I love a good slow burn character-driven story. And I love something that’s quiet but impactful and elegant but gritty. That’s how I would describe Samantha Mabry’s newest book Tigers, Not Daughters. A contemporary, Latinx King Lear-esque story about all the ways girls are mistreated and misunderstood, a spellbinding tale of the love and turmoil of sisterhood, this is a book that captivated me and has my whole heart.
The book begins with the tragic death of Ana Torres, leaving behind her younger sisters Jessica, Iridian and Rosa to grieve and pick up the pieces of their broken family. Jessica has taken over the responsibility for caring for the family and their broken, abusive father. She is caught in a loveless relationship. Iridian is slowly fading among the pages of her sister’s favorite romance novels and the sheets of her bed. And Rosa thinks that she can speak to animals and is on a mission to find a locally escaped hyena. All of them are grieving and when their dead sister begins to haunt them, they must all reckon with what she might, or might not, be telling them.
I read Tigers, Not Daughters at the beginning of what would become my state’s shelter-in-place order. During those first few uneasy days at home filled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the massive and sudden changes we were experiencing, this story helped me to escape and find some solace. Filled with gorgeous prose and intriguing, complex female protagonists, Mabry’s novel provided an enchanted and disturbing world filled with the ordinary and the extraordinary.
In a book with multiple perspectives, it’s easy to fall in love with one voice and like others less. That wasn’t my experience with this book. I loved the chapters narrated by the meddling boys across the street, which added on a shimmery layer of the outside onto the intense psychological worlds of the sister. They also toyed with the complex gender politics of the novel. This is a world in which the Torres sisters are victims of the well-intentioned kindness, neutrality and malice of those outside their tight-knit bonds.
Each of the sisters felt distinct and I enjoyed each of their voices and stories. I loved Jessica’s resignedness and her quiet fury. I loved Iridian’s quirkiness and her stubbornness. And I loved Rosa’s eccentricity. But most of all, I loved the way the sisters found each other again over the course of this book.
Tigers, Not Daughters is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s intense, deep and suspenseful. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year about grief and the way it deeply transforms you. That shower hair scene was disturbing, but I get what it’s like to miss someone so deeply you want them to be a part of you. To miss someone so much you begin competing with the other people who miss them to for even the smallest tangible piece of memory to hold onto. It was so well done, and my heart swelled with every page.
I’m also thrilled that Tigers, Not Daughters is the first in a series. I can’t wait to spend more time with the Torres sisters in the next chapter of their story.
Please note that an e-arc was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Nothing makes me happier than books with small but resounding emotional stakes that make me ponder the ways that we connect to other people and find our way, step by step, through what is often an intense and cruel world. And more often than not, my favorite books in this category are young adult novels that explore flash points in the lives of young people. One such book that fits this category is Maria Padian’s latest young adult novel, How to Build a Heart.
Since her dad, a marine, died in Iraq six years ago, all Izzy has wanted was a home and some stability. Her mom, little brother and her have been on the move ever since and Izzy is ready to settle down. Completely cut off from her father’s family nearby, Izzy’s family is on their own, especially so after they learn that Habitat for Humanity has selected them as the first family to receive a house on the wealthy side of the town where Izzy lives. Eager to trade in their mobile home for a real house with walls, Izzy is excited and nervous all at the same time, because she doesn’t want any of her friends at her school she attends on scholarship to know that she’s poor. Especially not after she befriends Aubrey, a new girl in their a cappella group. And definitely not after she begins to connect with Aubrey’s older brother Sam. Equally parts poignant romance, heartwarming family drama and a sweet, complicated friendship book, How to Build a Heart is a must read for anyone looking for a great contemporary read about figuring yourself out and learning to trust the people who support you.
I loved Izzy as a character. She felt complicated and real, and I quickly got sucked into the messy dynamics of her story. It’s easy to relate to her complicated feelings toward her neighbor and best friend, Roz, who resents their life in the mobile home and longs to get away from her abusive family to become a stylist. I also related so intensely to Izzy’s shame around having less than her wealthier private school peers, but admired her dedication to her family and ingenuity in juggling all of her responsibilities.
Also, my favorite part of the book was her friendship with Aubrey, and how that connection became the first domino in a chain of events that changed how Izzy saw herself, her family and her situation. In close second for my favorite part of the book was Izzy’s relationship to her father’s family and how that changed and evolved over the course of the book. I loved that a big part of this book was about second chances and learning how to let people in, to let people show you that they’ve changed or that they’re not who you thought they were.
Izzy’s dynamic with the Habitat for Humanity workers was also great. Habitat is an organization that I’ve of course heard of and there have been builds over the years in my area. However, I didn’t know much about the details of it, from the application process to how the builds were completed and what an emotionally and physically taxing process it can be for everyone involved.
The writing itself had such an incredibly and strong voice. Izzy’s thoughts and feelings leaped off the page. The writing is gritty, emotionally intense and lyrical all at the same time. This book would make a perfect weekend read under a pile of blankets or the perfect beach and poolside read once summer, finally, rolls around. Unless you live somewhere warm, now. Then please read this book on the beach for me. 😉
Hello! I’m not going to take too much time introducing myself. I just want to take this space to encourage you to support NAMI, Trevor Project and other mental health organizations and to call your reps to encourage them to make accessible mental healthcare a part of their larger healthcare policy. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram. Thank you all SO much for supporting Shattering Stigmas!
In many ways, it feels like we’ve come to a crossroads in mental health awareness. similar to the crossroads we face with things like breast cancer “awareness” or “awareness” of various social problems. Being aware of something is insufficient.
I am aware that I am tired and hungry and cranky while writing this post, but this cognitive recognition does nothing to address or solve the actual problem, which is that I need some food, some sleep and some time to properly veg out on the couch.
