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#MHYALit: What is Neurodiversity and How Did It Save My Life? a guest post by Olivia James

MHYALitlogoofficfialWhen I was 18, I stopped eating. There are approximately a million different reasons that I made that choice, and there is no way to sum them all up, but at the heart of all the poor coping skills that came to a head at 18 was the simple reality that my brain is different from other brains.

 

It’s a fact that human brains contain variations: some people fall into anxiety more quickly, while others tend towards joy. Some people find solace in being around others, while for the introverts among us, socializing is exhausting. When I say that my brain is different from other brains, I don’t mean it as a judgment. It is simply true. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that for many, many years I believed was a problem. It makes sense that I believed that: mental illness and neurodiversity are generally seen as negatives in American society. They’re shameful, dangerous, and awful. We tell certain stories about mental illness that say it’s a nasty thing that happens to you, but if you’re lucky you can survive it and it won’t be part of you anymore.

 

The narrative goes like this: I was very unhappy. Something bad happened in my life, or I found myself struggling with school or bullies, or I hit puberty, and I just couldn’t deal anymore. I hurt myself/starved myself/wanted to die. Finally it got so bad that I knew something had to change, and I asked someone for help. I went to therapy/got medication/talked to a trusted adult, and learned that life was worth it/I could be happy/how to manage my emotions. Now I still struggle with my mental health during hard times, but I “beat” my mental illness, and I feel stronger than ever. I’m not depressed/anxious/starving anymore, and now I’m a better/different person.

 

That’s not my story. When I went to therapy, it was because my mother had threatened to withhold my college tuition money until I did. I lied and I evaded my therapist for years. I had no desire to “get better” or to change. As an aside, I do not recommend this method of therapy at all. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, it’s deeply unpleasant, and it does not actually provide positive results. Therapy works considerably better when you actually are willing to work with your therapist.

 

But I was unwilling, because the narrative that I had about mental illness was one in which my mental illness was an essential part of myself, and I had to give up that essential part of myself in order to get “better.” I had to behave or think or feel differently, and the therapist would make me do it. More than anything, I did not want to change. I did not want to give up my deeply held beliefs about meaning and purpose. My eating disorder made me feel safe. My depression seemed to be the most accurate response to a world that was really screwed up. My anxiety seemed like it was the only thing that kept me functional. If I wasn’t anxious, what motivation would I have to accomplish my goals? Who would I be if I wasn’t all these things that had been a part of my life for years?

 

Sometimes it is easier to die in the grip of something familiar than to live in the unknown. I felt safe. I was dying, but I felt safe. Maybe I wanted to die. I probably wanted to die. Maybe I should’ve gotten the hint when I chose “Wanting to Die” as the poem I performed in my senior year speech competitions.

 

It took years before I finally started to properly listen to some of the things that my endlessly patient therapist was saying to me. I don’t mean to be discouraging to those seeking treatment, but it’s also important to be realistic: therapy takes a lot of time and a lot of work before you see results. And here is where my story diverges most thoroughly from the normal stories that I hear: I did not learn that I needed to “fight back”, I did not “hit rock bottom”, I did not have a moment in which it all became clear. Rather, I slowly began to realize that there was nothing wrong with me except that nobody had given me any tools to deal with my life.

 

What was helpful to me (and be forewarned, that this is what worked for ME. Other people find completely different things helpful) was to embrace those parts of myself that were causing me all this anxiety and stress. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually a pretty basic tenet of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that differences in brains aren’t just a fact, but that those differences are in fact an important part of how the human species thrives. Different brains bring different strengths and weaknesses. So embracing my brain meant recognizing that yes, there are some elements of my brain that are particularly challenging in unique ways, but there are also parts of my brain that (excuse my French) kick ass. What was causing me lots of problems was the fact that society is set up for brains that aren’t like mine. I had to readjust my life to work for MY brain. Some people think that this is sad, or that it means I “can’t” do a lot of things. I don’t see it that way. I prefer to see it as “not doing things that I hate doing.”

 

I don’t see anxiety as limiting me, I see a society that expects me to do things that are anxiety provoking as limiting. I’m really quite happy to socialize with games and in small groups, not go to parties, not go to large and crowded events, not talk to strangers, not talk on the phone. Sometimes I can’t do things that others consider “basic functioning”, like being able to cook and feed myself. That’s ok: I can always ask for help. Recognizing that I need these accommodations is what keeps me from overtaxing my abilities and falling apart.

 

Choosing to do things that work (and not to do things that don’t work for you) for you isn’t sad or wrong. It’s just different, and the realization that I could just stop doing things I hated and start doing things differently was pretty mind blowing to me. It also meant that I could tap into some of my talents: once I wrote a 50,000 word novel in two weeks. My focus is impeccable and my drive is pretty impressive as well. But instead of blowing all that focus getting through a two minute phone call that I hate, now I just text instead. By limiting the things that are uncomfortable and painful to me, I open up so many other possibilities.

