Discussion #6: If We Could Tell an Author One Thing …

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

If you could tell an author writing a character with your disability one thing–besides “do your research”–what would it be? For example: a piece of advice, a warning about a common inaccuracy or iffy plotline, etc.

Our contributors share the following:


Kody Keplinger:
I’d remind authors that blindness, like all things, is on a spectrum. Most characters depicted in fiction are completely blind – they see nothing. In reality, only 10% or so of blind individuals are completely blind. The other 90% fall on a spectrum. Depending on the disorder or trauma that caused the blindness, a person could see in a thousand different ways. So many people don’t realize this, though. I actually get accused of faking my blindness because I can read large print text on my phone. I often wonder if this is because the media only portrays complete blindness as “blind” and rarely acknowledges the other 90% who have some vision.


s.e. smith:
Something that’s really been bugging me a great deal lately is media and pop culture depictions of OCD. OCD is not about being ‘obsessively’ neat or fussy about personal appearance — it’s a very complex mental health condition that has serious ramifications and manifests totally differently in different people. I’m especially tired of the stereotype that people with OCD are super-clean (although I do keep a very tidy house).

It might help to break down what OCD is actually about — obsessive thoughts, and compulsive actions. OCD involves intrusive, traumatic, aggressive thoughts that don’t go away, and compulsive rituals that people use to manage them. Maybe for some people that’s checking the stove four times before leaving the house, or having to double and triple-check locks. But it can also involve hair pulling, or needing to reorder jars on the shelf, or being completely disrupted by environmental change. Avoid cheap shortcuts when depicting OCD, and make it a condition with actual consequences instead of the figure of fun or something quirky.


Corinne Duyvis:
I’ve spoken a lot about autism, but less so about AD(H)D. I’d love to see more accurate and varied portrayals: It’s not all about distractibility, impulsiveness and hyperactivity! Those traits may be common, but I’d like to see, for example, characters struggling with making decisions, or experiencing hyperfocus.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann:
I’d ask authors to avoid arranging scenes and entire plot lines around characters with Asperger’s who take everything literally, particularly if the author intends to use it for laughs. It feels as if you’re laughing at us and not with us. Besides, most tweens and teens with Asperger’s have learned what an idiom is and know the difference between literal and figurative meanings, even if the literal meaning conjures amusing images in our minds.


Marieke Nijkamp:
I’d love to see more spectrums, especially when it comes to daily life with a disability. For example, when it comes to my arthritis, it means I am in pain almost every day. It does not mean I’m in the exact same amount of pain every day, that the pain itself is exactly the same, or even that the pain is the worst of it.

Some days, I can barely hold a hairbrush. Other days, it’s more like an annoying ache in my bones. Some days, my painkillers are heavenly (and anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to come talk to me about how medication is poison can get out and check their privilege), other days I barely notice them. Some days, I can ignore the pain, and other days, it chips away at the very core of me because it’s so very invasive. It’s a spectrum, and no day is quite like the other.


Kayla Whaley:
In terms of my own disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), I’d like authors to consider the physicality of it beyond not being able to walk. Realize that neuromuscular diseases don’t affect ONLY one’s legs. My entire body is weaker than most and that affects my physicality–the way I look and move. I tend to sit leaning forward and to the right because it takes less strength for me than sitting upright. If I’m reaching for something on a table, I have to use my free arm to brace the other. When I’m moving my body (gesturing while talking, adjusting my sitting position, dancing, anything), I don’t tend to be the most graceful because it requires a decent amount of effort to do so.

I think because the only wheelchair-using characters we’re used to seeing are athletic people who have been paralyzed (not that those portrayals are necessarily accurate either), it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the walking issue while ignoring the rest. (And keep in mind that this is a very, very incomplete list and focuses purely on visible physical differences between me and those who are able-bodied.)


