Mental Illness, Trauma, & YA Author Responsibility

CW: discussions of mental illness and trauma (including suicidal ideation) in fiction and in real life, brief mention of Thirteen Reasons Why, swearing

rough wooden carving of a person clutching their head with an anguished expression

“Depression” by Bobby McKay (can be reused under CC-BY-ND license)

This is not a critique of the Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why, which I have no intention of watching. This is not a critique of any YA literature related portrayals of mental illness and/or trauma. Instead, this is an unpacking of some of the questions and thoughts I’ve been carrying as an aspiring YA writer with a mental illness since articles about 13 Reasons Why first appeared on my Facebook news feed. Questions I’d love the opportunity to discuss with more writers and readers of YA.

Questions like, “What should authentic portrayals of mental illness look like in the context of YA lit?” From the day I started writing YA, I have been obsessed with being as accurate and authentic as possible in every aspect of my stories. But what is the responsible course of action when the authentic truth is fucking awful?

If I want to write a teenage character who experiences suicidal ideation the way I did as a teenager, should I limit how far down that hole of hopelessness they fall? Can I be completely honest about how alluring death can be in that head space or would that glamorize suicide? Could my truth, shared fully, have a negative impact on readers? If so, how do I moderate the truth in hopes of maintaining their emotional safety?

How do I show the rawness of suffering in ways that increase understanding but not harm? How do I know how far is too far? How do I respect the, at times, all-consuming pain I saw in my teenage friends who lived through trauma without seeming to glorify that pain? How do I make space for kids who need to see accurate representations of shitty mental health experiences in order to feel empowered to take a step towards talking to someone about their mental health without alienating kids who might find representation that’s too accurate triggering?

What is my responsibility as an adult who still writes YA? To be honest? To do no harm? To be developmentally appropriate, of course, but, again, how far is too far when we’re talking about the real experiences of mental illness teenagers live? How do I protect and respect the kids for whom I’m writing?

I have no answers, but I think it is still important to put the questions out there. Some teenagers need to be able to see the painful, trying, even traumatic aspects of their experiences in YA in order to combat the stigma around mental health they could be internalizing as well as self-deprecating thoughts they might have. I don’t know what I would have done without access to YA featuring mental illness and trauma as a teenager. YA was one of the few healthy coping mechanisms I had. That being said, as an adult, I have a better understanding of the risk some portrayals of mental illness and trauma pose. I want to be able to carry an awareness of both of those in my writing.  I hope being honest about these questions will help me do so.

Angélique

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Why I Keep Crying About Moonlight Winning Best Picture at the Oscars

Film poster for the move "Moonlight" (2016), features slivers of the face of two Black boys and one black man aligned to form one face with an overlay of blue and purple.

Moonlight Film Poster

I used to think I wasn’t Black enough.

Because of my taste in music and shows, because of my experiences in predominantly white towns and schools, because of my habits and hobbies, and more strongly than anything else, because of my attractions to other girls. Enduring white peers and teachers directly and indirectly invalidating my Black identity and watching the media routinely fall back on the same limited versions of Blackness made me think, even before I considered I might be bisexual, that maybe Black girls like me shouldn’t exist. Once I did consider I might be bi, I knew Black girls like me should not exist.

Being Black and being queer were incompatible as far as I could tell. Occasionally, I encountered minor characters who were Black and queer on TV, but their stories were always used for either humor or heartbreak. Looking back, I remember encountering exactly one movie with a serious and positive representation of Black queerness by the time I graduated from high school, and I’m sure I considered that a fluke. Everything else I saw in fiction and reality suggested that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a member of the Black community and if I didn’t want to destroy my life or my family, I had to be straight. As a Black girl, it was my only option.

When I watched Moonlight, I thought about teenage me feeling torn between her sexuality and her racial identity. I thought about the first time I came out and how I craved the assurance of another Black person that my queerness didn’t lessen my Blackness in any way. I thought about the fact that even two years later when I was working on my creative writing thesis about queer Black Christian teenagers I still wasn’t sure there was really space in the world for me and the few other Black queer people I knew.

I thought about graduating from college and reading Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde and Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing and being moved to tears because all of the writers in those works were saying, “Yes!” Yes, it was okay to be Black and queer. Yes, my experience of  Blackness was good enough.

I thought about the kids who are where I was or where Chiron was–who don’t yet know they’re allowed to be fully themselves, and I got teary eyed because Moonlight says “Yes!” to them. Every time that movie gets the recognition and praise it deserves that is another “yes” to those kids asking if they can be queer and Black. It is another validation of the claim of Moonlight that those of us living at the intersection of Blackness and queerness deserve love and joy and peace and wholeness. It reaffirms that our lives, our love, and our stories are worthy of being celebrated.