Being aware of the growing ubiquity of mental health problems is important on a level. Depression and anxiety levels have been skyrocketing in recent decades, although that is probably due to a combination of mental health “awareness” as people more and more recognize the signs of excessive worrying and sadness/hopelessness and environmental factors. We live in a time of crisis. Environmentally. Politically. Economically. Socially.
It’s great that we can talk about these issues more today than ever before. I’m proud of the space that Shattering Stigmas has given people to speak their truth, to have a space to tell their story.
The issue is when you tell people who have opened up about their mental health to “talk to someone” or “get help” like there are accessible mental healthcare resources like there’s a Starbucks, McDonald’s or CVS on every corner.
Simply said, there are not enough mental health resources in this country to help everyone who needs them. Therapy and medications are out of reach geographically, logistically and financially for so many. Including me.
I don’t think people realize how expensive medications and therapy can be even if you have decent insurance. It adds up when you need to be in therapy once a week (not even breaching the topic of how expensive inpatient programs are). Or you might need to try multiple medications before finding something that works, and therefore shell out tons of money for something that might help, but also might not at first.
Even if you can afford it, you still have to get an appointment at understaffed, overworked and underpaid facilities, clinics and doctors. Crisis workers, social workers and clinical psychologists are stretched incredibly thin.
There are not enough seats on the lifeboats and right now, the system at large does not care.
Politicians are too busy blaming people with mental illness for mass shootings instead of passing gun control legislation. Governors and representatives would rather create databases of mentally ill people than initiate programs that would fund the certification of more licensed therapists and crisis workers or force insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to regulate costs of medication and therapy. Colleges need to devote more funds to counseling resources, which are so overstretched that college students, an extremely vulnerable population in terms of mental health, can frequently get zero to five free visits at best from their colleges while students struggle, especially those who feel alienated and isolated, to acclimate to the tremendous shift in life that college provides while navigating classes, loans and their futures.
Being aware that you are depressed or anxious or have another mental health condition (it’s arguably more difficult with conditions that are even more heavily stigmatized like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders) is great and important, but it’s simply not enough. Everyone deserves to be able to access the care that they need in an affordable, accessible and appropriate manner.
We need advocacy in addition to awareness.
We need people to advocate for and with us, to take the step up to contact representatives about making mental healthcare a part of their policies and donating to organizations that fund research and access to mental healthcare. Part of ending the stigma around mental illness is making mental healthcare affordable and accessible for everyone. It means making depression and anxiety screenings a regular part of healthcare from childhood everywhere, which is steadily improving. It means teaching all kids about social and emotional health from an early age as parents and teachers. It means making training for crisis response accessible to more of the population. It means all of us putting in the effort to make navigating emotional health something we all do together all the time instead of expressing empty platitudes like “Talk to someone” or “Get help” or “You can always talk to me.”
We need to stop shaming people for not being able to access mental healthcare. It’s not someone’s fault if they can’t afford or access mental healthcare. It’s not their fault that it’s really hard right now to get help, even if you so badly want and need it. One in four Americans has reported having to decide between mental healthcare and paying for daily necessities. The percentage of Americans with mental illness who are untreated or untreated is higher.
I am one of the people in this country who cannot access or afford proper mental healthcare. That is not my fault. I am doing the best that I can. I know you are, too. So let’s keep fighting—advocating for ourselves and hope for a better future filled with healing.
I always love to have Rey on the blog because they often know how to put words to feelings I simply can’t, but deeply feel. That is the case again with this post about anxiety and writing that I love and can’t wait for you all to read. You can find Rey on Twitter.
It’s been a hard few weeks.
I feel like I should preface that before we go into this. I’m in the thick of everything I’m about to talk to you about today, and I hope that brings you some sort of relief as you read this post. Especially if you relate. Particularly if you relate.
Four weeks ago I looked at every project I had been working on for multiple months in a row and felt like every piece of work I had done, every word committed from finger, to keyboard, to screen, was trash. That the project I was working on had done nothing for me as I was finding myself slowly stuck in its story, in the monotony of its existence. Just a few weeks prior it had felt like everything I wanted in the palm of my hand, a key to getting to where I wanted to go. I had, and still am having, multiple issues with this piece. It’s unlike any project I’ve worked on before, and that is both a good and bad thing. In my good moments, as I reflect over the last few months, I am very much aware that I have learned countless more lessons in the three months of consecutively working on it than I had ever imagined. In my bad moments, I’m aware that it’s feeling more and more like another shelved project. Something that needs to sit and think about what it’s done in the corner, dwelling always on the fact that it may remain unfinished to the end of my days. Since it’s sitting in a corner of my brain, I’m not likely forget anytime soon either.
Here’s the thing.
Since June, I have been working nonstop on this book. Also since June, I have been having a nonstop issue in my working life, that has caused nearly unending anxiety and thrown me into another depressive episode. I’m very much aware that both of these things are bleeding into my views and thoughts of this project, and more so my ability to work on it. It’s seemed the stress had once been manageable – three months worth of being manageable it seems, and I’ll admit that’s impressive. In that three months I did some impressive work. I wrote more than ninety thousand words, outlined and planned an entire revision, and then started a revision…that came to a stuttering halt. I had made it just over ten thousand words. It wasn’t even the part where I usually get tripped up in my manuscripts – usually it takes until the twenty, twenty-five thousand word mark. But as I was going through this rewrite, a massive undertaking, I came to a stuttering halt that I haven’t been able to move forward in since.
