“The Stigma of Mental Health in Asian Communities” by Katie Zhao

As we reach the halfway-mark of Shattering Stigmas 2020, I first want to thank everyone who has written or read posts so far. I’d also like to note that we have so many more fantastic personal essays and Q&A’s left from people who will speak honestly and rawly about their mental health. Today, I’m so excited to welcome middle grade and YA author Katie Zhao to my blog to talk about the stigma against mental illness in Asian communities and how it relates to her forthcoming YA debut HOW WE FALL APART. You can find Katie’s online links here.

Writing this blog post focused on mental health in Asian communities feels like I’m breaking a taboo, because there is a huge stigma against discussing these issues in Asian cultures. But that’s why I feel it’s especially important for Asians to start openly talking about mental health, and to have stories that unpack this “taboo” topic – especially since the coronavirus pandemic has made anti-Asian racism rampant, creating even more mental stress for Asians everywhere.

HOW WE FALL APART is my debut young adult thriller novel, pitched as CRAZY RICH ASIANS meets ONE OF US IS LYING, coming from Bloomsbury YA on August 3rd, 2021. The story is told through the perspective of a second generation Chinese American girl named Nancy Luo, and it follows five Asian American students attending an elite prep school in Manhattan. When one of them, the top student, is found dead, an anonymous figure on the school’s gossip app pins the other four friends as the main suspects, and their darkest secrets begin to unravel.

On the surface, this is a dark academia thriller in the vein of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and GOSSIP GIRL. Beneath the flashy pitch is a story infused with themes that are often tied to Asian American upbringings, like family sacrifice, American dreams, diaspora musings. One of the main themes I explore is mental health treatment, and how traditional Asian households tend to dismiss mental illnesses as “made-up” or “laziness.” In my experience growing up in such a household, perfection was the standard, and anything less than that was seen as “not good enough.” ADHD, mental illnesses, any condition that might make someone unable to learn and/or grow at the pace society has deemed standard – all of that was chalked up to simply not working hard enough. It also doesn’t help that American media is obsessed with portraying Asians as studious and nerdy, as model minorities and overachievers who all attend top schools. Such pressure leaves no room for error for Asians teens – and certainly no room for taking care of one’s mental health, or diagnosing mental illnesses. This level of perfection has spawned incredible work ethic among a lot of kids and teens, but it also creates an impossible standard by which young people, especially young children of immigrants, are measured and valued.

In HOW WE FALL APART, I wanted to explore what happens to these Asian teens who are thrust into the privileged, pressure-cooker, competitive, toxic environment of Sinclair Prep. Everything is riding on them bringing home the highest test scores, the best grades, the most extracurriculars. All the pressure is on them to make it into top universities, to fulfill their families’ American dreams. And in such an environment, these teens will do anything – betrayal, maybe even murder – to rise to the top.

While HOW WE FALL APART takes the cutthroat prep school environment to an extreme. There are lots of moments in this book that took me back to my own grueling high school experience – in which I put too much pressure on myself to perform up to my parents’ and society’s impossible standards. In which my mental health plummeted to an all-time low, because according to the messages I received from everyone everywhere, my worth was determined based on my grades and if I got accepted into an Ivy League or not. When I “failed” by those standards, I reached my lowest mental point. Even writing HOW WE FALL APART was a very painful experience, because it forced me to relive the darkest time of my life. A time when I felt utterly worthless. A time when I viewed friends as competition, when I resented that they’d taken what I “deserved”. That was a time when I would have greatly benefited from mental health treatment – if my parents even acknowledged that that was a real thing.

Those who have read my stories or know me at all know how outspoken I am about Asian American issues, and mental health is an area I’m very invested in. This is especially important now, given how anti-Asian racism has spiked due to the coronavirus and the President and his followers dubbing Covid the “China virus”, further fueling anti-Asian sentiment. Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Health Magazine discussing some of the anti-Asian hate crimes that have happened since, and how damaging these crimes are on Asian American psyche. Now, there are many mental health resources available to Asians specifically, like the Koreatown Youth+ Community Center, New York Coalition for Asian American Mental Health, The Cosmos, etc. I encourage any Asians struggling with mental health to take advantage of such resources, and I wish I’d had access to these when I was a teen. Writing became my therapy instead, but having actual mental health treatment would have doubtlessly helped me get back on my feet a lot sooner.

I want to end this post with a specific message to children of immigrants: You are more than your grades. More than your test scores. More than an acceptance to Harvard. More than any achievements that may prove your family’s sacrifices were “worth it.” You are so much more than the stereotypes American media may hold of you. You are beautiful and unique and whole, and you are enough, just as you are. Please, please take care of your mental health, especially in this pandemic.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

Katie Zhao is the author of the Chinese-inspired middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She’s also the author of the forthcoming Asian American young adult thriller How We Fall Apart. Katie grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.katiezhao.com@ktzhaoauthor

“Dealing with Depression: An Ongoing Journey” by Alex Brown

Today for Shattering Stigmas, I’m so excited to welcome my friend, YA author and podcaster @TheBridge Alex Brown to discuss her ongoing journey with depression in this deeply personal and honest essay. I can’t wait for Alex’s wonderfully creepy writing to scare all of us soon. You can find Alex online on Twitter and her website.

Depression never really seemed like something I was allowed to have. Growing up, I had no idea that we had a family history of it. I didn’t even know there was a word for it. But I knew something was wrong when I watched people I loved slowly change into someone else. Or sometimes it was a quick change, and then the person I thought I knew was gone forever. That’s what it felt like, at least.

And through all this I refused to think about the little voice screaming in the back of my mind that the same thing was happening to me, too. While my single mother was working multiple jobs to pay the bills, it was my job to hold things together to make sure my little brother was okay. It was a job that it always felt that I was failing at, as depression swept into our lives and got to know my little brother before it ever found me.

