Bell Let’s Talk and Mental Illness Stigma

Note: I am not a mental health professional. I have personal experiences and some education on the matter, but I am by no means an all-around expert.
Another note: This post is not about writing.

 

1 in 5 people will experience mental illness. 1 in 3 of those will seek and/or receive treatment for mental illness.

Those numbers are just what we know, what we’ve learned. How accurate is it? Only as accurate as people will admit. What about those keeping silent? What about those who go undiagnosed and untreated? What about the ones who aren’t heard or seen?

Numbers are only accurate based on the information that can be gathered.

Today is #BellLetsTalk day. A big day in Canada where texts, SnapChat filters, videos, tweets, Facebook posts, and more can raise money for mental health initiatives. Today is a day when people are encouraged to learn about mental health and eliminate stigma against mental illness.

I did a presentation once on mental illness. I spoke to two separate groups, maybe a hundred people in total. Teachers, students, friends, people who knew me but not that well. People who soon discovered that I was absent from school for a month during my senior year because – surprise! – I attempted suicide. In April, it will be five years since I was hospitalized, legally unable to leave the hospital premises for a couple of weeks. Unable to return to school immediately once I was released.

Being mentally ill changed my life drastically. I couldn’t be alone, or drive, or work. I had things taken from me so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I lost opportunities and what I could experience was limited. My life was nowhere what it was before then. Everything was up-ended and rearranged. Everything was different.

Mental health plays a role in every part of our lives, including how we exist and interact with others. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. We have to talk about it.

A good starting point, in my opinion, is ensuring that everyone feels like they matter. A simple hello can change a whole perspective. I thought no one would notice if I never came back. I came back to people terrified and near tears about what I went through. I came back to people telling me they missed me.

It’s also important to understand that mental health problems are common. Many different people encounter mental health challenges over their lifetime, whether it is a chronic disorder or an episode. Your mental health is tied to experiences, biology, or both. Sometimes mental illness is triggered by events, sometimes it’s spontaneous. I saw familiar names on the corkboard in the psychiatric ward’s classroom. I came back to classmates asking me about my experience in the ward because they were there a month ago.

Mental illness is common. It’s not pretty or easy. It takes courage and resilience and so much strength. It’s more than depression and anxiety, though those are the most common diagnoses. It’s the ugly habits, dried eyes from running out of tears. It’s new wound and old scars, mean voices in your head that can be yours or not. It’s negative thoughts, compulsions, obsessions. It’s emotions out of balance. It alters perceptions and experiences. It’s too much and nothing at all. It’s overwhelming and exhausting and sometimes it seems easier to seek an end instead of the enduring the next second, minute, hour, days.

It doesn’t always come in the form of a disorder. It doesn’t always exist for the long-term. Sometimes they’re seasonal, or episodic. Sometimes it’s life. Sometimes it’s something awful that happened to you (and shouldn’t have). Sometimes it’s just your body changing and your mind struggling to adjust.

I’m lucky. I was diagnosed as a minor and treated immediately without cost. The most my parents paid for my health was the ambulance that came to our house and took me to the nearest hospital when I had a panic attack so bad that I couldn’t see and lost sensation in my limbs.

I’m also lucky because I live in Ontario. Every day, I am thankful for OHIP, for all the benefits and discounts and available health care options. Staying in the hospital cost my family nothing out of pocket. Without OHIP, my medication would have costed hundreds a month because I didn’t have one prescription, I had multiple. I still have multiple.

I’m lucky. I have a close relationship with my mother and she noticed the changes in me. My father was home when I tried to kill myself. My mother called me to check if I made it to school.

What if I hadn’t had all that?

I probably wouldn’t be here.

That shouldn’t be an option.

We need to talk about mental health and mental illness. We need to be able to speak about it as freely as we speak about getting physical illnesses. We need to treat it as it is: real and prevalent. Talk about the bad days, the lows, the bad thoughts. Talk about your relationships with others and yourself. Don’t just focus on the highs, consider the lows too. Try to be open and vulnerable. It’s hard, I know, and it won’t come easily. Find others who understand, some who can emphasize, and people who are willing to listen.

