The first draft featured protagonist Becca as a famous author who got six figure advances, whose book was being made into a movie, who employed several assistants to help her with fan mail. The second draft saw Becca as a famous author who got six figure advances but no mention of movie deals or assistants. The third draft found Becca as an author with a cult following; she still made a living from it but no more talk of hefty advances or net worth. The fourth draft presented Becca as a teacher who wrote books on the side, making money but not enough to live on.
In the final version Becca hasn’t even gotten published yet.
Many things changed in the years that I wrote and rewrote HEAD OVER FEET IN LOVE—Becca and her friends went from flip phones to Smart phones, DSL to wi-fi, having a million dollars in the bank to scraping by as a teacher. But through it all Becca lived with bipolar disorder and anxiety. Just like me.
I didn’t even know about invisible disabilities when I went to college in 1990; I just knew that people described me as “emotional” and it was made very clear that this was one of the worst things one could be. Classmates accused me of “wigging out” at things and “not being able to handle things.” I lost out on things and I didn’t know why.
It wasn’t until I graduated from law school and started practicing law that I realized something was wrong. I couldn’t sit for long periods of time doing the work that was required of me. My emotions ran up and down and over and under. I figured I was just having a quarter life crisis until a doctor asked me if I had ever been tested for mental illness. The diagnoses and subsequent medication saved my life. That is why I wrote this book.
Here are some things that both my character Becca and I want people to know about invisible disabilities (PWID).
- People like to throw around mental health diagnoses like it’s Spring Training and pitchers and catchers just reported.
I don’t think most people who do this have mean hearts; they just don’t think about what they are saying. When people say, “I’m so bipolar” or “I swear I have ADHD”, that minimizes people who have those diagnoses. Some people have moments of euphoria followed by sadness—that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, as my first-grade teacher used to say. But there is a difference between having a great morning and a crappy afternoon and having diagnosed bipolar or another mood disorder. It would be like having a coughing fit and saying, “I’m so COPD!” You wouldn’t say that, would you?
- Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it
There are probably people in the world who fake being a PWID. I won’t begin to pretend understand why, but I’m sure it happens. Likewise, there are possibly people who fake having diabetes, asthma, or other physical impairments for reasons I don’t even want to contemplate. The difference is that people can see you having an asthma attack, watch you adjust your insulin pump, observe the accommodation you are using. You can’t see inside my head to notice the serotonin leaves going, “yeah, no, not today.”
This makes it difficult to take a sick day from work. It also causes people to question your authenticity or to say things like a former special education supervisor of mine said, “You just don’t want to come to work, do you?” (She also said that “crazy*” people shouldn’t work with children, but we will save that for another essay.)
If someone tells you that they are having anxiety or depression problems, believe them. It’s actually easier to believe someone than to waste mental energy trying to ascribe nefarious intent to them. Think of it as having a cold in your brain. When you have a cold, you feel sluggish, tired, like not moving from your bed. The same thing happens when my depression hits full force, only you can’t see me dripping mucus or hear me hacking my head off. Trust me though, my brain is doing those things in its own unique brain way.
So, what SHOULD you say to your friend, family member, employee, boss, coworker, Facebook pal? Here are some ideas:
* Let me know what you need
* I’m thinking about you
* I’m here when you need me—take your time
Unsolicited medical advice, while interesting, is not what we need to hear. Please, don’t tell me that I am a shill for Big Pharma for taking medication and/or that a walk in the woods will cure what ails me. As we will read below, I stopped taking medication and almost died from suicide.
And PWID? You aren’t off the hook, my friends. You must to advocate for yourself. I don’t enjoy telling new supervisors about my invisible disability and begging off a social engagement is unpleasant, but I can’t expect people to understand me if I don’t speak up for myself.
*Since I brought up the “crazy” thing, I would like to remind you that words like these are not helpful. Becca’s ex-boyfriend calls her names that after Becca runs away following a traumatic event. Don’t worry—she dumps him. Twice.
- You are not the total of your invisible disability!
I’ve read many books with characters I could best describe as Depressed Girl and OCD Boy. Maybe I’m just too sensitive, or jaded, or both but I like to see characters fleshed out with other things going on in their lives.
One of the reasons I wanted this book to be published is so that readers could read about Becca going to the beach, seeing a movie, literally landing on the front step of her true love. She has gone to law school, graduate school, is employed, and has two best friend and loving parents.
- We are going to slip up, so please be supportive.
In 2005 I decided I was cured! The Effexor worked its magic and I could live my life without taking those little white pills every night. I looked up how to wean myself off (the internet is an enchanted place, my friends) and stopped taking them. About two months later my then-husband wrestled a knife away from me to stop me from self-harm.
I didn’t accept my disability that time or the time after but finally in 2007 I realized that I would be taking some sort of little pill every night for the rest of my life. And that’s okay.
I say it so flippantly now, don’t I? Oh that’s okay, peeps! You’ll get there! I hope you do but it’s a long road, particularly when you grew up in the 70s/80s when PWID were undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or just thought to be in a phase they’d grow out of.
Becca slips up, too. She falls in love and feels great. She is happy and decides maybe just to take one fewer pill. Then she misses a few days. Her brain experiences a euphoria she has never felt before so why bother taking them at all?
Having a support system has proven invaluable for me and that is where friends and family (like Becca’s and like mine) really come through. I have a loving husband (didn’t land on his doorstep like Becca though), best friends, the best community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I still slip up, but I have hands reaching out to catch me fall.
- You can still live a full life—have a great time, fall in love, tell your story. No more needs to be said about that really. We can do it and we should be able to read about characters in books that are just like us.