My mother immigrated here from the Philippines in 1980. Mental health—and family histories—weren’t really things we talked about. And my father wasn’t much help, either. When he was around, our house wasn’t safe. Alcohol abuse and the demons he carried with him warped him into someone who was meant to be feared, rather than someone I could get answers from.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I slowly started to learn the words that could define what I’d been feeling for so long. But when I tried to engage in these conversations with my mom, she was hesitant. We’d built a life around pretending everything was okay. Any acknowledgement otherwise felt like a betrayal. At the time, she thought that depression was something that anyone could just get over, as if it was as simple as choosing to not be sad. She’s since changed her stance, but for me, having these arguments was devastating. I was still in denial about how depression was impacting my own life. How my father’s demons were slowly turning me into someone I didn’t recognize, too. It would take another five years or so before I finally admitted that I struggled with depression. And a couple more before I actually got the help I needed.

Now, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with writing. I wondered the same thing for a very long time, until I finally parsed out the truth: depression lived with me for so long that it became a part of everything I do. To this day, the characters I write struggle with the same feelings that have haunted me for most of my life. Loneliness and isolation that run so bone-deep that most days it feels like I’ll never be able to make a true connection with another person. That I’ll forever be adrift and lost in an ever-expanding sea, with no one but my own negative thoughts to keep me company. Trapped listening to an infinite loop of my own shortcomings as they remind me that I’ll never be good enough, or amount to anything, or be happy.

The thing about these thoughts is that if they’re allowed to parrot all of that bullshit back to you long enough, you start to listen. Or, at least, that’s what happened to me. I let these reminders drill a hole so deep that, when they tossed me into it, it felt impossible to claw my way out of.

And it was, for a long time.

From 2012-2014, I wrote a few books with the intention of getting them published. They were my first attempts to quiet the voices in my head that told me I wasn’t worth anything. And, like most first attempts at things, they weren’t completely awful, but they also weren’t the best.

From 2015-2016, I took a break from writing. For a few years, it had been the one thing outside of school or work that I could really lose myself in. But I was querying my manuscripts before they were ready, and despite some early successes I hadn’t gotten an agent. Suddenly, the one thing that I thought I was good at—the one thing I enjoyed—became another thing that I forced myself to do. I wasn’t writing for me anymore. I was writing things that I thought would land an agent or get published and when that didn’t happen I lost what little progress I’d been able to make as I tried to climb out of the bottomless pit of depression that I’d been thrown into. So, I took a step back and stopped writing. And it might have saved my life.

Looking back on my earlier work now, it’s easy see all of the flaws and understand why things never panned out the way I wanted them to. But I’ve lived my life believing that every bad thing that happens is my fault—even if sometimes it isn’t—and all of that rejection I faced earlier on bolstered the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough. I’d never amount to anything. That there was no point in sticking around if all I was ever going to do was fail at everything.

In early 2016, a critique partner and I started to talk about co-creating a narrative-fiction podcast, which eventually turned into our show, The Bridge. The scripts for this podcast were the first writing I’d done since I’d stepped away from it entirely a year before. Our podcast slowly helped me build my confidence back up not only as a writer, but as someone with stories to tell. It didn’t fully push all of those negative thoughts away, but it was a start.

It took me a few more years after our podcast launched before I could finally type The End on a manuscript, and there are still so many days where I’m stunned that I was able to do it. But damn, it was worth the wait. Instead of writing things that I think stand a chance of selling, I’m finally writing for me. I’m creating the stories that teen me would’ve loved to have—things that would tell her that it’s okay to not know who you are, or who you like, or that it doesn’t pay to pretend that everything’s fine when it’s not. That asking for help is not a weakness. And depression is a very real thing that might stick with you for the rest of your life—but it doesn’t have to define you. Instead, you can define it.

I am a queer, biracial Filipino American writer who also struggles with depression. I am the daughter of an immigrant and an alcoholic. I am their strengths and their weaknesses. Their inherited traumas color my decisions and thoughts as much as my own do.

It took me so long to be able to type out those words, and it’s still a little scary to put these facets of myself out there, but here I am. The parts of me I wish I could’ve acknowledged long before this. The parts of me that sometimes I wish I never had.

Sharing my story helps me feel less alone. Although we’ll never have the exact same experiences, I do think there’s something to learn from everyone you meet, whether that’s in-person, in a digital space, or through someone’s art. And that, maybe, by seeing things through someone else’s perspective, we can shed a little light on the things that haunt us. The demons and voices that insist we’re not good enough. The walls we’ve built to hold ourselves back. There’s such a stigma around mental health—especially things that aren’t depression and anxiety. There’s still a lot of work to be done and conversations that need to be had. I really hope that we can work through these stigmas and that, one day, blog posts like this won’t be necessary. But until then I hope some part of my story was helpful.

As for me, I’m still clawing my way out of the hole. There are days where it goes more smoothly than others, and days where I lose my footing and fall down farther than I would like. But I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who are there to help when I need it. And writing is finally a tool that helps me, rather than sets me back.

If you’re like me and you’ve convinced yourself that your stories aren’t worth being told, write them anyway. Create things that are so uniquely you that it’s terrifying to put them out in the world, and then put it out there anyway. Someone out there needs your art.

If you’re struggling right now, please know that you’re not alone. If you don’t think you’re good enough, you are. You might not believe me, and that’s okay. One day you will.

Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others. I know it’s hard, but please, remember to do this. Take a break from writing if you need to. Write like wind if you need to. Go at your own pace. Write for yourself. And, most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

Slowly but surely, we can chip away at the stigmas surrounding us as we work through who we were, are, and want to be.

