Hello and welcome to the sixth year of a blogging event that’s all about coming together and speaking up to continue to break down the stigmas that surround mental health. As Shattering Stigmas continues, we hope to continually building on the conversations we’ve had in the past to be more inclusive and more focused on tangible steps we can take towards advocating for access to mental healthcare. We feel that this event is particularly important in 2020, which has been an emotional rollercoaster for many due to a combination of lack of access to mental healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic, political anxiety, the trauma and mental health effects of systemic racism and structural inequity and other stressors that have shed light on the broken healthcare systems around the world that fail to help people who are genuinely struggling.
That’s why I am so excited to share these next two weeks with you and the words of all our posters. I hope it will be a productive opportunity to continue to think and rethink about how we conceptualize mental health in our own lives and in relation to those around us. Statistically, it is a guarantee that you know people who are struggling with their mental health. If you found your way here and you’re struggling too, I see you and you matter. You can do this and I hope these posts, if nothing else, provide you with the sense that you are not alone. We are all in this together, even if we have to be apart this year.
As usual, we have a stellar line-up in terms of hosts and posters. You can check up on the other posts from my amazing co-hosts Ben @ Ace of Bens andShannon @ It Starts at Midnight. Please make sure to check out their blogs over the next two weeks for lists, Q&As, personal essays and more! This event is such a joy to run, and I’m so thankful for their company and ongoing support, especially this year when we had to push Shattering Stigmas back a week due to an unexpected medical emergency in my family.
Posts begin going up today and will be posted on an ongoing basis in a list on the bottom of this page as they go live for easy browsing. Please make sure to comment, share and support all of our amazing contributors.
This year, we are asking people to show their appreciation for Shattering Stigmas not just by reading and responding to the posts that our contributors worked so hard on, but also to consider donating to one of the organizations below whose mission is to provide affordable and accessible mental health treatment, particularly to Black women and Queer/Trans People of Color. We are not incentivizing you to donate to these organizations, but we hope you will take your mental health awareness and advocacy a step further to learn about and contribute to the good people doing the work by opening up pathways to access treatment.
Over the next two weeks or in the near future, please consider making a donation to:
The Loveland Foundation’s Therapy Fund for Black Women and Girls: Loveland Foundation is committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls. Our resources and initiatives are collaborative and they prioritize opportunity, access, validation, and healing. We are becoming the ones we’ve been waiting for.
National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network: The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN) is a space for queer, gender non-conforming and trans therapists of color to build, resource, and support one another as clinicians and healers. NQTTCN will provide a network of support for queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) seeking transformative mental health resources rooted in social justice and liberation. This space will support QTPoC to utilize our relationships and collective power to build our capacity for healing in our communities.
Therapy for Black Girls: The mission of Therapy for Black Girls is to sustain and grow an engaged community centered on the mental health needs of Black women and girls. We perform this mission by creating resources, content, and experiences designed to present information in a way that feels relevant and accessible.
Open Path Psychotherapy Collective: Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a non-profit nationwide network of mental health professionals dedicated to providing in-office and online mental health care—at a steeply reduced rate—to individuals, couples, children, and families in need.
As always, thank you. To everyone. Let’s continue to fight the stigma and elevate our mental health awareness to advocacy, accessibility and action for our own communities and each other.
Shattering Stigmas is BACK. 2021 has been a trying year and it’s been my goal to bring Shattering Stigmas back in some form throughout the year instead of keeping it as a two week event that only happens once a year in October. I hope to use this space on my website as a place to host bloggers, friends and authors to talk about mental health openly, discuss craft with other writers and push the conversation past awareness into conversations around advocacy and accessibility. We’re kicking off this expanded version of Shattering Stigmas with an interview with my friend and middle grade extraordinaire, Nicole Melleby.
I met Nicole in May 2019 just as I was beginning to think about how to expand my commitment to discussing mental health online and elsewhere. I loved their debut, Hurricane Season, and over the past six months or so, Nicole has become a true friend. They’re the kind of fellow writing friend that pushes you to do better craft-wise. They are a true role model in how to approach writing for kids in the middle grade space. And they are absolutely killing it with regards to writing diverse fiction about queerness, mental illness and the intersections of both in middle grade. Nicole is a Shattering Stigmas veteran, and I’m so appreciative they continued the conversation with me. Their next middle grade novel, How to Become a Planet, is out from Algonquin on May 25, 2021. You should order a signed copy and go to their virtual launch from The Curious Reader in Glen Rock, NJ. Admission, which can be purchased here, includes a donation to The Essex County LGBT RAIN Foundation. You can also find information about all of Nicole’s books on their website here.
Taylor Tracy: HOW TO BECOME A PLANET subtly looks at the difference in mental health and mental illness for queer kids even as they’re just beginning to explore their identity. Can you talk a bit about how you crafted the intersection of Pluto’s queerness and her depression and anxiety?
Nicole Melleby: When I sat down to write PLANET, I knew I wanted to show what happens after the diagnosis, which is where the story starts. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And once I knew that was where I was writing from, and I knew that Pluto was going to be queer and develop a crush on her new friend, I knew I had to address how that impacts her depression, too. So, I make a point in the manuscript to say, look, here are the statistics for queer kids with depression, and here are the statistics for how many of them end up committing suicide, too. There’s an overlap there that I thought would be irresponsible not to address. Pluto isn’t depressed because she’s queer, but those two parts of her aren’t mutually exclusive, either.
Taylor Tracy: Fallon is one of my favorite characters that you’ve ever written and it was so excited to see you delve into writing a genderqueer character. Can you discuss how Fallon came to be in the story as well as Pluto’s and Pluto’s mom’s roles in helping Fallon’s gender identity journey?
Nicole Melleby: Fallon was one of my favorite characters to write, too. She’s nonbinary, but very, very early stages in her exploration of that. So, while I think in the future Fallon would go by they/them, for now, she’s still trying to decide what feels right for her—and what it all means for who she is. And I think there’s a lot of overlap there, too, when it comes to Pluto’s journey to understand who she is, too, with her depression diagnosis. Both Pluto and Fallon didn’t wake up one day and go, “Oh, I’m depressed” or “Oh, I’m nonbinary”, but at the same time they’re both coming into their own with how they can be themselves moving forward. For Fallon, this means making changes. One of my favorite scenes is when Pluto cuts Fallon’s hair for her, and Pluto’s mom walks in on them in progress. Afterwards, Pluto’s mom is like “They’re going to have to cut her hair real short now because of this!” And Pluto just smiles real big and her mom realizes “Oh my God, that was your plan all along.”
Their journeys aren’t the same, though, which I thought was important to show, too. Fallon has a checklist, and when she does everything on it, she’ll feel more comfortable in her skin. Pluto has a checklist, too, but Pluto has to learn that she can’t go backwards to who she thought she was before her depression—she has to learn how to understand that she’s still that same person she always was, just with a new understanding of what that means, now. Ultimately, though, I think pairing the two of them up felt natural. They’re both eager to understand who they are, and they both offer support to the other because of that shared understanding.
Taylor Tracy: Something I love about HOW TO BECOME A PLANET is that you deftly touch upon the topic of mental healthcare and class, which is something Pluto is fairly aware of. Can you discuss a bit how you came to weave in the threads of financial precarity and Pluto’s parent’s relationship in the book?