There’s multiple factors that have played into what is looking like the swan song of this project, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure what factor is most prominent. Is it that I had been working on it for 90 days with nearly no break, determined to finish the draft and then immediately jumping into revisions because of a self-imposed deadline? Was it that after I got rid of that self-imposed deadline, knowing that I had no use for it, that I lost all my discipline? Was it that the characters, who I usually let come to me organically, had come from outlines and character types and been built from the ground up instead of discovered? Was it that I no longer cared about the story, that outlining it had spoiled the end and left me wanting? Perhaps it was that I didn’t care enough about the story. Maybe it was a passing plot bunny that struck the cord of my heart and brought my mind more joy in that moment. Maybe it was because I had started burning a different candle when I was sitting down to work and it threw me out of my groove, forever. Or maybe it was that I had been working so hard, for so long, distracting myself from my anxiety and my depressive episode that the second I let myself slip, the lack of self-care caught up to me and pulled me straight down with it.
I’m not sure which one it was, not truly, but I do have an idea.
There is no combination of discipline, motivation, and inspiration that will ever be able to take the place of making sure you’re taking care of yourself. And while I thought I was doing a good job, what it came down to was this: for months I used my writing as a way to distract myself from my anxiety and depression rather than taking steps to take care of myself in the long run. And in no way am I saying that I shouldn’t have spent the last three months doing exactly what I did – I made wonderful strides and, like I said, I learned so much from it all. I just…also should have been actively making sure that I was taking care of my brain too, and not just making sure it was in tip-top shape to get some work done. It doesn’t matter how good my hustle is if all I have to show for it at the end is the crash and burn. If my hustle doesn’t include my self-care, then it isn’t hustle at all. It’s just pushing myself too hard. It’s disrespecting myself. It’s disrespecting my craft, and my work.
I’m still proud of the fact that I wrote and began rewriting a novel in three months. I’m still pretty proud of it so far. For now, I’m taking a break from it while I begin to play with another project, and this time I’m making sure to build in my self-care around my work. Making sure that my brain is getting the rest and nurturing it needs in tandem with seeding my creativity. That every part of me is getting what it needs as much as I am possibly able to give it, and learning that even being “disciplined” can go wrong if you’re not prioritizing the right way.
It’s been a hard few weeks – but I’m working to make sure that the next few will be better. I hope yours are, too.
Taylor Tracy: In Hurricane Season, there is the emotional arc of Fig’s Dad, who is struggling with mental illness, and then Fig, who is struggling with questioning her sexuality and the stress of managing her Dad’s mental illness to “protect” her family from CPS. Can you talk a bit about how you developed these two arcs and what you hoped to say with this story?
Vincent van Gogh plays a major role in Hurricane Season. He serves as a lens through which Fig copes with her Dad’s illness and her role in relation to it. How did van Gogh and his life come to be a part of this story and did any research you did on his life surprise you?
Note: These were originally two separate questions that Nicole answered together. 🙂
Nicole Melleby: In spring 2017, my cousin Andrew was studying abroad in London. My aunt and uncle were planning a vacation for themselves and Andrew’s two younger sisters to go out for a week to see him. I pretty much decided I was going to crash the trip, and they, being the best, didn’t complain about it.
At the time, I was coming out of a low period emotionally, and hadn’t really been writing anything much; it was too hard to be creative when I was feeling the way I was. But I was finally ready to try something new. I knew I wanted to explore the relationship between a father and daughter…but that was pretty much all I had. I didn’t really expect to work on the idea at all while on vacation, but I adjusted to the jet lag pretty quickly, while my family decidedly did not. So, I had my mornings to myself and I knew that the National Gallery in London was free—and I do love a free museum—so I decided to check it out.
When I got to the Van Gogh paintings, there was a tour guide talking about Van Gogh’s mental illness, and there was just…something so unbelievable relatable about what he was saying—particularly since, like I said, I was just coming out of my own depression—and I ended up going to the gift shop and buying a book of Van Gogh’s letters. At the time, the only thing I knew about Van Gogh was that he cut off his ear—so the surprising part was learning how much I felt connected to him and his thoughts and his mental illness the more I read about him, the more I wanted to understand him.
I read all of his letters on the plane ride home, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write by the time we landed.
As far as Fig’s sexuality—I always knew I wanted to write queer stories, so I didn’t really give it much thought at first. I’m a queer woman, and I know how much these sort of coming of age stories would have meant to me when I was younger.
The one thing I hope kids get out of this book, the one thing I wanted to accomplish, was that they know they aren’t alone, that they’re seen, that I see them.
Taylor: Hurricane Season and your upcoming 2020 middle grade, In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, deal with the emotional struggle of discovering one’s identity and beginning to share that with the people in one’s life. Can you discuss a bit about what brings you to write about the emotional journeys of queer girls in middle grade and how writing Brie’s story was different from writing Fig’s?
Nicole: Like I said, as a queer individual, it’s important for me to tell stories that I would have needed. That’s pretty much the question that every queer kidlit author is asked: Do you write the stories you needed? Of course I do! But also the answer is a little more complicated than that. The middle grade readers of now are different than when I was a middle grader—what they needed is different than what I needed, or wanted. So I try and think about what it would be like to be queer in today’s world, and mix that with the stories I wish I had when I was younger, and then just tell the most honest story I can about that journey.
The biggest difference between writing Fig’s story and writing Brie’s, is that Brie’s sexuality plays a huge role in IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS…, it’s basically the leading storyline. Every obstacle that Brie faces stems from her awkward first crush on a girl, and her desperation to connect with her religious mom, in the face of her sexuality and what that means for her moving forward. Fig’s sexuality wasn’t what the story was shaped around, it was just a part of who Fig was. Both books also have coming out scenes—but Fig’s is short, and simple, and easy (which was something I wanted to write more than anything) and Brie’s is much more complicated, and happens over, and over, and over again. Fig’s dad accepts her (he’s even learning about his own sexuality in the meanwhile) while Brie’s family needs a little more work.
It just goes to show that there’s no one way to come out, there’s no one story, that there are different ways to be accepted, different ways to understand who you are, different understandings of it in general.