I shared my story with you today. I can’t wait to hear yours, whenever you’re ready.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

Alex Brown is a YA Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror author, who’s made it a life goal to subvert the ‘bury your gays’ trope in every story she writes. She is one of the inaugural recipients of the SCBWI’s On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award and is proud to be the biracial daughter of a Filipina immigrant! Alex Brown hopes to pursue a career in TV and film, bringing stories with more diverse characters and perspectives to the big and small screen. She’s also one of the co-creators and producers of The Bridge, a spooky, folklore-filled audio drama podcast that has over 1,000,000 downloads to date! You can find her on Twitter @gravity_fail09.

“Me and My Anxiety” by Lynell @ Weekend Reader

I am so excited to be hosting so many book bloggers discussing their experience of anxiety and reading for Shattering Stigmas this year. Today I’m so excited to introduce Lynell from Weekend Reader to talk about her anxiety. You can find Lynell online here.

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in 2017, after a series of panic attacks and bouts of insomnia. While I knew something was up with my health, I thought it was mostly due to a stressful job in education and home buying experience. Wrong, while kinda it all compounded and I had to get help. 

The initial diagnosis was scary but being able to put a name to what felt like erratic behavior for me lifted an invisible veil. Let me explain, I’ve always been a nervous person and worrying seems hereditary. However, as I got older my nervousness turned into uncontrollable sweating and nights where I might sleep 2 hours. Neither manifestation was sustainable and began to have a snowball effect on things like forgetfulness and chronic stomach aches. Now, armed with this information I could make a plan. Planning and over planning are other manifestations of my anxiety if you couldn’t guess. So there I was thinking how can I manage moving forward? I hate exercising, sleeping or meditating seemed out of the question so what’s left? A light bulb finally went off…READING! Unsurprisingly in 2017, I started my blog Weekend Reader because like any planner, I thought it could be helpful to focus my energy even more with a blog.  

How does reading help with my anxiety? On days where my anxiety is high alert, reading gives me an opportunity to redirect my energy, unwind myself, and regulate my breathing. I know the reading community makes fun of the line “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” well I’m that person lol. Reading also gives me an opportunity to stop the worrying cycle. While I’m reading I’m focused on the characters, the plot, and a possible happy ending (which is one of the reasons I love romance). Now, in full transparency reading isn’t always my go to anxiety reducing activity. I also bake or craft, and sometimes I will craft or bake while listening to an audiobook. In the end, reading has been a really positive outlet for me as I’m still learning how to manage my anxiety.

I hope this quick post helps anyone who is struggling with their mental health to connect with an activity that brings them joy! Good luck with finding your thing!

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“Breaking Down the Stigma” by Lauren @ Reading, Writing, and Me

So excited to share another wonderful, thoughtful and honest post from a book blogger about anxiety and reading today. Lauren runs the book blog Reading, Writing, and Me and you can find her online here.

YA books taught me not to feel bad about my mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, and OCD since elementary school. When I was younger, it felt like I was the only person on the planet who had a brain that worked like mine. While that’s still true, I now know I’m not the only person who deals with intrusive thoughts, skin picking, or days when it feels like there’s absolutely no point in getting out of bed. Mental health wasn’t a widely discussed topic among my family or school community. While I’m sure other students were experiencing similar struggles to mine, no one ever showed it. I got repeatedly told to cover cuts on my thumbs so I wouldn’t look weird. And, yet, I wanted to talk about mental health. I wanted to understand why my brain sent me from panicked to feeling like a zombie and everywhere in between over the span of a week. It was in the thick of this confusion and mountain of stigma that I found my first YA book.

When I read All The Bright Places, it honestly felt like a turning point. Looking back, the bipolar disorder portrayal could be harmful, and it wasn’t handled as well as it could’ve been in the layers of possible romanticism, but as a 14 year old desperate to feel understood, the book felt like a life raft. Though the idea of reading about two suicidal teens terrified me at the beginning, I started to see anxious and depressed thoughts I had echoed through Finch and Violet’s voices. I bawled my eyes out when the book was over, and I looked for more books centered on mental health. I felt like I was doing something wrong, and I wondered if my parents would take the books from me if they knew what was inside them. Girl In Pieces was my first time reading about self harm. Though I don’t have personal experience with it, the book was incredibly moving and well written. It also made me understand why people turn to something like self harm in desperation. It’s never a good choice, but it doesn’t deserve the stigma it carries. Girl In Pieces is set in a hospital where Charlie is receiving treatment, and while it was a mental health story so separate from my own experience, I realized the importance of showing pieces of worlds the average person would never see the inside of. Demystifying in-patient care and destigmatizing it could go a long way to save lives.

Over the last four years, I’ve continued to discover and promote well written books, so many own voices, exploring the complexities of living with mental illness. I made these books a partial focus on my blog to help other teens find these titles too. The first time I read about a girl with OCD who picked at her skin (in All Our Broken Pieces by LD Crichton), I was overwhelmed with relief at not being the only one. Skin picking was the most isolating part of my compulsions because it crosses the line from mental to physical. There’s proof all over my hands. But, suddenly, it was clear that there were people out there with hands like mine. There’s a relief in knowing others share your thoughts and worries. This connection meant the world to me.

Breaking down stigma and expanding empathy is imperative to fighting the current mental health crisis. Creating a broader understanding around mental health and mental illness is highly important to increasing accessibility to mental healthcare and allowing people to succeed in their day to day lives. Books are an extremely powerful tool to help people who haven’t experienced anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness understand what those who do go through on a daily basis. There’s no other tool to allow you to temporarily live another person’s life so effectively. I will be eternally grateful for the YA books about mental health that have served as a vessel for me to come into my own and to help other teens who share my story.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“Understanding My Anxiety” by Sam @ Spines in a Line

One of my favorite things about Shattering Stigmas is that it offers a safe and accepting space for people to talk openly about their mental health, sometimes for the first time. I’m so excited to welcome Sam, the book blogger behind Spines in a Line to my blog today to talk about books and her anxiety. You can also find Sam on Twitter.

