Sunday, December 23, 2018

Maddie, Me, and Mental Meltdowns

Originally published on October 19th, 2018 here.

The main character in my newly published novel, Till It Stops Beating, Maddie Hickman age 17, has an anxiety disorder. I, Hannah Goodman age 43, have an anxiety disorder. In the book, it's Maddie's senior year of high school and just a few chapters in, she has a "mental meltdown" as she refers to it. In my senior year of high school, only two months into the school year, I, too, had a mental meltdown.

Though my life and my senior year inspired Till It Stops Beating, the parallels between Maddie's life and mine begin and end with her anxiety disorder.

Maddie and I are different not only in terms of the events of our lives—and you will have to read the book to find out more about that—but also in one particularly significant way: she doesn't carry the burden of shame that I did about having an anxiety disorder. Her friends, family, boyfriend (s), and teachers know she is struggling with anxiety. While, for me, when I had my meltdown senior year, I didn't tell anyone. It's not that I denied it or confirmed it, it just wasn't discussed. I got the proper treatment, and my parents were hugely instrumental in my recovery (like Maddie's parents are). However, my parents didn't widen the circle beyond our immediate family and friends. I also always felt self-conscious about my anxiety, and when I would tell someone, I feared rejection and judgment. 

Maddie is growing up in a different time period where anxiety and depression are discussed widely in the media, in schools, and even in the workplace. So, it felt natural and comfortable to portray her experience differently from mine.

When Maddie has her first major panic attack in the novel, her parents label it immediately as such and quickly set out to get her some help. She balks a little at telling her friends and at going back into therapy, but these things are not a big deal and not the focus of the entire novel. In fact, that first panic attack scene, while it is a serious moment, it's also intentionally funny. Maddie describes feeling like she is dying but also like an upside-down crab writhing in confusion. On the other hand, my first major panic attack involved a midnight trip to the ER followed by my mother giving me valium for the next few days while I refused to leave my room. Though ultimately both Maddie and I got the proper treatment, the difference is that during her senior year, Maddie lives her life while having anxiety, and for my senior year I spent a lot of time living my life while trying to hide my anxiety (and failing for the most part).

Interestingly, Maddie's ability to live her life with anxiety and not trying to hide it has been inspirational to me now as an adult.

Back in early 2016, my writing career was at an all-time low after parting ways with my second agent. I was embarrassed and filled with shame, which only triggered my then-dormant anxiety disorder. As I began to struggle with symptoms that I hadn't felt in decades, I did what any writer does when they feel like a mess, I wrote about it.

In late 2016, with truly nothing to lose anymore, I submitted those writings to a number of mental health publications. Success! Several of those pieces got published (and another is forthcoming in January 2019!).

Maddie inspired me throughout this whole ordeal. I really thought to myself WWMD? And what would she do as an adult if all this had happened to her (and it might because she wants to be a writer when she grows up!).  In TISB, she writes a book, drives across the country and makes major life decisions about her future, all while struggle with debilitating anxiety, and when she does collapse into a writhing upside-down crab, she flips over and keeps going. Whatever shame or embarrassment she feels, it's doesn't cripple her. 

So, when my agent and I parted ways and it looked like my writing career was dead before take-off, I too collapsed into an upside writing crab…but I channeled Maddie, and I flipped over, dusted off the embarrassment and shame and continued to crawl along my way.


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