Cece Bell:
I agree with what several of the other contributors have said: disabilities are on a spectrum. That is definitely true with deafness—there’s such a big range, and so many different ways that each deaf individual might deal with their own level of deafness. I rarely see deaf people in fiction (probably because I don’t read nearly enough), but I often see them in movies or on TV as minor characters who exist for no other reason than for comic relief. You know, the stock deaf person who shouts all the time because he can’t hear what he’s saying. That joke’s so old even my dog won’t eat it. I guess this advice is more for movie directors than authors, but there you go!


What about you, commenters? Any advice to offer?

S. Jae-Jones: I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Creature–Debunking Bipolar Stereotypes

S. Jae-JonesS. Jae-Jones (called JJ)’s emotional growth was stunted at the age of 12, the age when adventures were imminent and romance just over the horizon. She lives in grits country, where she pretends to be an adult with a mortgage and a car. Other places to find JJ include Twitter, Tumblr, and her blog.


But you don’t seem bipolar.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this to me. I also can’t tell you how many times people have been dismissive or incredulous about my mental illness, simply because I don’t fulfill many of their preconceived notions about bipolar individuals.

Here is a truth about me: I have a mood disorder. I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school. I have been hospitalized, I have been medicated, and I have spent years in therapy. I am also—I would like to note—a happy and (mostly) productive member of society, with a full and fulfilling life. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Being “out” about my bipolar disorder is tricky, partially because society as a whole still demonizes mental illness, and partially because—unlike being female or a person of color—bipolar disorder is not a visible aspect of my existence. Do I wear the physical signs of a “crazy person” the way I am identifiably female and not white? No. Because of this, a lot of people tend to write off or trivialize my mental disorder as being invalid.

Here are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual:

  1. I suffer from mood swings, or more properly, “states”. I have manic states and depressive states, and cycle through them a few times a year.
  2. I am no longer medicated for my disorder.
  3. My family has a history of mental illness: my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle most likely suffered from bipolar disorder (although it was undiagnosed in both). My grandfather led a rich and artistic life until he passed away from lung cancer when I was two. My uncle was an alcoholic and committed suicide.
  4. The severity and intensity of my mood episodes have lessened as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps I’ve become more equipped to deal with them through therapy and with the support of my family and friends. It does not, however, mean I am “cured” or that I no longer suffer (and suffer in very real and tangible ways).
  5. It is a very private disorder. I keep my feelings to myself. This is in part because I don’t want to contribute to the very stereotypes that plague other individuals with the disorder, but also due to the fact that those who do not suffer from mental illness simply do not understand how my manic and depressive states differ from more moderate feelings of happiness and frustration. My friends and family can provide support, but otherwise, I prefer to be left alone.
  6. How do I tell the difference between a manic episode and happiness, a depressive episode and sadness? In between my moods, I have a “normal” state of being. I get annoyed by little things or excited by big ones. I get sad when my feelings are hurt or pleasantly surprised by small acts of kindness. In the 11 years I’ve lived with this disorder, I’ve come to recognize JJ vs. Manic/Depressive JJ. When I am manic, I am Too Much Me. When I am depressive, I am Not Enough Me. But this revelation comes after years and years of trial and error.

These are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual. But not all bipolar individuals exhibit symptoms of their disorder in the same way, just as my experience as a woman and my experience as a person of color is not identical to every other woman of color. I do not speak for everyone with mental illness, but I can tell you about the stereotypes about bipolar disorder that are harmful to those us who live with it:

  1. Bipolar people are a ticking time bomb.
    There is no enormous sign that says HANDLE WITH CARE. Bipolar states are not necessarily triggered by small, external factors like a work disappointment or a bad day. More often, these small external factors are like the straw that broke the camel’s back; chances are you were already approaching a state of mania or depression, and this small, external factor exacerbated a mood you were already in.

  2. Bipolar people are moody and sensitive.
    I suppose by definition bipolar individuals are moody, but not all of us are habitually so. When I am Me (as opposed when I am either Too Much or Not Enough Me), I’m generally sanguine and easygoing. A minor frustration or setback doesn’t usually make me irritable or put me in a funk; I tend to laugh it off and move on. There are plenty of moody individuals who are not bipolar; therefore, moodiness and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.