 

I know that for many people (particularly artists, writers, and other creative types), talking positively about mental illness is dangerous territory. There’s a history of equating creativity with depression. Neurodiversity does not mean leaving people with mental illnesses to fend for themselves, nor does it mean ignoring the fact that some kinds of brains come with negatives that are serious and dangerous. I embrace my brain, which has depressive and anxious traits. I do not embrace the depression and the anxiety. I do my best to find the underlying traits (perfectionism, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness) that can be brought into balance and made useful. I think there’s a huge difference between saying that art, depth, or thoughtfulness come from mental illness and saying that mental illness is not ALL awful, or that my brain is unique and there are some elements of that uniqueness that I appreciate or that are positive.

 

You don’t have to keep hating yourself. There is nothing WRONG with you. You might have some work to do to understand your own tendencies, needs, and wants, and to create a life that relies on your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. But it’s possible, and I really cannot articulate the relief that comes with realizing that it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. You have all the pieces to build something glorious. You just have to figure out how they go together.

 

Meet Olivia James

11193332_10152762213502601_1744363452546004244_nOlivia is a marketer by day and a writer by basically every other time. If you met her you’d probably think “well there’s a big ol’ nerd” and you’d be right. You can often find her playing Dungeons and Dragons, cuddling with her cats, or ranting at anyone who will listen about social justice. Olivia has a weird obsession with octopuses and Latin, which is why it’s very important to her that it’s octopodes not octopi. In addition to blogging at “We Got So Far To Go” and doing actual work that she gets paid for, Olivia’s current projects are a young adult sci fi novel and her wedding to the coolest nerd partner anyone could ask for.

#MHYALit Sunday Reflections: The hard work of getting help and getting better

MHYALitlogoofficfialIt’s election night, 7 pm, and I’m sitting in the doctor’s office being diagnosed with moderate major depression.

 

There’s an obvious joke there—one that’s not funny at all. And it’s maybe the first time anything about me has been described as moderate.

 

 

Bilbo Baggins and Edward Bear are like, yo, lady, could you please go get some help?

Bilbo Baggins and Edward Bear are like, yo, lady, could you please go get some help?

I spent the past few months crying my eyes out and feeling horrible all the time. I kept trying to sort it out and tell myself that it had a cause and would pass. I cried all of August because my grandma died and the horrific monsters-in-human-skin I am related to didn’t tell us. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say, it got super ugly, and was really hard to deal with. So August was a mess of being so angry that I couldn’t even access the part of me that was grieving. I rode most of those feelings through September, but things got a little better. Callum was back in school, I could go for an hour walk every day, I could get writing done and feel like I was on top of things. I got the time alone I need to function. Then October hit. And Callum’s mental health went plummeting—a seemingly endless spiral of anxiety and rage and despair. That meant back to the therapist, who we ended up really disliking, so onto being on the waiting list for someone new. Back to the psychiatrist to see about new medication. Back to meeting with the school to keep people in the loop. It meant hours of my day spent dealing with what he was going through and going to bed just spent every night, sobbing into my dogs’ fur.

 

img_1511

I spent a lot of these past few months lying on the floor in my office looking up at this goofy fan.

At a certain point in all that, I started to think, maybe this is more than stress and some difficult parenting. Sure, I was still getting six+ hours of writing done on a lot of days, but the ability to be high-functioning through this wasn’t exactly negating or masking how I was really doing. My anxiety was off the charts. And there was the little fact of logging multiple hours per day crying, or being on the verge of crying. Of not eating. Of being so, so tired but not sleeping. Of being distracted, unable to focus, and listless. Of kind of hating everything. And November came, and I started to feel even more terrible. November means starting to think about snow and winter. Snow and winter means it’s nearly December. December means marking 4 years since my dad was killed in a car accident on an icy Minnesota highway. All of that means endless crying, and living on Klonopin, and not being able to drive because it’s terrifying and not even wanting anyone I know to drive. Given my general despair levels already being so high in November, I decided to go get help.

 

Here’s the thing: it’s never easy. I’ve been medicated for 20 years for anxiety. I’m a huge believer in erasing shame and stigma. I believe in doctors and therapy and medication. Still, some part of me had existed through this for a few months thinking, But it’ll go away. You’re just being dramatic. You’re not depressed. You’re having a hard time. You live in this nice new house. You just got an agent. Your husband is the most understanding human on earth. You want for nothing. Get over yourself.

 

I know. I know.

 

Good times.

Good times.

I know better. Of course I do. Mental illness doesn’t care how nice your life is. Mental illness can’t be willed away. Wanting to feel better doesn’t override brain chemistry. And I know this. But the idea of having to go see multiple new doctors, of having to recap how I’ve felt, of having to find time for therapy, of trying new medications, of the entire process… it just seemed too much. Wouldn’t it be easier to just decide to feel better?

If only it were that easy.

 

The thing is, even if you’ve been getting help for years, even if you know, logically, that you need to go get help again—new help—it’s hard. It’s emotionally taxing. It’s time-consuming. It’s expensive. It’s frustrating. I prioritized all of these resources for my kid. Get him on track again, I thought, and then we can worry about me. Because anyone with kids knows that idea of putting on your own oxygen mask first is a nice idea, but isn’t always realistic.

