My Name is (Writer) and I Am a Basket Case

Yallwest Book Festival, April 11, 2015
Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica, California

Panel description: Honest talk about painful struggles with depression, anxiety, ADHD, life.

Best-selling authors experience self-doubt just like you and I do. Many of them also experience anxiety and depression.

Margaret Stohl pointed out a recent study that discussed the incredibly strong correlation between creative people and mental health issues.

“Everyone has a public face. Everyone is putting up a front,” Stohl said. “They all have some sort of damage.”

What struck me about this panel at Yallwest – the inaugural West Coast spin-off of the young adult book festival Yallfest in Charleston, South Carolina – was the brutal honesty and humor of these talented authors and their generosity in sharing their experiences with teenaged fans and fellow writers.

The message: You are not alone. Talk to friends. Ask for help.

Despite immense challenges, these women committed to their craft, never gave up, and became New York Times best-selling authors.

Moderator: Margaret Stohl (co-author, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES)

Panel

  • Libba Bray, THE DIVINERS
  • Rachel Cohn, co-author NICK AND NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST
  • Kami Garcia, co-author, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES
  • Richelle Mead, VAMPIRE ACADEMY
  • Lauren Oliver, PANIC
  • Stephanie Perkins, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS

Introductions

“At 4:15 a.m. I had a panic attack…afraid no one would show [at Yallwest]…so I am a train wreck.” – Margaret Stohl

“I’m convinced every book I write is going to suck…this is what it’s like in my family all the time…depression, insane anxiety, ADD…” – Kami Garcia

“I prefer to be alone and sad, in a room with my cats.” – Rachel Cohn

“I come from a family of anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, bipolar, threatened to kill us…When I was pregnant, I was so anxious I tried to get a doctor’s note to get out of a promo tour… – Richelle Mead

“I get depressed….OCD…I’ve got a lot of hand wipes if everyone wants to get clean later…I blurt inappropriate things…” – Libba Bray

“I’ve been diagnosed and treated for the following: ADHD, OCD, severe depression, anxiety panic disorder…It’s so severe, I throw up before appearances. I’ve thrown up in all the airports across the country…I had to leave [an event] half-way through and cry in the street but no one saw because everyone was inside.” – Stephanie Perkins

“I’ve been in therapy since I was 15…depressive disorder…I was the only person [the therapist] met that he didn’t think would survive. Every self-destructive thing you can do, I’ve done…it was a hard road from age 14 to 28, but I’m better. It happened, but I’m also happy…I’m living a dream. So take that, therapist.” – Lauren Oliver

The Heart of the Matter

Stohl made clear the panel’s message: wacked-out brain chemicals that cause these illnesses don’t have to ruin your life.

“That’s not my only story,” she said. “That’s not what defines us.”

“We respect teens and the reality of the teen experience…I couldn’t imagine what my future would be like,” said Stohl, who grew up in a very religious family and always felt like an outsider. Though not suicidal, she had no idea what to expect. “I wasn’t certain how many days there were.”

“All my characters believe they’re damaged inside,” Oliver said. “I really believe that nobody’s broken…that’s just a story…anxiety…depression…suffered abuse…That’s just one story.”

“Therapists are super easy to fool,” Garcia said. “Everyone who knew me [growing up] would have assumed I was fine…a few friends knew my dirt.” But suicide wasn’t an option. “I never considered that.”

Her attitude was, “This is the person I am. I need to suck it up and figure out how to get through.”

“The best way to survive was to not attract attention to yourself,” Mead said of growing up. In her twenties, there were “days I didn’t get out of bed. Now, I’m savvier about what will set me off. I ask myself, ‘Is this coming from inside or outside?’

If she figures out the problem is chemical, she can decide to not freak out. Now that she’s older, “I can control my environment better,” Mead said of eliminating things in her life that cause stress.

“Reach out. Seek friends,” Cohn said. In her darkest periods, she thinks, “If I can just make myself laugh once” everything will be okay. Her go-to music? The South Park movie soundtrack.

“It’s insane what people say to themselves,” Oliver said. “Practice speaking to yourself the way you’d lovingly speak to a friend.”

Her therapist told her, “There’s a monster in your head.” Another author asked, “What does your monster look like?” Oliver replied with a laugh: “My mom.”

One of the authors offered more advice: “Tell your inner critic to shut the fuck up.”

Bray said she succumbs easily to the shame spiral, like when she makes an innocent comment at a party, “That’s good hummus” then worries she may have offended the host due to the various ways one can interpret her words. “I’m on the bullet train to the shame future.”

In a more serious tone, Bray commented on the danger of glamorizing mental health problems. “I put on eyeliner and think, “ ‘God, you’re so pretty when you’re depressed.’ No. It’s just painful.”

“It’s about compassion and empathy you feel for other human beings,” she said. “I honestly believe writing everything down when I was 18 saved me.”

Perkins said she’s been healthy in the past year, but went through a five-year period of serious depression that threatened her life. She was supposed to be a book-a-year author – her first novel was published in 2010 and the second in 2011, but the third novel wasn’t published until 2014 “because I lost all confidence to write.”

“Go easy on yourself and forgive yourself,” Perkins said about not being as productive as her peers.

“A lot of it was figuring out my daily work schedule.”  Through trial and error, she determined the maximum amount of hours she could write per day, and the best times to write, such as as 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “You give yourself a lot of wiggle room and a lot of forgiveness.”

One day, Perkins spoke with her friend Gayle Forman, author of IF I STAY, mentioning all the horrible things she was thinking about herself, and Forman said, “Stephanie, stop being so mean to my friend Stephanie.” The message stuck.

Stohl asked the authors to say one word about what helps them survive the day. The answers: rescuing kittens, yoga, Downton Abbey, calling a friend, making music, running, and volunteering.

The panel answered a question focusing on one positive quality.

Mead: “I make sure my kids are happy, healthy, and free to express themselves.”

Garcia: “I make sure my children are diagnosed and have a better teen experience than I did.”

Bray: “When you’re talking to me, I’m really listening to you.”

Oliver: ‘I’m the world’s most loyal friend.”

Mead urged those with mental health issues to seek treatment and medication. She doesn’t agree with a recently-published book that advocates creative people stay away from medication because it will negatively affect their work.

“ ‘Imagine if Sylvia Plath had taken Prozac,’ ” she said in a mocking tone, in the voice of someone who agrees with that line of thinking.

Then Mead turned serious. “She’d be alive.”

Katherine Valdez blogs about the advice and secrets of best-selling authors. Forward this post to a friend and encourage them to subscribe by typing their email address in the Follow box at www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com/blog. Watch for the email to complete the process. About two posts per month.

10 comments

  1. A very different topic than most at writer conferences. It’s reassuring that other writers are going through depression and anxiety. Digging deep and observing human behavior makes a soul sensitive.

    • I agree, Natasha! I admire these authors for opening up and sharing a hidden part of themselves to their readers. I bet a lot of lives were affected in positive ways that day. Thanks for taking time to comment!

  2. I too admired the panel for courageously sharing their vulnerabilities to a group of strangers. It’s a gentle reminder that we can never truly know a person based on what we see on the outside. Thanks, Katherine.

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