  3. Bipolar people are self-destructive and lack impulse control.
    I don’t deny that there is a high incidence of suicide and substance abuse comorbid with bipolar disorder. I also don’t deny that in the early stages of my disorder, I engaged in a lot of self-destructive and suicidal behavior, and felt as though I couldn’t control myself. Many undiagnosed and untreated cases of mental illness devolve into suicide and substance abuse, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation. A lot of times, people with mental illness turn to self-destructive behaviors as a way of coping with their disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, and in many of those instances, these self-destructive behaviors can be treated with medication and therapy.

    The thing about impulse control though—I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but as someone who considers herself a person with a large amount of willpower, Sitzfleisch*, and self-discipline, sometimes I feel as though certain behaviors are beyond my control. Sometimes, in either my manic or depressive states, I find myself doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and can’t for the love of God figure out why I can’t stop. Or why I can’t start. Most of these behaviors are small: I can’t make my bed (and my make my bed every day, thank you very much), I can’t respond to an email, I’m smoking cigarettes again, I can’t bear to face people I know and love, I can’t do anything but sit in front of my computer and obsessively read 70 million articles about the history of pantaloons. Sometimes I honestly can’t get up out of bed and face the prospect of eating. Or working. Or existing. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. With some things, I can wrest back control. With others, I can’t. But again, this is something I’ve learned to live with over time.

    I have to note too, that when I am Me, I know the difference between “I just don’t feel like it” and “I cannot”. Sometimes I feel like a lazy slob. But then I usually kick myself in the butt and get it done. Sometimes I feel like a gross person and eat an entire can of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Pringles in one sitting. But then I shrug it off and go back to my normal routine. That’s “I don’t feel like it”, or the occasional indulgence. These things are normal, and even good from time to time. And then there is “I cannot”. I am not hungry, but I cannot stop eating. I am hungry but I cannot bring myself to eat. I am desperately lonely but I cannot bear human contact. These are the “I cannots”. They are very different from the “I don’t feel like its” and that’s where the issue of “impulse control” can become very fuzzy with people with mental illness.

  4. Bipolar people are artists, magical, tortured, misunderstood, etc.
    As with suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, there is also a strong correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. There is a strong artistic streak in my own family; my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a poet. I dabble in art and writing and music. But that in itself doesn’t indicate bipolar disorder; there are plenty of artists, musicians, and writers who do not have mental illness.

    But what I loathe in portrayals of bipolar people is this tendency to turn them into Manic Pixie Dream Creatures. Certainly manic episodes can come with increased creative output or productivity, as well as impulsive and reckless behaviors. In my own manic states, I have been described as being mercurial, tricksy, coy, a “free spirit”, eccentric, etc. As with some depressive states, in my manic ones, there are a lot of instances of “I cannot”, but sometimes, it comes with “I can and I WILL”. I can do this extreme thing because I can, so I WILL. It’s not to impress anyone, and it’s absolutely not to make anyone think I’m this otherworldly fairy put on this earth to change your life. In this case, it is compulsion rather than lack of impulse control that I feel is beyond me.  For me, a manic state feels like there’s an external force pulling at me, pushing me, and I’m just swept along in the current. Swimming upstream is hard.

  5. Bipolar people are “crazy”.

    This one is a little harder to unpack. “Crazy” is a loaded word, and it’s also a word that is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless. But in everyday parlance, “crazy” is often a word lobbed at young women who act in ways that go against the grain of society. I hate that word. I hate how unspecific it is. I hate how dismissive it can be of the complex and varied existence of those living with mental illness. I also hate how it seems to be almost exclusively applied to young women, whereas young men are “troubled” or “tortured” or “misunderstood.”

    What is “crazy”? In nearly every context I’ve heard that word applied to someone, the person saying it usually means “she’s acting in ways that are contrary to my interests”. I don’t deny that manic or mixed states often cause me to act in ways that are irrational and unreasonable, and that I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. And certainly many people who have mental illness can suffer delusions. (I have.) But “crazy” is thrown around so lightly these days that it’s become a dismissive slur.

