I would die. The week after, I had my first therapy session.

Studying the brain did not give me any special knowledge as to why I have depression. I do not know if it’s genetic, a chemical imbalance, hormonal, environmental, a mixture of all those or simply bad luck. I do know that depression is something I live with every day. Some days I forget it is there and I go through my day like nothing’s wrong. Other days I can’t get out of bed and have to lie to my boss or professors or friends or parents and fake a physical illness. There are days when I shut people out and withdraw myself. During those days it takes double the effort to do routine stuff like eating. And when my feelings go from extreme to numb, things become scary.

A few weeks ago, as of the publishing of this blog, I had another major panic attack. That day I had drank a lot of tequila trying to be in a festive mood celebrating Pride. When I got home, I started crying and hyperventilating. I ended up punching a wall and kicking a door. I woke up the next day with three purple fingers and a bruise on the bone above my wrist that still hurts when it is too cold.

I’ve always been able to hide the bad days. I am good at faking physical illnesses. Most days I can go to work or school and pretend there is nothing wrong. That first semester of college, I earned straight “A’s.” The door I kicked, I was able to fix the next morning so no one would notice.

Being good at hiding the not so pretty parts of yourself means that there is always a wall between you and others. I have always being afraid to push away the people I care about. Everytime I shut down or have one more panic attack I wonder if that will be the one that will scare people off. Dating was even more difficult. I was wary of getting close to someone for fear that they would run away as soon as they heard the word depression.

Recently I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and Vitamin D deficiency and that has brought more challenges to managing my mental health. Through all my research, I learned that women with PCOS are more likely to have depression. I also learned that Vitamin D has also an effect on mood. There are days when I wake up knowing it’ll be a bad day and I don’t know if it’s because of my hormonal imbalance, my depression or because I didn’t have enough sun the day before.

There is still a long way to go before I don’t feel ashamed of my depression. Before I can call in sick to work because I am having a panic attack and not because I made up a fever and stomach ache. Telling my story is the first step to getting there.

In spite of it all, I know there is hope. I’ve felt it.

I have supportive friends who are always there for me and who understand how I feel. I have an amazing girlfriend who has helped me see I am more than my depression. I’ve been privileged enough to have access to mental health resources from counseling and therapy to hotlines when I needed them the most. I am also changing the way I see myself. I would describe myself as overly sensitive; I feel everything too intensely. I used to think it was one of my weakness but now I realize it is one of my strengths.

I know there will be bad days ahead but I am strong enough to get through them.

And so are you.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with A.S. King, Author of I CRAWL THROUGH IT, STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO and DIG

UnknownIf you’ve known me for even a short length of time, you know that one of my all-around favorite authors and people is A.S. King. If you want to know why, I wrote a post about the top ten reasons I love her books here. I also talked to Amy for Shattering Stigmas last year, and you can find that conversation here. We had a lot to talk about, so I won’t spend too much more time doing introductions, but you should absolutely read all o Amy’s books that are out now, you should absolutely read Amy’s next book Dig when it comes out in March and you can find Amy on Twitter or on her website

Tay: Hi Amy! Thank you so much for coming back to Shattering Stigmas for the second year in a row to talk about mental illness, writing and more (so basically, all of the really important things). I’m so happy to have you back too, because talking about mental health isn’t something that’s done once and then we move on to something else. Instead, the conversation about mental health is something that needs to be an ongoing conversation that we all have, both with ourselves and other people.

Amy: Thanks for having me back, Taylor. I’ve had an interesting journey with mental health since I was last here, so it’s good to be back and I agree that this isn’t a conversation that ever really stops.

9781101994917-1.jpegTay: So first, Amy, you have a new book coming out in March called Dig that deals with secrets, racism, and class with a sprinkle of your signature surrealist style. To start us off, can you discuss how you approach or deal with mental health and emotional wellbeing in Dig?

