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 Rootedhere.
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.
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
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!
Hello all! I have Tiffany Rose on the blog to talk mental illness, stigma, asexuality and intersectionality for today’s Shattering Stigmas post. I am absolutely thrilled to have Tiffany on the blog. She is the co-author along with Alexandra Tauber of Hello, World, the first book on the .EXE Series about hacktivism and technology with an ace main character. She is also the driving force behind Fuck Yeah Asexual, a thriving, prominent and informative asexual online community on Twitter and Tumblr.
CW: discussion of suicide statistics
Hi Tiffany! Thank you so much for being a part of Shattering Stigmas. First I want to give you the chance to talk a little about your experiences with mental health and your favorite mental reads, fiction or nonfiction.
Anxiety is likely the biggest hurdle for me. It will pay into everything and even cause bouts of depression. Being able to acknowledge anxiety itself and learning not to blame myself for that alarm going off has been a powerful method in fighting it.
One of the aims behind Shattering Stigmas is to tell stories and talk about mental illness in an effort to overcome and erase the stigma against it. Why is it important for you to fight the stigma against mental illness and talking about mental health in general?
When I was growing up my family treated mental illness like a character flaw that could be avoided with enough discipline. When I hit bigger problems as an adult, I realized a group that had been so belittled was filled with the most supportive and understanding people. On a daily basis I saw them go to bat against various -isms that haunt everyone or wield raw honesty when talking about their own issues. That refusal to pretend isn’t a flaw, it’s life-saving to those who think they are broken past repair.
You interact with a lot of aces via Fuck Yeah. Have you noticed anything about the intersectionality between mental health and asexuality in your work?
When I started there were no studies. The lack of data only lead to weak guesses of “Hey, everyone else depressed tonight?” I knew there had to be some correlation since queer groups have higher rates of mental health problems because of the added stress they are under. I remember trying to roughly calculate what the rates for abuse were for aces, but it was hardly scientific measuring.
Then I heard The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide hotline, started training their staff on ace issues because so many were calling. It was terrifying and hopeful at the same time. A study released in 2016, showed that trans people who are also asexual are 25% more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual trans people. Lesbian, gay and bisexual trans people are 10% more likely than trans heterosexual people. People are absolutely getting hurt along these intersections. And it’s not a contest of who is hurting the most, but a reminder that we metaphorically have to look “both ways” instead of assuming we know how to fix everything.
You also tweet a lot about technology and politics. Would you discuss a bit about the intersections you’ve found between technology, politics and mental health?
When talking about modern technology, I think we mostly need to talk about the internet itself because that has been the true game changer since it’s public release 26 years ago. I don’t believe we even know the extent of its very wide reach yet.
Now if you look at American politics over roughly the same amount of time the general population has only slightly shifted to the left. While the party lines of the politically active took relatively strong turns to their own side. The most important thing to note here is that general population itself has not changed that much. Why?
I believe the answer is the Internet. Awareness and interconnectivity allows groups to more easily form. If you have mental health concerns now you can find groups dedicated to that online that are both low cost and relatively safe from stigma that can change relationships at home. Just existing online and openly helps shift things to the left.
The polarization is caused by specialized groups and the ability to organize with your own. I haven’t hung out in many dedicated political groups, but I do hang out with a bunch of mentally ill queer people and they don’t quit trying to better the world just because the general population isn’t working at their speed. They work and debate and spread awareness back in after an idea gets a certain amount of momentum. This is why the people pushing for the most change are generally already those bearing the weight of the system.
What mental health issues do you wish were more widely represented in fiction?
It goes against a lot of writing advice, but I want scenes where characters have panic attacks for no real reason, who are depressed simply because they are. They struggle with whatever, not as a plot point, but as a reality check of these things often come on like a cold. Sure, you can try to be as healthy as you want in the first place, but sometimes it just happens, and there’s no fault in that. Mental illness doesn’t give a shit about the “flow” of your life or plot.
Do you have any self care tips you’d like to share?
Changing a habit you know is bad can be extremely hard. Whatever you are struggling with it’s important to replace a harmful behavior with a healthier alternative. I personally will compulsively check Twitter and by the end of the day, I’m worn out yet feel like I did so little besides holding the bad news of a single day. Recently, I realized old sim games or thread based websites still hold my attention without causing any harm.
I know coloring books are trendy, but they don’t work for me. If they don’t work for you either maybe dress up games can. The value of the self care method really should come down to ‘does it work?’ and ‘is it safe?’. All the effective methods I’ve personally found were picking back up something I once enjoyed, so maybe that’s where yours are hiding too.