    People living with mental illness can be unreasonable, irrational, and delusional. They can also make poor or selfish decisions. But that is not exclusive to people with mental illness; everyone can be “crazy”. Bipolar people are not this way ALL THE TIME, nor are they always this way when not on meds.

The other day I was out with a new-ish friend of mine and I casually mentioned my bipolar disorder.

“You’re not bipolar,” he said.

“How would you know?” I asked.

“You don’t seem bipolar. You’re not nuts.”

“And I suppose you would know.”

The truth was, he didn’t know. He made assumptions based on the stereotypes that exist. He assumed that because I wasn’t a “constant emotional wreck” and that I didn’t have a mental illness.

“How do you function without meds?” he asked. “I know bipolar people, and when they’re off, they go off the deep end.”

“You’ve never seen me on meds,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said. And he got thoughtful. “Funny. Would never have thought that about you. But you don’t always know everything about people.”

Medication is something of a tricky subject for me. Many people need medication. And when I was first diagnosed, I was placed on a pill regimen. (Diagnosis is tricky—I was initially diagnosed as clinically depressed, then they thought I also had an anxiety disorder, or perhaps OCD, and even potentially ADHD. It was only after two psychiatrists and four different therapists that I got a proper diagnosis.) I disliked it. Later I would describe it to my therapist as feeling like I was never myself. I felt like a robot or an automaton, or another thing that went about its business and routine with no passion or intensity. I disliked it. I would have hated it, if I could feel.

Fortunately for me, I had a therapist who worked with me. We worked on a lot of different exercises, including writing down what I felt in a journal, and then reading back to recognize the patterns in my manic, normal, and depressed states. Then I learned to recognize when I was in those states. And then I learned how to live with them.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone. It works for me. For me, there is power in naming something and recognizing it for what it is. And just like everything else in this complicated world we live in, there isn’t a unilateral treatment for mental illness. I was lucky; my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me find the treatment that worked for me. Each bipolar individual is different. I’m just one.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you include a bipolar character in your work: the disorder often manifests itself in late teenage years. I was 17 when I was diagnosed. This is possibly THE WORST TIME in life to be diagnosed—in addition to the trainwreck that is puberty (or maybe that’s just me) and hormones going wild, you have mental illness fucking up your shit.

BUT. It doesn’t define your life. Or at least it didn’t define mine. I had to learn how to modify my life to accommodate it. I had to miss 2 months of school, and I eventually had to drop physics. (Boo hoo.) This was a huge blow to my pride; I was always a good student, and moreover, I was always at the top of the academic pyramid. But I couldn’t continue living the way I had with my disorder, so I made compromises. In between manic and depressive episodes I was still me. I was still silly, fangirlish, serious, and thoughtful; I still participated in activities that were important to me: visual arts, creative writing, and piano. Sometimes I couldn’t manage the things I loved. Sometimes I could. Being bipolar didn’t overtake my life. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines your character either.

*Sitzfleisch: German, noun. The ability to sit through something boring. Lit. “sitting-flesh”. This is one of my favorite German compound nouns.

s.e. smith: Crazy Creative

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


Mental illness as inspiration is one of the oldest tropes in the book. According to pop culture, mentally ill people are magically more creative than everyone else, filled with a manic drive to create art that pushes them to the brink until they finally explode—but what fantastic art they produce in the process. And what tragic heroes they become as a result of sacrificing everything for their art.

The myth of the ‘crazy artist’ is one that looms large in the popular mind, and it’s reinforced by books, film, and television where we see mentally ill characters who are also deeply creative, intelligent, and driven. According to this common disability trope, mental illness begets creativity—or perhaps vice versa. Either you start out with mental illness that makes you creative because it forces your brain to see differently, or you’re creative and it drives you into mental illness because you become consumed by your work. The two traits become inextricably linked in this metric, impossible to separate out.

I get this a lot as a mentally ill writer, perhaps most especially when I am manic and writing a lot. People attribute my writing to my mental illness rather than to who I am or any innate part of my nature, and along with that attribution comes an uncomfortable implication that my creativity must be the result of poorly controlled mental illness, because everyone knows that medications slow people down, blunt thinking, destroy creativity. Even my own medications manager seems to push at that idea when we meet to discuss how I’m feeling.