Thanks so much to Taylor for including me in this year’s event! This is my first time participating in Shattering Stigmas and I’m excited to share a couple books that have been really important in helping me understand my own mental health.

I’ve talked a little about anxiety in my blogging before but I haven’t gotten into specifics. Until today! So I’m very grateful for this safe space to share openly and have such support.

I used to excuse a lot of things about my personality on two points: I’m self-conscious and I’m shy.

I always worry that people are constantly watching me and judging me – for what I’m wearing, how I’m walking, what I’m eating. And especially what I say. But I always thought of that as being extremely self-conscious. I just needed to be more confident in who I am and those thoughts would go away.

It wasn’t until starting a book blog and seeing people from the book community being so open with their mental health struggles that I started to realize it could be something more. But even then, what I perceived as my less severe symptoms compared to others’ experiences with anxiety prevented me from identifying more openly.

The book that really opened the conversation for me was A Fantastic Mess of Everything by Beck Medina. I connected so much with the MC, a college student who, like me, struggles in social settings. It was the first time since beginning the process of figuring out my mental health that I read a book with an anxious character and I could see so many parallels with what I felt. Social anxiety started to feel more and more like a term I could claim for myself.

But then the shy part was different. I’m just a quiet person. That time all through elementary school when I never spoke in class, when I couldn’t speak in front of boys or male teachers so I gave my presentations either in a small group of girls or only to my female teacher, not breaking even when I was pressured to speak by groups of kids who would surround me … that was all just being shy, right?

The major breakthrough happened when I read a middle grade book, After Zero by Christina Collins. The MC in the book tries to limit her words in school – fewer words spoken means less chance of saying the wrong thing. It was the first time that I could see my elementary school experience so clearly depicted, the same things I was afraid of expressed by this young girl.

The most fascinating part for me was that there was a name for it. ‘Selective mutism’, which the author describes in the afterword is an anxiety disorder. Suddenly I wasn’t just a self-conscious person who also didn’t like to speak but I had been struggling with anxiety the entire time.

I’ll be honest, as wonderful as it was to have a name for something I didn’t even know existed, to have a reason for the way I feel and behave, to realize that what I’d experienced as a kid was not just a weird quirk, it was also scary and more than a bit devastating to know there wasn’t a simple fix. Yes, what I feel is real. But it also means I can’t just get over it by talking or ignoring what other people may think. I am very grateful for the books and people that have led me to better understanding my mental illness but the realization did come with pros and cons.

I’m continuing to learn more about myself and it’s a process I expect to continue for a long time. But I’m forever grateful to these books, the authors for sharing their own experiences, to have found myself represented here and to have discovered a whole community of people in the same boat.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“Having Anxiety as a Reader” by Ace @ PeachnAce

Today on Shattering Stigmas, I’m so excited to welcome Ace to the blog to discuss the way reading provides solace and support for her anxiety. This post has so much heart and voice, and I’m so excited to share it with all of you. You can find Ace on Twitter, Instagram, her blog and her BookTube channel.

It started with my glasses.

As a kid, I always tried reading books at night which caused my eyesight to grow terribly at a young age. ​Reading books became my coping mechanism to my social anxiety and depression.​ At a young age I was always called “shy and quiet” when I always thought this was wrong because I was never quiet around people I were comfortable with. ​My classmates made me anxious especially being one of the few Asian kids. ​I wore thick glasses to school and always carried my books around and with that I experienced bullying in 1st grade. The worst part of all this was being called ​ling ling.​ This was the first of the many.

In high school my confidence grew as I became a person liked by many in my class. I started a BookTube channel in my junior year and only shared it with my one best friend who I thought I could trust. A few days later I received videos from some of our mutual friends of them watching my videos in her living room. ​She showed them my BookTube.​ I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do except watch the videos of them laughing.

My depression and social anxiety grew as I forced myself to talk to literally everyone. ​I tried fitting into a socially acceptable person. For about 3 years I did not pick up a book and didn’t know what to do. I was careful not to slip up and show the real me. Me, who loves to read books and occasionally geek out about video games. The one who delves deep into books and films and analyzes and makes connections. I kept all of this to myself because the people I associated with did not value these thoughts.

Throughout my life I experienced disrespect for simply being me and what I loved to do. This caused me to be aware of everything I did and said. ​I was always on edge, making sure I was socially acceptable. I hated reading and myself. ​Why was reading a book seen as something lame?

With everything going on in 2020, I decided it was time I made myself happy. I began reading again and distanced myself from people to make time for myself. This of course went as planned as everyone was in quarantine.

I started a BookTube channel again.

Joining the book community made me happy. I met people I can discuss books with and delve deeper into how these books mean to us. ​But this happiness was only on the surface.​ ​

My anxiety caused me to overthink everything. Was I bothering people by replying to their tweets all the time? Do I sound annoying in my videos?​ It continuously grew especially with me talking about books being out in the open on the internet where everyone and anyone can see. I didn’t want to repeat what happened in the past. It’s so hard to cope with my depression and anxiety when doing what I love also contributes to it.

Why was reading a book seen as something lame?

Whenever I finish a book, I feel ecstatic but then I look around me and realize I am all alone. I grab my phone and scroll through my messages, who do I tell? Which friend will listen to the exhilarating feeling I just felt? It’s been 3 months since I’ve started my BookTube and blog and I’ve only trusted 2 people with seeing it. I break down every time I am reminded of this. How do I know they won’t do the same thing my apparent best friend did?