Nicole Melleby: I’m no stranger to the struggles of crappy health insurance and what that means, so I knew if I was going to write about this small, single parent household, where their financial source is this little pizzeria they own on the boardwalk, I knew I’d have to, and wanted to, address what that meant for Pluto’s healthcare. Healthcare is, frankly, expensive as all hell. Pluto has therapists, psychiatrists, a tutor, medication, all as a result of her depression diagnosis. That’s going to add up, and it’s going to be a huge struggle for her mom. Pluto is aware of this, regardless of how much her mom tries to keep that part of it away from Pluto. And, since Pluto’s dad lives in the city, with a better paying job, and access to more resources because of his location, he kind of leverages that. And as much as Pluto’s mom wants to fight against the idea of sending her daughter to live with her dad, she’s also very much aware of the fact that it really might be best for Pluto. So it’s this really sad situation for Pluto’s mom, who only wants to do the best for her kid, but struggles to do that.
Taylor Tracy: Just curious in terms of the trajectory of your books, what are your short and long-term goals with writing different facets of queerness and mental health in middle grade? Like, where do you want the Nicole Melleby Middle Grade Universe to be in 5 to 10 years?
Nicole Melleby: My plans really are to just keep at it, really! My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out spring 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.
At this rate, because I set my stories in the same area of central Jersey, I could probably write a story with all of my main characters interacting in the same group therapy program.
Taylor Tracy: What topics would you love to see explored more in middle grade fiction (or non-fiction!) about mental health? What do you think could be done better or differently in the middle grade space to tackle the stigma against mental illness?
Nicole Melleby: I want to see more and more stories where the main character, the 11, 12, 13 year olds, are the ones struggling with their mental health. We’re starting to see more, but the majority of middle grade books about mental illness tend to skew towards a loved on or family member of the main character being the one struggling with their mental health, and the main character struggling with that. It’s what I tackled in Hurricane Season: Fig’s desperation to understand her dad and the way his mind works, all the while making a point to show that her dad’s mental illness didn’t make him any less of a great father, didn’t make his love for Fig any less, either. And those stories are important, but I think, particularly now post-pandemic, we’re seeing kids struggle with these issues, too.
Mental illness seems to be viewed as such an adult issue still, and it’s not. It’s just as much a child issue, and I’d love for publishing to make room for more and more of these stories in the middle grade space.
And, let these characters, let these kids, be messy and make mistakes and struggle and be the “bad kid” and not let representation of mental health be “clean and neat”. Be honest about what mental illness looks like.
Taylor Tracy: What are some of your recent or upcoming favorite middle grade reads about mental health?
Taylor Tracy: What writing advice do you have for tween readers who see themselves in your books and want to write their own stories about queerness and mental health?
Nicole Melleby: Do it! Write your truth, be honest, be hopeful. Don’t hold back. Trust yourself, and trust your story. And, to my tween readers, just to reiterate: mental illness is often seen as an “adult issue” and that’s just not true. There are many, many kids who struggle with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses. You’re not alone if that includes you.
And, because I can’t help myself, some actual craft advice: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.
Also, and I’m pretty sure I said this the last time I was interviewed for Shattering Stigma (so you know I totally do this!): If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!
Taylor Tracy: Finally! You’re venturing into the picture book space with SUNNY & OSWALDO, a book that touches upon mental health issues for an even younger audience? Can you discuss that shift and writing experience, and how it differed from writing about these issues for a middle grade audience?
Nicole Melleby: It’s funny, because I feel like I approach the subject of depression for the picture book audience the same way I do for my middle grade one: as honestly as possible. I don’t talk down to my middle grade audience, and I won’t talk down to my picture book audience, either. The biggest difference, of course, is that while in middle grade I basically write “This is Pluto, she has depression”, for the picture book I tell the story by way of a girl, her dad, his missing cat (that Sunny hates), and a handful of metaphors.
Though, I suppose, Pluto has plenty of space-related metaphors, too.
Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @LadyNeeko.
It’s been a wonderful two weeks of posts for Shattering Stigmas 2020. I’m so thrilled to welcome our last guest poster to close out the event. Rosiee Thor is the author of Tarnished Are the Starsand the forthcoming Fire Becomes Her (out from Scholastic 2022). You can find her online on Twitter and her website.
It was dark for a week in August. It was like someone had just turned off the sky. I barely noticed, because I had been living with a steady stream of anxiety and depression since February. I forgot what healthy feels like. This was just another disaster to add to my things-to-panic about list.
The Oregon fires this summer were the worst they’ve ever been. People I know were displaced from their homes. The log cabin my mom built from scratch thirty years ago burned to the ground. A lot of lives were destroyed. But not mine. Mine stayed resolute and static, not good, but also not bad.
During that week when smoke blocked out the sun, I felt like I was holding my breath, and not just because the air was unbreathable. I was waiting… for things to get worse? For things to get better? I was waiting, and waiting is my least favorite thing in the world.
In publishing, we joke that 90% of the job is waiting. But the stories we write aren’t about waiting at all. In fiction, we write active heroes who don’t wait around for things to change. We write about them being the instrument of change. They are in charge of the propulsion of their own stories.
Sometimes, I wish life was more like fiction. I wish I could wake up to see a bold, red sky and know that somewhere there is a bad man who did it. I could get out of bed, find him, and put an end to all these problems. But the truth is, there is no one bad man. This isn’t the season one finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender and no firebender has killed the moon spirit. There are a lot of bad men who made this happen, and the journey back to a blue sky is long and hard and full of waiting.
And after a week of waiting, we saw a sliver of blue sky through the gray. Slowly but surely, the air quality returned to normal, and the smoke lifted. In the back yard, my garden, which I hadn’t watered in a week, which had gone without sunlight for seven days, was still there, still green. Beneath a layer of ash, I still had red tomatoes and green peppers. Bushels of basil and long stemmed leaks sprang up from the ground. They had been waiting, too.
Maybe it’s okay to wait when waiting is all you can do. Maybe waiting is enough when the thought of trying to do more burns your lungs or curdles your stomach. For a Capricorn like me, waiting feels like the end of the world. But at the end of the world, there are still fresh tomatoes, so I’ll try to enjoy them in the meantime.
As we near the end of the official run of Shattering Stigmas 2020, I’m hoping the last few posts will help give you, the readers, some practical and emotional tools to tackle the rest of 2020 and beyond. Struggling sucks and it’s hard, but I marvel at how people, myself included, can use their resilience and strength to pave new paths forward together, yet apart. Today I’m so excited to bring Rebecca Mahoney, author of The Valley and the Flood (out February 23, 2021) to the blog with a post about the organizational systems that she used during a rough time in her life that later became handy when the pandemic hit this year. You can find Rebecca online on Twitter and her website. She also co-hosts The Bridge podcast.
I was never so organized as when I was falling apart.
Actually, up until that point, I actively resisted it. I was an admin in my day job: lists and schedules were things I made for other people, between the hours of 9:00am and 5:30pm. I had enough trouble as it was keeping my work stress from bleeding into my downtime, and worse, my writing time. I knew it wasn’t totally rational. But the last thing I wanted was to be my own personal assistant.