To be viewed as a creative success because I’m crazy, and to be told that I can only be creative if I don’t manage my mental illness effectively, is troubling. It’s especially troubling to see it reinforced in the pop culture around me.

One reason I loved Hilary T. Smith’s WILD AWAKE was because she captured, perfectly, the problems with the crazy creative trope. Kiri is a very talented and amazing musician who also has mental illness—and when she experiences a Thing, she doesn’t get more creative. Her work doesn’t flower into an explosion of amazing, inspiring, wonderful creation. It gets violent and ugly and all-consuming.

When I’m manic, I write upwards of 20,000 words a day. That is not healthy. When my mental illness was untreated, I didn’t sleep, I rarely ate, I just worked endlessly, sharklike; I felt like if I stopped for a single minute, I would die. Everything was so ferociously bright and glittering around me that it was like being on a concert stage and I felt like I had to perform at every minute—but that wasn’t healthy.

When I found a treatment regimen that worked for me, and when I started managing my mental illness effectively, I didn’t become less creative. Did I change on medication? Yes, I did. I had fewer mood swings. I was a lot more comfortable. I didn’t fly off into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat. I wrote, a lot, but not in that out of control, desperate, fevered kind of way that left me feeling dizzy and slightly sick. That writing was good—some of my best, actually.

Did I also tend to sleep more because of the sedating effect of my medications? Well, yeah. And that was a good thing, given my lack of sleep before. Did I sometimes feel foggy in the brain? Certainly. Was that my new permanent state of being? No. And I worked with my medications manager to find the dosage that worked most effectively for me, allowing me to be myself—my true self, not the snarled, manic, jittery self that I had been before—without disappearing.

And yet, I, like many mentally ill people involved in creative fields, had felt hesitant about seeking treatment, fearing that treatment would destroy my creativity. I had bought into the myth that the two were linked, and that with treatment my creativity would wither away and die, leaving me just another drooling overmedicated mannequin. I envisioned the abusive use of psychiatric medications and didn’t understand that there was actually a middle ground; I didn’t have to have uncontrolled mental illness, and I didn’t need to be a zombie, either.

Yet, this reality is so rarely depicted in pop culture, or in young adult fiction. All too often, people are presented with the choice of unchecked mental illness devouring someone and remaining creative, or turning into a passive ghost of who you were before. It stigmatises the use of medication and other treatments, and it creates a difficult bind for people who actually are mentally ill and creative (including, I note, a lot of young adult writers!).

Talking openly about mental illness in young adult fiction is so important; not just because I want to see more positive and accurate portrayals of mental illness in general, but because the age of onset for many severe mental illnesses is often in the teens. If your framework for mental illness is built on incorrect tropes, that’s a recipe for disaster. If it’s built instead on depictions that capture the diversity of mental illness and mentally ill people, that’s going to radically change the way you relate to the onset of your own mental illness. It also radically changes the way people including parents, peers, and loved ones interact with mentally ill teens.

Instead of being something you should feel ashamed of, or something you should resist treatment for, mental illness becomes simply a part of you. Not your sole defining characteristic, and certainly not the thing that makes you creative. Just something about you that makes up a part of your life.

And creativity is part of you too, not something caused by (or likely to cause) mental illness.

Kalen O’Donnell: Much Ado About ADD

Kalen O'DonnellWriter, actor and occasional print model. Trained in the fine art of Lying Creative Truths, studied at the Institution of Making Things Up, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the field of Convincing People to Give Him Money in Exchange for the Performance of Ridiculous Labors. Significant moments in his career training have involved falling out of windows, driving other people’s expensive cars without crashing or obeying traffic laws, and kissing pretty boys and girls because the nice man in the director’s chair assured him it was a legitimate acting gig. His last recorded full night’s sleep was in the late nineties, and he would really appreciate it if you’d pass him some more coffee. Find Kalen on Twitter.


I am so totally ADD.