If that’s not something to shed tears of joy over, I don’t know what is.

Angélique

My Path of Resistance

The time to resist is now. Most of us know this. Many of us have been living out this truth as the increase in protests, calls to action, how-to posts for contacting legislators, and general conversations about resistance prove. But in the midst of this push to mobilize as many people as possible to join the movements of resistance, I think we are too often giving people external actions to complete without acknowledging the internal powers at play in some of our lives. For some of us, active political resistance is not feasible until we learn to resist certain thoughts, habits, worldviews, and other aspects of our internal lives.

My days attending and volunteering at the Creating Change Conference just as the Trump administration came into power drove home the fact that this is immensely true for me. Because of my personality, because of my mental illness, because of societal messages I’ve internalized, because of things I can’t even name – my attempts to resist the new political regime (and the negative ideology and policy holdovers from past administrations) will not be as effective as they could be unless I simultaneously resist the parts of me that hold me back from pursuing justice to the best of my ability.

The parts of me that say that I am too unimportant and unqualified to deserve to have space in any justice movement.

The parts of me that say my words–written or spoken–have no power.

The parts of me that idolize other people’s methods of activism but belittle my own methods.

The parts of me that are too afraid of failing to even try.

The parts of me that don’t practice self-care despite acknowledging its necessity in good activism.

The parts of me that don’t fully accept that joy and love are revolutionary.

The parts of me that want to deny a truth I heard at another conference I attended this month: when we name the things our inner critical voice is saying, those things lose their power.

Tonight, my act of resistance is taking some of the power away from these negative thoughts and habits, so that tomorrow I can try to contact a legislator or two, speak up about injustice in a space I frequent, and keep writing. If you’ve discovered as I have that self-resistance is necessary for you to fully participate in the resistance, I encourage you to consider what actions will help you resist those parts of yourself that feel unworthy, afraid, or otherwise incapable of active resistance. The resistance needs everyone – even you and me. Let’s not let our inner voices count us out!

Angélique

A Lesson in Hope & Political Resistance from The Hunger Games

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“But you’re not,” I say. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.”
“Okay, but within that framework there’s still you, there’s still me,” he insists. “Don’t you see?”
              -The Hunger Games, chapter 10, pg. 142 (Kindle e-book version)

Every time I reread The Hunger Games (which is often), I look forward to this exchange between Katniss, the protagonist, and Peeta, her fellow District tribute in the Games. I love this part of their conversation because of what it reveals about who these two teenagers are before their lives get extremely complicated, because it spirals into an even more revealing argument, because of how it affects the course of the rest of the story, and, especially this year, because of how I can connect this conversation to my own reality.

I have always understood on a deeply personal level what Peeta is getting at here because I too have spent a lot of time thinking about how to prove that someone or something doesn’t own me. Growing up as a child in a military family and coming into adulthood as a Black bisexual woman have created a strong desire to fight against the notion that I am nothing more than an insignificant pawn in the systems that control and entrap me. That being said, I’ve found that as I’ve become more aware of how sturdy, how all-encompassing, how destructive systemic injustice is, it is so much easier for me to cling to Katniss’s pessimistic viewpoint. So much easier to believe that no matter what I actually want I am doomed to play the role those in power, those who most benefit from the systems of oppression that keep this country going, want me to play if I want to survive.

This place of pessimism is where I have been for much of the time since my last blog post, feeling lost as to how to pull myself out of it. How do I feel like I can do anything worthwhile when I see day-after-day in the news just how easy it is for governments locally, federally, and internationally to inflict suffering on large swaths of people and to condemn people to certain death? How can I really be more than just a piece in anyone’s game when I can feel the weight of systems of oppression all around me and they absolutely have more power, more control, and more force than I or anyone with similar ideals have?

As I’ve sat pondering this in my depressed and defeated state, I have realized that Peeta’s response at the end of this section offers a little practical hope I’d never given much thought to before: “…within that framework, there’s still you, there’s still me.”

Within the unjust, abusive, silencing system(s) that limit and control our lives, there’s still us. There are still the ways we choose to think about the world. There are still the ways we choose to exist in the world. There is still space, even if it’s severely limited by the oppression around us, for us to be the final say on who we are in the oppressive realities we live in.