Taylor:I have to say, from someone who was a huge space nerd and Hayden Planetarium geek as a kid, I am SO excited for your 2021 release How to Become a Planet. Can you tell us anything about that book and what you’re trying to do with the mental health representation in it?
Nicole: I keep referring to this book as my inverse HURRICANE SEASON. The story starts off with an 11-year-old girl named Pluto having just gotten a depression and anxiety diagnosis. While HURRICANE SEASON dealt with Fig and her dad struggling with his undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of the book, Pluto and her mom are struggling to understand and deal with Pluto’s diagnosis and what that means for Pluto moving forward.
My friend Josh Levy (who wrote a wonderful sci-fi MG book called SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY) actually told me that he called the Hayden Planetarium Question and Answer Hotline to ask them questions about traveling in space while writing his book, which takes place on a public school that is a spaceship. When he told me this, I had already written a first draft of Pluto’s story—and her mom’s love of outer space and how she gave that love to Pluto—and I knew immediately I wanted to write that into my story. So Pluto, while wondering why astronauts decided that Pluto (the dwarf planet) wasn’t a planet anymore, and wondering why she has depression and why her life is changing because of it, calls up the Hotline to ask all of the big questions that are on her mind. Even if they can’t exactly help her.
Taylor:What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.?
Nicole: Here are some of my favorite Middle Grade books that feature characters with mental illness:
Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?
Nicole: Just like I said about how there isn’t one story fits all for sexuality, the same goes for mental illness. I would love more of the issues already written about, I would love ones that haven’t been written yet. Just like in LGBTQ MG—there isn’t as many stories about POC with mental illness, so I’d like a wider variety of children’s stories being told, too. I’m hoping to be able to continue to explore different stories about middle grade characters with different sexualities and mental illnesses moving forward, too.
Taylor:Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?
Nicole: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.
Find a group of writers who are in the same boat as you. If you’re looking for an agent? Find writers to commiserate with. If you’re on sub? Ditto. Find a debut group if you’re having a very first book coming out—because all of these stages are daunting and new and no one knows how to navigate them, but it helps not navigating them alone.
Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!
Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. Her debut novel, HURRICANE SEASON earned three starred reviews and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children’s literature. Her second novel, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… will be released Spring 2020. When she’s not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea..
Ben is one of my closest friends and I am so excited to welcome him to the blog to discuss his mental health. Ben is a fantastic book blogger, writer and future translator. He was my buddy at Bookcon this past year and he has co-hosted several blogging series with me, including Shattering Stigmas! Keep up with Ben on his blog, Twitter and Instagram.
I don’t think enough people understand that when your mental health hits an all-time low, your physical health often suffers, and vice versa. Trying to figure out which started the other has become a chicken-or-egg situation for me. I often find myself retracing steps from the last 15 months or so, trying to figure out what led me to be in the physical and mental state I’m in today. But the truth is, I can’t point to any one thing, and I shouldn’t have to.
For a bit of background, I’ve dealt with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for literally as long as I can remember. However, I didn’t have a diagnosis until my sophomore year of college (two years ago), and even then, my therapist at the time gave it as a loose diagnosis. Her words were something like, “I think you probably have GAD, but I don’t want to hold you to that.”
She didn’t like giving me labels for my symptoms and even talked me out of saying I have ADHD because she thought it was anxiety getting in the way of my studies. She said I don’t have clinical depression because my constant worrying tires me out to the point that I only appeared to have symptoms of depression. In hindsight, that should have been a red flag, but I had never seen any other therapist, so I assumed she knew best. Sometimes I want to believe her hesitation to give me a GAD diagnosis was the higher forces trying to save me from a life of being disbelieved by doctors. But really, her diagnosing me with only GAD set me up to have every pain and problem get traced back to anxiety.
In 2019, the most important thing I have learned is that doctors like to blame everything on my anxiety. Also, I’ve learned from my peers that I’m a hypochondriac who doesn’t realize that there are people in this world who have it worse than me. Apparently, both details should make my pain easier to deal with.
If I try to pinpoint when my health started taking a turn for the worst, I can name a few different times in my life. I remember my first panic attacks in third grade. I started dealing with vertigo attacks and tinnitus in tenth grade. But everything else hit me like a train in my third year of college.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about the first semester of my third year in undergrad. I was still a sophomore because I hadn’t earned enough credits to qualify as a junior, and I was only taking 12 credits (the minimum to be considered a full-time student). That was a source of stress because I’d no idea how I was going to graduate on time, or at all, and go to grad school if I couldn’t handle more than four courses at a time. On top of that, my parents split just a couple of months before, and it was the first semester I decided to live on campus instead of commute. My life was a domino fall, but not a simple line of dominoes. It was one of those complex videos that you see on TikTok set to some chaotic sound as thousands of pieces tip over right after each other.
One thing I do remember from that time was that it was the first semester I started using the term “chronically ill” for myself. I hesitated to say it the first few times and almost choked on the sound coming out of me. I don’t think the people around me understood the confidence and sense of self it gave me to say it because I got a lot of comments from friends saying I talked about it too much. In a way, I don’t blame them. There was no way for them to understand what I was going through. I just wish I’d been better able to explain at the time it was like finding any other label. My frequent mentions of being chronically ill felt no different to me than my or their frequent use of “I’m so gay right now” or “I’m too ace for this.”
No one could understand that on top of my anxiety plateauing at a record high, the vertigo and tinnitus attacks were back. The chronic nausea was more violent than I’d ever experienced. I was so fatigued that taking the stairs was a chore. These weren’t types of pain people could see.
So I continued to go to class and sit in the back so no one would tell I was panicking. I downed Tums like candy hoping the chronic heartburn was the only cause of the nausea. I even took the stairs if I was walking with a friend and didn’t want to explain or if I was only going up one floor because it looks pathetic to get in the elevator on the first floor and press “2” when you don’t look like anything’s wrong with you. Because people can’t see the heart palpitations or stomach acid reaching your throat from a little bit of physical exertion.