Sometimes listening is the most we can do, as difficult as it can be. Listening to others’ problems can lead to the costs of caring, our own mental health suffering because those we love are suffering. Do it if you can. If you can do it for a living, that’s amazing.

We need more social workers, guidance counselors educated in mental health. We need to ensure emergency personnel are sensitive about mental health status. We need education systems to really care about their students’ mental health and teach about mental health alongside the physical and social sciences. We need support systems and services, even if there is no solid diagnosis. We need to do more and have more to ensure everyone is cared for.

And we need to talk about mental health and mental illness every day.

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Writing Habits: Starting a New Project

Alternative title: How I can write a first draft in 30 days

Inspired by newest project, a standalone YA fantasy currently titled Bleed and Bury, about two rival assassins who must work together to track down a woman who owes a debt to the criminal organization that employs them, claiming the lives of the people who matter most to her. But, once the mission is completed, only one of them can come out alive. Includes monstrous teenagers, some polyamory, and lots of blood and ambition.

I don’t know how long this draft will take me. I’ve finished drafts in 20 days, 30 days, and one year. This one? Who knows, but I’m excited to try. I’ve been dreaming and planning and plotting all the terrible things that will happen.

So, here’s what I do:

Have a dream.

Make a plan.

Write every day.

It doesn’t have to be chapters. It can be notes. It can be an outline. It can be a smattering of nonsensical lines. It can be something else entirely.

Don’t do it every month.

Fuel up for this marathon of words with books and movies and television shows. Fuel up on energy and inspiration with long walks and exploring the world around you. Fuel up with collections of conversations about anything and everything.

Write garbage. Write nonsense. Write something.

Learn about your world. Your characters. Your story.

Pick it apart every day. Find the things you love and the things you hate.

Plan it for days or weeks or months. Plan it until it feels like it feels like it’s something you can write. Make plans that excite you, that make your heart race.

What’s a starting point? I start with characters. Mottos, memories, dreams, desires. Fears, flaws, mistakes, mentality. I pick them apart until they are real to me, loose images or a full figure.

Then it’s the plot, the tension, the relationships. Then it’s the world, how it shapes who they are and the way they live and the things they can or cannot have.

Then it’s the words, whatever they are. I’ll pick at them until they’re polished later.

I just need to let the story out.

This is bad advice because what works for me doesn’t have to work for someone else. This is vague because my writing habits change from project to project, depending on my life and the time of the year and everything else in life that gives me time or takes it all away.

My writing habits don’t have to be yours. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to start a book or finish writing one. Don’t let anyone tell you there is a specific formula for coming up with the ideas and the words and getting it all written it down. Find your habits, the ones that work, and make the most of them.

Make habits, break habits. Do what you need to do.

This is bad advice. Or maybe it’s good advice. That’s not up to me.

Just dream. Just write. Just keep imagining what you could do.

It’s not impossible unless you never try.

The Choice Between Mental Health and Creativity

Note: I am not a mental health professional. I have personal experiences and some education on the matter, but I am by no means an all-around expert.

 

For starters, there should not be a choice. If you’re an artist and a creator, both are integral to your happiness and well-being.

You deserve both mental well-being and the chance to explore your creativity.

We deserve it. Even if we don’t immediately realize that.

But, in 2012, in my last year of high school, I made a choice between them when I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), commonly known as depression, and General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or anxiety. The next year, I was diagnosed with Social Phobia. The things I’d been feeling more and more frequently and the persistent, painful thoughts finally had a pair of names. My mind was so full of negative intrusive thoughts that I could not imagine doing anything else. My shyness was suddenly more than shyness, worsening over the years to the point where I was in tears whenever I tried to talk to someone I wasn’t absolutely certain liked me. I was hurting. I didn’t want to hurt anymore.

I wish I didn’t choose one over the other. I wish I thought at the time that I could have both. Instead, I resigned to the likelihood that I could not pursue a career in writing because the medication that worked for me took away my dreams. I literally could not recall a single dream between 2012 and 2014. I did not realize I could have tried other medications, that I had other options, that I did not have to choose one over the other.

Because I did not write, I threw myself into university and expanding my knowledge about mental health and treatment. I focused on learning to recognize and manage my symptoms. I focused on volunteering and doing a little bit of public speaking to raise awareness about mental health and disorders, to normalize the discussion and erase the stigma.