Then I was 25, fresh off the worst year of my life and a cross-country move. And something in my head shifted. I already knew that something was different about my behavior since graduating college: I suddenly couldn’t send e-mails without checking them five, six, seven times, and I could look directly at an unlit stove and still feel in my chest that maybe I’d somehow turned it on. Panic felt like a switch I kept brushing by accident. But at 25, that switch got stuck.
On one hand, the sharp nosedive into full-time panic was a good thing, in the end. It made therapy a priority rather than a thing I kept putting off. And as I had started to suspect in the days before my first appointment, anxiety was no longer my only problem. My symptoms were consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder.
A brain stuck in threat assessment is basically flypaper. There were no shortage of things, in those first few months, I could make myself afraid of: that it would never end, that I would never be functional again, that if I told anyone they’d think I was overdramatic or they’d be scared for me and that I wouldn’t survive either reaction. My own fear essentially became the scariest part of it for me. And my own head, which had always been a refuge, became a never-ending parade of threats.
So the first thing that helped, in the end, was looking at my own thought process objectively. It was much harder for me to make an existential threat out of simple equation. And I learned that my inability to remember my coping mechanisms in the grip of panic wasn’t some flaw on my part – it was a function of the fear itself. Eating, drinking water, stepping away from the problem for a few minutes to go for a walk, these are all signals to the brain that you’re safe. And when you’re feeling emphatically unsafe, your pool of possible actions tends to narrow to three. Fight, flight, or freeze.
I realized that if I couldn’t remember what to do, I would need some way to remind myself. So unfortunately, it was time to make a list.
Over the next year, those lists became habit. I started taking meds, I became more open to talking to people, and my own mind steadily got clearer. If I felt the beginnings of a spiral, I knew what to do with it. I kept the reminders I’d put on my phone for a while – it was nice, feeling like my past self was still looking out for me – but eventually, those went too. I left my apps, my playlists, and my journals alone. And I did what I worried was no longer possible: I got better.
So when I found myself in the middle of our pandemic year six years later, my old system was not the first thing I thought of. Actual threats everywhere, as it turns out, felt a little different to me than that year of total panic. I felt more sluggish than afraid. Anxiety did show up in little bursts, but rarely about anything important. Writing felt like pushing through a molasses flood. And even though the release of my debut YA was months away, it was hard to get excited. Everything felt too tenuous to put real faith in. Rather than fight, flight, or freeze, it felt like my reaction was just exhaustion. Like I wanted to crawl under my weighted blanket and wake up in 2022.
But the core of it, it turns out, isn’t that different from the wild reel of panic from back then. My life, once again, lost most of its structure. And without the usual markers in my day that told me when to eat, when to get water, when to get some fresh air, I needed to build a new system.
So I decided to use the same starting points. And for this post, I wanted to share a few of those points with you.
Your mileage may vary, of course. This isn’t a guidebook so much as a recipe book: maybe you’ll use it as-is, maybe you’ll change a few ingredients, or maybe it won’t work for you at all. (It doesn’t even work for me all the time – ironically, I’ve been terrible about it this week!) But here are a few of the things that have helped me, then and now. I hope they help you too. And if not, I hope they help you narrow down what does.
The To-Do List
You can’t log into Twitter lately without seeing a handful of friends (and probably a few bots) reminding the TL to drink water. And it’s for good reason: hunger, dehydration, and lack of sleep can make your symptoms stronger, and stopping to eat or drink something sends signals to your body that you’re not in imminent danger.
For my own system, I set up two phone reminders, limited to two things I was particularly struggling with – I didn’t want to overwhelm myself or risk getting numb to the notifications. For years, I had an 11:00am reminder to eat breakfast if I hadn’t already, and a 1:30 reminder to get up and leave my building for at least ten minutes, and both helped break the cycles I tended to fall into.
For broader self-care, there’s a variety of apps to try out – the one I use, Sanvello, is free, with some paid features if guided meditations are your thing. The ‘health’ section has an entire list of categories you can log your progress in: food, water, hours of sleep, hours of exercise, servings of alcohol, time spent outside, and several more. There’s also a ‘goals’ section of the app where you can chart your progress in areas more specific to you. I’ve had particular problems with procrastination during lockdown, so my ‘Do One Thing You’ve Been Putting Off’ daily goal has been responsible for a whole lot of progress this past month.
The Two-Minute Rule
If you’ve ever gotten those ‘there’s a tab slowing down your browser’ notifications, that’s what my anxiety feels like some days: like it’s eating up all my processing power, and probably playing some kind of ad I can’t seem to stop. And the consequence of having a lot of brainpower diverted elsewhere is that you have less mental energy for seemingly basic tasks, like sorting mail, doing dishes, or choosing what you’re going to make for dinner.
My therapist gave me the best tip for dealing with this symptom, commonly called executive dysfunction: if a task feels insurmountable, I should give it two minutes. If by the end of the two minutes I’m still struggling just as much, I can skip the afternoon walk, or order takeout rather than cook. But generally that initial burst to get started is the hardest part. Once you’ve invested some energy in the task, you’re more likely to see it through. And I find that once I successfully make dinner or reorganize my room, I feel dramatically clearer-headed afterwards.
I’ve journaled in stops and starts for most of my life. I don’t remember exactly how I came to the decision that I should start trying again after my PTSD diagnosis, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I started off simple: charting my daily anxiety highs and lows (which I counted on a scale of 1 to 100) and writing and rewriting reminders from therapy, hoping that it would help them stick. There’s a gulf of difference between what you know to be true intellectually and what you believe. And sometimes the difference is repetition.
I kept doing those two things. But slowly, it expanded. It can be hard to hear how you talk to yourself, when it’s all in your head. But on paper, you can see the patterns of your thoughts, the places you’re impatient or intolerant or even scared of yourself. And you can try writing something a little different. What started off as record-keeping became an ongoing conversation with myself, and over time, it became a way to show myself the gentleness and compassion I was afraid to ask for from other people.
There was another way those journals would help me, too: I ended up writing the concept of extended ‘notes to self’ into the manuscript that would become my debut novel, The Valley and the Flood. The final passage of the book was something I used to say to myself on particularly bad nights. I haven’t needed to recite it for a long time. But every time I open my ARC to those final pages, it feels a little like getting those phone reminders after I stopped needing them: like my past self is still looking out for me.
And finally, a reminder:
Thoughts are tricky things, and redirecting them isn’t a linear process. The system you need now may look a little different than the one you needed before or the one you’ll need six years from now. And it can be frustrating, feeling as if you’re cycling through the process over and over. Be patient with yourself when you can, and the days that you’re impatient, that’s okay, too. The care and keeping of a brain is hard work. And you’re worth that work.
Rebecca Mahoney writes young adult and middle grade fiction, and spins oceanic folklore with co-creator Alex Brown on The Bridge Podcast. Her debut novel, The Valley and the Flood, is forthcoming from Razorbill Books on February 23rd, 2021. Rebecca is a strong believer in the cathartic power of all things fantastical and creepy in children’s literature – and she knows firsthand that ghosts, monsters, and the unknown can give you the language you need to understand yourself.
She studied Creative Writing at Brandeis University alongside Japanese language and literature, and spent three years in the world of US-Japan relations in Washington DC. She’s particularly inspired by classical Japanese ghost stories and their influence on the modern horror genre.