Thank you again for joining me today, Tiffany! You can check out all of Tiffany’s books and writing here.
I don’t like some books because they’re poorly written. I don’t like others because they are completely insensitive to the point that no amount of description or eleventh-hour redemption in the same of “character development” will save them for me. Billy Merrell’s young adult fiction debut Vanilla is an example of the latter.
The novel, written entirely in verse, is told from the perspectives of three gay boys who go to the same high school: Hunter, Vanilla and Clown/Angel. It centers around the development and destruction of a relationship between the title character and his boyfriend Hunter, who have been dating since middle school. All three of the boys go by nicknames that attempt to be allegorical, but just come off as stereotypical and mildly offensive. Vanilla is the boy who is uncomfortable with having sex. Hunter is the predatory boy thirsty for a hookup. Clown/Angel is a drag queen struggling with gender identity and unrequited love. The result of never really using their real names was that each character felt like they ultimately lacked a separate identity. It felt like a failed and insincere attempt at allegory.
I was willing to give this book a chance, but was worried about its content from the moment its controversial summary popped up on Goodreads, especially with its indirect mention of an ace main character. When I received an arc at Bookcon, I decided I needed to read this and offer my opinion as an #ownvoices ace reviewer. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be, but within the opening ten or so pages, my fears were confirmed. My verdict on the book is that it is potentially damaging and dangerous for vulnerable and/or questioning teen readers. I hope that we, as a book community, can agree that ace readers, and gay aces in particular, deserve better representation than this that doesn’t consistently imply that we are lying to ourselves, just afraid or “innocent” without properly countering those dangerous stereotypes in the text.
At best, Vanilla is a misguided attempt by a gay author to understand asexuality. At worst, it’s an internally aphobic “love” story that exposes many aphobic critiques that ace people encounter on a daily basis. Merrell uses the word asexual frequently, especially in the last half of the book, and the representation is handled so recklessly and irresponsibly that it is powerless to mediate the aphobia rampant in the first half of the book.
What is aphobia exactly? It’s anything that expresses hatred, doubt, fear and/or dislike of aro and ace spectrum people.* It’s present throughout the book as a plot point, as a freaking plot point in the relationship between Hunter and Vanilla. Here are some examples from the text:
“I think of Vanilla and how vanilla he is
and I want to hold him and tell him
it’s okay if he says he isn’t ready,
even if I don’t believe him–
Or that if he isn’t ready,
It’s for all the wrong reasons.”
Okay, there is NO WRONG REASON not to want sex. None. Not wanting to have sex is a reason in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t know a person is ace and the person doesn’t yet know they are ace, it does not erase their asexuality. They are still asexual. So this passage is just a shitload of aphobia and rape culture and the worst part is that Hunter isn’t ever really forced to change or change his beliefs. He kind of accepts Vanilla’s asexuality by the end of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like enough because of passages like this.
“He gets so into it
That pulling him back from the brink
Takes every part of me
And every part of him, it seems,
So we never part
On purely sweet terms anymore.”
Ugh, more rape culture/abusive relationship description that never gets properly dealt with later in the book to qualify as a good story.
“‘It’s the perfect name for him,’ he says,
Winking at me like I’m in on it.
‘Such a sweet thing. So innocent.’
And I know by how Clown says it
That he’s calling me a prude.”
I can’t even believe I have to explain this in a book review, but infantilizing asexuals by calling them sweet and innocent is a dick move. And even though Clown/Angel helps Vanilla realize he’s asexual later in the novel, 1) they could have done it a lot sooner and prevented a lot of damage and made this a better story and 2) it’s still a dick move.
“‘I’m sex-positive, too,’ Vanilla says,
Like he’s chasing me. When all I wanted
Was a boyfriend who wouldn’t need to.
‘You’re sex-phobic,’ I say,
Because it’s what I believe.
What he’s all but called himself,
Claiming not to be ready.
Even though he masturbates.
Even though he knows how he feels.
Even though he loves me.”
Spoiler alert: you can masturbate, love someone and understand your feelings and still be asexual. Again, this is blatant aphobia that is never really dealt with. When Hunter and Vanilla do break up, it comes off as like Hunter is doing a favor for the both of them, like he’s the hero that’s going to save both of them and it literally made me sick.
One last quote:
“It breaks my heart to think he’s as serious
As I am, that he’s so afraid of sex
That he’d toss our love to the wolves.”
