Can Novels Really Humanize Mental Illness?

Aug 17

 

“How did Tanya J. Peterson know what is going on inside my head?  Can she read my thoughts? My Life in a Nutshell hit very close to home for me.” —Teressa M. with Window on the World

To receive such a comment is one of the most meaningful, and the most exciting, compliments I could possibly receive as a novelist. My characters face mental health challenges and live with mental illness, and it’s my hope that readers bond deeply with my characters and maybe even love them. Why? It will lead to increased understanding and empathy in the real world.

I write novels about mental illness and mental health challenges. My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells Brian Cunningham’s story. Brian lives with debilitating anxiety disorders, and he lives a severely limited life. He’s lonely, but he feels powerless to do a thing about it. A seven-year-old child named Abigail wriggles her way into Brian’s closed-off world, resulting in increased pain yet increased potential for life.

Oliver Graham and Penelope Baker (and her fiancé William) are the focus of Leave of Absence. Oliver, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after the traumatic loss of his family, is hospitalized against his will. Penelope, wrestling with schizophrenia and the harm it has done to her life, wants to set her fiancée free. Will friendship and connection help them?

Novels humanize mental illness and increase empathy for people living with mental health challenges.I do indeed hope that readers fall in love with Brain and Abigail, Oliver, Penelope, and William. To love them is to connect with them. Human connection is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Connection to characters leads to increased connection, empathy, and understanding of people in the real world outside the pages of a novel.

I’m a nationally certified counselor. I also have personal experience with mental illness. I’ve lived with anxiety disorders (generalized and social), biopolar 1 disorder, and the effects of brain injury. In my life experience, I’ve learned that mental illness is misunderstood.

The illnesses, be they depression, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or a whole host of others, are misunderstood, which means that people who live with them are misunderstood. Misunderstanding can lead to fear and prejudice, which makes those living with mental health challenges feel isolated, alone, and hopeless.

I write novels—Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell, and Twenty-four Shadows (coming in spring, 2016) to deepen empathy and compassion, to humanize mental illness. When people love the characters in a novel, they empathize with them. That empathy is often transferred to real-life human beings. Additionally, and icing on the cake, people can be entertained in the process as they enjoy connecting and loving characters.

“Here’s the thing about Peterson’s work: her characters are key. Peterson isn’t afraid to show the true side of human nature, to open doors that society has slammed closed, and examine what truly makes us tick. I fell in love with her two main characters in My Life in a Nutshell.” — Ellen M. with The Canon

Humanizing Mental Illness; Increasing Empathy

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En-JOY is an Action Verb: Mental Health Means Enjoying a Life Worth Living

May 12

 

The term mental health has become quite a buzz word (and well it should), but as a concept, it is very broad. What does mental health really mean? At its core, it means not merely the absence of illness; mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Mental Health Awareness Month is in full swing, and how wonderful it is.  To have an entire month dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health and wellbeing is in itself something to celebrate. It means that we as humans want to be well, to not only exist but to live and to thrive, and we want to raise awareness so that this wellness can be achieved by all.

Truly, mental health and a life worth living can indeed be achieved by everyone. Happily, these concepts don’t discriminate. Each and every human being on this planet can create his/her own life worth living. Positive psychology is a field dedicated to helping people transcend challenges and problems and make meaning in their own lives.

To transcend problems is not necessarily to completely get rid of them. That’s not always so realistic. We, as human beings, face myriad challenges in our lives, including (and certainly not limited to) various physical and mental illnesses. Do these health challenges mean that a life worth living is out of reach? Is it possible to thrive and have wellness while simultaneously living with a physical or mental illness?

The answer is simple, and admittedly it’s not necessarily easy: a resounding and confident yes. Really? Is it really possible for someone living with depression or anxiety, for example, to thrive? (Yes.) Does he/she need to wait for the depression or anxiety to be gone in order to live a life worth living? (No.)

Here's how enjoy is an action verb and how we can use it to create mental health and a life worth living.Creating a life worth living is a grand adventure, a majestic quest that begins with a mere step and continues one small step at a time. At the heart of it is finding joy, day by day and moment by moment. Mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Enjoying a life worth living. En-JOY is an action verb. A question to explore over and over again is how can I create joy in this moment (or this hour or during this event, etc.)? This isn’t a superficial joy or putting on a superficial—and artificial—happy face. This is about paying attention to who you are, where you are, and what you are doing and creating joy in that moment.

As someone who once experienced a significant amount of social anxiety, I used to live in fear of being judged wherever I went. While I was able to make myself go out and about in the world, I did so with anxiety and dread. One time, I vented to a mentor that I didn’t want to attend a certain event because I knew I would do something stupid and make everyone look down on me more than they already did. My mentor merely grunted and said, “What do you care what people think? Does it matter? Just go have fun and enjoy the experience.”

Perhaps you’re thinking what I initially did, that he completely trivialized my anxiety and clearly didn’t understand. Thanks to my superhuman ability to ruminate, I mulled over his comment repeatedly, for days. And nights. And more days. Eventually, his remarks began to blend with what I already knew about positive psychology, counseling, and wellness. It spilled over into other areas of my personal life and experiences as well as into my experiences in working with others. Things began to click.

No matter our challenges, we can all take an active role in owning our own lives. We can create joy, even little joys, in our lives. Feeling that life isn’t worth living? Find things that you are grateful for, that you like and that you enjoy, and focus more on them. Perhaps it’s fresh air but the thought of going out of the house makes you want to hide in bed and never get out. How about opening a window and enjoying the feel of the air? Then later what about opening the door? Then maybe enjoy a step or two outside. Concentrate on how good these things feel rather than how hard they are or what might happen. Little by little, you are en-JOYing your life.

Once I understood that “enjoy” is an action verb and that I could thus act to make joy in my life, to make my life worth living, I found myself transcending my anxiety. I didn’t need it to go away before I could have a life worth living. Waiting doesn’t work. Instead, I took charge of enjoying my life and making it worth living. It was then that I found that true happiness (not a problem-free happiness but a core satisfaction with life and all of its ups and downs and twists and turns) means actively making joy rather than passively waiting for it to appear.

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel is the story of two people who don’t quite know how to live in the world—the man, Brian, because of debilitating anxiety; the girl, Abigail, because of instability and abuse.  Neither one of them feels they have a life worth living until they slowly begin to create joy. One time, Abigail says enthusiastically, “Come on, Brian. Let’s go play in the rain!” That, right there, is the embodiment of enjoyment. Play in your rain!

 

 

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