Amy: Dig is a sprawling book. Bigger than my others and to me, more complicated. And yet, it’s simple when it comes to mental health. Basically, everyone has problems. And they all stem from secrets and issues that have been passed from the preceding generations. It’s sort of a bird’s-eye-view of epigenetic inheritance. Whether we believe it or not, it’s been proven that trauma passes down. But on a simpler level, lies also pass down (even the ones we tell ourselves) and so do secrets.

At first, only one character came to talk to me. The shoveler. And he was clearly dealing with anxiety, but it’s not like he knew what to call it. He calls it tunneling. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book. Another character came to me then, and she is also tunneling in another way. As the characters arrived, each was dealing with a household that wasn’t entirely healthy for them. I think this can probably be said for most humans.

I suppose the difference in this book compared to my others is that it deals hands-on with three generations of a family. I’d set out to explore how racism is passed down in “regular” or “normal” seeming families—because to me, that’s part of the code that needs cracking in order to start talking more openly about inherent and systemic racism. I dare say that racism or hate, in itself, is a mental health issue. At its core, it is a matter of perception, and psychologically, we are all slaves to our perceptions unless we are compassionate and emotionally intelligent enough to change or open our minds.

Tay: Like so many of your books, Dig has surrealist elements that remind me 28588459particularly of the surrealist elements in I Crawl Through It and Still Life with Tornado. How did the surrealism develop for you in Dig and what was new, different, exciting and/or challenging about it this time around?

Amy: Here was my biggest challenge: I didn’t know what had happened to my most surreal main character until I got to page 350. I just had no idea what the heck was going on. And I can’t tell you because that would be a spoiler. But like all of my books, this one came to me as I wrote it, and I was surprised by it, which is always exciting. But 350 pages was way too long to go without having that piece of the puzzle. I had to trust. I’m glad I did. But that meant the book took longer to write. That seems to be the way of things for me, now. I’m generally happy about that, too. I wasn’t spending enough time with myself for a long time. Now my 11-year-old is my yoga coach and I am addicted to meditating. That’s surreal in itself. Especially the yoga.

Tay: In our last conversation, we ended up talking a lot about how adults’ misconceptions and misinformed ideas about teenagers’ experiences ultimately harms those teenagers. In your books, you confront this dynamic by showing adults whose ignorance, obliviousness or outright aggression negatively affects the teens in their lives, often in the form of trauma such as in Reality Boy and Still Life with Tornado. In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their wealth. What is similar and different in the way that you handled multigenerational traumas and secrets here as compared to the past?

Amy: I have to clear this up before I start on this answer. I want to change your question from “In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their wealth” to “In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their love.” While yes, the book is about how different generations deal with money or lack of it, it’s far more about how different generations deal with love. And problems. And mental health. In fact, let’s start there. How many of our grandparents suffered with mental health issues and what was the practice at the time?

I’ve been reading several psychology textbooks for my next project. I am specifically looking at how the psychological world has dealt with the study of emotion over the centuries. If we go back in time and see how people in the 1950’s and 1960’s were told to deal with their mental health and/or their emotions, we can see that it was not only taboo to talk about, but often just plain non-existent…even if it totally existed. As a culture we have left conversations about emotions—the whole spectrum of them from anger to joy—off the table. We oversimplify. For example, women were tagged “emotional” for having emotions and men were just not supposed to have them, bar anger and other “manly” emotions. This has led to an inequitable view of the genders which led to everything from uneven dress codes at schools, normalized domestic and sexual violence, i.e. the rape culture we live in daily. So talking about and showing emotion is an incredibly important thing. And it was this I wanted to write about in Dig and in most of my books. Because what limiting the discussion about normal human emotions does is harrowing for not only the people going through pain, but the families they have and raise, and our entire culture. If, as a society, we don’t support a move toward a more fluid emotional intelligence, we are creating a dangerous place for future humans. But isn’t that what we’ve been creating all along? More specifically, in families, what does love look like and how do we pass it on?