 

Bilbo Baggins Dachshund-MacGregor does an accurate impression of me.

Bilbo Baggins Dachshund-MacGregor does an accurate impression of me.

So I went to get help. And am getting help. I’ve got a new medication and some therapy lined up. I hope to someday soon feel a little more like myself. I don’t want to just feel like all I want to do is hide in bed all day watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or listening to “Autoclave” by The Mountain Goats on repeat and crying. And though lately my days have been the kind where I have to absolutely force myself to do anything that even comes close to looking like basic functioning, I know I won’t always feel this way. It helps a little bit to remember that.

 

Through all of this, both with my son and myself, I keep reminding myself how lucky I am. No, really. We have the resources to get the help we need. We have the knowledge to know we need help, need different meds, need to find not just any therapist but one who is a good fit. We have insurance. My schedule is flexible. Matthew and I can go together to appointments and meetings for and with Callum. I can fall apart and feel utterly broken, but know, deep down inside, in the rational part of my brain that still sometimes sneaks through the noise (which sounds an awful lot like this song), that I will be okay. Because there is help. And I can access it. And I can do the work. And for so many, those avenues of help are nothing but roadblocks, paths that either truly are or just feel inaccessible. Taking care of your mental health, or that of your kid, is exhausting. And when it’s all you can do to drag your butt out of bed each day and pretend to care about anything, it’s extra exhausting. And just because I’ve gotten help in the past, that doesn’t make this easier. Or less daunting. Or less frustrating.

 

But you know what? My doctor told me good for me for coming in and taking good care of myself. And my husband said the same. And my friends said the same. And, driving back that night from the clinic, I thought the same thing: good for me. I know how hard all of this is, but it’s important. I’m taking care of myself. And taking care of my kid. I can do it. You’re maybe doing the same, or needing to do the same. You can do it. And it’s okay to say that it’s hard and it sucks. So let’s remove the shame and stigma of our illnesses, but let’s also acknowledge that, hey, this whole thing is really HARD. There is hope. It’s there. It’s maybe hidden and tiny, trapped under all this mess and pain and self-loathing, but it’s there. Because even though we’re miserable and exhausted, we’re still here. To quote musician Frank Turner, “We could get better, because we’re not dead yet.”

 

Some links to things that I’ve clung to this fall

John Green’s NerdCon Stories Talk About Mental Illness and Creativity

Manic And Depressed, ‘I Didn’t Like Who I Was,’ Says Comic Chris Gethard on Fresh Air

Frank Turner “Get Better”

#MHYALit Discussion Hub at TLT (more than 100 posts!) 

#MHYALit Book Review: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

girlinpiecesPublisher’s description

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people do in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.
A deeply moving portrait of a girl in a world that owes her nothing, and has taken so much, and the journey she undergoes to put herself back together. Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is heartbreakingly real and unflinchingly honest. It’s a story you won’t be able to look away from.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Do you like nearly unremittingly bleak stories? Then do I have a book for you! Now don’t jump ahead and assume that I mean that in any kind of damning way. I like bleak. I like real bleak. I like books where I think, good lord, more bad stuff? So keep reading, okay?

 

We meet Charlie as she is just getting settled in a treatment facility. She’s a cutter who has done too thorough of a job and just spent a week in the hospital. At the facility, she’s silent—selective mutism. She’s been through a lot. Prior to landing in the facility, she was homeless for nearly a year. Now in treatment, she’s getting the help she so desperately needs, grateful to be indoors, warm, and fed. But money and/or insurance doesn’t last forever, and way too soon she’s being cut loose, released to her abusive mother. Instead of going home with her mother, she’s handed some money, her birth certificate, and a bus ticket to Arizona. Great parenting. Charlie heads out there alone. Her friend Mikey is there, but Mikey’s tied to a lot of her past. He’s also not around much, so when he leaves on tour with a band, Charlie is truly alone. She gets a job washing dishes at a cafe, where she meets Riley, a sometimes charming junkie ten years her senior who quickly gets into her head, heart, and pants. Riley is horrible for Charlie. She’s trying so hard to move on from her past, but that’s not easy. Every day is a struggle for her to not cut herself. She makes a lot of crappy choices around and because of Riley. There are small good things mixed in among all this bleakness. Charlie finds solace in drawing and is going to have some of her art in a show. She’s making… I wouldn’t say “friends” at work, but she’s interacting with her coworkers and coming out of her shell a little. And when things fall apart in a pretty epic way, Charlie learns she has more support, resources, and hope than she had imagined.

 

Glasgow’s writing is stunning, moving from lush and poetic to choppy and spare. We’re in Charlie’s head a lot and slowly learn about her background—her father’s suicide, her best friend’s near-suicide, her abusive mother, her life on the streets. She isn’t much for talking, even with Riley, who’s far too self-absorbed to really think to ever ask her anything  about herself. Glasgow’s story is gritty and grim and at times almost too much to bear. I admit to taking lots of breaks while reading this one. People bend, break, leave, disappoint, hurt, die, suffer, and harm. In most cases, they also heal, change, recover, and hope in this astoundingly sad, astonishingly poignant debut.