Slowly, I weaned off my medication. One at a time. Smaller doses until nothing at all.

Some days, I dwell on those years without writing. Sure, I did some writing on forums, but nothing that made me really happy. There was a hole. There were no stories in my head because my medications made me numb and emotionless and silenced the sadness in my head. These days, it sometimes feels like time wasted. I was active in the community. I was a great student. But I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t developing my skills. It feels like lost time, years I can’t get back. It feels like I’m behind on what I want to do because I needed to focus on my mental health instead.

It’s not fair to think that way, not for me or anyone else.

Maybe if I brought this up to my doctors, I could have kept my ability to write during that time. But that’s all maybe and what if. I can’t take back the past. I can’t regret what happened because I wouldn’t be as stable as I am now (with the odd day when I’m not, let’s not pretend those don’t exist). I used those years to take care of myself. I chose my mental health over my creativity.

This is not to say you should give up your creative dreams to focus on your mental health. This is just to say that hey, you might feel like you have to choose between them, but you don’t. Talk it over with friends and family and, most of all, your doctor(s).

You might say your mental illness helps you write. And it could be a source of inspiration. Mine is. It ends up in everything I write, even if I don’t intend it to be. It affects my ability to think and imagine and focus. I fight it every day. I could go on and on about my experience with mental illness, but that’s a whole other thing.

Just don’t forget to take care of yourself. Get that therapy, medication, yoga, exercise, breathing exercises, mental exercises – whatever you need for self-care. I’m still trying to figure out what works, to be stable enough to write as much as I want to.

So, yes, you can have both.

You just have to figure out how. It is possible. I know that now.

I’m sorry if this sounds like a motivational speech. Talking about this is hard. I hate to sound preachy. This is for me and whoever else might need to read something like this. If I don’t make a difference for anyone else, then at least I have this for myself.

 

Commonalities in Critiques

I’ve been doing quite a bit of critiques lately and similar things keep popping up, so why not do a post about it?

This isn’t calling out those I’m doing critiques for. This isn’t me saying you’re all wrong and terrible and should know better. It’s a learning process for me too. Through making these comments on different manuscripts, I’m discovering issues that I have with my own writing.

These are often things we don’t notice with our own work because we’re so deep into our own writing, they escape our notice. These are things we see in other people’s work and realize, oh my god, I do that too. So I’m making these notes and panicking as I write them. Was I conscious of this? What else did I miss?

I like to think that I’m a critical reader and that I can provide detailed notes because I am easily confused and doubt myself. Some of it is anxiety and concerns of how I am perceiving moments and interactions. Some of it is just that my memory is awful, as is my spatial intelligence, and I need clear descriptions of some kind to ground myself in these scenes.

And this isn’t about style or voice. I don’t try to change those things that make your writing yours. I do my best to make sure my suggestions don’t override their stylistic choices. Instead, I focus on the formatting, the structure, the clarity of the prose, the naturalness of interactions, to name a few. When I look over someone’s manuscript, I do both line editing and overview of chapters and/or the manuscript as a whole. I’m picky. I can be brutally honest, but I will also be your cheerleader.

Note: I have not attended school for creative writing nor I have taken courses in it. These are simply bits of knowledge I have gathered over time through reading and writing on my own time.

So here are 7 things I keep seeing:

7. TIMELINES

Gauging the when of scenes is a challenge. Is it the same day? Is the same second, minute, hour? Is it morning, afternoon, evening, night? Is this past or present? Is this a memory? Is this a dream? Is the protagonist connecting the past to the present? Does this take place immediately? Concurrently? Personally, if I don’t know the timing of the scene, then I’m confused the whole way through, unable to compare it to previous scenes.

6. POSITIONING

Here, I’m referring to character positions, where they’re situated in the scene’s setting. On the stairs, on the floor, on a chair? Standing, sitting? Within arm’s reach or several steps away? How close are they? How far are they? Distance plays into how they interact, what makes sense, the timing of those interactions. If they’re spaced out, they can’t suddenly be in each other’s faces. If they’re close together, they can’t run at each other because there’s just no space between them.