She currently works in academia, and spends her spare time cursing sailors at sea.
If you haven’t seen Lili’s bookish make-up looks, you are missing out. I’m so excited to welcome her to Shattering Stigmas to discuss how her make-up looks helped her mental health this year. It’s such a helpful reminder that self love and self care can come in the most unexpected of places sometimes. You can find Lili online on Twitter and her blog. She is also the co-host of the Backlist Bookworms, an online book club of backlist books.
At the beginning of this year, I never thought I’d be sitting down in front of my bookcase doing a makeup live on Instagram. I never even thought I’d really be wearing bright blue, pastel pink, or royal purple. Growing up, I didn’t think I could be beautiful. Lacking representation of Asian faces in the media and as models for makeup or in magazine spreads, I just wasn’t used to seeing a face that looked like mine in that context. I wasn’t even used to seeing makeup on Asian faces that weren’t actively trying to be Asian makeup.
Even so, I fell into a love of makeup a few years ago. I was drawn to the community of passion, creativity, and excitement – much like the book community. I began to find more Asian beauty gurus and take the time to figure out a way for the makeup looks to work on my hooded eyelids. While it took me a while to start my makeup journey, soon I was rocking cat eyes and basic eyeshadow. But colors? Cut creases? Anything ‘bolder’ was something that I just was convinced would never work on me. And then a pandemic began. 2019 was one of the lowest years of my life. I struggled finding myself and with my mental health, finding it hard to get out of bed some days, or developing a habit of grinding my teeth I was so stressed and anxious. I figured 2020 couldn’t get any worse, that 2020 was the year things would turn around.
Well March 2020 proved me more wrong than I could ever have predicted. My stress levels during a pandemic sky rocketed as my hands began cracking from hand washing and my worries for my parents overwhelmed my dreams. In addition, all the things that were plaguing me in 2019, reared their heads because they didn’t care it was a pandemic.
But being forced to spend more time in my house, and with less places to go, gave me more time. Yes, more time to dwell on my mental health. I don’t even remember the day that I decided to play with makeup, but I sat down and decided to use that time, and new palette, and just have some fun. What better inspiration could a book cover be? That time that I carved out, listening to music or just taking my time, firmly planting my feet in a moment, meant that choking feeling I had in my throat receded a little. Having had a blissful moment of peace, I decided to continue doing these makeup looks and lives. I decided to do a live once a week until the pandemic was over and while I initially thought that would take less time, I’ve found a sense of routine amongst this chaos in sticking to that promise.
For me, makeup has always been a radical expression. Whether it started off trying to find a way to see myself as beautiful, in a world that I felt like didn’t represent me, or what I try to do nowadays, which is break every fashion and beauty rule I’ve ever been told. Wear every color of eyeshadow on my eye, challenge myself to try that editorial look I saw, experiment with new color combinations, and, in general, change the way I see myself. During the pandemic, it’s turned into an act of self-care. Of prioritizing myself for those moments. Of having space to interact with people who love books and makeup, who want to talk about skincare tips and lipstick products. Of realizing it’s okay to not have to be productive, to not have to maximize each moment. Of being able to see myself in color. My decision to keep these going is a reminder to myself to keep focusing on that moment, of carving out spaces of peace in my day. It’s a time where the stress and insecurities and fears are kept at bay. A few slivers of time where I get to unleash my creativity, where mistakes are allowed, and where I get to look myself in the mirror. To remind myself I’m living in this current moment to the next, taking a few moments for joy and expression, that I’m still here.
Today I am thrilled to welcome Maya Gittelman to Shattering Stigmas with a fantastic post about how important books can be to our journeys of navigating identity and mental illness. Maya Gittelman is one of the coolest people I know. They write for Tor.com, The Body is Not an Apology, The Dot and Line and more. You can find them online on Twitter.
“Love was an opportunity, not a burden.”
Adib Khorram, Darius the Great is Not Okay
For me, the intersection of biracial diaspora identity and mental illness have contributed to my personal sense of nonbelonging. My mother is Filipina, my father was Jewish, and I’m queer and nonbinary, living in America. I’m not Iranian, but like Darius in Darius the Great is Not Okay, the majority of my family is across the world in my mother’s homeland. And whenever we reunite, mental illness isn’t part of the conversation. Not in a productive way for me at least. It’s seen as a secret, a shame, or something fixable. Or something solely American.
“I hated that question: What are you depressed about? Because the answer was nothing.”
Darius the Great is Not Okay
There’s a specific catharsis that comes from reading a book that takes some of your deepest, most shameful aches and lays them bare. I haven’t gotten the chance to read the sequel yet, Darius the Great Deserves Better, but I’m so, so looking forward to it.
In this first book, Darius reckons with the privileges of being a diaspora kid, while also allowing room for the discomforts of racism, internalized racism, and feeling like a guest around your own family. And through it all, he’s depressed. He takes medication for his mental illness. Depression isn’t positioned as a solvable problem, or the core of his story—it’s just a part of him, something that colors his world, something he’s always carrying. And that’s what it feels like for me. While I’m wrestling with feelings of non-belonging, of navigating the liminal spaces of my identities, I’m also depressed. While I’m grieving, or going through family trauma like Darius does, I’m also depressed. And when I talk to people about my depression, whether they understand it or not—I’m still depressed. But there is a difference when someone genuinely listens. When they reckon with the fact that it’s a chemical imbalance, that it doesn’t have a root in external circumstances and, most importantly, that it’s not my fault. It’s not a personal failure, or a weakness, or a lack of character. Darius wrestles with this, and it means so much to him when Sohrab genuinely hears him out. It means so much when his father opens up and tells Darius that, for all his Übermensch behavior, his own depression has been a severe struggle too. It means so much to know we are not alone. As his father tells him, “It’s okay to not be okay.”
It is okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to not be okay in the specific experience of clinical depression. It’s okay to need to seek help, through therapy and through medication. It’s important, and it’s really common! But we’re still doing the work of destigmatizing depression, even for those of us who live with it. Darius the Great Is Not Okay tells depressed, queer, mixed, diaspora kids that you do belong, that your story and your struggle is valid—and you don’t need to be ashamed of it. And as a depressed, queer, mixed, diaspora adult, I felt this book help heal a part of me. In large part because Adib Khorram knows there are no easy answers! That depression stays with you, though your relationship to it can evolve. Healing isn’t linear, and it isn’t finite. But it’s cathartic to bear witness to that truth, too. To find community within the pages of this book, for the parts of myself that grew up feeling so alone. I come away from Darius feeling that for all the weight of my depression and my grief and the intersections of my identity, to love me—for others to love me, and for me to work to love myself—is not a burden.
It warms my heart when incredible writers get the recognition and love their books deserve, and it has been amazing to see A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow get selected as a Reese’s Book Club pick and hit the New York Times Bestseller list. I am so excited to welcome Laura Taylor Namey, author of The Library of Lost Things and A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow to the blog to discuss her books and mental health today. I love both of Laura’s books so much and can’t wait for her third, which is expected Fall 2021. You can find Laura online on Twitter and her website.
Taylor: In your debut novel The Library of Lost Things, a big part of Darcy’s story and emotional arc is learning to let people into her life and also to let herself live her own story instead of through her favorite novels. Can you talk about how you approached writing about trust and emotional support in the book?