 

For more on Girl in Pieces, see Glasgow’s previous piece for our blog, “This Book Will Save Your Life.”

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781101934715

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 08/30/2016

#MHYALit Book Review: 100 Days of Cake by Shari Goldhagen

Publisher’s description

100 daysGet well soon isn’t going to cut it in this quirky and poignant debut novel about a girl, her depression, an aggressive amount of baked goods, and the struggle to simply stay afloat in an unpredictable, bittersweet life.

Every other senior at Cove High School might be mapping out every facet of their future, but Molly Bryne just wants to spend the rest of the summer (maybe the rest of her life) watching Golden Girls reruns and hanging out with her cute coworker at FishTopia. Some days, they are the only things that get her out of bed. You see, for the past year, Molly’s been struggling with depression, above and beyond industry-standard teen angst. Crushing on her therapist isn’t helping, and neither is her mom, who is convinced that baking the perfect cake will cure her—as if icing alone can magically make her rejoin the swim team or care about the SATs.

Ummm, no, not going to happen.

But when Molly finds out FishTopia is turning into a lame country diner, her already crummy life starts to fall even more out of her control, and soon she has to figure out what— if anything—is worth fighting for. 100 Days of Cake is a quirky and poignant story of a girl, her depression, an aggressive amount of baked goods, and the struggle to simply stay afloat in an unpredictable, bittersweet world.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Everyone else seems to know what’s happening in the next year. They’re preparing for college—taking tests, participating in extracurricular activities, volunteering. Molly can hardly bring herself to get out of bed, much less think about what might happen after senior year. She really just wants to hang out at FishTopia and ignore the rest of the world. Her coworker, Alex, clearly has a crush on her, but Molly really would rather he didn’t. She shoots him down whenever he tries to make plans with her. Her last boyfriend ditched her when he realized that she wasn’t how he thought she would be—that she was a complicated person who has depression. She can’t see any other relationship working as long as she feels how she feels. She’s getting help, though. She has a therapist and is medicated, though she often wonders if she should be on a different medication, one that might work better. Goldhagen really captures how heavy and isolating depression can  feel. Molly feels like everyone hates her and lashes out at her friends and family. She bails on plans all the time because following through with them seems to take an impossible amount of energy that there’s no way Molly can conjure up. She has okay days and terrible days. And she can’t understand why on Earth her mother seems to think eating some new terrible cake every day will maybe help fix her current state of mind when medication and therapy can’t. 

 

I really liked Molly’s best friend, Elle, who could be a little overbearing at times, but always was a good friend to Molly and did her best to understand what was going on with her. I liked Molly’s mom, who is seriously worried about her depressed kid (for the obvious reasons and ones we don’t come to understand until much later in the book) and seems to be doing her best to help her/leave her alone when she needs to be left alone. I thought I liked her therapist, a 90s music- Say Anything-obsessed guy but, without revealing some major spoilers, suffice it to say I did not end up having a very high opinion of him. However, I did like that Molly was getting a lot out of therapy and learned to open up in her sessions. Her relationship with her sister was also really interesting. Veronica has a few meltdowns (one particularly cruel) over the attention Molly gets because of her depression. Molly’s depression is a big character in this story. It permeates literally every relationship she has and is behind all of her decisions (or lack of decisions). 

 

Though I wanted to see some kind of consequences for Dr. B (she wrote cryptically, not spoiling anything), overall this story was a satisfying read. Molly’s depression is severely getting in the way of her actually living her life and she’s working to get help, even if she feels like maybe the help she’s getting won’t be enough to “fix” her. The ending feels hopeful, even though Molly is now armed with some new and shocking information and a seriously questionable therapy experience. I value this book for its open discussion of medication and therapy and its look at how depression can affect everyone around the depressed person. Definitely worth adding to the growing list of interesting books about mental health issues. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481448567

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 05/17/2016

#MHYALit: You Won’t Find Girl Interrupted’s Angelina Jolie But At Least You’ll Be Safe! Why Being Hospitalized for Mental Health Issues Isn’t a Bad Thing, a guest post by Ami Allen-Vath

Today author Ami Allen-Vath shares her experiences with suicidal ideation, depression, hospitalization, and more. We continue to be so honored and proud to share these honest, vulnerable posts. Visit the #MHYALit hub to see all of the posts in this series. 

 

MHYALitlogoofficfialWhen I was in eleventh grade, I wrote a letter to my family and best friends. It was a goodbye letter, a letter to let them know why I couldn’t live anymore.

 

I basically told them I was having flashbacks from the sexual abuse I’d experienced as a middle-schooler. I told them I couldn’t handle life. I told them I had an eating disorder, that I was bulimic and couldn’t handle hating myself and my body anymore. But one thing I didn’t mention was my mom and stepdad’s alcoholism. I didn’t talk about the yelling and physical abuse I’d witnessed. The fights that seemed to happen every weekend. I didn’t say that I stopped inviting friends over and did my best to answer the phone first so friends calling wouldn’t hear their sloppy jokes and slurred words. The laughing and partying that went on a few hours before the fighting happened. I didn’t write about this because I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know. I’d already been through a lot, so I felt like I should have my shit together already. Being a teen in a home with alcoholics felt messy and embarrassing. So, I omitted the alcoholic and domestic abuse stuff, even though the stress and secrecy was wearing me down.