By the end of the first semester, most of my friendships were strained, I barely talked with my family (until going home for winter break), and I took extensions (which I would never finish) on two of my four classes. It was getting too much to handle, and I spent that month off talking myself into going back to school. Because finishing my degree is the top priority! Because I need to be the first in my family to graduate! Because I need this education if I want to pursue the career I’ve been dreaming of for years!
Besides, it was all “just anxiety.” And me wanting to find a diagnosis is apparently proof that I’m simply an overly health-conscious worrier. At least, that’s the message I got from my primary care physician.
The first time I asked her if what I was experiencing might have been more than GAD, she upped my anti-anxiety meds. Later, she switched them because the “physical manifestations of anxiety” weren’t going away. I’ve now been off of anti-anxiety medications for a month, and not a single symptom has gotten worse.
The second time, I tried a bit harder. My grandmother drove me to that appointment, so I was venting about all the reasons I was going. By then, I was too numb to be concerned when she said, “That sounds like your grandfather and his MS.” I’ve always known Multiple Sclerosis runs on both sides of my family, so it was more of an “I might finally be onto something here,” running through my head.
But the doctor said because no new vision problems had recently appeared, it wasn’t MS. I tried to push, hoping that even if there was no way it was MS, maybe she’d suggest tests for something else, but she didn’t. I let it drop.
The worst was when I went to her in July because I hadn’t had a period in four months (since March.) Before that, it was December, and before that, it was September. I’d assumed it was all just stress, but it was getting longer between periods, and I’d been out of school, and therefore less stressed, for a couple months, so I knew it had to be something else.
The only question the PCP asked was if there was any way I was pregnant. There wasn’t. Then she started typing in the computer, apparently sending in a prescription for progesterone, a female hormone. When I told her I didn’t want to take that because I’m transgender (which was at least the third time I mentioned it to her) and she said that it was the only way to get my period back, I realized there was no winning in that doctor’s office. There was always going to be some kind of miscommunication or disagreement.
I brought up the possibility of PCOS, a hormone disorder that screws up people’s menstrual cycles and causes a ton of other problems. She said that’s probably what it was but didn’t think tests were necessary. I haven’t been back to that office, and I’m scared to switch to another doctor because the idea of going through the same thing several times to find someone who will take me seriously is exhausting.
So I suppose the message here is to take someone’s lack of physical or mental health seriously. Sometimes I, and others, don’t need to be comforted. I need answers or at least an effort to get answers. Sometimes I just need to vent and for people to act like they’re listening. But the number of times I’ve been invalidated by healthcare professionals and told by peers that I’m being overdramatic and these symptoms should not stop me from staying in a club or continuing school frustrates me to the point that I have no words. So please take a minute to check on your friends who are dealing with some nasty stuff. They need a reminder that they’re not a burden and reassurance that not everyone in the world will downplay their pain.
There have been few upcoming releases I’ve been so excited for that I’ve started the line waiting to get a copy and meet the author more than an hour before the allotted time at BEA…and I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGEby Farah Naz Rishi is one of them. I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE is out next Tuesday, October 22, and I hope each and every one of you will pre-order or buy a copy because this book is such a treat. Farah is also the sweetest human and I knew I had to get her on my blog to talk about mental health, hope and queer teens for Shattering Stigmas. You can find Farah on her website, Twitter and Instagram. You can pre-order I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. Please do, because I want all the books from Farah and can’t wait to see what she does next.
Taylor Tracy: Hope is such an important part of I Hope You Get This Message and not just because it’s in the title. Can you talk a bit about what makes you write about hope and the role of hope in I Hope You Get This Message?
Farah Naz Rishi: Over the course of the three years that I wrote I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE, each member of my family died, beginning with my dad, then my brother, and finally, my mom. It almost sounds unbelievable; I think even now, I’m still a little in denial. But after losing my brother, I found myself in a very, very dark place. Writing this book quickly became a way to find the words I needed to hear to save myself. It’s funny because this book was always meant to be one about finding hope in the darkness, even before I lost my family. I had set out to write a book to help others feel not so alone in a world that often feels nihilistic, in a world where, with all its human-driven environmental destruction and war, it’s almost easier to get swept up believing that nothing matters because it’s easier than fighting to survive. But I hadn’t expected it to become so incredibly personal. How was I supposed to write a book about hope when I’d completely lost mine? That was the challenge. And that was why writing this book became so integral to my own healing. By watching Jesse, Cate, and Adeem endure so much hurt in the face of a world that was literally falling apart around them, I couldn’t help but feel a little less alone. A little more inspired to keep going. My hope now is that it helps someone else, too.
Taylor: Cate’s mom has schizophrenia, and your representation of her is a woman who is sick and needs help, but who also loves her daughter. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed the relationship between Cate and her mom in the book?
Farah: Schizophrenia manifests in different ways for different people, and for my maternal grandfather, who struggled with finding the right medication for most of his life, it often resulted in anger and confusion. According to my mom, growing up, part of her resented him; she believed his disability was stopping her and her sisters from having a “normal” life. It wasn’t until she was much older that her dad finally got the help and support he needed. But when his symptoms began to improve, my mom said she almost felt frustrated, because now, in her mind, her father had two “competing” identities: the man whose psychiatric disability had often made him lash out, and this new, gentle father who just wanted to be there for his wary children. But that is precisely what my mom had to learn, or rather, unlearn: that there were no “competing identities,” and that my grandfather had always been that gentle father, one who needed a little help due to his schizophrenia. The reality is that these stigmas my mom grew up on are very much a product of a time that deeply misunderstood psychiatric disabilities–not that that’s an excuse, of course–and yet, these stigmas continue to persist. I wanted to illustrate those stigmas in Cate’s journey, and also show the genuine growth throughout her journey that makes her a better person for herself–and for her mother.