So, clear positioning and distance makes the interactions easier to understand. It helps to know how things exist in relation to one another. You don’t need to describe every piece of the furniture in the room. You don’t always need to state the number of doors or windows. Maybe that works, maybe that’s how the character observes the world. What is important is that the reader has some understanding of the characters’ proximity to one another and that their relative positions help us visualize the ways they are able to interact. Without this information, it can get confusing and force multiple read-overs to see if some detailed was missed in attempts to make sense of the interaction.

5. MISMATCHED EMOTION

This is actually something I feel like I can properly write about because of how this relates to psychology and sociology. I might even do a full post on this later on? We’ll see. For now, I’ll generalize.

Don’t jump from emotion to emotion. Don’t make them full of hatred in one scene, then sympathetic and offering comfort in the next. Don’t make them offended and then everything is all right and everyone is laughing a few lines later. Don’t make them angry then scared then angry again in a short sequence in the same scene. Don’t make them cry then laugh fully and genuinely a few paragraphs later unless it fits the character and the moment. Consider the natural trajectory of your emotions. Match the trajectory to the character. For example, when I get angry, I stay angry for DAYS. When my mom and my sister get angry, it lasts a few minutes to a few hours. Different people have different time lengths for emotion. It’s tied to personality. It’s very individualized experience.

Obviously, I can’t speak for every single moment or character. Just make it feel natural and believable. Don’t force emotion. Show and tell as necessary. Act out interactions if you need to. Read it aloud if you need to do that too.

4. TRANSITIONS

The flow of the prose needs smooth transitions and the way you do these transitions depends on the scene. Sometimes abrupt switches are good. It can read as fast-paced action, if you get the right flow and structure. Gosh, this is vague, but transitions depends on the moments. Don’t jump from focusing on one thing to something completely different. Avoid disjointed thinking, make it feel like a natural flow from one thought to another. If your character has have jumpy thoughts, that’s fine. Let them flit from one topic to another. But for your writing, there needs to be some coherence. I get confused when the focus suddenly shifts without reason. What ignited that thought? What caused the characters to suddenly think of this thing? Is it because you needed to include it in the moment or is this just how they think and observe the world?

Another related concern I have is the “She/he/they did this. X did that. Then X did such and such” thing. It feels like a list. There will be times when this work, when it fits your style and the desired prose for the manuscript. I’m not dictating on how people should write, just that these are things to consider while writing and revising.

3. RUSHED ACTION

We all want to get that word count in. Sometimes we rush through things. Sometimes we want to get to a certain part and forget about the bits in between. Whole paragraphs of time passing and a variety of action can disrupt the flow. It feels rushed and choppy and you lose the impact of what happens in those rushed moments. Don’t summarize things that you could expand on, things that would enhance the story. Let us see those moments you describe, those brief conversations instead of lines like “so-and-so told me that” or “she had a discussion with this person”.

If these moments add to the dynamic between characters and increase the complexity of the story, they’re worthwhile. They deserved more attention and it can help further the development of secondary characters. Show us what happens instead of telling us about it. If it’s a first draft, it’s fine, but figure out how to expand on these moments in later drafts. Worry about the word count later.

2. THEY KNEW, THEY NOTICED, THEY WATCHED

I’m guilty of this and sought to comb through my own manuscript to erase as much of it as possible. That’s not to say you can’t use it at all, only that you should be careful how and when you use it. If it’s a thought, do you need to accompany it with “she/he/they/etc thought”? Is it necessary? If they’re watching something, do you need to say “they watched the other person do something”? Or can you just say “the other person did this”?

There are exceptions, of course, and I’m not about to go into them, but it’s good to be aware of this. Just remember that, if you’re mentioning something in this way, it’s probably because it’s important and/or the characters are making note of it. Of course, how and when these statements are used relies a lot on point of view (first person, third person limited, omniscient, and so on).

So, do you really need to say “they knew that this happened” or can you simply say “this happened”? Do you really need to say “they thought it was weird” or simply “it was weird”. It’s something to consider.

1. REPETITIVE SENTENCE STRUCTURE

“She did this”, “he did that”, “the thing was”, “it was”, etc. Over and over again, one after another. It’s a simple thing, but can also be a difficult one. Sometimes you can get away with it. Other times, it’s too noticeable and it can ruin an important scene. We learn the typical sentence structure of subject + verb + noun or something like that early on and it’s easy to follow. Form simple, straight-forward sentences. For long, complicated sentences that roll smoothly off the tongue. Rearrange the words. Talk like Yoda if you must. Don’t let the prose feel robotic.

