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Today as part of our #MHYALit Discussion we are honored to once again host Tom Leveen. Yesterday Tom shared a post with us about Panic. Today he is discussing PTSD. We will have a new post every week day in January on the topic of Mental Health in YA Literature and the life of teens.

Author Tom Leveen

Author Tom Leveen

The best friends I made in high school are my best friends to this day. Most of us came from homes that were broken in one manner or another: alcoholic parents, absent or neglectful parents, parents who had died young. That kind of thing. Pretty much all of us were carrying around a lot of baggage centered around the things we endured as kids.

Several years ago, one of these best friends told me, “You know, out of all of us, I think you had it worst.”


Come on! That’s patently false. My parents didn’t get hammered. They didn’t divorce. We had a big house with a huge backyard. I went to private school for kindergarten through eighth grade and went swimming at the country club, for crying out loud! We had a fully separate freezer in addition to our full-size refrigerator, while one of my friends sometimes wondered when he was going to eat next. How could I “have it worst?”

I mean . . . okay, there were some bad things that happened . . . maybe my family didn’t always make the best child-rearing choices, sure . . . but everyone makes mistakes, right? I mean, what they did wasn’t that bad.


In a previous article I wrote about an incident when I was 19, in which three of my friends and I got jumped by four or five guys. Strangers. Young guys, like us. Their motive? None that I’m aware of. No racial epithets shouted at us, no money demanded, no threats, no name-calling, no anything. Just a group of guys apparently out looking for a fight and they found us. The cops urged us not to bother pressing charges, because “nothing would come of it.”

SHACKLED by Tom Leveen tackles the topic of PTSD in YA Lit

SHACKLED by Tom Leveen tackles the topic of PTSD in YA Lit

So we didn’t. Those guys walked.

They walked away free and clear, and never knew that a few months later, a car full of people trapped me in a school parking lot late at night and screamed they were going to “kick my ass.”

Happily, they didn’t. I went home unscathed.

When I got home, however, I collapsed to the floor and lay there barely able to breathe for I don’t know how long—feeling both cold and hot, shivering, chest tight, feeling like I was dying, unable to blink. It might have been two hours, it might have been two minutes.

Ha ha, I’m kidding of course! . . . It was not two minutes.

From that point on, for the next several years, I was unable to leave my house at night. I had to change jobs. I lost friends and girlfriends. I could not and would not step outside. When I did, panic gripped my lungs and squeezed. I got tunnel vision and searched desperately for a way out of whatever situation I was in. Usually, this meant standing up on shaky legs and announcing, “I gotta go,” and then running full-tilt for my car. I missed my own birthday party at a friend’s house because I couldn’t make myself leave my room.

Now for the punchline:

The fight I mention here is not where I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No, it turns out I’ve had PTSD for a long, long time. What I developed after those two incidents—getting jumped and the threat in the parking lot—was a severe, near-crippling panic disorder. But PTSD and panic are not the same thing. I’m telling you this because that was news to me, and it might be news to you.

The first thing I want you to know about PTSD is this: You didn’t have to be in a gunfight in a foreign nation to develop it.

At first I spent a lot of time feeling guilty over my diagnosis. “How can I have PTSD? I was never shot at. I was never imprisoned by murderous zealots. I never served in a forward area in war. I haven’t earned this diagnosis.”

That kind of thinking is a trap that we who have been so-diagnosed need to avoid. I am not trying to, and would never, take away from our veterans and first responders who develop PTSD in the line of duty. Our stories are not comparable. But that does not change the fact that I have this disorder. It does no one—least of all ourselves—any good to wander around comparing our stories to someone else’s and judging which one is “worse” or which one is “earned.” PTSD is a real thing, and it happens for a lot of reasons.

I'LL MEET YOU THERE by Heather Demetrios is a recent YA Lit title that deals with PTSD

I’LL MEET YOU THERE by Heather Demetrios is a recent YA Lit title that deals with PTSD

Secondly, a diagnosis is the most important start toward feeling better. If you’ve been avoiding therapy, please don’t. Please. Having a professional listen to your story, then look you in the eye and say—not unlike the film Good Will Hunting—“It’s not your fault” is the most valuable step toward recovery. You’re not crazy; something bad happened (or is happening) and it’s messing up what should be a well-lived life. Go get someone who can name this issue so you can own it and learn to control it.

I’m writing to you today because there is good news, and you or someone you care about needs some good news. Here’s the first part: the panic disorder I developed after being assaulted is pretty well under control these days. I don’t remember the last time I had an honest-to-goodness panic attack. For me, desensitization helped, as did the encouragement of friends who never gave up on me.