Laura Taylor Namey: Darcy had spent so much time filtering many of her major life moments and her emotional upbringing through literature and other girl’s story arcs, drawing her out of that required a deliberate step by step approach. I began with hitting Darcy with some new life challenges with high external stakes. These immediately showed Darcy that she had to begin trusting those she already relied on even more. Darcy first went to her safe people, and then took the encouragement and fortification she’d gain to be able to move forward toward her goal. I used the method of, “do a little, then do a little more, then one and two and three steps more.” As she moved and progressed, she learned where, and in whom to place a wider scope of trust and encouragement, and she grew into her own personhood naturally and fluidly.
Taylor: In The Library of Lost Things, Darcy’s mom is a hoarder and I really appreciated the empathetic and compassionate approach that you took to crafting their situation and that Darcy had towards her mother, partially due to counseling. Can you discuss how you came to include this issue in the book and how you approached including it with such empathy and care?
Laura: When I look back into that time of outlining and plotting, three totally different aspects of world building seem to enter my process all at once. Writing a girl who escapes into books, I had to give her a world that she’d want to escape from. Secondly, I found that hoarding wasn’t represented widely in YA and I could add to what would hopefully turn out to be positive and sensitive rep. Lastly, I have my own memory of being in a hoarder’s home from my college days that I wanted to explore. Once it became clear that Darcy’s mother would be a hoarder, I deliberately set out to not tell a story about hoarding itself, but instead, to tell the story of one family, and one hoarding mother, and one hoarding daughter. I was never trying to paint a universal portrayal of the way hoarding manifests itself. That’s impossible. Hoarding takes many different shapes, tones, and wears many faces. In Library, I am showing only one “type” of hoarding and one possible way it might look inside a unique family.
Creating authentic, sensitive, and meaningful rep required more than just reading books, online research, and firsthand accounts. I partnered with a doctor of psychology who treats hoarders. She vetted every word of my manuscript more than once and was invaluable in guiding me through this portrayal.
Taylor:In your latest young adult novel, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Lila gets sent to spend three months in England by her family because they are worried about her mental health after she deals with a trifecta of tragedies (the death of her grandmother, a breakup and her best friend leaving for a health aid trip in Africa). Can you talk a bit about what inspired Lila’s transcontinental story and how you came to include these various struggles she faces?
Laura: The part of Lila’s story centering around her trip to England was inspired by true events in my own Cuban family. When I was young, two of my Florida cousins lived with my family in California after their parents, (my tíos) felt they needed a change of pace, and an emotional break. This is quite common in Latinx families. There’s a history of stigma within some Latinx cultures surrounding mental health issues and psychological care, including the Miami Cuban community Lila comes from. Although there has been change and some growth, especially among younger generations, consulting a psychologist for emotional trauma would not typically the first step in navigating grief or tragedy in Lila’s world. As shown in my book, Lila’s parents’ generation would be much more likely to seek counsel from a priest or other religious leader as a first step. Then, if necessary, they would consider sending their teen away for a short break to the loving care of a trusted relative. This is what we see right away in the Reyes family unit.
It’s important to note that this is a cultural norm. Whether right or wrong, it’s real and I needed to portray it authentically and carefully. In Cuban Girl, Lila’s mother recognizes that Miami, while being Lila’s place of culinary success and glory, is too full of ghosts and has become somewhat toxic to her healing and recovery. Lila’s harmful actions stem from a desire to regain and exert control. She’s perseverating herself through Miami, and mentally and physically returning to the withered roots of her pain. She’s in denial in a way that stunts her recovery. Señora Reyes sees a summer in England as a chance for her daughter to slow down and find some tranquility and insight. And maybe even some new outlets for a little joy. I put Lila through a lot right before she graduates high school. She loses her most beloved family member, her best friend, and her boyfriend so it’s three differing aspects of loss and love. It’s a lot! But again, too many of us––and too many teens––will have years like this. I wanted to show one girl’s path back into the world after such a season.
Taylor:Both of your books feature not just mental health representation, but also neurological health issues that I don’t see often in YA – Asher’s struggle with post-concussive syndrome in The Library of Lost Things and Orion’s mother’s dementia in A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. Can you discuss why and how you included these issues in your two books?
Laura: When I set out to write these two characters, I wanted to write two young men who were working through issues that placed them within the moving framework of my story in the best ways. Asher’s PCS allows him to play off Darcy in a manner that serves both of their individual arcs and their relationship arc. PCS and recurrent migraines can be dream-busters in many industries. They can keep a devoted pilot out of the air, and that’s where I needed Asher. Also, they can contribute to challenges with mood, diet, attention span, and stress level. I brought Asher onto the page during a moment where he was struggling physically and emotionally. Asher being Asher at this time was the boy I needed to fit into Darcy’s own growth and trust arc. He comes to discover the fluidity of goals and dreams, and about adjusting them to write a revised story for himself. Darcy learns how to be the author of her own story.
Orion’s mother suffers from a condition that I wanted to personally tribute, in honor of people in my life. Also, I wanted to explore the relationship and emotional exchange between Orion and Lila within this particular realm. Lila comes to England with great loss and meets a boy who is also carrying and working through a different kind of loss. Yet, their outlook and coping skills differ at times. I wanted to build an atmosphere where they could banter and work through what is hurting them, gain mutual insight, and develop deep trust. Lila and Orion come of age together by learning and growing together, and by caring for one another. Again, I worked with a psychologist to ensure all of these character arcs, and the way I portrayed these incredibly sensitive and weighty conditions and topics, was authentic and sensitive. That means more than anything. I want to create characters who live, stumble, grow, and love in the truest of ways.
Taylor:Both of your books also highlight this struggle between individual happiness and family obligation. For Darcy, it was choosing her own happiness over the obligation to protect and help her mother. For Lila, it’s finding new sources of happiness in England outside her tightknit Miami family and their family-owned bakery. Can you discuss how you approached this tension in both of your books?
Laura: Darcy exhibits a trait that I personally find important and beautiful in storytelling: sacrifice. If authors portray sacrifice through heartfelt motivation, it can truly help create a sympathetic character readers can root for. In TLOLT, I wanted to show that teens can, and do, make extremely difficult sacrifices for their beloved family members despite their age. Also, we feel a sense that it’s finally Darcy’s time to find her own identity away from books, and separate from being the daughter of a hoarder.
I took a different approach when I created the character of Lila Reyes. I wrote straight out of the playbook of my own Cuban family upbringing. Many Cubans, especially first generation children of immigrants, have skyscraper high work ethics. In Lila’s case, she was brought up infused with so many skills from her abuela, and also the pride of living in a family with a thriving business and being able to contribute. Lila is a skilled cook and baker. She wins here, and early on she earns love and respect within her community for feeding her neighborhood such delicious treats. She grows with a mantle of pride, and the deep stirrings of history and legacy. She feels that her abuela and parents have created a wonderful place, and it’s her loving duty and honor to carry on the business with her sister. Being a Miami Cuban baker and business owner becomes a treasured part of her identity. It’s a way to stay close to Abuela’s spirit. When Lila gets to England, the world opens up. She begins to wrestle with the notion of being Cuban outside the seat of her Cuban roots––Miami. In the end, Lila learns more about the way identity and legacy operate within our minds, emotions, hearts, responses, and motivations.