No, for real. I’m totally scatterbrained, procrastinate like whoa (just ask Corinne and Kody about how long it took them to get this post from me), and in general have so many wee little thoughts buzzing around me noggin’ that it’s next to impossible to focus on any single one of them long enough to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

It’s been that way since high school. I had an Enforcer Mom, one of those stern taskmaster types who used her superpowers of Hyper-Vigilance to ensure I dedicated myself to excelling in all things in life at all times (for my own good, natch). She would make me sit at the kitchen table before every exam and study within eyesight so she could make sure I wasn’t goofing off as I was wont to do, and even with all that, I STILL couldn’t make myself study. I would sit at the kitchen table and flip through textbooks with a look of intense concentration on my face, while internally I was busy kicking ass on level eight of Super Mario Bros. 3, and then the Shadow Man level of Megaman 3 and then trying to figure out how to beat that damn boss from Streets of Rage 2 and so on ad nauseam. I LITERALLY had NOTHING better to do; I was practically super-glued to my chair under supervision with my textbook and notes in hand, and yet still I had an allergic reaction to actually doing anything productive with my time.

Yeah. I was THAT awesome.

This pattern repeated itself in college (where I dropped out), in most 9-5 jobs I tried (all of which I quit or was fired from) and my attempts to write a book and kickstart a writing career (which progressed from taking two years of stops and starts before finishing one 50K book, to then writing a 50K book every couple months and then doing absolutely nothing with those drafts because OMG you guys revisions are HARD).

And here’s the thing. I totally knew I had ADD. Wasn’t angsting about it either, like oh noes, I have a messed up brain, I am a Super-Freak, if only there was some toxic ooze to mix with my synaptic misfires and elevate me to full on supervillain status, whut whut. Nah. It was my go-to apology, my self-deprecating trademark shtick for when my usual procrastination pushed me from loveably anti-punctual to just completely obnoxiously LATE.

‘Ugh, I am SO sorry dude/dudette. I can’t believe I took so long getting this to you, I am so ADD, what is my brain I can’t even.’

Said with a smile and a laugh, but the thing was, I wasn’t even joking, I totally knew I had ADD, I just…didn’t think it was a big deal. I mean, it was just ADD. I’d been this way my whole life, and bad habits aside I still paid my bills and fed and clothed myself and kept a roof over my head without ever actually resorting to a life of crime. (Except for that one time, but that doesn’t count. I was coerced, long story, shush, I had a point here).

Because here’s the thing about ADD awareness as a teen, the first impression garnered from books and shows and movies. It tends to cater to one of two extremes.

The first is, OMG you have ADD but it’s okay, it’s okay baby, just take your magic pills and it’ll all be okay (said while stroking a child’s hair as though said child is a wild animal that will bolt if not properly soothed).

These are the books, shows and movies that are so consumed with making sure people are absolutely clear that ADD is NO BIG DEAL and you are TOTALLY OKAY AND NORMAL and NO, MOMMY’S NOT CRYING, SHE WAS JUST CHOPPING ONIONS that in actuality it comes across like you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and everyone’s trying to be strong for you.

Which umm… not the best impression you want to give to a child, srsly.

So then you get the second extreme which attempts to normalize ADD by treating it so hyper-casually that it in essence becomes a punchline. Oh it’s just ADD. Practically every other person has it, it’s no big deal, so you’re a little flighty, a little flaky, whatevs, it is allllll good. You’re just ADD.

And then shocker of shockers, you end up with a bunch of attention deficit dudes like me who look at said two extremes and are like, well I definitely don’t feel like I’m dying so I’m gonna go with Door Number 2 and treat it like it’s barely worth mentioning. It’s just a little personality quirk, pay it no more mind than that. And time passes and I’m working, I’m a semi-productive member of society, I get by. So what’s the problem, right?

Except, you know… I’m still ADD. And it doesn’t quite work like that.