I’ve seen book bloggers and bookstagrammers desperately try to hide their account from people they know locally. I’ve seen people go on private if there is even a sign that someone they know is about to find their account. It is so hard for people to enjoy the things they love without being shamed and feel the need to hide it. I tell my story now and hope that people would ​stop shaming people for the things they enjoy.

PLEASE stop shaming people.

There shouldn’t even be such a thing as a socially acceptable hobby.

You never know what is going on in people’s lives and that one thing they keep talking about, could be the only thing that’s helping them cope right now.​ Listen to your friends, don’t turn them away. When they share their excitement to you that means they trust you with this and they care about what you think. ​Support them with even just encouraging words. ​It’s not hard to say how happy you are for them.

I personally struggle with anxiety and worry about everything, but reading helps me and makes me happy.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“On Self Care” by S. Whispers

Sakhile Whispers is a book blogger, graphic designer, sensitivity reader, feminist and mental health advocate from South Africa. You can find her on Twitter and at her blog. I love Sakhile’s helpful reminder that self care is something that can be more than personal pampering and comes down to taking care of your body and self by meeting your basic needs and the resources at your disposal.

Self-care is generally perceived to be something one does to pamper themselves. The caring part of self-care is so often limited to lighting a scented candle, taking a bubble bath or treating yourself to an expensive item. Don’t get me wrong, all those are valid forms of self-care but I want to focus on what self-care is for people with severe mental illnesses.

For me, on my worst days, on my worst weeks or months, self-care is the bare minimum. It’s forcing myself to take a shower after two days because I simply don’t have the mental energy. It’s setting an alarm to remind myself to take my medication. It’s eating two slices of plain bread because I haven’t had the energy to cook and haven’t eaten all day.

When you suffer from a mental illness and also happen to be poor, you don’t have the luxury for what a lot of media tells us is self-care. Yes, a nice smelling candle would be nice right now, a bath bomb would be amazing after a horrible mental health day, but we don’t always have the money for indulgences like that.

Realistic ways to practice self-care:

  • Rereading an old favourite book that you own.
  • Watching your favourite TV show that always makes you laugh. I’m a big K-drama fan so I watch a lot of those.
  • If you live in an unsafe area where it’s not possible to take a walk, I suggest going to the rooftop of your apartment building (if it’s accessible) and taking a breath.
  • Eat something, a fruit, a slice of bread, just eat something.
  • If you have a hobby you like doing then do that. Don’t feel pressured to monetise it. I know society keeps pushing for us to use every bit of spare time doing something to make you money, but stresses me out even more because there’s no room for mistakes. I do a bit of art journaling and crocheting.

If you have more cost-effective self-care ideas, please feel free to share them.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“Looking Back: Realizing Where My Anxiety Started” by Jessica L. Tate

Jessica Tate (or you might know her as Jessica Sankiewicz or even Lilly Avalon) has been a Shattering Stigmas mainstay since the event started. I’m so excited to welcome her back to Shattering Stigmas 2020 today for an introspective post on anxiety and realizing when you might have an issue (which is half the battle). You can find Jessica on Twitter and her romance-writing alias Lilly Avalon on Twitter and her website.

One of the hardest things I’ve done is acknowledge that I have anxiety. I actually discovered it from one of those viral Tumblr screenshots that explained what it is. It’s not all panic attacks causing you to rock back and forth in the corner. There are nuances and unique symptoms that you wouldn’t even think were a thing.

Of course, I didn’t just take this screenshot as facts. I did my research, read articles, learned the truth about anxiety. Once I realized that there was a strong possibility that I more than likely had it, I felt… relieved? My bouts of irritability and anger, the nervousness from being around people, the avoidance of social situations, etc. Everything finally made sense. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Not just the last few years, but my entire life.

I was always considered shy as a kid by everyone because I hardly ever spoke. When people would ask me something or try to get me involved in a conversation, my nerves made it difficult to reply. I would reply eventually, but it wasn’t easy. I was “shy” after all, right?

In my teens, I got better at talking to people I knew. I had good friends, best friends, and conversations in general weren’t as difficult. Not to say that I didn’t still have trouble in social situations because there were numerous times that I wanted to escape and actually did escape some situations. It was just slightly better than when I was younger.

Then came the time for me to get a job after I graduated high school. The interview was nerve-wracking, but I made it through and got hired. On my first day at the cash register, my hands shook something fierce when I handed change back to my first customer. When I went home, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to handle working in a store, but I pushed through. Did it get easier? Yeah, a little bit, but the beginning of every day still made me nervous.

Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and my twenties, there were numerous instances where my anxiety was obvious… to present me and not past me.

At a graduation party, there was supposed to be a square dance part and somebody tried to pair me up with a guy I didn’t want to dance with. Not that he was a bad guy, he was a really nice and sweet guy. What was actually happening was me having a panic attack in general over square dancing with someone I didn’t know very well and I ran away from everyone to escape it. It felt ridiculous and rude back then, but it makes total sense now.

When I got my driver’s license, I was able to handle simple driving–to work and back, to a friend’s house and back. The idea of driving on busy roads or highways scared the living daylights out of me. One summer day in my car that had no AC, I was driving to a celebratory dinner for a friend. It was in an area I was not familiar with, but I thought I could handle the drive there because I had the directions. Unfortunately, I missed my last turn. I freaked out but tried to tell myself that I could turn around ahead and go back. In the end, I had a panic attack and ended up driving home. I felt so guilty about not going when I promised I would be there. The friend didn’t understand and sadly I lost my closeness with her because I didn’t show up like I promised I would.