Just because we’re not capable systemically, practically, or emotionally of taking down an entire system doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to affirm that we are more than those in power want us to be. There are always little ways to challenge the narratives of the system. Respecting and supporting someone the system routinely denigrates and abuses, sharing our stories as marginalized people, creating art that calls the system into question, refusing to accept the negative narratives about ourselves and others – whatever we can manage to do, no matter how small, we should seek to do. Because even seemingly small acts of rebellion can weaken the system both directly and indirectly. And every small act of rebellion – every small moment of saying, “I am not a piece in your games” – could inspire someone else’s act of rebellion which could inspire someone else’s and on and on until eventually there is an entire movement of rebellion strong enough to destroy the system completely.

In many ways that is the story of The Hunger Games–a series of small moments of rebellion snowballing into an organizable movement which could take down the Capitol. A series of people making the choice to challenge their oppressors and the narratives of their oppressors in whatever small ways they could manage until their options were no longer so small.

With that in mind, as I look towards 2017, instead of staying weighed down by the heaviness of what has passed and the fear of what is to come, I’m trying to hold onto the belief that there will always be ways, even if they’re small, to show the powers that be that they are not the final say over my life or over my reality. No matter how hopeless it looks and no matter how limited and useless I feel, even the small acts of rebellion I can manage are worth something in the long run.

Angélique

I Don’t Yet Know: Activism, Mental Health, and Trump’s America

CW: discussion of depression

This month’s public uncovering of the depth of American bigotry combined with the early onset of seasonal depression has left me feeling unmotivated, numb, and just plain tired. I struggle to pull myself out of bed every morning, and I force myself to stay awake into the wee hours of the night as if that will stop the next day from coming. I drag myself to work, to therapy, to church, and wonder if true progress ever really happens all the while thinking, “Somewhere, the work continues.”

The work continues, but how do I continue with it?

As much as I’ve maintained the appearance of being all right in the aftermath of the election, I’m not really. That’s not entirely the election’s fault – there are other circumstances negatively affecting my mental health right now – but the election seems to be the thing that pushed me over the edge. It’s the face of the nagging voice in my head that says my work is as worthless as I feel I am so why should I even make an effort. If so many people are willing to ignore facts from experts, embrace hatred, and prioritize objects and abstract ideas over actual lives, what makes me think a depressed 24-year-old woman who can hardly get her own life together can really change anything?

Yet all around me, the work continues, and so does my desire to continue with it.

I don’t yet know how to balance the label “activist” with the label “depressed.” I don’t yet know how to find energy to follow my calling to speak out and write against injustice and to take care of my mental and physical well-being. But I do know that despite the stack of terrifying and infuriating news that keeps piling up, despite my depression and its pessimistic worldview, the work towards justice continues. As long as that is true, there will always be a part of me trying to continue with it.

If I’m lucky, the rest of me will catch up soon.

Angélique

Political, Personal, and Spiritual: A Post-Election Reflection

The conclusion and aftermath of this year’s election cycle have revealed a lot of things to a lot of people. The depth of the racism and xenophobia in our country. How little respect and authority people in this country, including other women, think women deserve. How fed up people are with our political system. The great leaps forward that still need to be made in order to protect the rights and amplify the voices of marginalized communities. And so much more.

For me, the aftermath of this election has revealed most clearly how American Christians are as awful as I often feel they are. It has validated my frequent decision in LGBTQ and nonsectarian justice spaces to not immediately or sometimes ever identify myself as a Christian. Not because I’m ashamed of the Gospel of Christ but because I’m ashamed of my fellow Christians. There are actions Christians have committed that I can’t defend and have no desire to defend. There are people I have no desire to defend. There are Christian ways of existing that I can’t claim as anything but the easy way out – the way that creates one good Christian response to bitter conflict instead of embracing the natural diversity of responses in seasons like this.

My post-election response as a queer Black Christian woman has alternated between rage and grief because not only have I had to deal with an increase in fear for the lives of myself and people I love but I have also been forced to acknowledge the painful truth about this country’s brand(s) of Christianity I never wanted to say aloud. Namely, that American Christianity has an idolatry problem. I firmly believe our nation and our churches are in the predicaments they are right now partly because American Christians have idolized whiteness, wealth, power, being right, complacency, maintaining the appearance of guiltlessness and “peace,” and being gatekeepers and mini-messiahs over God. We claim Jesus reigns supremely in our lives and that we want to draw people unto him but our lives, our churches, and our politics do not reflect that.