As a child, I was most probably seen as “too” emotional. I expressed my emotions quite a bit, for sure. And I also had a gut feeling that my emotions were important. And I didn’t understand why others didn’t feel the same way about their emotions. My parents were raised in the 40’s and 50’s. Different time. But also, my parents were not dumb or in any way blind to my emotions. They just dealt with them when they happened. And they dealt with them, sometimes as all parents do (me included) in the way they were taught. So my generation, Generation X, came to the seriousness about our mental health later in life. Most of us, anyway. When I look back, I can see I was probably a mildly anxious kid. But my life since I was a late teenager and beyond was filled with fear and my anxiety cut me off at the knees in my late 30’s. No one had ever told me about anxiety. No one talked about it ever. Like—not even in health class. HOW DO I KNOW WHAT THE COWPER’S GLAND IS BUT NOT KNOW THE BASIC FACTS ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS? I went to high school in the 80’s. Why were we not being taught these things? The answer is simple. No one knew to teach about these things yet. The people who made the classes were all Boomers or older. It wasn’t mean or bad, it was just the way things were.

But here we are now. We have a situation where 70% of teenagers who have a mental illness are undiagnosed and untreated. That is not good. We know better. Why aren’t we dong more?

Well, we are…in spots. At my teenager’s high school they are doing mental health screenings now. That’s good. But who is talking to them about emotions? Who’s being honest with them about how feelings really work? If their Gen X parents weren’t taught to reach out to therapists then will they take their teenager to a therapist?

In short, our attitudes about mental health move with each generation. But it’s hard to get older generations to move with us. So it’s a slow bus. Change is always a slow bus.

Oh boy. I kinda went off there.

But yeah, the book is about love. Not money. Because that’s what matters to me the most. Love. Not money. It’s why I write books, that’s for sure. If I was in it for the money, I’d have stopped long ago! I’m in it to pass on the love. Because someone out there needs the compassion of a book.

One of the funniest things I deal with as an author is this idea that my books aren’t “really” for teenagers. Adults talk about this right in front of me—they claim that my writing or my ideas are maybe too sophisticated or deep for teenagers. They couldn’t be more wrong. That said, my books, Dig included (or maybe more so), are not just for teenagers. They are also for adults. The idea for me has always been to bridge the gap between teenagers and adults so the conversations that need to happen can happen. How ironic, then, that some adults are reading my books and claiming that teens may not be sophisticated enough to read them as well. It’s as if I’m trying to trick adult readers into caring about themselves enough to be able to change their perception of teenagers and care about them, too.

Tay: The community between these five teenagers that develops seems key to the premise of Dig. And last time we talked a lot about the importance of stories about mental health and illness that make us feel less alone and the value of bridging adults and teens by having adults listen to teens and teens feeling like their concerns are taken seriously. But what about community? What is valuable about people coming together to share an emotional burden? And what advice would you give your teen readers who are looking for that sense of community and might find it in your writing, but want it in their own lives?

Amy: Community is a hard subject these days. The world is changing and we are connecting more and more through online mediums than at community meetings. For mental health, we have online forums and even online therapy now. It seems as if we area a sort of global community—and I’m not entirely sure how to find that feeling inside of everyday life in a singular town. Especially if one doesn’t drive or have access to public transport. And what of the large percentage of teenagers who don’t have Internet access at home? What is their place in that global community if they don’t have access to it and how can they make their own communities stronger if most of their peers are engaging online more than in person? These are questions, not answers.

My own connection to community happened when I reached out to a local organization that I cared about and I volunteered. I met people there and made friends. I helped people in the community while I did my work and it made me feel mentally healthier.

That was vague. So let me be specific. As a survivor, I’d always wanted to help other survivors. I had done my own work around my past and felt strong, but I didn’t feel strong enough to do some of the harder work around helping survivors like helplines or advocacy work in hospitals law enforcement. (Massive respect to people who do this work. Massive, maximum respect.) What I found was V-Day and The Vagina Monologues. I have stage fright so I never could do the acting part, but I could help get the show on stage and I could work alongside other survivors who felt the same way I did—that we were doing good and raising money for survivors in our community and for V-Day, so they could help survivors on the front lines.

