Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Writing Away the Stigma

Today I'm SUPER excited to be sharing a guest post from author Claire Legrand. When I became a co-host, I immediately had a few authors in mind that I wanted to ask, and Claire was one of them. I absolutely LOVED Some Kind of Happiness, especially the mental health aspect of it. It's one of my all-time favorite books. So I was ecstatic when Claire said yes, and I'm so happy to be welcoming her to the blog for Shattering Stigmas. :)

*****

Writing Away the Stigma:
How Writing My Book Taught Me About Mental Health
When I came up with the idea for Some Kind of Happiness, I couldn’t imagine how fun it would be to write a book about something as serious as mental health.

I also couldn’t imagine how writing this book would change my life.

I used to be hesitant to open up about my personal problems. Yeah, I’d vent to friends and family about things that bothered me on a daily basis, but when it came to the big stuff—living with constant low-level anxiety, not being able to get out of bed on days when my depression had me in its grips, feeling so guilty about my depression and anxiety that I was filled with ferocious self-loathing—I tended to keep those things bottled up inside me.

I don’t know if it was pride, or independence, or simply a stubborn streak. Maybe the fear of being judged for having mental illness held me back, even though I would have never treated a loved one so harshly.

(Funny, isn’t it, how quick we are to shower love and understanding on those we care about, and yet are so quick to judge and hate ourselves for the very same thing?)

Regardless of the reason, those tendencies of mine kept me from facing the truth:

I have depression and anxiety. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Writing Finley’s story taught me that.

In Some Kind of Happiness, Finley Hart is eleven years old, and she’s not happy. She knows she should be—she has a good, safe life—but no matter how hard she tries to ignore the sadness and fear that are her constant companions, no matter how hard she tries to hide them from her family, they won’t go away. And she can’t find the happiness and peace she so craves.

She can’t find them, that is, until she experiences a remarkable summer with her cousins, solves a mystery or two about a burned out house in the woods (and about why her father hasn’t talked to his family in years), and finds the courage to ask for help.

Taking Finley along that emotional journey taught me so much about myself and my own mental health. To write her story, I had to return to the years of my childhood, when I was Finley’s age and started experiencing anxiety attacks for the first time. I had to examine the physicality of living with these illnesses—what it does to the body, how it manifests sometimes in exhaustion and sometimes in gut-wrenching panic that nests in your bones and leaves you brittle. I had to put into words the loneliness that comes with mental illness, how even when you are surrounded by people you can still feel far from them, adrift in a haze of fatigue they can’t possibly understand.

In order to help Finley find her courage, I had to first find my own.

While brainstorming and later writing Some Kind of Happiness, I started seeing a therapist. I began exploring options for medication. (It took me a while to actually start taking medication, but that’s another thing Finley has taught me—to have patience with myself, and to celebrate even the smallest steps toward a healthier life.)

Most importantly, writing Some Kind of Happiness taught me how crucial it is to talk about mental health—talk about it loudly, talk about it often. Talk about it on social media. Talk about it in real life. I’ve learned how helpful it is to myself, and to others, to admit and accept when my anxiety is high, when I’m in the middle of a depressive swing. I’ve learned vocabulary that describes precisely how I feel. I’ve established a network of close friends who also suffer from mental illness, and I know I can always turn to them when I need help, no matter how messy or ashamed or despairing I may feel.

I’ve also learned—and I think this was the biggest hurdle for me to clear—that it’s important to talk not only to my friends who have mental illness, but also to my friends who don’t. I’ve learned not to hide the extent of my illness from them, to speak with candor when they ask me how I’m feeling. To be honest when I cancel on a book club meeting because I’m so anxious I can’t imagine leaving the house.

And now? After learning all of these things? After taking steps toward managing my mental health (a never-ending process, by the way)? After deciding that there is no reason for me to hide, and that I deserve the same respect and compassion I would show a friend?

I’m a happier person than I’ve ever been.

Writing Finley’s story taught me how to travel the path to happiness. It’s a long road, and I don’t think anyone ever truly reaches the end of it. As humans, we’re always exploring, making mistakes, learning, discovering. Trying and failing. Forgiving and repairing. That process is even more vivid, more fraught, more complex for someone with mental illness. And writing Finley’s story taught me that that’s okay—and that it’s not something to fear.

This will sound cheesy, but I will go against my natural inclination and refrain from apologizing for it: I encourage anyone out there who has mental illness to write about it. Whether it’s a novel, a short story, journal entries, or posts on social media—write about how you feel. Find the words to describe it, and don’t flinch away from them. Don’t feel ashamed, or guilty. With every word you write, let go of those toxic feelings. Breathe out the bad and breathe in the good. In doing so, in putting pen to paper, you will find your courage.

And with courage, as Finley discovers, anything is possible.

Even—and perhaps especially—some kind of happiness.

*****

And thanks to the lovely Claire, I have a separate giveaway for you guys! One lucky winner will receive a signed hardcover of Some Kind of Happiness. Unfortunately this is US only, so good luck! :)
a Rafflecopter giveaway
And y'all don't forget to enter the event-wide giveaway and be sure to check out Inge'sShannon'sTopaz's, and Erica's blogs for more Shattering Stigmas posts! :)