 

So, I folded up the letter, took a bunch of pills and cried. And then I was sobbing. I realize now, I wanted to be heard. My crying woke my sister. What I remember from the rest of the night is my stepdad carrying me to an ambulance and soon after, the hazy snippets of the noise and chaos of an emergency room.

 

After being in the hospital a few days, I was admitted to the AIP. Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry Fifth Floor Locked-Unit. Prior to my hospitalization, my association to a place like that was “crazy house.” I didn’t want to be there at first, but I really didn’t want to be at home. I met doctors, therapists, took different tests and went to groups and individual therapy. I met kids that had similar and different issues. I took a break from life. I really, really needed that. It was a time to focus on me and shut out the outside world. It was a safe haven and I couldn’t be hurt by the bad choices of my family and I couldn’t hurt myself. Most kids stayed for a week or two. I saw a lot of kids come and go but I stayed for a month.

 

When I went home, my problems were still there but I was equipped to handle things better. Life’s past and present issues didn’t want make me want to die anymore.

 

But about ten years later, it happened again. I had a two-year-old and had just left an awful relationship. I was living with my best friend and her new husband and they were wonderful and supportive. I also had an amazing therapist. The work I did with her had set me on a life-changing journey of healing from my past. I was working through a lot of issues I had because of the sexual abuse I’d been a victim of as a kid. I was trying to manage my eating disorder. It was very “one day at a time,” but I was trying.

 

But due to the issues I had with my ex, single motherhood, and trying to figure out how to get back on my own feet, I felt trapped. I felt like the “old Ami” who couldn’t get ahead. I became very delusional and found myself snapping into a different person. I’d write journal entries as the “old me” and slowly felt myself becoming “her.” I had a suicide plan. In a bad snowstorm, I drove my son to his father’s and said I couldn’t take care of him until I found a job and “got it together.”

 

But once again, even though I was telling my therapist a lot of the things I was dealing with, I wasn’t saying the important stuff. The stuff that had me teetering on the edge of the cliff. I didn’t tell her about my suicidal ideations. I didn’t say I’d sort of split into two people.

 

The “sane” side of me called the hospital. I made an appointment at a mental health facility and once there, the lady asked if I was going to hurt myself. I couldn’t talk. She asked if I needed help, if I needed to stay. At first, I didn’t know if I should tell her or not. But after a minute, I wanted to be heard. I cried. And shook my head yes.

 

Once again, I was in a new psych ward. I was with other adults who had problems that were just as heavy to them as mine were to me. The food wasn’t amazing. The rules could be annoying and patronizing, but being there was good. It was needed. I was safe.

 

I was there for a little over a week. I continued getting care and treatment after. I did my best to go to doctor’s appointments, therapist appointments and take the advice they were giving. Eventually, I stopped wanting to hurt myself.

 

And ten years later, which was last year, I got sick again. I’d recently moved with my husband and children to New Jersey from Georgia. Miles and miles away from close friends and family. My husband travels out of the state and country. He’s gone a few days every week. The town I live in is quiet and isolated, especially in the winter. I was now in a state where winters are cold and dark. I started writing more but once I was agented, I didn’t have enough time or space to do it. I didn’t have any family or friends to help out. I felt very alone. The stress was building at a rapid rate and once again, I felt trapped. I’m a pretty introverted person and love alone time but I missed adults. I missed having friends come by during the week. I missed going out to lunch with a coworker every once in a while. I missed going to my sister’s house on Friday or Saturdays, eating dinner together, and talking until late while the kids played.

 

I was seeing a therapist. It’d been great. We worked through a lot of the issues I had with my mom’s alcoholism. I told her about the anxiety and frustrations about not having enough time for myself and my work. I hinted at feeling overwhelmed, but I didn’t tell her the whole truth. That I was constantly thinking about suicide and wishing I could just do it and get it over with. I didn’t tell anyone that once again, I was becoming very comfortable with the idea of death.

 

But then, with much prodding from my best friend, I broke down. I cried. I admitted that it’d gotten so bad that I wasn’t safe. That I was going to hurt myself. I told her she could tell my husband because I didn’t want to. I was too afraid, too ashamed. I felt too much: I am a mom! A wife! I have a book deal and my dream is coming true! I’m supposed to have my crap together. For my family, for me.

 

The next day, my husband drove me to behavioral/mental health hospital. It was my birthday. But, I was safe. I couldn’t hurt myself. I took a break. From the stress and depression that made it hard for me to breathe. It gave me, doctors and therapists time to come up with solutions in a space where I didn’t have to deal with everything else. I learned some new coping skills. And after a week, I went home. But I wasn’t done. I started a wonderful day program. I was there for about two and a half months. Aside from new coping skills and a sort of “survival” plan, I learned a lot of ways to change the irrational thinking that had been a catalyst to my stress and catastrophizing.