Taylor: One of my favorite relationships in I Hope You Get This Message is the one between one of the main characters, Jesse, and his crisis counselor, both of whom are queer, even if they don’t necessarily know that about each other. Can you talk a bit about that relationship and the role those characters play in the book in terms of mental health representation?
Farah: It was really important to me to portray the healthy, helpful relationship between a queer teen boy–who clearly has difficulty opening up to others–and his queer crisis counselor, because I don’t think it’s something we see enough of (though there is definitely a rise of books that do!): the normalization of seeking help, especially when young, but also the sheer difference it can make to ones’ own healing when receiving help from fellow marginalized mental health professionals. It’s hard enough being a queer kid in a rural community, but struggling with mental health on top of it all is, I think, impossible to bear alone, and I didn’t want Jesse to bear it alone, either. So who better to understand him and what he’s enduring than a counselor who has struggled with the very same things? Therapy is most successful when the patient trusts their therapist, so seeing a therapist who genuinely understands you, beyond a textbook or clinical level, can help create that immediate bridge. I want to encourage that with my writing. One of my favorite little things about Jesse is that even though he acts like his counselor is an annoyance, whenever he’s dealing with difficult emotions, his mind always trails back to her and what she might say, how she might call him out. In that way, counseling can be a powerful, introspective tool, a life raft to hold on to when you feel like you’re drowning.
Taylor: Along those lines, in I Hope You Get this Message, you also subtly explore ways that mental health resources are often spread thin. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the book and the role that therapy and mental support play both at the potential end of the world and not?
Farah: It wasn’t until I was looking for a therapist for myself that I realized just how bad the shortage of mental health professionals is, which is especially frightening when you consider the need for mental health professionals is only increasing–and given the state of the world, I think it’s hardly surprising. So with all this discussion about the importance of seeking help, the question then becomes, well, how do I find help when there’s hardly any out there? I don’t have an easy answer for this, but I do want to highlight this problem because without creating avenues for accessible care, we’re failing those who need help the most. Right now, we’re a country that would rather arm teachers than hire more healthcare professionals in schools. That’s messed up. And unless we as a society talk about it, and read about it, things will never change.
Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.?
Farah: Recently, I read DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram and THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan and absolutely loved them both. The first deals with the adorably awkward Darius’s depression in such a refreshingly candid way while still managing not to downplay his struggles with his mental health; the latter is a sensitive, heartbreaking story of the aftermath of suicide and trauma that read more like a sigh–of pain and relief. These two books are entirely different in tone, but I would wholeheartedly recommend each as its own masterclass in great mental health rep.
Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?
Farah: I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I would love to write a Muslim character dealing with anxiety, too. Soon, I hope!
Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?
Farah: Writing can be very draining on your body, and I think there’s this unspoken pressure that your legitimacy or effectiveness as a writer is congruent with your ability to sit for hours on end and spit out thousands upon thousands of words in a single writing session. But that’s absolute garbage! I believe taking care of your body is the first step to taking care of your mind, so I recommend setting timers to ensure that you, if you can, stretch every 30 minutes. Think of it as a built-in part of your writing sessions. Back pain can be detrimental to a writer, and once it starts, it rarely just goes away. For me, yoga has been incredibly helpful in helping my back muscles and spine after a day of stiff sitting. And I’ll be honest, when I’m suffering from writer’s block, I’m gonna lie on the floor and flail around anyway, so might as well make a workout of it. Plus, yogic breathing exercises can also help with anxiety and stress. I recommend trying Yoga with Adrienne’s free yoga videos on Youtube.
Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her BA in English from Bryn Mawr College, her JD from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter @far_ah_way.
I’m so excited to welcome teen book blogger Charvi to the blog today with a post about examining anxiety from a variety of angles and through books. Charvi is a newcomer to Shattering Stigmas and I’m so excited to have her post on my blog. Keep up with Charvi on her blog and Twitter.
Write about anxiety said my brain. It’s gonna be great, said my brain.
Hi everyone! My name is Charvi and you can usually find me blogging away at Not Just Fiction. Today I’ve popped up at Taylor’s blog for the Shattering Stigmas series. First off, I want to applaud all the co-hosts of this series for coming up with this idea, I absolutely love it. Also, thank you so much Taylor for having me here 🙂
Why am I here though?
I’m here to talk about anxiety.
No, I’m not here to give you textbook definitions of what anxiety is and educate you on how to go about it. Because to start with, anxiety isn’t really something you can define. It is indefinable because different people experience it differently. Trying to define anxiety would be like trying to define love, there is no one definition.
And many a times people don’t even use definitions, they use prevalent stereotypes associated with anxiety as definitions.
“Oh you’ve got anxiety? You must shy away from every single person and hate phone calls.”
Maybe, maybe not. Either way your stereotypes are making me uncomfortable or invalidating my anxiety, if I don’t fit into your stereotypes of what anxiety is. Here’s a true story for you. I’ve always been an anxious individual and a couple of years ago I found out that the internet associates anxiety with being afraid of making phone calls. I found phone calls a pretty normal part of my routine but to get that validation my teenage self somehow internalised that stereotype and now I’m anxious of phone calls. Bravo! As if I didn’t have enough anxieties in life 🙂
Please tread lightly when it comes to anxiety, or any mental health illness for that matter of fact. You may not intend to or even realise the amount of damage you are causing to the other person. Whatever you know about anxiety is only the tip of the ice-berg. I like how media, especially books are giving voice to anxiety in so many ways these days.
I’m so tired. I’m tired of anxiety that twists my stomach so hard I can’t move the rest of my body. Tired of constant vigilance. Tired of wanting to do something about myself, but always taking easy way out.
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Every time I thought I’d worked out what I really enjoyed, I started to second-guess myself. Maybe I just didn’t enjoy anything anymore.