Taylor:Both of your books do something really gorgeous and remarkable: they balance so much humor, heart and romance with darker or heavier emotional issues. Can you discuss a bit about you strike this balance in your writing?
Laura: Thank you! I spend a lot of time crafting emotional arcs and I attempt to give a lot of time and space to allow my characters to grow naturally through their trials. Part of that is honoring the notion that we rarely embody only one emotion at any given time. Feelings and emotions cross state lines and tangle together when we go through something, whether it’s mainly “happy” or “sad.” We are storehouses of memory and history, and an emotional event in a book rings most true to me when it’s lightly shaded with many contributing emotions. There is usually an alpha feeling in a given scene. But then other feelings ring that scene and the people living them out, drawing out texture and depth. Opposing emotions illuminate opposing emotions. Carving out a variety of scenes that vary in weight, humor, and poignancy can create a whole package that mirrors the way we look and live as humans.
Taylor:What are some of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?
Laura: I am going to plug two amazing books coming out spring of 2021. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp does a spectacular job unpacking the mental health stigma found in many Latinx cultures and the Mexican food on nearly every page is a delight to read. And The Half-Orpan’s Handbook by Joan F. Smith is a brilliant study in grief recovery, processing the aftermath of suicide, and a prime example of the role humor plays in navigating adversity.
Taylor:Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?
Laura: I am simply drawing close to the activities and people who bring me comfort and joy whenever it is safe. I’m also finding comfort and care in small moments, whether it’s a socially distant coffee date with a friend or a walk on the beach, or devoting an entire weekend to reading a new book.
Taylor:Thank you so much, Laura!
Laura: Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions!
Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who can be found haunting her favorite coffee shops, drooling over leather jackets, and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two superstar children.
This former teacher writes young adult novels featuring quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. Her debut, The Library of Lost Things, published fall of 2019. Her #ownvoices project, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is a Reese’s Book Club YA pick, New York Times Bestseller. A third title is following fall 2021 from Atheneum Simon and Schuster.
Troix is another one of my posters this year who has consistently come back and wrote incredible posts for Shattering Stigmas, and for that I am so thankful. I love this powerful post that Troix has written for this year’s event and am so honored to be able to share it here. You can find Troix online on Twitter or her website.
When I was little, every autumn I would stuff leaves from the trees outside my house into my coat. I loved the bright red ones best, and I would try to keep them intact, alongside the thumb-sized acorns that used to knock against the roof of our family’s car when they fell. I’d stash them all inside, my weird little collection, in an end table drawer that my mom didn’t look in often. I loved their smell, and their color, and the delicate way I had to hold them in a concerted effort to keep them from breaking. But, inevitably, every autumn, one day I would pull the drawer open and see that my collection had withered and browned and cracked into dust.
Every year that I’ve written a post for Shattering Stigmas, I go into my process expecting it to have gotten easier. I think that, surely, by this time next year I’ll be better at coalescing words into something passable. I think that I will definitely be in a better frame of mind.
I have other drafts than this. There are drafts where I talk about how I’ve been raised on resilience, and how that resilience has led to a specific mindset in relation to my mental health. Drafts where I try to push out the pockets of joy I’ve had in the past year to share them. Drafts where I try to bring forward the absolute horror, and fear, and blinding rage I’ve felt in these nearly twelve months.
But. The truth is that I’m tired. I’ve always been against the idea of portraying my own mental health as a form of positive advocacy because I’m not very positive, and I’m not a very good advocate. So I’ll talk plainly. My depression is not, as I’ve said before, drowned out by a cup of tea in a bright ceramic mug, or detoxed by a face mask and a long bath. My depression is constant, exhausting, and pushes my emotions to their limits—forcing me to feel the incredible depths of sadness and anger, hand in hand, repeatedly.
The truth is that every time I hear a knock at my door, I cry a little. Every time I unlock my phone I expect the sudden, sharp despair of seeing another person who looks like my brother, my sister, my nephews and nieces, brutalized. I see them in them, hear their voices in calls for help, think of the pictures they’d pull to make obituary segments on the news. There is no cure for that. No fun social graphic I can pull together to market myself to others, no tips for breathing exercises I can type out that feel just.
I am tired and I am scared, and my depression is in, surprisingly, full swing. I go days without sleeping, eating, brushing my hair. It’s a familiar waltz, sure, but one that leaves me tired at the end without fail.
But this is depression. And no amount of positive thinking will change that. All I can do is what I’ve learned how—continue to drag myself, kicking and screaming if I have to, from one year to the next. Because I am still alive, and so many aren’t.
Marcellis Stinnette Jonathan Dwayne Price Dijon Durand Kizzee David McAtee George Perry Floyd Dreasjon “Sean” Reed Michael Brent Charles Ramos Breonna Taylor Manuel “Mannie” Elijah Ellis William Howard Green Daniel T. Prude Tony McDade Carlos Carson Rayshard Brooks Atatiana Koquice Jefferson Javier Ambler Sterling Lapree Higgins Ronald Greene Elijah McClain John Elliot Neville Emantic “EJ” Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. Charles “Chop” Roundtree Jr. Chinedu Okobi Botham Shem Jean Antwon Rose Jr. Saheed Vassell Stephon Alonzo Clark Anton Black Aaron Bailey Charleena Chavon Lyles Fetus of Charleena Chavon Lyles Jordan Edwards Chad Robertson Aaron Bailey Bijan Ghaisar Dennis Plowden Deborah Danner Alfred Olango Terence Crutcher Terrence LeDell Sterling Korryn Gaines Joseph Curtis Mann Philando Castile Alton Sterling Bettie “Betty Boo” Jones Quintonio LeGrier Corey Lamar Jones Jamar O’Neal Clark Jeremy “Bam Bam” McDole India Kager Samuel Vincent DuBose Sandra Bland Brendon K. Glenn Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. Walter Lamar Scott Eric Courtney Harris Phillip Gregory White Mya Shawatza Hall Meagan Hockaday Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr. Janisha Fonville Natasha McKenna Jerame C. Reid Rumain Brisbon Tamir Rice Akai Kareem Gurley Tanisha N. Anderson Dante Parker Ezell Ford Michael Brown Jr. John Crawford III Eric Garner Dontre Hamilton Victor White III Gabriella Monique Nevarez Yvette Smith McKenzie J. Cochran Jordan Baker Tyree Woodson
2020 has been a year of grief for nearly all of us. Those of us grieving the lives we once had, those of us grieving the loss of loved ones from COVID-19 and those of us grieving or tending to those who are seriously sick, although not from COVID-19, in a year that makes everything more difficult. Today I’m welcoming Shae Carys to Shattering Stigmas with a beautiful post about grief and loss, disability and learning to fight for yourself in a year that has taken so much. Shae is a writer whose debut piece of fiction came out this year in the young adult anthology Rural Voices:15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America. You can find her online on Twitter.
Twenty-twenty took my mother.
I’m a thirty-nine-year-old disabled author whose debut in published fiction came this year, a semi-autobiographical short story about disability and the anger that comes with it, the frustration and the desire to lash out in order to protect yourself from the judgments of others (“Black Nail Polish,” Rural Voices, 2020). In late 2019, I was officially diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers Danlos (the same as Maddie in the story). Disability comes with stages of grief, just like any other loss. I grieved losing the person who I was. I had already lost so much physicality, so much mobility and independence. The experts told me that it would only worsen with age.