Looking back on all of this, it’s blatantly obvious I had social anxiety. I think the reason why it never clicked for me until I was much older was because I was able to talk to people and most of the incidents were isolated. But having anxiety doesn’t mean being anxious all the time and in every situation. That’s not how the brain works. Some days I would be fine, conversational, and happy without any regrets. Other days I wouldn’t be fine, hardly speaking and questioning whether I said the right thing or not for the rest of the night.

Growing up I was aware of mental illnesses, their symptoms, and their treatments. However, I didn’t one hundred percent comprehend the subtleties of them and that it was possible I could have one. This is why it’s so important for me to speak about my experience with anxiety, because I know there’s somebody out there who is having those same feelings as I did. They deserve to know they are not alone, that they are not broken, and that having a mental illness isn’t the end of the world.

It’s time for change, to remove the stigma, and to acknowledge that mental illness is real.

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

“I Didn’t Realize My Anxiety Was So Bad Until It Made Me Physically Sick” by Holly Underhill

When I first got involved with Shattering Stigmas, I had just started my own mental health recovery and found an outlet to talk about my journey in this blogging event. Since then, Shattering Stigmas has become an important part of my life. I’m always so happy to welcome Holly back to my blog for Shattering Stigmas to talk mental health and really love this post in particular. You can find Holly on Twitter and her website. She has an upcoming novella out in 2021 titled The Bone Way.

cw: vomiting

I think I always knew I had anxiety. But it wasn’t until I started studying psychology in college that I could actually put a name to my feelings. That was when I learned I also had depression. It always seemed worse than the anxiety back then, and those depressive spirals were hard to see when I was in them, and even harder to force my way through. My anxiety was definitely mostly social-related, except when it came to driving. So I thought the depression was more of an issue. Depression with anxiety sprinkles, to steal a quote from one of my close friends. But then 2019 happened, and I realized my anxiety was a bigger problem than I’d originally believed. Maybe I’m not even a depressive with anxiety sprinkles anymore. Maybe it was always anxiety first, depression second. Or the two of them working in tandem to destroy my life? Whatever the case, my mental health took a very sharp turn last year that I’m still recovering from.

The change was so gradual I didn’t even notice it for a long time. My job had gotten worse for me by summer 2019; many of my coworkers were awful, my supervisor wasn’t doing his job, and my two friends there were getting angrier and losing their patience. I felt stressed and overwhelmed and anxious all the time; it felt like nothing I did was ever good enough. One of my friends had pulled something with me that I’ve come to realize is a boundary of mine, and it felt like our relationship was strained after that. People left and new people started and the upper management wasn’t doing anything about the problems on the shift. But it wasn’t until one guy decided he HAD to be friends with me that it took a turn for the worse.

This guy was a boundary-pusher, someone who liked making others uncomfortable and poking at them to reveal their secrets and who refused to listen when I told him to stop. Fall came, and he left thankfully. But it didn’t matter because there were so many other things about this job that upset me. Before I knew it, I kept calling off work because I’d wake up sick, sometimes almost forcing myself to vomit if it wasn’t coming because it made me feel better afterward. I didn’t know what was happening until I’d talked to a friend about it. She was like, what if it’s anxiety-related? It clicked for me, but I didn’t really know how to make it better. Because by the time 2020 started, it hadn’t gotten better. That guy came back, there was a lot of home stress, and I received a message on Facebook from my uncle’s wife.

I carpool with my uncle to work. He was the one who got me this job and he lives about six minutes away, so it has always been convenient to stay here because of that. But his wife sent a scathing message about how I was making him look bad for all the work I missed, how I needed to just grow up, that this wasn’t school and I needed to stop being lazy. How I would’ve been fired at a different job already. I immediately blocked her from messaging me again, and I talked it over with my uncle, but her words linger. Every time I have to call off now for being sick, I feel like I shouldn’t. I feel like it’s not enough. I feel like I have to prove that it’s acceptable to take a day off. I had a conversation with the head supervisor of our department about it, and she’d had no problem with how often I’d missed. She was concerned by it. I received more kindness from my boss than I got from a family member. Isn’t that awful?

The anxiety was still related to people and social situations. But this time, it was affecting my physical health too. I had *never* been this anxious before in my life. When I realized it WAS because of the anxiety, things in the past started to make more sense. The nervous nausea I’d feel whenever I had to get up in front of a classroom and present a topic. The amount of mornings I’d feel sick and throw up on the bus because I hated school. Part of it was because I didn’t eat breakfast, but that just seemed to make me MORE nauseous and it was so, so early in the morning for food. Yet, now that I have this knowledge, I know it wasn’t simply a lack of breakfast. And the reason I hated school too? It wasn’t the classes, the homework, the tests. It was the group projects, the presentations, the friend drama. It was feeling like I didn’t ever really fit in anywhere and second-guessing every social interaction because I had no confidence and low self-esteem.

I’m still not that confident, though my self-esteem has definitely improved, but I’ve made some good friends over the years. I started a book blog and found the book community on Twitter. I second-guessed a lot of interactions on social media (and still do sometimes), but it seemed as if I’d finally found my people. The anxiety wasn’t so… openly bad. And while now it’s worse, I also know myself better. I’ve learned my boundaries and started cutting out toxic friends. I’m more willing to say hey no I’m not okay with this. But it’s incredibly difficult because I don’t like upsetting people, even if they upset me first, especially when I’m just constantly invalidated for how I feel. From the aunt I will never talk to again making an assumption about me without care or thought to all the I swear that wasn’t intentionals. And my personal favorite, I’m sorry I didn’t mean that after a particularly cruel joke. Can’t even count how often I got that one over the years.