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
But like I said, everyone experiences anxiety differently so there’s plenty more room for other narratives. In fact, for this post I want to list out some anxious thoughts that are a part of my daily routine, ones that you might never think a person with anxiety has to go through.
Me, lying in bed: my dorm neighbours are having some fun. Hmm, I wonder what my friends back home are doing. Are they having fun? Have they already forgotten about me because they haven’t contacted me in a long time. Wait am I the only one in my friend group who’s not having fun in life?
Oh that’s nice, my friend is going back home today. I hope they have a nice flight. Wait, it’s raining outside. What if their flight gets delayed? Or cancelled? What if they have to stay alone and hungry at the airport?
I wonder how my sister’s studies are going? Ugh she has such bad concentration, I hope she’s not on her phone right now. God I hope she gets good marks in her exams. What if she doesn’t?
Am I feeling anxious? Or am I hungry? Oh god why am I feeling anxious about feeling anxious??
God why is it so hot in October? It’s global warming that’s why. I’m so worried about this, when is the government going to act? Are we really going to die by 2050?
Okay, I’m so full. I literally can’t eat anymore. But there’s still some food and I don’t want to waste it. So I should eat it I guess. But what if I get a stomachache from eating too much? What do I do??
In a nutshell, my anxiety doesn’t just revolve around me. It revolves around the lives of every single person I know and every incident that takes place in my consciousness. Anxiety can be triggered by something extremely random and knowing that I’m getting anxious over something completely random and useless doesn’t help in the least bit.
I hope what I wrote resounds with at least one person who reads this, but even if it doesn’t resound with you, I’m going to recommend five books with great anxiety representation and hopefully you’ll see yourself in those books 🙂
“I learned years ago that it’s okay to do this. To seek out small spaces for me, to stop and imagine myself alone. People are too much sometimes. Friends, acquaintances, enemies, strangers. It doesn’t matter; they all crowd. Even if they’re all the way across the room, they crowd. I take a moment of silence and think:
“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.)” – Fangirl
“Some people’s coping mechanisms were all about festering and secrecy and ruminating until you grew yourself a nice little tumor in your heart with a side of panic attack. Different strokes.” – Emergency Contact
“I get into this weird place sometimes where I worry about that. I’ve never told anyone this – not my moms, not Cassie – but that’s the thing I’m most afraid of. Not mattering. Existing in a world that doesn’t care who I am.” – The Upside of Unrequited
“I wonder- if nobody is listening to my voice, am I making any sound at all?” – Radio Silence
I know I shouldn’t play favorites with my Shattering Stigmas posters because they are all wonderful and I am so grateful for each and every one of you and my fabulous co-hosts Amber, Shannon and Mari. However, there is something special about having such a close friends share extremely personal things with me and on my blog. Olivia originally wrote this piece for last year’s Shattering Stigmas and it got lost in the shuffle. However, I’m more excited to post it this year because over the past year, Olivia has become such an incredibly close friend of mine, so thank you my favorite (and only) accountabilabuddy and podcast co-host. Speaking of our podcast, Culture Popped Open, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram, and you can listen to us wherever you get your podcasts. Olivia is a future English teacher (she’s gonna be goals, y’all) and you can find her bookish and educational musings on Twitter, Instagram and her blog. Take it away, friend. ❤
I have social anxiety. I can say that now because my licensed therapist agrees. I also didn’t figure it out until this year, and I didn’t even realize I had anxiety until four years ago, even though it all makes sense I’ve had this all along. Oh, and then there’s also how my therapists have said I probably have some sort of OCD, and I obsessively check my hair and pick the skin on my fingers and typo-check and over-explain things, revise, and explain again. There, that’s it. Over-explain things. Like I am right now. Let’s move on.
I’m also bisexual. I feel very sure of that and I’ve properly known for like three years, even though of course I’ve always known a little all along. I also like the word queer, but that one’s more difficult to explain to those outside the community. I sort of like pansexual, but how can I confidently say I’m attracted to all genders? Oh, look. There I go again. You get it.
These two things interact in a way that goes beyond that paragraph. For me, my social anxiety means that I take great pains to present myself how I see myself, so that others can see myself that way. Hence the constant explaining. (This means I’m confident in school, because I’ve always been told I’m good at it, and you can see how my perfectionism ended up very unhealthy.) This obviously gets complicated when it comes to bisexuality. Unless I’m wearing a big bi flag button (which, admittedly, I do have on my backpack), no one’s first guess is going to be bisexual. It’s not anyone’s first guess. Most people are going to assume I’m straight, because the world is rather heteronormative. Others might think I’m gay now that I’ve got shorter hair and sometimes I’ll dress more masculine (I like to switch it up). Or they might assume one or the other depending on the gender (or assumed gender) of the person I’m dating. And then I can’t just broadcast this fact to everyone, either, because homophobia and biphobia exist, and my social anxiety really just wants people to like me because that’s how I feel in control of my image. Being “political” or “controversial” by nature doesn’t go well with that.
And then bisexuality comes with even more explaining, because a lot of people don’t understand it. When did you know? How do you know? When did you come out? Are you 50/50? Have you been with each? Wait, there’s more than two genders? Then why do you say you’re bisexual? But if you’re in a relationship with [gender], are you still bi? How does that work??
So, naturally, every time I tell someone I’m bi, I have to resist the urge to explain exactly what I mean by that and my entire history of crushes on various genders. (Thankfully, a lot of my friends at college are totally used to bi people, if they aren’t LGBTQ themselves.) But this world is aggressively heteronormative, which I learned I really, really hate.
This is the story of how I learned that.