But my PTSD is something that developed when I was a very little kid, and I still struggle with it today. Being locked naked in chicken coops and having actual, literal human shit rubbed into my face has that effect, apparently. Wow! Who knew things like that—and others too numerous to mention—could give a kid PTSD?


YA Lit Titles That Include Characters with PTSD

Oh, wait . . . my doctor knew.

I can look at those events, and many like them, and name them. Own them. Say, “That was wrong.” Believe it was wrong. And then, finally, begin the process of dealing with what it did to me. Today, my PTSD manifests as destructive rage, depression, and a severe dislike of surprises, such as sudden loud noises. When I land in a bad mood, when I get depressed and angry and certain the world is out to get me, it lasts for several days in a row. I can’t count how many times I’ve quit being an author during these phases. How many times I’ve wanted to quit life in general, for that matter. It’s exhausting for me and my family to go through this every few weeks or months.

THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson is a recent and well reviewed YA Lit title dealing with PTSD

THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson is a recent and well reviewed YA Lit title dealing with PTSD

Maybe you know the feeling.

But let me tell you something: You’re not crazy. And in case you missed it, it’s not your fault. No one is born with PTSD. No one is born with a panic disorder. Bad things happen to us, often at home or at school, and our brains do their best to cope. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t make you any less a human being. It doesn’t make you less important, less valuable, less loved.

I turned my feelings into fiction. So can you, if you want. Or art, or poetry, or music, or sports, or cooking, or gardening, or anything at all. My most recent novel, Shackled, is about a girl who has both a panic disorder and PTSD, even though the plot—about her search for a kidnapped friend and what she actually finds at the end of that search—is not something that ever happened to me personally. My ghost-story novella Those We Bury Back touches on some of those real-life things, but even in that story, the truth is partly fictionalized.

But writing those stories helped. Reading about it helps. Finding books, characters, and other real people who understand the struggle helps.

So to recap:

If things just aren’t going well in your head, heart, or soul, and it’s been that way for awhile, please find a professional to help you figure out what’s going on and name it. Naming it takes away a lot of its power. Next, find people who understand what you’re going through, or who will love you no matter what.

Trust me: I’ve tried hurting myself to make it go away. I’ve tried a variety of chemicals to make it go away, legal and otherwise. I’ve tried hiding from it, lying about it, concealing it. What has helped the most is the truth, and speaking the truth in a safe place with safe people. Find those places and people. If I’d ever let this stuff get the best of me, I wouldn’t be here writing novels for a living. I wouldn’t have a beautiful wife and an amazing son.

I wouldn’t be telling you all this.

I have bad days. And weeks. But we keep pushing through, because it always ends up worth it.

Hang in there with me. Okay? Maybe my friend was right after all, maybe I did have it worst. But it’s gotten better and it keeps getting better.

One last thing before I go:

If anyone has ever or is currently hurting you, you did not deserve it. Period. No one is allowed to hurt you physically, sexually, emotionally, or spiritually. No one. For any reason at all. If you are being hurt, get help now. Now. It is never ever okay for someone to hurt you.


Tom Leveen is the author of seven young adult novels including Shackled, Random, Party, and Sick. His novel Zero was a YALSA Best Book of 2013. You can connect with Tom at tomleveen.com (http://www.tomleveen.com); on Facebook at /AuthorTom Leveen (http://www.facebook.com/authortomleveen); and on Twitter @tomleveen (http://twitter.com/tomleveen).

Some Additional Resources:

HelpGuide.Org: What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

NIMH: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Library Thing Tagmash has a list of YA Fiction with the PTSD Tag (we are working on developing a book list as part of our future posts).

See all the #MHYALit Posts Here

List of Lists: Teens and Mental Health Resources

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

According to the NCCP, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosed mental health issue. Most mental health disorders begin to present in the adolescent years. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. According to NAMI, 50% of children who present with a mental illness will drop out of school.

In addition, a variety of teens are living in houses where they are being raised by a parent who suffers from some type of mental health issue. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. These are the parents, grandparents, and love ones of many of our teens.

Mental health issues are an important issue for teens. Reading stories about characters with mental health disorders can help teens understand their parents, their friends, or their selves. It can give them hope. It can affirm and validate their experiences. Below are links to several lists of YA titles that deal with mental health issues in some way.

A Variety of YA Lit Book Lists

Stephanie Khuen: YA Highway
Kuehn presents a very comprehensive reading list of YA lit titles broken down by various subjects and issues including anxiety disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorders, thought disorders and impulse control. The list isn’t annotated, but it does link back to the Goodreads page for a description and publisher information.

