Writing characters with anxiety as therapy and what I’m reading…GHOSTLAND

I have anxiety. The kind you see a doctor and take medication for.

I’ve said that aloud to very few people, not because I am embarrassed about it, but because I don’t want it to define me. Moments I am weak, or fail, I don’t want an “Oh, she has anxiety” get-out-of-jail-free card nor the patronizing comments I know are just waiting to come out of some well-meaning mouths.

So, if you can still see me beyond my anxiety, please keep reading. If not, there’s not much here for you.

My anxiety started very early in life; in fact, I don’t remember it not being present. But I was a child of the ‘80s and it wasn’t all that common for parents to recognize these things in their children, much less take those children for professional help. In hindsight, there were clues in my elementary years I can now see but I’m not so sure anyone else could at the time:

  • Being afraid to speak to most people. When I did speak, immediately, silently mouthing my words back to myself to make sure I’d not said anything embarrassing. I don’t recall how long this phase lasted, but the memory is fresh enough I believe I could fall back into the habit if I allowed myself.
  • Speaking of, I had (and to a much lesser degree still have) a deep, deep fear of both embarrassing myself and being mocked – especially being mocked when I couldn’t hear it. I just assumed it was happening. A lot.
  • Building a bomb shelter under my bed the summer before kindergarten – and stockpiling it with mason jars full of water and saltines – because I was afraid I would have to save my family from some unknown threat. I think that probably resulted in part from being a Cold War era kiddo.
  • Deep discomfort with other children, aside from a very few close friends. I preferred the company of adults but, more than that, I preferred to be alone.
  • Insomnia.

Over the course of my life, my anxiety stopped me from doing many things – big and small. It also pushed me into doing things that at worst were dangerous, at the very least ill advised. There were consequences. I sometimes self-medicated for my anxiety, sometimes in ways that ultimately made it exponentially worse. And, again, more consequences.

It was not until a few years ago that I acknowledged I might have a real, organic problem that I couldn’t fix on my own. The catalyst for this was my untreated, undiagnosed anxiety meeting and befriending my untreated, undiagnosed post-partum depression and…well, it wasn’t good. Finally, finally I sought help.

After a life spent convinced I was simply, unmendably, broken, the act of naming the thing took away a bit of its power. Then it got better – slowly and not without setbacks. The wrong medications made it worse, or caused my generally latent (non-post-partum) depression to surface violently. But it did get better.

Today – for the most part – I have it under control.

Growing up with undiagnosed and untreated anxiety – let’s call it what it is, mental illness – was what led me to write the main character in my first middle grade horror manuscript as a young girl with anxiety. Disorders like anxiety manifest a bit differently in everyone, so twelve-year-old Evelyn Von Rathe – Evie, to us – has anxiety that looks a whole lot like mine. The way she experiences it is the way I experience it, because that is the best point of reference I have. For us, anxiety is a low and constant hum that never really goes away, but sometimes becomes a deafening foghorn. Mostly manageable, sometimes not.

But Evie’s first story, THEM CLACKITY, isn’t an Anxiety Book, or an Issue Book about a girl suffering from and being victimized by her anxiety. It’s about a girl who is strong and brave (though certainly not fearless) despite her anxiety. Sometimes because of it. Unlike me, Evie knows what she’s dealing with, and knows how to cope with it as best a kid can. Evie isn’t perfect by a long shot, but she’s pretty awesome all the same.

I wrote Evie because I wanted to write authentically, and to do that I had to write a kid I understand. I wrote the girl I so badly wanted to be, a girl I would have looked up to. I wrote her because I think there are a lot of kids out there that will see themselves in Evie, and who might benefit from seeing her be brave and strong and afraid and anxious and a badass all at the same time.

For lots of reasons, I hope Evie and THEM CLACKITY will someday find a home. But mostly I hope it because I think she can mean something to kids who don’t often see themselves portrayed as heroes.

Incidentally, I was also a kid who found horror very early in my reading life. It was a safe, contained way to process fear. And good horror usually comes with a good dose of hope thrown in. The combination of terror tempered with hope meant I was immediately enamored. John Bellairs was quickly followed by Stephen King and that was that. It was and is what I most love to read and also what I most love to write.

With my love of horror comes a love ghost stories and tales of haunted places. So, naturally Evie lives in a very haunted town – Blight Harbor – the seventh most haunted town in America (per capita). I envision Blight Harbor as my Castle Rock, and plan to tell many of my future stories in or around the town. In order to write well about haunted houses and towns, one has the enjoyable obligation to research them as well. So, I am currently reading Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. Because, you know, research.

Ghostland is an engrossing read, and beautifully written. Dickey is a historian, but he is also a skilled, often delicate, writer. In Ghostland, we are never certain there really are ghosts haunting the houses and hotels and graveyards of America, but we become quite convinced there is every reason they should be. American history is dark, and if there really are ghosts this country has provided multiple opportunities to create them. Dickey tells us, “Americans live on haunted land because we have no other choice.” Sit with that for a while.

One of my favorite early lines from Ghostland: “This is the reoccurring structure of a classic ghost story after all: the ghost remains because it cannot believe the perverse normality of a world that has gone on living, that has forgotten whatever personal tragedy happened here. The carpets are cleaned, the furniture is sold, and the house continues with its new inhabitants, the ghost alone keeping vigil over whatever once took place.” Anyone else hear a bit of Shirley Jackson in this? I sure do.

I highly recommend Ghostland for lovers of horror, fans of urban lore, and history buffs alike. If more history were told in an engaging and lyrical way, I believe more people would gladly read it. And, of course, the maybe-promise of ghosts doesn’t hurt.

The world might be full of ghosts, but it is certainly full of reasons to be anxious.

If you are anxious, and if that anxiety is stopping you from doing good things or pushing you to do dangerous things, I hope you will talk to someone who can help you. It is not an easy thing, telling someone else you’re afraid you might be broken. But it is so often the best thing, the only thing, that will take you down a road to a place where you are healthy and can live a life of your actual choosing.

As always, I hope you are well.

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