That’s not to say that every Christian needs to belong to the same political party or that every church needs to engage with the world the same way, but there are some things that should be indisputable. Scripturally grounded things. Regardless of political leanings, as Christians, we have been commanded above all else to love God with all of our being and to love others as ourselves. Our personal decisions and political decisions (which include more than simply who we vote for or whether or not we vote at all) should start there, but there is little evidence that is what’s happening.

We, American Christians, boast of Christ in one sentence then defy his most basic teachings in the next. Our witness and our world suffer because of this. The way we let hate speech and discrimination go unchecked. The way we ignore and denigrate the voices of marginalized people who are unlike us. The way we pat ourselves on the back for “serving” communities without asking them what they need or listening when they tell us. The way we distance ourselves from injustice in our communities as if it’s not our problem because “God is in control.” How could anyone look at these actions and think of us as the light of the world? How can we look at ourselves and continually deny not only how far from Christ’s mark we are but also how interconnected our political, spiritual, and personal actions and beliefs are?

When we make political choices that show that bigotry and hatred are permissible as long as you’re white and your financial plan sounds good (even if it really isn’t), that is a negative reflection of our spiritual and personal beliefs. When we make spiritual choices that prioritize forced unity rather than the voices of hurting people including hurting Christians who feel their lives were disregarded by white Christians, cis Christians, straight Christians, able-bodied Christians, non-immigrant Christians, etc., that is a negative reflection of our personal and political beliefs. When we make the personal choice to respond to the state of our country and our world by sitting back and doing nothing, that is a negative reflection of our spiritual and political beliefs.

I pray that someday soon we learn to repent of these and other sins we continue to commit while brandishing the name of Jesus Christ. I pray that we realize what it truly means to love God and others above ourselves so one day we can collectively reflect the glory of God rather than the glory of ourselves.

Angélique

A Thank You Letter to Black Women

Dear Black Women,

Thank you.

Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for holding me physically and emotionally. Thank you for checking in on me even when I’d only known you a few days.

Thank you for smiling at me across the room while we were stranded in a sea of white faces. Thank you for giving me the hair advice I needed and for teaching me in person and through Youtube and Pinterest how to do things to my hair I could never have taught myself. Thank you for seeing me when no one else did.

Thank you for writing songs that made me feel less alone, less disconnected to Black culture than I sometimes felt living in small, mostly white towns. Thank you for writing songs that made me feel like there might be a place for me in the world as a Black bisexual woman. Thank you for every poem, story, novel, and memoir that has shaped and validated me. Thank you for continuing to create art that challenges and restores.

Thank you for being so damn beautiful. Thank you for disproving every standard of ideal beauty that centers whiteness and for not letting the haters take away your ability to slay. Thank you for making me feel like I can sometimes be beautiful too.

Thank you for showing me how to get over. Thank you for showing me how to be strong and vulnerable – how to be compassionate but intolerant of foolishness. Thank you for showing me how to side eye the mess out of someone.

Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for teaching me how to hold onto my own voice when the world would rather I shut up. Thank you for challenging me to be more than I thought I could be. Thank you for showing me that I am enough.

Dear Black Women,

Thank you for being you.

Love,
Angélique

When It Doesn’t Get Better: Mental Health and Bisexual Identity

CW: references to suicidal ideation, depression, and the effects of biphobia and monosexism

“Alarmingly, bisexuals are also far more likely to feel suicidal than their heterosexual, gay, and lesbian counterparts. In two recent studies on sexual orientation and health, based on the Canadian Community Health Survey (a national population-based survey using a representative sample), nearly half of bisexual women and more than a third of bisexual men had seriously considered (or attempted) taking their own lives.”

San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendationsp. 12

“According to a 2011 study of more than 13,000 middle and high school students, over 40% of bisexual youth reported thinking about suicide in the past 30 days (compared to 7% of heterosexual youth and 23% of LGBTQ youth in general), and 17% reported attempting suicide in the past year. [2] A 2013 study found that bisexual teens who reported suicidal thoughts did not report a decrease in these thoughts as they aged into adulthood, unlike their heterosexual and gay and lesbian peers.” – Bisexual Youth – At the Intersections

Sometimes, I want to die.

This isn’t something new. This isn’t something exaggerated. This is the truth I’ve lived since I was an angry ten-year-old girl who thought the best way to handle all the unwanted parts of her life might be getting killed by a car. A truth I struggled to accept for years until the anger and desire to run into traffic were superseded by melancholy and an obsession with more direct ways to end my life.

For the first several years I dealt with suicidal ideation, my bisexuality was largely unrelated to it. I wanted to die because I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, because I didn’t think my life was worth much, because living was burdensome, but never because I was secretly, probably bisexual. But then, two years into college, I came out to myself and though I didn’t realize it at the time, that act made space for my sexuality and my mental health to collide violently.