I’m going to curb my compulsion to explain everything when I set the scene here, so: Senior prom. Small school; we all knew each other. My boyfriend of 2.5 years broke up with me a few months earlier, and we’d tried to stay “friends.” (We actually had different definitions of what friends were, at least good ones, so after graduation we stopped speaking.) We were in the same friend group, which was more or less the half of the grade because again, small school. As you’d imagine, with my social anxiety that I hadn’t figured out yet, I was terrified of being that girl (dumped, upset, vengeful, so on), in addition to all the academic pressures. I knew I was bi, but I was only out to my ex at the time. (He was totally fine with it. But that’s another story.)
In this new stage of my life, where I was single and college-bound and just looking forward to all the independence that comes with that, I figured we would hang out with our mutual friends together. There were other girls I knew who were recently single and it seemed like a fun idea. After all, he’d broken up with me to be single and focus on himself, right?
But then I asked him if that’s what he was thinking of too, and he revealed he’d already had a probable date, one of those recently single friends, so there went my plan. Putting aside all the personal feelings that necessarily came up here, he said something that bothered me: “It’s important to me and my family.”
I didn’t understand this, and honestly, I’d never understood all the conventions about buying tickets or paying for dinner. (Not to mention that we’d had a junior prom, of course, and took many pictures.) We’d always make a joke of it. I said it was because it was important to me that I felt equal in our relationship, which is why all the college and career stuff caused me to panic a lot and ended our relationship. But now I understand it was about way more than that—it was my queerness.
I had this complete existential crisis during the actual dance. Most of our friends had dates, mostly not romantic ones, and I just didn’t understand why it was so important. (Of course, all the pictures taken to be posted to social media also stressed me out, because of my obsession with getting my hair to look right and the digital trail of information.) Sure, I had an argument with my ex over I don’t remember what and cried, but I spent a lot of time sitting in the bathroom, just thinking about why none of this felt right and other senior year feelings.
Part of that was my sexuality, even if I didn’t quite put my finger on that at the time. I wanted—needed—to be seen as me, and I’m bisexual. And that fact will never go away no matter what relationship I’m in.
Social anxiety can be illogical, exhausting, and time-consuming, but it does force me to examine who I am. And while I struggle daily against the heteronormativity that means most people don’t see me as I truly am, there are benefits from this self-scrutiny. Labels like “bisexuality” and “social anxiety” help me understand how I operate, eliminating all the fear and confusion that dominated my teen years.
I’m so excited to welcome the first of two posts by people I admire named “Olivia” with a fantastic guest post about panic attacks, anxiety, OCD and ADHD from Olivia Hinebaugh. Olivia is the debut author of a fantastic sex-positive contemporary romance, The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. You can order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and Indiebound. Olivia is a fantastic writer and I’m so thrilled to welcome her words here for Shattering Stigmas. You can visit her on her website and Twitter.
A few years ago, I got up on stage and told a theater full of people of how I was obsessed with going to the bathroom. I was reliving the worst time in my life, when I was suffering from full-fledged panic disorder with agoraphobia. And sharing the good, bad, and embarrassing from that time was really empowering. I was reading an essay I wrote as part of the show This Is My Brave, whose slogan is “storytelling saves lives.” I completely agree with that sentiment. One of the worst parts of having a mental illness take over your life, is feeling completely, and utterly alone. The more I’ve shared my story and struggles, the most support and camaraderie I’ve received.
I didn’t know exactly what a panic attack was when I first had one. I knew something really bad had happened to me. I knew I had been traumatized because I had been on a trolley and felt truly unsafe. And that was just the first of many. Because my panic attacks manifested as lightheadedness, nausea, and general digestive discomfort and urgency, I thought that maybe I had some sort of passing out disorder. Or I thought I was always coming down with something. It took months before I made the connection that maybe the problem was in my brain.
When I share my story, my biggest hope is that someone who is suffering and doesn’t know why sees a way through it. Or that they’ll feel less alone. Or they’ll see that help is out there and it’s possible to live with it. Maybe not perfectly recovered, but managing and accepting and thriving.
I have also viewed my anxiety in a positive light, especially when it comes to writing. Not to be dramatic, but having panic disorder, agoraphobia, and OCD was pretty much the worst thing that ever happened to me. I think it was really my first time experiencing suffering. I had an illness that was invisible to others. My compassion deepened immensely. And I do think that compassion is a necessary trait in writer.
When I was 17, I was diagnosed with ADHD. And while I understand pretty well, at this point, how that makes certain aspects of my life more difficult, I have a lot of practice folding neurodiversity into my identity and embracing the positives. With ADHD, I treated it with medication at the end of high school and was able to get straight A’s for the first time in my life. But I also wasn’t daydreaming. I wasn’t writing. So when I got to college, and life became less stressful (my high school was really demanding), I stopped taking medication and realized that my creative life had suffered. I’m a classic inattentive. I often forget what I should be doing. I have a tough time transitioning activities. I find it really difficult to organize my space and stay on task. I’m messy and forgetful. But I am always thinking. I can tune things out when I’m focused on work. On medication, I heard every word everyone said to me, I was so tuned in. And for me to write, I needed to tune out.
So I was determined to view my anxiety in a similar light. It’s increased my compassion. It keeps me safe. It gives me challenges to overcome and there’s some joy and pride in conquering phobias. I am less judgmental. Because until someone tells you they are suffering with an invisible illness, you just don’t know. I almost always disclose my anxiety when it crops up. For me, I’d rather people know I’m having an anxious day than think I’m blowing them off or that I don’t care.
Disclosing offers more than just being understood. It opens the door for other people to share what’s going on with them. I’ve learned so much from other people. I’ve learned there are billions of ways to be a human and that everyone is dealing with something. I’ve also learned that I am very much not alone.
When Olivia Hinebaugh isn’t writing fiction, she can be found writing freelance, making art, discovering new songs on Spotify, texting her writing buddies, or folding laundry. She lives near Washington, D.C. with her spouse, three kids, a dog that looks like a coyote, and a one-eyed cat. The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me is her debut novel.