 

And finally, I learned that I NEED TO TALK. I need to be honest about how I’m feeling. I shouldn’t wait until my toes are slightly over the cliff’s edge to finally ask for help. I also learned the true value of hospitalization.

 

Being admitted or admitting yourself to a psychiatric facility is not failure. When you’re overwhelmed and trapped, when it feels like there’s no way out of your depression, you’re in crisis mode. Your life is in danger. And when you’re in crisis or almost crisis mode, it’s okay and sometimes very, very necessary to take a break from “the outside world” until you are safe.

 

Hey, I love vacations. I prefer them to be somewhere warm and sunny. I like great food and tropical views and access to a nice pool. But when you lose yourself, when you’re incurably depressed, you’re going to need a little more than amazing guacamole and pina coladas to get you rejuvenated enough to want to go back home. So, the next time you hear about someone going to a mental hospital/psych ward/behavioral health facility, or if you or a friend is in crisis, don’t discount a “mental health vacation.”

 

I know my experiences aren’t going to be the same as everyone else’s and I won’t sugarcoat all the details about if you ask. But don’t dismiss hospitalization because of what you’ve seen on TV or movies. It’s not glamorous but it’s also not a giant cuckoo’s nest. A big reason my stays were successful was because I was able to drop the stigma attached to being hospitalized.

 

For me, this is true: All three times I stepped into a psychiatric ward, I went in ready to take my life. And all three times I left, I was safe. I was still alive.

 

I’m here today and I will be here tomorrow.

 

 

Note to reader: I’m very aware that hospitalization requires money and/or a good healthcare program. In my case, my first two hospitalizations were paid for using state’s healthcare program/healthcare assistance. In the third instance, my husband’s healthcare covered a lot of the bill. We were then able to pay the copays with a payment plan. It was a lot of money, but hello! The cost of a life…very worth it. Please don’t let finances or the stigma you may have attached to lack of finances prevent you from seeking help. Here are a few resources you can start with:

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 24 hour toll-free crisis hotline, 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255) can put you into contact with your local crisis center that can tell you where to seek immediate help in your area.

Child-Help USA 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) crisis line assists both child and adult survivors of abuse, including sexual abuse. The hotline, staffed by mental health professionals, also provides treatment referrals.

In areas where 211 is available, this number connects you with mental health crisis services in your area.

 

Meet Ami Allen-Vath

Ami Allen-Vath author picAmi Allen-Vath is an ice cream enthusiast and a loather of cilantro. She’s the author of LIARS AND LOSERS LIKE US, about a teen dealing with anxiety, grief, and first love––all during prom season. Ami can be found on Twitter: @amilouiseallen, Facebook and amiallenvath.com.

 

 

 

 

About Liars and Losers Like Us

liarsKeep calm and make it to prom night—without a legit panic attack.

For seventeen-year-old Bree Hughes, it’s easier said than done when gossip, grief, and the opportunity to fail at love are practically high-fiving her in the hallways of Belmont High.

When Bree’s crush, Sean Mills, gives her his phone number, she can’t even leave a voicemail without sounding like a freak. Then she’s asked to be on Prom Court because Maisey Morgan, the school outcast nominated as a joke, declined. She apologizes to Maisey, but it’s too late. After years of torment and an ugly secret shared with their class’s cruel Pageant Queen, Maisey commits suicide. Bree is left with a lot of regret…and a revealing letter with a final request.

With Sean by her side, Bree navigates through her guilt, her parents’ divorce, and all the Prom Court drama. But when a cheating-love-triangle secret hits the fan after a night of sex, drinks, and video games, she’s left with new information about Sean and the class Pageant Queen. Bree must now speak up or stay silent. If she lets fear be her guide, she’ll lose her first love, and head to prom to avenge the death of the school outcast—as a party of one. (Sky Pony Press, March 22, 2016. SEE AMANDA’S REVIEW HERE.)

#MHYALit: “Eating Disorder” Books: How They Only Show Half of the Struggle, a guest post by Jen Petro-Roy

MHYALitlogoofficfialToday librarian and blogger Jen Petro-Roy shares with us her experiences with an eating disorder and what she’s learned from her eating disorder, from treatment, and from recovery. See all of the #MHYALit posts here. 

 

 

 

Screaming in the middle of the night.

People getting dragged off the Eating Disorders wing for self-harm.

Temper tantrums and hissy fits during meals.

Counselors hovering outside the bathroom, listening to me count OUT LOUD while I peed.

Counting down the hours until “bench,” that wonderful fifteen minutes when we were all allowed to troop outside and loiter around a bench while getting our dose of fresh air.

Mumbling.

Cold shoulders.

Suspicion.

Overly attentive counselors.

Crying.

Utter fear.

 

This was eating disorder treatment. It’s all stuff you’ve probably read about in the many young adult books written on the subject, where a girl (usually only a girl) gets sick, reluctantly goes into treatment, experiences horror after horror, has sick thoughts, then gets better.

I’ve read a few of these books. Wintergirls. Perfect. Tiny Pretty Things. How I Live Now. Believarexic (the last being perhaps the best, most accurate treatment-related book I’ve read). These authors have done their research, and, in many cases, experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating themselves. As you’d expect, there’s a common thread in so many of these books: the evils of eating disorders. The pain. The torment.

