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How Mental Illness Tried and Failed to Ruin My Life by Robison Wells

Variant by Robison Wells was one of my favorite books of 2011 and I became an instant fan of Robison Wells.  It’s a book that has one of those “What the Heck” just happened moments.  If you read my previous post, If You Give a Geek a Computer, you know that at some point I stumbled upon Wells’ webpage where he shares openly about his struggles with mental health issues.  And if you are a regular reader here at TLT you know that part of our mission is to increase awareness and understanding of the issues that affect teen lives.  Mental health issues can affect teens in one of two ways: they are either struggling with their own mental health issues (“Fifty-one percent of boys and 49 percent of girls aged 13-19 have a mood, behavior, anxiety or substance use disorder, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.”) or they are struggling to live in families with members affected by mental health issues.  Today, I am honored to share this guest blog post by author Robison Wells to help us better understand mental health issues.  Be sure and check out our Top 10 list from Tuesday for some good suggestions of ya titles that deal well with mental health issues. 
Ladies and gentleman, Robison Wells . . .
Author Robison Wells holding a copy of Feedback, the sequel to Variant.
Feedback is being released in October of 2012 by HarperTeen
I used to have a healthy brain. According to most measures of success, I was doing great: I had published three books in the local market and had just secured a fantastic three book contract with HarperCollins; I had finished a master’s degree and worked for Fortune 500 companies and groundbreaking startups; I had a wife and three kids, and a little house with a big garden. Everything really seemed to be going my way.


However, lurking under all of it was growing problem. It started one late night while I was working

for ConAgra foods, doing brand management for Orville Redenbacher popcorn. It was a stressful time: I was working 60-70 hours per week, and one night I was all alone at the office at about 9:00pm. And suddenly I was completely overcome by a paralyzing fear. It wasn’t fear of anything specific: at that moment I wasn’t afraid of meeting my deadlines or associating with coworkers. It was just an overriding desire—need—to crawl under my desk and hide, or, better yet, to get out of the office completely. To run and run and never look back. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first ever panic attack. My heart raced. My breathing was rapid and shallow. My face felt hot and flushed. And I had an overwhelming sense of doom.


Things got better. I was fine the next day, though a little bit rattled by the experience, and I went for months without having another attack. But as time went on they started to happen with more frequency. I’d be in a meeting and have a sudden, irrational need to get out of the room, to get out of the building. My wife would sometimes find me sitting on the floor in between the bed and the wall, or in the back of the closet, or on the kitchen floor, in the dark, at midnight.

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It was getting worse, and it was getting worse fast. I finally visited my family doctor and he confirmed my suspicions: I wasn’t just overworked, or unable to deal with stress of family, work, and writing. Instead, I was diagnosed with a severe panic disorder.

Panic disorder is a mental illness, one in which your brain’s autonomic nervous system—the famous fight or flight response—is always turned on. Essentially, some switch was flipped in my brain, and my body suddenly thought that I was (and that I always was) being chased by a bear. I was always alert, like a rabbit who’s smelled a nearby wolf, and I could never concentrate or even sleep. My body simply wouldn’t let me relax because it thought that relaxation would result in my death. My brain was broken.

I don’t know the cause. As with most mental illnesses, there’s no easy answer—no smoking gun that can be pointed to to explain everything. It was probably stress. It was probably a genetic disposition toward anxiety problems. It was probably a lifelong list of unidentified symptoms.

It got worse before it got better. The panic disorder led to agoraphobia. (Agoraphobia is essentially the fear of having a panic attack, so it makes me afraid/unwilling to do things that might spark an attack. It’s become increasingly difficult to leave the house, or to go anywhere where there might be crowds. I lost my job because I was simply unable to enter conference rooms, or go to group meetings, or make stressful phone calls.)

And the agoraphobia led to the scariest of all symptoms: an obsessive-compulsive self-harm complex. It started with a fixation on the stairs. Every time I’d go down to my office (several times a day) I would fantasize about falling down the stairs—I’d think about how much better life would be if I did. Then it changed to an obsession with breaking my hand. Then an irrational, obsessive, all-consuming desire to bleed from my head.

It was at this point that my family doctor pulled some strings and got me in to see a real psychiatrist. (I’d been on a six month waiting list, but my insurance wasn’t great.)

The psychiatrist changed some medicines, adding a few and taking a few away. He sent me to a sleep lab to work on the insomnia (I’d only been getting 2-3 hours of sleep a night because my body was so on-edge.) He sent me to a psychologist for cognitive behavioral therapy. And things started to get better. Slowly.

So why am I telling you all of this? Three reasons.

First, it’s easier to talk about than to hide it. For a long time I used to make excuses for why I couldn’t go places. I also get migraines, so they’d be a convenient lie to get me out of a party. Or I’d tell my writing group that I had car problems, or that my family needed me at home. And, of course, lying only made it all worse. It’s always better to talk openly about your problems than to hide them—even when the problems are as big and as daunting as these.

Second, I talk about this because I want to remove the social stigma. Mental illness is exactly that: an illness. It’s no different than diabetes or pneumonia or cancer. No one feels like they need to hide pneumonia—like they should be ashamed of themselves, or that they should just “muscle through” the coughing and fluid-filled lungs and “be a man”. And yet that’s often the feeling with mental illness. And it’s just plain wrong. People with mental illness need to get help, from doctors and friends and family. And the more that I, and other sufferers, talk about mental illness, the more likely people will be willing to get that help. The more likely they’ll be to stop lying, to stop hiding their problems. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. It’s something to get treated.

Third, because I want to give you—those who are suffering from this or other mental illnesses—hope. I’m still sick—I had a horrible day yesterday—but I’m far better than I was six months ago. And I’m back to work, back to being successful. Three weeks ago I finished the best manuscript I’ve ever written. I still have my wife and three kids, and even though I’m not the perfect dad (I still can’t handle noise and chaos), I love my family. My mental illnesses—all of them—are not going anywhere, but they’re being managed, and I’m able to function somewhat normally. Nothing about mental illness is easy, but with the proper help and the support, you don’t have to be afraid of it—you don’t have to be afraid of your own brain. You can live a fulfilling life, and you can still achieve your dreams.
You can find out more about Robison Wells by visiting his webpage.  You can also follow him on Twitter @robisonwells.

For more information about teen mental health, please visit Teen Mental Heath.org or Teen Screen.org.

Win and ARC of Variant and Feedback!

And because I have them, I am going to give away my ARCs of Variant and Feedback to 1 lucky winner.  Just leave a comment with a way to get in touch with you (either an e-mail address or Twitter @) by Sunday, September 2nd to be entered to win.