Human beings are complicated and every relationship is different and I wish it got easier. I really did. Maybe it wouldn’t feel like such A Big Deal when awful things happen. If I could stop spiraling over every interaction that feels off (because sometimes it’s just my depression brain at fault!) in ways I can’t always explain. If I could just simply confront someone right away instead of letting hurt fester. If I was better with my words. But I’m not super good at it yet, and that’s something I hope therapy will help me with. September 2019 through April 2020 were some of the worst eight months of my entire life. It was so bad I actually reached out to a therapist for the first time. I still haven’t gone for a few reasons, but the fact that I even asked for an appointment was a huge step in the right direction. It was me saying: hey I’m really not okay right now and I need help. Being honest about how debilitating my anxiety is has helped a lot but I still can’t let go of the stigma that taking time off for it isn’t necessary.

I really wish the ways in which mental illness can affect one’s physical health were talked about more often. Because it can, and it shouldn’t have taken me throwing up months on end to realize it. I wish employers were more understanding about mental health days (although I have currently gotten incredibly lucky in that regard). I should not be fearful that I’ll lose my job over missing a day because my anxiety is so bad I can’t come in. I wish people were more understanding about mental illness in general. It’s gotten a little better, but we’re still loads off from where we should be. So don’t let people invalidate your feelings and remember that self-care is so, so important. Because you deserve to make yourself a priority and you shouldn’t have to prove you’re “sick enough” to be taken seriously. And I hope my story helps anyone who’s struggling with their physical health and doesn’t know what the root of the problem is yet. ❤

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

Holly J. Underhill was born into a family of writers and readers, so stories have always been a part of her life. She spends most of her time spinning tales about angry girls, queer acceptance, and mental health. She received a B.S. in psychology from Central Michigan University before she realized she wanted to be an author more than anything else. When not writing she enjoys finding new TV shows and books to fall in love with, nerding out over history, and going on adventures. She currently resides in Michigan with her family, one dog, and an abundance of rescue cats. THE BONE WAY will be her first published work.

Q&A with Akemi Dawn Bowman, Author of “Starfish,” “Summer Bird Blue,” “Harley in the Sky” and “The Infinity Courts”

If you’ve read any Shattering Stigmas posts in years past, you’ve probably stumbled upon one of my interviews with young adult and middle grade author Akemi Dawn Bowman. Their debut Starfish was one of the first books where I really saw my social anxiety reflected and connected me with one of my closest friends. Since then, it has been such a joy to follow Akemi’s growing career and read their words whenever they have a new book out. That’s why I’m so excited to welcome Akemi Dawn Bowman back to Shattering Stigmas today to discuss her 2020 release Harley in the Sky, her upcoming 2021 YA The Infinity Courts and more. Let’s get to it. 🙂

Taylor: In your latest young adult novel, Harley in the Sky, Harley struggles with extreme highs and lows as well as obsessive tendencies. Can you talk a bit about how you approached and shaped Harley’s character and these struggles in the book?

Cover illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman and designed by Heather Palisi-Reyes

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Harley is based around a time in my life when I didn’t have access to therapy, and was navigating how to cope with my mental health all on my own. She can be a chaotic personality at times, but she also means well, and tries really hard—even when she messes up. I wanted to really dig into the multitudes of a personality like Harley’s, and show what it can feel like. Not just the highs and lows, but also the way your own mind can make complete sense to you, but people on the outside don’t always understand it. And I think Harley is someone who really needed people to give her a chance to be her own person, while also having the kind of patience and support that says, “Hey, I see you, and I know you’re trying your best, but if you ever feel like you’re struggling, I want you to know I’m here.” Because the reality is that therapy is a privilege not everyone has. It can be expensive, and inaccessible for a lot of people. There are also cultural and family nuances that might mean therapy isn’t an option. I wanted to show a character doing what they can to manage their mood swings in a way that feels right for them, because mental health isn’t a one-size-fits all.  But I also wanted to show how having a support system can be so, so helpful and important to someone struggling with mental illness, regardless of whether therapy is the right choice for them or not.

Taylor: A fantastic and poignant part of Harley’s story for me was her struggle to fit in, whether it was within her culture, her family or the circus. Can you talk a bit about how you approached writing about Harley’s sense of belonging in these various spaces in her life?

Akemi: When I came up with the idea for this book, I really wanted it to feel magical. Harley has a romantic view of the world. She’s a dreamer, and she’s fueled with hope, but she also has a lot of tangled feelings when it comes to her culture and family. The circus, to Harley, is the one place she can be herself and find acceptance. At its core, this book is about Harley’s search for a place where she can feel like she belongs. She wants to be comfortable with herself, and who she is, but she wants to be accepted, too. And I think no matter a person’s culture or background, that’s a fairly universal experience. So I guess I wrote a story about a girl searching for magic in the real world, because sometimes a little bit of magic is what makes a place feel like home.

Taylor: Something that I love a lot in Harley in the Sky is that Harley and her mom struggle with similar mental health issues like depression and suicidal ideation and struggle to communicate about their feelings with each other. Harley’s dad also doesn’t understand depression well and struggles to help them. Can you talk a bit about how and why you wrote these family dynamics this way?

Akemi: I’m definitely not speaking for everyone here, but sometimes mental health shows patterns between family members. And sometimes even when the people closest to you love you, they don’t always know the right way to be supportive. Not everyone talks about mental health within their families, which is why it’s so important to normalize these things. I really wanted to depict a family who loved each other unconditionally, but also were reacting to mental health in their own ways with their different biases. I wanted to show the importance of supporting one another, and how sometimes it takes a few tough conversations to get to that point. Even people who mean well don’t always understand you right away. And I know that can be frustrating, as it is for Harley, but when you have people who love you, it’s often worth putting the effort in. Because all relationships take work.