These are some of the phrases I see and the feelings I get when I’m reading a so-called “eating disorder book”: My brittle bones. Aching hunger. Isolation. Misery.

 

I’m not saying that an eating disorder isn’t miserable. I suffered from severe anorexia for three years. I went into treatment seven times. Then I hovered in some middle-of-the-road no man’s land between almost recovery and full recovery for another ten years. I was miserable for a lot of that time. My stomach was a pit and my body almost collapsed from over-exercise. I lied and deceived. I did all that knowing how awful I was being, knowing that I was valuing my disease over my life. I lost friends and harmed relationships. I transferred colleges and took time off and missed out on so much.

I gained so much, too.

 

I’m not talking about just weight, although that’s obviously a key factor. A vital factor. I did gain weight. I “weight-restored,” to use the technical term that was bandied about so much.

But I gained knowledge, too. Knowledge about myself and knowledge about the world. Like that this society is royally messed up. That people treat a “you look like you lost weight” compliment like it’s the equivalent of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or like it’s a better compliment than something that really matters, like “you’re a good friend.” That my Facebook feed is filled with posts about Beach Body cleanses and how eating chocolate makes someone bad.

You know what makes someone bad? Breaking the law. Discriminating against others. Not liking to read. (Kidding!…Maybe.)

Bad isn’t gaining weight. Bad isn’t losing weight. Bad isn’t eating kale or cheesecake or oatmeal or peanut butter. Weight has nothing to do with morality. It’s a number. A NUMBER.

I’m not trying to lecture, because god knows, I beat myself up for a long time about that whole peanut butter thing. But that’s what a lot of these books don’t show—the slow process where someone learns that peanut butter isn’t so awful after all. The push and pull, the advances and backslides. The knowledge that comes with time.

 

And there has been so much knowledge. I learned that I can’t go on diets anymore. I learned that my brain is wired in such a way that if I start to cut back on food, then I’ll want to keep cutting back. I learned that if I drop below a certain weight (for any reason), then my brain will do a happy dance. I learned that I need to eat a lot. I learned that food is freaking fantastic. (A fact that I honestly knew all along, but tried really hard to suppress.)

 

I learned that I’m wired a bit differently than other people, and that medication brings me back to that state of equilibrium that some achieve naturally. Medication isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It’s my insulin. My beta-blockers. My brain food.

I learned that I don’t need or want a scale in my house. I learned that it’s quite satisfying to toss said scale out of the window and watch it smash to pieces on the cement below.

 

I also learned that when I stop obsessing about shrinking my body, my life expands dramatically.

Young Adult “eating disorder stories” get part of the story right. They show what it’s like to suffer and ache, to obsess and hunger. But where they often fall short for me is on the recovery front.

Recovery is hard. Damn hard. Soul-searching, relapse-having, losing what you thought made you you hard. It’s anxiety so fierce that you want to hide from the world and that you think will tear you apart inside. It’s getting new clothes and making new friends and for some, even finding a new place to live. It’s changing career paths and confronting loved ones and figuring out what you want in life.

Recovery isn’t just that time in treatment or therapy, or that time when you’re gaining weight. You don’t leave treatment cured. You don’t even leave treatment almost cured. You leave treatment with a toolbox of skills to use and are then shoved/gently coaxed/pushed into the same world that helped you develop your eating disorder.

 

You aren’t at the starting line of a journey. But you aren’t at the end yet. Not by far.

I understand that books are supposed to have a happy ending. There needs to be a narrative arc: pain, realizations, struggle, pitfalls, closure. Readers want that closure, that hope that recovery is possible.

Because it is. It’s so possible. My life, my career, my family, my marriage, my body is proof of that.

But the happy ending didn’t come right away. And that’s where I think YA books about eating disorders can do the reader a grave disservice. That’s where I think our cultural conversation about eating disorders does us a grave disservice. Because those suffering, along with their friends and family members, come to expect a cure right away. They want that narrative arc in their lives or in their loved one’s life. And when it doesn’t happen, they despair. They backslide. They relapse.

There’s no magic pill to take that will immediately clear up the obsessions, compulsions, and irrational fears. Just hard work, time, and transformation. Of body, of self, and of mind.

We need a society that recognizes how arduous recovery can be. In this country of Starbucks drive-thrus and microwave bacon, of 10-day detox diets and multitasking, we need to understand that some things take time.

Some things need time. To realize who exactly you are without your eating disorder. To understand what you want to do with your life and what harmful messages were leading you to hide behind food or the lack thereof. To filter out the toxic influences and start to craft an identity beyond your illness.

It took me fourteen years from my initial symptoms to get to 100% full recovery. That time included a good eight years where I was convinced that I was fully recovered, too.

I wasn’t. I was still sick in a lot of ways. Unnoticeable ways. Little ways. Ways that still held me back from the life I wanted to lead.

I’m there now, though. And those characters will get there eventually, too.

We need to read about that part.