Vary sentence lengths depending on the character’s mood and personality. Make them short. Make them long. Maybe have them ramble about something meaningful or nonsensical, let them go on and on and on. Tailor it to the scene and the characters’ emotions. Adjust the prose to match the moods and the atmosphere of the moment. If you want to drag out moments, use long sentences and maybe some repetition. If it’s fast-paced and full of action, use shorter sentences.

Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence is, so far, my favourite book on style and figures of rhetoric. So, so good if you want to work on your prose and develop your voice.

 

Hopefully this post helps you in your writing and revisions. Maybe one day I’ll expand on these points, especially if anyone is interested in my opinions on these matters.

That’s it for now!

 

 

New Year, New Challenges

The end of 2017 brought me a sense of major accomplishment.

The beginning of 2018, however, has brought feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

A new year is always difficult for me. Winter, on its own, is a difficult time of elevated levels of depression from staying indoors and a lack of warmth and sunlight, frequent socialization that gets draining for introverts like myself, watching the numbers of my bank account dwindle from spoiling friends and family, and most of all, the resolutions.

Resolutions kick my ass every single year. There is so much I want to accomplish and it feels like I’m running out of time. While I know I’m being silly and there is plenty of time, my overachiever mindset brings out the best and the worst in me. My mind is stuck in this loop of you should have done more by now. It’s a painful cycle and I need to break it.

The biggest challenge so far is reading and writing.

My reading goal this year is 100 books, which isn’t impossible since I managed to read nearly 130 books last year between coursework and studying. My writing goal is to revise my main project, When They Beckon, so I can dive into querying again soon. My hope for this year is to sign with an agent. 

As for reading… I can do 100 books. That’s like 8 books a month. Currently, I’m planning on getting through 10 books a month. What am I going to read? I have no idea. Last year, I drowned in romance novels and it was beautiful. Maybe I’ll expand my range of romance novels since they brought me so much happiness, brightening up the darkest, dreariest days. Maybe I’ll explore more fantasy and sci-fi because those are my genres for writing. 

The problem is that I don’t feel like I’ve written or read enough. It’s only been 10 days, so why am I freaking out? It’s ridiculous. So far, I’ve read three books. Three! That’s a decent number. But, considering how desperate I was to read while I was in school, this feels like nothing. In my mind, I’m in a slump. Nothing has been holding my attention. Books I had on hold at the library and had been anticipated didn’t hold me. One by one, I had to return them, unfinished.

As for writing, I wrote THREE new short stories this year. I have new critique partners and I’ve been working on stuff for them. I spent the end of the year doing major revisions on WTB, though it still needs some polishing before I send it off into the world again. I have done a lot. I want to do more. What I’ve done doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m also in a slump. I’m someone who writes every day in some way. I finish books within a few hours. But these last several days? My attention keeps wandering. My interest quickly deflates. Books I’ve been anticipating keep disappointing me. I don’t know what to read next. Usually, I crave a certain kind of book. Right now? I have no idea. My writing feels flat and lifeless. Reading helps, but I’m struggling with reading. If I’m struggling with reading, I’m struggling with writing.

This cycle sucks. We’re only ten days into 2018 though. This feeling of failure and sense of urgency is unnecessary. These thoughts and feelings are also terrible on my mental health. I have to stop thinking that I can’t do things, that I’m not creative or productive or worthwhile. I have to stop those thoughts before they turn into a downward spiral.

So, here’s my plan: take a step back, reconsider, and (try to) relax. I need to make realistic timelines. I need to assess my goals. I need to stick to the daily tasks I set in my planner. I need to schedule without stressing myself out. I need to be easier on myself.

Not everything is in my control and I need to make peace with that.

2018 is going to be a good year. It will. It has to be. 

 

 

A Little Less Lonely Writing

There is a vague reference* in this title and I’m just [shrug emoji] about it.

Anyway, here’s a big thing I’ve been doing lately that has made the biggest impact on my writing and upcoming revisions: making connections.