In 2020, I added a different kind of loss. I grieved losing the fierce, whiplash smart woman who had taken me through the turbulent and contentious relationship between mother and daughter, between two people who could not have been more different for all of our similarities. She was earth. I was rain. She was stoic and solid and deeply wounded. I was naturally soothing, unmistakable, and drowning. My mother wasn’t my heart – she was my brain. She was every bit of pride and intellect I held, everything that stamped my emotions down and told it to stop being so silly. Every relationship I had in my life was tied intrinsically to my relationship with her – damaged, but filled with hope and yearning and love.
I wanted nothing more than to make her proud of me, and I repeated that pattern with so many people over so many years. I scaled a mountain made of misunderstandings and desperate yearnings and damages and laughter and love. I climbed until my hands was raw and bloody and then tumbled down again. I found myself living with her after my divorce, and a new type of relationship struggled to be forged. Above all things, though, I knew she needed me, and I had always thrived on being needed.
In February, I realized that the climb doesn’t last forever – there always comes the dénouement, when Freitag’s pyramid introduces the falling action, and the end to a story is in sight. I cried, I screamed, I punched my bed. I didn’t want to lose my mother, not now. Not from something so stupid and cliched as the habit-induced cancer I had predicted as a child when I saw the horrible videos during assembly of shrunken, tar-blacked lungs.
The pandemic had just begun, and my own mental health wasn’t at its best. Having always struggled with depression and anxiety (as far as I can remember, since they just deemed me as “sensitive” and prone to being moody), I was to be her official caretaker when I could barely care for myself due to my chronic pain. There was no one else, though – she had long since divorced my father and my sister lived across the country. It would be up to me. I would have to forgive her for the hard journey forward if I was to help her make this final trek with grace and love. She needed me.
I knew my limits, immediately reaching out to a therapist I had met at my last job, though there was a long wait to be seen. I kept working on the drafts of my short story for Rural Voices that were coming in, since it was to be published soon, in October 2020. I kept working on my articles for the horror magazine I’d worked at for years. I couldn’t stop. Appointments came, radiation, and my mother grew weaker and thinner. She had no appetite. She had lapses where she couldn’t remember where or even when she was. I called 911 many times and she was hospitalized twice more. The third would be the last.
When she passed in early May, I was inconsolable. We were mid-pandemic, so no funeral could happen and the spreading of my mother’s ashes in her homeland of Germany would have to wait. My ability to get medical help was restricted. Then, my application for disability was denied due to the rarity of my condition and how misunderstood it is – three years into the process, after two hearings. At so many times, I felt hopeless. Her house, now mine, seems quiet, almost to echo the mental space that I occupied. Instead of her haunting my house, I haunted hers. Our relationship, until the end, was symbiotic. She needed; I gave. I was lost without her. In many ways, I still am.
I want to say that 2020 took my mother but gave me myself back, but I can’t. I can’t say that yet. I want to say it. I want to scream it out. I want that to be my truth for this horrible year. I want to come out on the other side of all of this, like a hero who’s fought their way into hell and back, but I don’t know what the future holds.
What I do know is that the list of things I can control, any of us can control, is so terribly short. Our actions, our reactions, our words, our deeds.
My mother got to see the ARC of Rural Voices three days before she passed away. She got to see my name in print. The last thing I remember her saying to me on the day she died was “thank you,” and I got to hold her for an hour that day, stroking her hair and soothing her, just as she’d held me so many times when I was a child. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her because of COVID – the one last regret I have, though it was out of my control.
Every so often, I hear her say, “Take care of yourself, bug.” I remind myself to take my medicine, to take a shower, to eat something, to drink some water, even when it’s hard. Even when I don’t want to do anything but get out of bed. Sometimes, when you’re a person who thrives on being needed, don’t forget the one person who needs you the most is you.
About Shae Carys: I’m a rural author, born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana. However, I’ve got a bit of European flair thanks to my German mama. Add in the fact that I’m more than a little weird, am a horror fanatic, and deal with several chronic illnesses (where my Zebras at!), I’m definitely all over the board. I like it that way, though.
I write for young adults and adults, fantasy, contemporary, horror, and science fiction. I love genres and am a champion for them. I write poetry, mostly for one person, and love animals more than anything else in the world. My favorite fairy tales are Bluebeard and The White Road and my biggest influences in writing are Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter.
Today I’m so excited to welcome someone who loves books and musical theatre as much as I do to talk about how musical theatre can be such a powerful tool, like books, to bring people together over issues that might be difficult to talk to. Paola Guerrero is such a powerhouse within the online book community. She is an editorial intern with Entangled Publishing, singlehandedly organized Latinx Heritage Month Book Fest this year, runs the Accidentally in Love Book Club and works with Caffeine Book Tours. She also has a Book Tube where she discusses books and musicals. You can find Paola across the Internet at her Linktree.
Last year, when I was still earning some money and I didn’t have all the worries that I have today, the stars aligned for el Buen Fin (think of it as Mexican Black Friday, but it’s the whole weekend) and I was able to take my mom to see the Mexican production of Next To Normal. For those of you who don’t know, Next To Normal is a musical about a mother (Diana) who struggles with bipolar disorder and how that affects her husband (Dan) and daughter (Natalie). It touches on grief, depression, suicide ideation, drug abuse, and ethics.
To be 100% honest, I watched a bootleg of the Broadway version when I was still in college and thought it was a solid musical. Nothing more, nothing less. But when I found out that Diego del Rio was doing it in Mexico, I was immediately drawn to it. I wanted to listen to it in Spanish and appreciate Rodolfo Zarco (he played Mark in RENT) and Susana Zavaleta (she’s a Mexican theater beast!). I had an idea of what to expect and I thought I was prepared, but nothing prepared me for what my mom would take from the show.
My mom is someone who takes mental health seriously only when it comes to her daughters. When I was 17 and severely depressed, my mom took me to a thanatologist to work through what was happening with me because, as the thanatologist said, “she had never seen her daughter like this.” But when it comes to her own mental health, it’s never a priority. Upon exiting the show and getting in the car on our way home, I said, “So that was good, huh?” To which my mom said, “Yeah, really, really good. I loved it.”
I was shocked! I would’ve thought her takeaway would be something like “too graphic, too exaggerated, I don’t buy it.” I should give her more credit, I know, but it was the kind of person I thought she was after everything that had happened to us in the last couple of years.
I didn’t even have to prompt her to tell me anything else, she did that all on her own.
(Spoilers for Next to Normal ahead!)
“It really goes to show that we’re all on the brink of going through something like that. How unexplored grief affects both you and your husband. And how men really are not raised to work on their feelings. I loved that part. I loved when he reached out to the psychiatrist and he offered him his card. The guy was like, no thanks, but then he was like, no I really do need to talk to someone. Wow!”
She said so much more that night and the day after as we were having breakfast with my grandparents. I was in a state of awe at how much my mom got out of the show that to this day, almost a year after we went to see it, I still think about my mom’s reaction to it. That’s what stuck with me, not the show or the performances (even though they were fantastic), but my mom’s take on it. I hope she still has it in her heart to see the importance of her own mental health as a mother, as a daughter and as a woman.