This quote makes me so effing angry because I just don’t understand how Hunter can be so freaking hard-headed and how an author could write this book about this shitty, abusive relationship and pass it off as this poignant, heart-wrenching love story. Being who you are isn’t tossing your love to wolves. Hunter being an aphobic and judgy person is what ultimately destroys it, but the text never confirms or validates that.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, some of the worst of the worst that I found. There’s another poem in the book called “Queen of Hearts” that was so aphobic I actually started crying while reading it. This book’s representation of asexuality was handled like we’re some kind of freak show to be observed and helped, that we are an inconvenience in a relationship for the most part. Vanilla thankfully finds someone at the end of the novel who understands him, but it was given so little page time, adding more insult to injury.
Overall, this book was hard for me to read. The language is so unnecessarily physical and visceral. It felt more nostalgic than immediate. There were some parts that enjoyed, but overall this book is a hard pass for me.
I had other issues with this book. The way that the voice of each poem was separated was frustrating. Each character had poems in a different font. Not only did this strain my eyes while I was reading the book, but I often forgot who was who.
Moving into style, the poems were well written but some of them were so overly poetic and flowery that the characters’ voices got lost in the writing. The author should have spent more attention developing empathy for the orientation of one of his main characters than spending two stanzas developing some allegory or extended metaphor that ultimately didn’t make sense or contribute anything to the plot.
I usually don’t try to actively discourage people from reading a book, but if you are upset by rape culture and/or aphobia then I highly suggest you do not buy, support or pick up this book when it comes out in the fall. Spend your time supporting indie and self published asexual authors who are devoting their time to crafting well-rounded, multi-faceted ace characters with more empathy and compassion. And I know that by reviewing this book, I am largely shouting into the dark. Aces fighting against aphobia is comparable to David facing Goliath, but I will not put down my slingshot.
Regardless, Vanilla is expected to be released October 10, 2017.
*Please note that the use of terms like aphobia is also technically incorrect. While I have left my usage of the word in the review, going forward I am going to try to use the word amisia more, which is more sensitive to people who deal with actual phobias in the mental health sense and not the discrimatory one. 🙂
Earlier this week, Jessica Tate (You might also know her as Lilly Avalon or Jessica Sankiewicz) released her first collection of poetry, Now You Can See, which you can find on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can also find Jessica on Twitter. I have known Jessica for a few years and have always found her to be a kind and compassionate friend, storyteller and advocate for mental health. I invited her to talk a little bit about the connections between Now You Can See and mental health awareness. Enjoy!
When I started reading through my poetry to get it ready to publish, it was exciting. I was rereading my words from all those years ago, reconnecting with them all over again. Gradually the excitement wore off as the reminders of the past came at me.
These poems were written during a tough time in my early twenties. My family disapproved of my boyfriend at the time, forcing me to either break up with him or be kicked out of the house. Now back then, I thought he was The One. I loved him and thought he and I were going to get married. The idea of breaking up with him was devastating to say the least.
So he and I “broke up,” but secretly kept in touch. We mistakenly thought if we gave it time, my family would change their mind. The more time went by, the harder everything got. There were tensions between my family and I, between me and all the mutual friends my boyfriend and I had. I was caught in a whirlwind of frustration that appeared to have no end.
The only way I could cope was writing. It was the only place I felt safe enough to express myself since I couldn’t have honest conversations with anyone out loud without upsetting somebody.
My recent reread of these poems struck me pretty hard. At first it was nice, then when I remembered the reason and the circumstances behind each poem, it brought that pain right back.
I knew I struggled with depression during that time. I used to call it “situational depression” because I wasn’t “100%” depressed. The more I think about it now, the more I’m realizing how extensive my battle with mental illness has been. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about depression, anxiety, and PTSD from friends and reputable online sources.
I was officially diagnosed with anxiety summer of 2015. When the nurse asked me questions to see if I had anxiety, I noticed a lot of them were similar to textbook depression questions. There is a fine line between them, and for myself, there are times it feels like I’ve fallen into depression because of my anxiety, and vice versa.
It’s easy to ignore these feelings, especially when they gradually seep in or we consider them normal. Reading through my old poems has caused me to come to the conclusion that writing saved me. I may have normalized what I was feeling, but I coped the only way I knew how. These “moments of depression” that I’ve faced over the years were often helped by getting it off my chest, even if it was just to myself.
Finding ways to get through the tougher times can make us a little stronger. It doesn’t make the depression or anxiety or anything else simply disappear or become immediately better, but it does help in its own way. And hopefully with that little bit of strength we can carry on and learn how to live with our mental health battles in a constructive and healthy way.
Thank you so much for this inspiring post, Jessica! I definitely agree that learning to cope with mental illness through healthy, expressive outlets is essential. I’m so glad that you have shared your experience and poetry with us.