Because accepting my bisexuality also meant accepting that there were people in the world–people I knew, people I respected, people I loved–who believed being honest with myself was a sin against God. It meant accepting that the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric floating around in politics and the mistrust of bisexual people floating around in the media was aimed at me. It meant recognizing everything I could lose at my Christian college if too many people found out I was bi because Christianity, even the progressive Christianity of some of my friends and professors, didn’t have a lot of space if any at all for Black bisexual Christian girls.

So I tried to keep my sexuality to myself as much as possible. I went back to my family and then back to my college and pretended I was still the good Christian girl I’d always tried to be. Pretended I wasn’t perpetually afraid that the wrong person would find out I was bi and rip away the community I’d worked so hard to gain in college. But the longer I lived that lie, the more I found myself exactly where I had been during the worst periods of middle school and high school: wanting to die. My fear of the practical consequences of biphobia and Christian homophobia clung to the feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt I’d carried over from my adolescence and made life seem so unmanageable that I spent a whole year silently two steps away from a breakdown. Silently thinking that death had to be better than the life I was living.

Eventually, that experience passed. Eventually, I came out to more people without being rejected and found a solid support network at school and online. Eventually, I graduated and escaped my Christian college. But I could not and still cannot escape the negative perceptions that exist about bisexual people. Thus, while in some ways life has gotten better for me since I first came out, in other ways it has not.

When I look around and see how little the world cares about the experiences of the bi+ community, I can’t help but wonder if this bisexual life I’m living is worth it. Living is hard enough when society says as a Black woman my life doesn’t matter and my mental illness says as a failure my life will never amount to anything. Adding being bi to the mix sometimes feels like more than I can handle.

On really bad mental health days, it can take just one biphobic comment or justification of bi erasure for the lure of death to feel more tempting. One hateful, ignorant post to send me in search of the peaceful nothingness that could erase me from the painful narrative that is my life. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt this way.

That is why tearing down biphobia and monosexism is so essential to me. The lives of bi+ people are at stake. Some days, my life is at stake. And until society gets better, we can’t get better. We won’t.

Ending biphobia and monosexism might not cure every bi+ person struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, but I believe it will make the fight to stay alive, to want to stay alive, a little bit easier. And for people like me, that little bit could be the difference between life and death.

Angélique

Bodies, Autonomy, and Feeling Like a Woman

CW: non-graphic discussion of periods

For a year or so when I was a kid, this was one of my favorite songs. My dance teacher loved this album, and when my mom bought me my own copy, I soon fell in love with it too. For me, the whole album felt like a proud declaration of womanhood. Shania Twain was sassy, sexy, independent, and full of love and I wanted to be like that someday. I wanted to understand experientially what feeling like a woman meant. I couldn’t wait until I reached that point.

But then I turned nine. And a few months later, my period started which I was told marked my entry into womanhood. Somehow, the fact that my body could now prepare to have children made me more of a woman than I had been the day before regardless of the fact that I still didn’t feel like a woman at all.

This kind of womanhood didn’t seem accurate or fair. Why was my body the final authority on my womanhood especially when it was doing things I had never asked it to do? Why was this child-bearing focused womanhood being forced on me when I didn’t want children now or possibly ever? And why wasn’t it okay to not feel proud or happy that my body was trying to coerce me into a womanhood I’d never agreed to?

I hated this womanhood and I hated my body for pushing me into it, but as resentful as I felt, I couldn’t let go of my yearning to feel like a woman someday. I struggled with the idea that maybe conceding to what my body seemed to expect from me was the only way to truly feel like a woman and, as I increasingly cared about, to be seen by others as one. As much as it didn’t seem right, I considered that maybe the peremptory messages I began noticing after my period started, messages asserting that my menstruating body would produce an unavoidable desire to have somebody’s baby someday, were true. Maybe, I was just too young for those feelings to have kicked in yet. Eventually, when my mind was more mature, I would enter into the next stage of womanhood, the complete stage.

As I got older and started seeing pieces of the womanhood I’d yearned for as a kid forming in me, I didn’t feel any closer to the womanhood my body was endorsing. Many of my girl friends showed signs of that womanhood – cooing over any baby that came into school and daydreaming out loud about having a baby of their own someday – but I could never get myself to feel those things. I still felt trapped by my body and the messages equating true womanhood with mothering and child bearing which only seemed to get stronger as I aged, but as I heard more of the messages, I also began to feel a little broken.

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