I finally got diagnosed last year when things came to such a head that I was kinda just like screw it, I might as well look into this whole ADD thing and see if there’s something I should be doing differently. And sure enough, they gave me my shiny diagnosis, and they gave me my magic pills to take in the morning so everything calms down upstairs and I can focus on one damn thing at a time, and I’m still treating it like a punchline. Because partly that’s just who I am, and if someone’s not dying, EVERYTHING’s a punchline to me, but also partly it’s residual embarrassment like, why is everyone making such a big deal, it’s just ADD. It’s so ingrained in me that I attempt to treat it like it’s inconsequential even now that I know better.

Because here’s the truth about ADD, the impression I would like to see more kids like me get early on so they can ask the right questions and get the right answers:

ADD isn’t an end of the world big deal. It’s really really not. But it is A deal, it’s a thing. It’s a disability. It puts you on a different default setting. Getting an official diagnosis and medication to help you handle ADD isn’t confirming your super-freak status or accepting that there’s something wrong with you. It just gives you another set of tools. That’s all.

I mean, we’re all just a bunch of hyper-evolved monkeys at the end of the day. Ask any scientist, the only thing that differentiates us from our feces-flinging cousins is our critical thinking and tool-using capacity. Yeah, sure, that’s probably not how they’d put it, but POINT IS. We all use tools. It’s what makes us human instead of just your average primate. So it really is no big deal if some humans just happen to use a different set of tools than others. The important part is just making sure everyone knows what those tools are, and where to find them if they need them.

Maggie Tiede: Popping Pills: Mental Illness Medications in YA and Why They Matter

Maggie Desmond-O'BrienMaggie Tiede is a teenaged writer and book blogger out to change the world, one word at a time. She was diagnosed with bipolar I and obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was seventeen. She lives in northern Minnesota, United States, North America, Planet Earth, where she is currently at work on a novel; and probably would like to be your friend.

She’s previously written about mental illness in YA here.


Minor spoilers for Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, and Silver Linings Playbook.

About a year ago, I was in the hospital. I remember hoping I’d be out by the 4th of July so my family could celebrate the holiday at home, instead of staying in some cramped hotel room near the psych ward so they could visit me. Through group therapy and visits with the ward’s psychiatrist, I was on best behavior. (I was, in fact, out by the 4th.) I remember the overwhelming guilt and shame I felt at ending up in the hospital in the first place. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed help. If I’d been strong, I could have made the horrible thoughts of hurting myself, and hurting others, go away. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed the medications that the nurses handed me with little Dixie cups full of water twice daily. If I’d been strong.

My bipolar I disorder, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder: before my fateful two-hour drive to the emergency room in the closest big city with a psych ward, I believed these things were weaknesses to be eliminated by sheer force of will. Pills were for pussies, I told myself. Which was why, prior to the hospital stay, I had slowly been reducing my dose of Risperdal, the primary medication that managed my terrifying manic highs, without telling anyone, until I was hardly taking anything at all. The two or three months I managed to get by on the reduced dose were enough to convince me: My psychiatrist is lying. I don’t need medication. I’m fine. I can beat this. Until, of course, I couldn’t.

It’s taken me months to get my medications stabilized, but it’s happened, and I’m happier and healthier now than I’ve been since I was fifteen years old. But, looking back, I can’t help but wish that I’d been able to come to terms with the “weakness” of taking the medication I need to be well sooner. And it’s hard not to lay some of the blame for my attitudes at the feet of the books I love.

Though there are countless others, two of my favorite YA novels, in particular—Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves—are unfortunately guilty of the same mental illness trope: that someone is “just not themselves” on medication, that they feel like they’re swimming through syrup, or that they are somehow buying into the “system.” In both cases, the protagonists—one severely depressed and one schizophrenic, respectively—end up tossing out their pills as part of their character arc, liberating themselves from the negative effects of their mental illness in the process.

Contrast this with the movie Silver Linings Playbook, in which Pat, the bipolar protagonist, initially makes similar arguments—that he’s bloated and dull on medication—but by the end of the movie, reaches health and happiness by taking medication and making life changes. Why can’t we see more of this in YA?

It’s frustrating to see mental illness treated as just one more way to stick it to the establishment, instead of as the very real spectrum of disorders that it is. Attitudes can’t change until writers with mental illness make their voices heard, and write their own stories. When we do, it will change lives.