One of my favorite parts of Shattering Stigmas is having the opportunity and honor to talk to authors about the craft of mental health representation as well as their own advocacy efforts to break down the stigma around mental illness. Today, I’m so excited to welcome Rocky Callen, author of A Breath Too Late, today to Shattering Stigmas to talk about her writing and mental health advocacy. You can find Rocky online on Twitter and find more A Breath Too Late content in her Linktree.
Taylor: Your debut novel A Breath Too Late is a riveting, heartbreaking epistolary novel about a teen, Ellie, who dies by suicide and relives both past memories and witnesses the aftermath of her death on those to whom she was close. Can you discuss how you came to juggle these two timelines in the book and also how you came to choose and curate the various addressees in the letters throughout the book?
Rocky Callen: The structure of the book came to me very organically. Initially, the epistolary format and dual timeline emerged on its own but as the story developed, I became more intentional about my choices. A Breath Too Late is very much about the words we never get to say and the hope that we so often overlook. As I struggled with my own mental health, pain eclipsed so many of my own memories and dreams and so I wanted a story that could explore the past and present in a way that allowed Ellie to sit back as a witness to her own life. I wanted her to see everything in a way that we so often can’t (or won’t). I wanted to her to understand the possibilities she had lost as well as the love that was always there. Love that was there for her, exactly as she was. Every address is to something or someone that impacted Ellie’s life and I wanted to show how people and things can deeply matter to us even when we have forgotten them. Finally, with the series of chapters to Depression, I wanted to show the inner battle that people with depression are waging that often goes unnoticed and how depression (or any mental health condition) can be a part of a person’s experience but is not the whole person.
Taylor: One of my favorite parts of A Breath Too Late was Ellie’s evolving relationship with August, her best friend, both before and after her death. Can you discuss how and why you came to include August in the book?
Rocky Callen: Oh, August. How I adore him. I wanted to show how friendships can evolve, shift, break apart and come back together in meaningful ways. I also wanted a character to be an opposite to Ellie’s father to show that relationships do not have to be manipulative or controlling or cause harm, but be affirming, supportive and offer love in vulnerability. I think the best friendships and relationships want each other to be seen for who they truly are and both August and Ellie do that for each other. We also witness August’s grief and understand that Ellie’s loss wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t save her. He could just love her through it all.
Taylor: A Breath Too Late isn’t just a book about depression and suicide—it’s also a portrait of the emotional and physical toll of domestic violence through the representation of Ellie’s father. Can you discuss how Ellie’s family dynamic came to be and how you approached the writing of that particular issue in the book?
Rocky Callen: This emerged in the very first few pages when I wrote my first draft. As someone who knows this subject intimately, I have always been saddened and frustrated about the portrayals of domestic abuse in the media and cultural conversation. There is a lack of understanding about the way that these relationships develop, the shame and silence that marks them, and the utterly complete control that is exerted overtime. Domestic abuse rarely happens all at once. There are signs of manipulation and control and I wanted readers to see that – especially as they examined their own relationships. The earlier drafts of this story had much more graphic depictions of violence and through editing, we tried to show the raw reality of DV while not overshadowing the other themes of the story.
Taylor: In your post for We Need Diverse Books, you discussed making sure that writers approach these issues with care and also the difference between drafting immersively and then revising responsibly. Can you expand a bit on what the difference in drafting and revising A Breath Too Late was like?
Rocky Callen: I wrote the very first draft of A BREATH TOO LATE in just over a week. It was messy and terrible and raw. I just needed the feelings, the thoughts, the pain out. But that pain isn’t for everyone, I realized. It was so I could experience this story in its totality before stepping back and deciding what my reader needed to hold in order for this story to matter to them too. We edited out method, graphic and repetitive violence, and also meticulously thought about word choice (both as what could be least triggering in an already very heavy read, but also what would be considered the most honest and real to the experience). It took many, many drafts to go from that first version to the one that finally got published, but it was an important process.
Taylor: In your author’s note for A Breath Too Late and other interviews, you’ve talked about how the book came from a personal place and that you’ve struggled with high-functioning depression and suicidal ideation? Can you discuss how you take care of yourself when writing about deeply personal and possibly triggering issues?
Rocky Callen: With this story, I needed to dive into the deep end and give my all in big chunks and then emerge to recuperate. I ugly sobbed every day with the first draft and often cried in revision. I think for some people, doing this sort of writing in small chunks is helpful so you don’t get tugged too far into the feeling, but for me, I needed to cycle my exposure to the content. One revision was 45+ hours in three days and then I didn’t touch it for weeks. I think the biggest thing is to honor your process and what you need and never judge yourself for either one. Self compassion is absolutely necessary for the journey with projects like this.
Taylor: You also have some mental health advocacy projects in the works. Can you talk a bit about the HoldOn2Hope Project and the Bleed Ink Foundation?
Rocky Callen: I am very excited about both even though COVID paused so many of the projects that I had planned for 2020. The core of both projects is to provide resources and access to writers and artists, in particular the ones who are grappling with mental health and suicide prevention in their work. Both projects would also have their own grant to offer emerging creatives. I am looking forward to some of the artistic collaborations ahead once we emerge from this pandemic safely.
Taylor: What is one of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?
Rocky Callen: Nora Shalaway Carpenter’s THE EDGE OF ANYTHING comes immediately to mind. Nora is equally passionate about mental health and her story shows the power of friendship and healing in wonderful ways.
Taylor: Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?
Rocky Callen: I think everyone needs different things and the important (and often most difficult) step is to be honest with ourselves about what those things are and understand our worthiness of doing them. Therapy, coaching, counseling, unplugging from social media, moving your body, establishing strong boundaries around your time/space/energy, eating nutritious foods, going outside, sleeping, focusing on doing one thing at a time, learning to be ok with your “best” looking very different day to day, asking for help, being honest about how you feel, flooding your space with things that inspire/motivate you or are evidence of good things in the world (and in you!).
Here are some of the things I do: I have a daily morning practice where I write out my vision for the future, things I am grateful for, things I want to let go of or understand and then I meditate. I also try to listen to something inspiring in the morning. I have learned to say what bothers me quickly and let it go (I have long struggled with holding things in). I take regular breaks from social media and I have set up a private no following/follower IG acct so that I can document my thoughts and feelings without the need for external validation. I think a big part of this is to find your people. The ones who see you and love you as you are and that can take time. I feel grateful that my friendships are life-affirming ones where we honor and reinforce each other’s goals and boundaries. That was a process, but it is so important in self care.
Also, stay hydrated.
Thank you so much, Rocky!Be sure to order A Breath Too Lateif you haven’t read it already.
Rocky Callen, the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has long lived a life of service ever since she was a 13-year-old advocating for the undocumented immigrants in her community. She interned at NASA at 12 years old, started lobbying congress at 13, and wrote and produced student radio stories at NPR at 14. She was a behavioral therapist for over ten years. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, daughter, and baby boy. Rocky founded the Bleed Ink Foundation, a creative hub and resource center for writers, and the HoldOn2Hope Project, which unites creatives in suicide prevention and mental health awareness. A Breath Too Late is her debut novel.