I have social phobia. I have general anxiety. My depression makes me think the worst of myself. Putting myself out there is a Big Deal™. It is not easy. I’m not sure it ever will be, but I went through lots of therapy to get to a point where I am willing to try. Trying is hard. It’s almost too much work sometimes. But, in the end, it’s worth it. 

In general, I’m awful at using hashtags. Every now and then, I’ll use them. The thing about hashtags, though, is that they bring people to my page and that brings judgment and that is terrifying. Anything social is terrifying to me. Using hashtags increases the likelihood of interacting with other writers who use the tags as well. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what interacting even is. What are words, how do you speak, what is friendship??

My main friendships in life are the best friends I made in elementary school and keep in touch with today. I also have family friends who mean just as much to me. They’re like cousins, but not. Making new friends? That’s never been easy. I’ve always been the one other people approach, not the one who approaches others. So, trying to find my writing community? I cried a little just thinking about it.

BUT I am doing it. I reach out. I participated in #YADivChat — a Twitter chat for young POC writers — these last few Saturdays and I went from like 50 followers to 70. It doesn’t seem much compared to how many followers other people have, but this is huge to me. One new friend, regardless of the closeness of this new friendship, is MASSIVE to me. Getting support from strangers? Literally a life-saver and huge motivator.

Twitter is my project in opening up and being vulnerable to strangers. I want to write books for a living. If I can’t do Twitter, I’m not sure I personally can handle all the judgment that comes from publishing a book. So Twitter is my daily challenge to open up and reach out.

Tweeting about my struggle with writing ownvoices? Being a diaspora writer? Feeling like these stories aren’t mine to tell? These are big things that bother me on the daily. Being told that I should write these stories, that they’re also mine to tell even if I’m the child of immigrants and have never lived in my family’s origin culture — I’m a weepy person. Having those interactions, as small as they seem, are momentous to me.

Recently, I also signed up for Wendy Heard’s CP Match. I have new CPs from #YADivChat. This weekend, I joined a query critique group. All this feedback? All this interaction?

Life-changing.

It’s taken me some time to dive into participating in these things. But I did it. I’m doing it. And it makes a huge difference, as terrifying as it still is. If I keep going, my social circle expands. If I keep participating and reaching out and interaction, I feel like I’m part of the writing community rather than peering in from the outside. I don’t have a lot of followers. Hopefully, one day, I’ll have tons more. For now, I’m overjoyed to have what I have. 

Writing isn’t so lonely anymore. 

 

* it’s Justin Bieber. I’m referencing his song, One Less Lonely Girl. 

Introduction

Hello! Welcome to my blog. My name is Kessandra. I also go by Kess or Kassy, depending on how we know each other and how old I was when we met. 

I don’t think I’ve ever really had a proper blog. Sure, over the years, I planned several variations of them. None of them stuck. None of them were completed and shared with the world. I had Tumblr. I had a few different Twitter accounts, an Instagram, and a Pinterest. Those are different. 

The problem is that blogging is scary. 

But my goal is always to be more vulnerable. In high school, I found out that many of my classmates thought I was stuck-up and that I believed I was better than them in some way. What? No! It wasn’t that at all. My first thought is that everyone will hate me. My second is that I’m bothering everyone who listens. My third thought is that it doesn’t matter, that my voice and my thoughts mean nothing to anyone except myself. So what was the point? 

I have no idea. But this is a chance to be vulnerable.

My plan for this blog is this: to open up and talk about things I’ve been wanting to talk about. Maybe one day I’ll be an expert on writing and get to write about all my author dreams coming true. For now,  I’ll focus on what I actually know: my own process. I do have a degree in psychology and criminology, in which I specialized in mental health and inequality. After 4.5 years in university, I guess I know quite a bit. I had a different life when I chose my university majors. I wanted to have a Psy.D or PhD, or become a social worker in the very least. These days, I want to write. I dream about being published author. I want to write books for a living because that’s what makes me happiest. 

So I’ll document that process, all the ups and downs and everything in between. 

I like organization so there will be four general categories of posts on this blog.

  • mental health
  • writing
  • personal life
  • pop culture & recent events

Honestly, I have no idea where this will go – or if it will go anywhere. But I’m finally willing to try.