Taylor: Harley’s mental health issues and personality lead to a strain on her best friendship with Chloe after she runs away to join a traveling circus and without spoilers, I loved how you showed that there were consequences for Harley’s actions there, even if she didn’t intend harm or notice she was hurting her best friend. Can you talk a bit about this friendship and why you wrote it the way you did?

Akemi: I will try my best to avoid spoilers here! It’s very easy for a person to get caught up in their own feelings, but perhaps even more so when you also have severe highs and lows the way Harley does. Harley isn’t intentionally trying to be selfish, but sometimes her brain feels like a fast-paced train, and it’s difficult to stop and see what’s happening outside of it. It’s only when the train crashes and is no longer moving that she notices, but by then there’s a lot of pieces to clean up. And I think this is something I’ve learned to manage better as I’ve gotten older, and certainly as I’ve done a lot of work on myself. But the reality is, we are still responsible for our actions. Mental illness isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. It can explain some of the reasoning behind certain actions and reactions, but it isn’t an excuse. And what I mean by that is that it doesn’t give someone a free pass to treat people badly and remain free of consequences. If we neglect our friends and their own needs for long enough, they are allowed to make the decision on whether continuing that friendship is right for them. We have to allow that to people, because everyone is entitled to the safest space for their own heart. And we have to work on ourselves, too, and manage our mental health in a way that makes sure we aren’t unintentionally causing harm to the people we love. Because that’s part of therapy, too.

Cover illustrated by Jen Bartel and designed by Cassie Gonzales

Taylor: Pivoting a bit, you have two books (The Infinity Courts, a young adult sci-fi novel, and Generation Misfits, a middle grade contemporary) out in 2021, which is so exciting. Can you talk a bit about the self care that goes into balancing life and writing deadlines?

Akemi: At the moment I feel like I’m the worst person to ask for advice on this. Truthfully, it’s all a bit chaotic. I have two kids, and multiple deadlines, and my partner often works out of the country. I’m juggling a lot, and I know other people are, too. But I’m trying to teach myself to take more breaks, particularly when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If something is taking up too much time and making me unhappy, like doom scrolling on social media, I don’t do it. Twitter doesn’t even exist on my phone, and I’ve started scheduling tweets so I don’t have to log on multiple times throughout the day. Because it’s a time suck, and I need that time to spend with my family and do my writing. And when my brain is too exhausted to work, I indulge in something that makes me happy and doesn’t take up emotional space. Lately that’s been Animal Crossing, which released at exactly the right time. And I know there’s a pandemic, and I personally have almost exclusively stayed at home since March, but I’ve been trying to remind myself to go outside, and look at the sky and the trees and the animals running around. The world is still here. Time is still rolling along. And sometimes that’s a good reminder to take a breath, and keep going.

Cover illustrated by Casey Weldon and designed by Laura Eckes

Taylor: In what I’ve seen about The Infinity Courts, it’s a book that deals with death and grief. Can you discuss a bit about how and why you worked with those themes?

Akemi: For all the book definitely deals with death (it takes place in the afterlife), I think it actually raises a lot more questions about humanity, and what it means to be a good person. Morality plays a big part in the book. I just had so many thoughts about what we consider “right” and “wrong” in this life, and how much that would change if we were all existing in a world where power and imagination aren’t limited. What kind of prejudices would people bring into the afterlife? What are the rules? But mostly, if I’m being honest, this book was just a super fun blend of my favorite things: Jane Austen, robots, and superpowers. I mean, the cover is a half-Asian girl wearing a gown and holding a dagger. This book is literally a dream come true for me, and I can’t wait to share more with readers in the coming months.

Taylor: What are some of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?

Akemi: I’m a big fan of DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram. The sequel, DARIUS THE GREAT DESERVES BETTER, released this year and I can’t wait to start it. I also loved DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, which has some really great discussions about gamer culture and how what strangers say on the internet can really take a toll on a person’s mental health.

Taylor: Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?

Akemi: Did I already mention Animal Crossing? Can I mention it again? Jokes aside, limiting my use of social media has been huge for me. It might not be for everyone, because we’re all different. But I am very in tune to how social media alters my moods these days. If I feel my heart getting too heavy, I log off. I think I used to feel so guilty, because sometimes people on the internet make you feel like if you’re not constantly talking about serious things, it must mean you don’t care, but that’s just not true. Some of us care SO MUCH and are dealing with our own challenges in real life. It’s not realistic or healthy to expect people to never take a moment to breathe. I mostly use social media these days for keeping in touch with book friends and posting silly dog photos. I’m learning to be okay with that, and to treat social media like it’s a break from the real world, and not the other way around. That helps me manage it better. I also am working really hard on reminding myself that just because someone on the internet says something hurtful doesn’t make it true. I’m trying not to take everything to heart anymore. Life is short, and my time here isn’t infinite: I’d rather spend it putting love back into the world, and leaving a footprint behind that my kids will be proud of. And sometimes that means ignoring strangers on the internet.

Thank you so much for coming back to Shattering Stigmas, Akemi! Be sure to pre-order The Infinity Courts and Generation Misfits. You can order Starfish, Summer Bird Blue and Harley in the Sky now and read them as soon as possible if you haven’t already!

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

Photo Credit © Peter Jolly

Akemi Dawn Bowman (she/her or they/them) is a critically-acclaimed author who writes across genres. Her novels have received multiple accolades and award nominations, and her debut novel, Starfish, was a William C. Morris Award Finalist. She has a BA in social sciences from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children. She overthinks everything, including this bio. Visit Akemi online at www.AkemiDawnBowman.com, or on Instagram @AkemiDawnBowman.