 

Of course, I understand that a book has to stop somewhere. Each novel can’t go on and on detailing every slip and fall and stumble and rise. But there should be more narratives out there that cover the “after,” not just the “before” and the “during.”

Because the after is what we all want. Not the lurid details or the dramatic numbers, but the peace and acceptance that comes with recovery. Where you find not the new you, but the true you.

 

Meet Jen Petro-Roy

YMPKbSIxJennifer Petro-Roy is the Young Adult Librarian at the Chelmsford Public Library, where she also runs the Young Writers Club. She got her MLIS from Simmons College and is also a middle grade/YA writer. She blogs at http://www.losingmylabels.com about parenting, body image, and self-esteem. When she’s not writing or talking about books, Jennifer is reading many more books and spending time with her husband and two daughters. You can find her on Twitter as @jpetroroy.

Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

Publisher’s description

memory of lightWhen Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn’t be alive. But then she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending Vick back to the life that drove her to suicide, she must try to find her own courage  and strength. She may not have them. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I have had a lucky streak at the beginning of this year with not just reading books that are great in general, but that are specifically great in the way they deal with mental health issues. Because I read in order of publication date (the only way I can mange my towering pile of books), I didn’t even arrange for it to work out this way, to read all of these books at the start of our #MHYALit project. I have enjoyed Stork’s other two books—Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors—so I was expecting to like this one, too. “Like” is an understatement. This blew me away.

 

Vicky wakes up in the hospital after attempting suicide. Dr. Desai informs her she’s had her stomach pumped and that Juanita, her nanny, found her. Vicky doesn’t know how to explain what she did. She isn’t sure how to reconcile loving someone, as she does with her nanny, and still wanting to be dead. She just knows she hurts inside and she’s tired of pretending. Dr. Desai recommends Vicky stay for a few weeks for group therapy, individual therapy, to help out around the hospital, and to give them time to start to think about what medications may be useful. Vicky feels like none of that matters because she will inevitably go back to wanting to kill herself. Her chatty and affable roommate (with wrists full of scars), Mona, acts as a guide for Vicky, helping her get to know the other kids in the group. She learns that E.M. is there for anger and violence issues and Gabriel is there for, well, she’s not sure. He is slow to explain what’s going on in his life. Vicky is surprised by the “gentle but blunt sincerity” of the conversations about life in the hospital, mental illness, and more. She’s not used to people talking about these things.

 

Vicky’s dad and stepmom are high-achieving success stories, and so is Vicky’s sister. Her dad is more concerned with the school she’s missing and the fact that she’s in a public hospital (unacceptable to him) than he is with her actual state of mental health. With the support of her doctor and the group, Vicky is able to stand up for herself and stay for the treatment so she desperately needs. Though she’s promised Dr. Desai that she won’t try to kill herself while at the hospital, the thought is never far from her. She’s miserable. Vicky hates herself; she’s disgusted with herself. She is deeply, deeply sad and no one at home has recognized that. Though Vicky starts to make some inroads into feeling a little less depressed, she’s worried that going home will immediately bring everything back to feeling as desperate as it did before.

 

While the writing is outstanding and the characters well-drawn, it’s the real talk about mental illness that makes this novel stand out to me. Vicky often talks about the debilitating fog of depression, of the lies that depression makes a person believe. We learn that Mona is bipolar and see how that affects her, especially once she decides to give herself a little break from her medicine. Gabriel is possibly schizophrenic—he hears the voice of God telling him to give away his possessions and that he must die. The teens all talk about these very real illnesses and support each other when they each fall prey to believing in the lies, to feeling like they are to blame for their illnesses. At one point, Vicky says:

“It’s hard to accept that depression is an illness, that moping around from day to day with no will for so many years is not my fault. It feels like it’s my fault. Isn’t it your fault when you have all you want and need and much more than ninety-nine percent of the world has, and you still feel miserable?” (pg 102)

 

They struggle to accept their illnesses but are constantly reminded, by each other and their doctor, that what they have IS an illness and is real. The teens all come from different backgrounds and have varying levels of support or familial involvement in their treatment. They begin to really bond with each other, as the story goes on, and Vicky feels like in the hospital it’s five against one–her group and doctor against her depression. Each time we see her parents, we see so clearly how they just DO NOT get what is going on. Whether it’s ignorance—willful or otherwise–or denial, they don’t understand Vicky’s illness and make ridiculous demands on her once she leaves the hospital—get right back to school, get your grades back up, focus on getting into an Ivy League school (she’s a high school sophomore), get a job, BE FINE. Be better. Vicky, who is of course still struggling greatly with her depression, works hard to not be ashamed of what has happened and to be open with people about her needs right now. It is only after some very scary events go on with the friends in her treatment group that she can begin to make her family understand what mental illness really means and what they can do to support her. 

 

This important book is an honest and candid look at mental illness, treatment, and recovery. The focus on therapy, medication, and support shows readers the many different ways to get help. The mental illnesses are handled sensitively, and the teens’ conversations go a long way toward encouraging open dialogues about mental health, acceptance, and the removal of stigma. Expect this profoundly moving book to fly off shelves. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545474320

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date:01/26/2016