When I first knew of the show, I didn’t think I wanted to see it because I knew it talked openly about rape. But when I worked with the show, I felt as if those seven days surrounding the show—the late nights designing programs and rehearsing and decorating—those seven days made me feel better about the other 359 days in my year. So on a larger community scale, these opportunities are out there. But they are also rare.

As for smaller communities—groups of teenagers in school, etc. I do not know how to get them talking about emotions or mental health. This would seem to me to be a wonderful solution to a lot of issues we’re having. I know of school group sessions for kids who have lost a parent or for kids going through divorce at home, and I am aware of GSA groups and other clubs and communities inside schools that help others and talk about their own lives while together. But I am not aware of groups specifically formed for the strengthening of mental health or emotional literacy.

Tay: One of the things that stands out to me most in the description for Dig is this implied notion of the corrosive quality of “politeness,” especially in affluent white culture. Can you discuss a little bit on how we can push beyond the boundaries of “politeness” to talk about the issues that matter and specifically how that might serve ongoing conversations about mental health?

Amy: Well, the politeness in (I’ll call it suburban vs. affluent) white culture generally is one of the reasons we’ve always had trouble talking about race. And here are teenagers who are in that culture, and who are thinking about race…and who are coming up against, for most of them, either parents who don’t talk about race, who are racists, or who talk openly about race and the white supremacy. You can imagine which of the teenagers, then, is a bit more stable when it comes to that particular conversation. (If you didn’t guess, it’s the one whose father talks openly about race.) But mental illness? Oh wow. I mean, that’s a serious blind spot for pretty much most of the adults I know. Denial is supposed to follow us through life, you know? Facing problems isn’t easy and it often takes us decades to see our own. And again—I was raised in a time when you didn’t really talk about those things. I was [accidentally] actively taught to ignore my own needs. I think that description fits a large percentage of people. So in that polite culture—how does one broach the idea that one may feel suicidal? If you can’t talk about race, rape culture, or reality, and the reaction of polite adults is to shush you, then when, exactly, is it going to be appropriate to say, “Hey—sometimes I feel like dying and I’m not sure who to talk to about it?”

Ignoring the mental health issues of teenagers (or anyone) is not polite at all. Same as being racist isn’t polite. It all lumps together in this weird white adult world where being polite actually means not talking about things that make other white people uncomfortable. Shutting up a human being and whispering “That’s not a polite thing to talk about” is quite the opposite of polite. It’s cruel—especially if a person is trying to tell you about their pain.

So wow, I guess the way to push past it is to…push past it. Make people uncomfortable. Why not? I mean, look around. Are other people going out of their way to make YOU comfortable? No. So why do it for them? Live your truest life and talk about what you need to talk about. If the people around you are too fragile to handle the truth of you, then reach out to people who get it. They’re out there.

In re-reading that last paragraph, I feel somewhat hypocritical. I certainly practice what I preach here in my books, but in real life, I’m still working on it. So, maybe that’s why I write books. Definitely. That’s definitely why I write books. I am reaching out to people who get it. (Or not being polite…you choose.)

Tay: This year for Shattering Stigmas, I’m thinking a lot about how we push the conversations we’ve been having about mental health in and out of the YA community forward and what’s the next step. Where do you think we go from here?

Amy: I think it’s time to start talking about toxic positivity culture. No one is happy all the time. I think it’s time to talk earnestly about privilege and open our minds to admitting that we have been wrong. Adults, I’m looking at you. The children are watching and learning from you, like you watched and learned from the adults around you. And yes, we ALL judge. We all have false perceptions of others. I think we need to talk about that basic reactive judging all of us do. Start a new sort of living. The last few decades, we had to catch up with the Internet and the constant media bombardment. Now, it’s time to find a way around it in order to stay connected to ourselves in a way that makes us responsible, compassionate beings who want to learn new things about ourselves and others.

We must keep the conversation open. Our minds open. Our hearts open.

Tay: Thank you for answering my questions and coming back to Shattering Stigmas, Amy!

Amy: Thanks for having me, Taylor. I really appreciate that you continue to keep this conversation open.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!