Adventures of Lit Girl
This page presents a list of mostly YA titles, there are a few adult titles, broken down by various issues. Only covers are presented, you have to click through to the Goodreads page to get the book description and publisher information.

We’re All Made Here: Mental Illness in YA Fiction
Bitch Magazine discusses some of the issues in titles in a brief article.

Can Teen Fiction Explain Mental Illness to My Daughter?
The Guardian presents a good article about teens navigating personal and family mental illness and discusses how YA fiction can help teens in these situations.

Reach Out Reads
In 2011, Inspire USA released a short list of titles called Reach Out Reads. These titles deal with a variety of mental health topics including bullying in schizophrenia. There is only one title for each topic.

For Statistics, Facts and Resources, Check Out These Resources

Teen Mental Health
 A pretty comprehensive site

Healthy Children
An article on watching for danger signs

Office of Adolescent Health 
Another comprehensive site that looks at adolescent mental health issues.

Children of Parents with Mental Illness
Help for children who have parents that suffer from a mental illness.

From Risk to Resilience: Support for Children whose Parents Have Mental Illness
Help for children who have parents that suffer from a mental illness.

Teen Issues at TLT
We have a variety of posts that talk about a variety of teen issues, including addiction, body image, and mental health.

Book Review – The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am sincerely afraid my review will not do justice to this book. Scratch that. I am completely certain that my review will not do justice to this book.

Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have quit their life on the road to return home for her senior year of high school. Their past years were spent traveling – Andy driving long haul trucks, Hayley doing home school. Sort of. Andy is determined that Hayley will spend her senior year of high school establishing a good record so she will have a chance of getting into college. Hayley isn’t sure she wants to go to college. This would be enough conflict for most YA novels, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface. Hayley and Andy are barely hanging on, both of them devastated by Andy’s post traumatic stress disorder, a result of his time spent in the military.

Throughout the story, we watch, impotent, as Haley and Andy’s lives gradually crumble. There are periods of rebuilding, attempts at healing and a fresh start, but everything inexorably falls apart. And it is devastating, though ultimately hopeful.

The thing is, I don’t remember when I first heard about post traumatic stress disorder. I do remember, however, thinking, “Oh! Well that explains a lot of things, especially the lives of all of those Vietnam veterans.” And then I basically cataloged it away as an explanation of the behavior and actions of anyone who had been through a traumatic experience. I never really stopped to consider the impact of PTSD on friends and family members. I live a relatively sheltered life; I never really stopped to consider anything at all. But this book – this book stopped me cold.

Ragged and raw and realistic, but also intimate, personal, and incredibly nuanced, Anderson’s story of one family’s struggle with PTSD is brilliant and moving.

You can learn more about PTSD by visiting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site

Karen’s take:
I read this yesterday while driving cross country from Ohio to Texas.  At one point near the end, I completely just started hardcore bawling. My husband and two kids were all, “are you okay?” This was such a moving and realistic portrait of truly broken people.  Not just Hayley and her dad, but the supporting cast as well – including a great boyfriend, Finn, whose family is being torn apart by a drug addicted sister.  And then there is Gracie, a best friend whose family is falling apart.  These are the teens I know, the teens I work with.  This is their story, these are their struggles.

Hayley is trying desperately to keep very dark secrets because where she is – as terrifying as it is – is nothing compared to the unknown of being removed from her father.  She reminds me in ways of the MC in Rotters by Daniel Kraus, also trying to survive a desperate situation and keep it a secret.  Or the MC in Don’t You Dare Read This, Mr. Dunphrey.

And Hayley, she has been burned by life. Abandoned at every turn.  So being in a relationship is hard.  Here is where there is some real nuance to Anderson’s storytelling; Hayley is often an unlikable main character – she even states that she is being a bitch as she is in fact being one – but she can’t get too close or be too honest.  Her life is a tapestry loosely woven and gentling tugging even one string of truth will make it all unravel.  It is such fantastic storytelling and character development.

Also, she made me ugly cry.  It is possible that the only other author who has done that is Gayle Forman in If I Stay.  But when the things that you know must eventually happen do in fact happen, your gut is sliced open and your heart is wrenched out and damn it, you wanted to be wrong for Hayley and her dad.  

Hayley’s dad, so very, very broken.  I loved him.  This is such a beautiful portrayal of what it is to be haunted by memories, to wake up sweating in the night because the blade of memory keeps twisting, to try and self-medicate the memories and heartache away.  This is some A+ storytelling.  And such an important story because so many of our Veterans are coming home damaged, we need to do more for them.