I’m really honored to have Tanya J. Peterson guest blogging today! She’s talking about Leave of Absence and what inspired her to write a novel about mental illness. I reviewed it here and I really hope Tanya’s guest post inspires you to check out Leave of Absence and hopefully read it.
Novel with a Mission
Jessica, I’d like to express to you and your readers how very pleased I am with your review. My happiness, though, is perhaps for a different reason than what people might assume. Of course, we all create things (writing, paintings or drawings, elaborate meals or desserts, craft items, quilts, clothing, etc.), and as human beings, we do want others to like our stuff. I do, too, of course, but I do realize that there are many different tastes and not everyone is going to like everything. I’d be lying if I claimed that I’m indifferent to likes and dislikes; I really am glad you liked it. What makes me the happiest, though, is why you liked it and how thoroughly you captured the message I want to convey through Leave of Absence.
I wrote Leave of Absence for a very distinct reason. I want to increase understanding of mental illness and help create empathy and compassion for people who experience it. There’s a wealth of terrific non-fiction books out there that explain the various mental illnesses, but those have a very specific market and focus primarily on imparting information. I want to spread the message that there are real people behind mental illness, and it is my hope that in connecting with Penelope and Oliver, people will realize exactly what you mentioned, Jessica—that there are real Penelopes, real Olivers out there wrestling with these difficulties.
My desire to increase understanding and empathy isn’t arbitrary. It arises from both my professional and my personal backgrounds. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to help others. In school, I was bothered by the bullying on the playground and in the classroom. As I matured, I noticed prejudice, and I wanted to stop it. Because the majority of my exposure to inequality and hurt was in a school setting, I initially became a teacher to combat it. Less than one month into my career, though, I realized that what I really wanted to be was a counselor. Eventually I went to graduate school and became a Nationally Certified Counselor. That’s the professional background. As mentioned, I have a personal one, too. I have bipolar I disorder as wells as difficulties with various types of anxiety. From both perspectives, I’ve dealt with stigma and prejudice that stems from misunderstanding.
I don’t believe that most people purposely seek to stigmatize mental illness or mistreat people who have a mental illness. I think that people form opinions based on the information they have. Unfortunately, what people have is not information but misinformation. Mainstream media, whether it’s movies and television or the news, has painted a very negative picture of what mental illness is. Thanks to the way mental illness has been stereotyped, we often, upon hearing that someone has a mental illness, picture someone who is very unstable, erratic, unreasonable, unpredictable, and violent. These are all tragic, because in reality, they don’t apply to mental illness.
Neither Oliver nor Penelope is any of the things I just mentioned. Oliver has experienced something incredibly traumatic and as a result is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and complicated mourning (complicated mourning isn’t a mental illness, of course). Penelope has schizophrenia. Oliver’s difficulties come from outside experiences while Penelope’s schizophrenia is caused by her own brain. Neither one, though, does anything to be feared.
I’ve been asked why, given that my own experience involves bipolar disorder, I decided to create a character who has schizophrenia. I did so because schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood of all the mental illnesses. Penelope isn’t violent or “crazy,” but she does sometimes experience the world a bit differently than someone without schizophrenia. I know that no one is interested in a full lecture on the nature of schizophrenia, so I’ll spare you all the elaborate details! I will mention, though, that part of what defines schizophrenia is positive and negative symptoms.
Negative symptoms are things that have been taken away from a person. Penelope for example doesn’t show much excitement and is rather “flat.” Positive symptoms can be thought of as things that are added to someone, things such as hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations can involve any of the senses. For Penelope, she sees and hears Eleanor Roosevelt and beings called the Kerffies. She feels them sometimes, too. Delusions are faulty beliefs. In Penelope’s case, she believes that the Kerffies are teaching her special things. For Penelope, the hallucinations and delusions overlap. For example, she sees the Kerffies. Well, she doesn’t see individual Kerffies because they’re microscopic, but she does see their cities. At one point in the story she shows them to Oliver. Oliver thinks they’re dust motes. Penelope thinks they’re Kerffie cities. This really is only a different way of understanding something. It has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence or craziness or violent intentions.
Writing Leave of Absence was very fun. I got to connect with, and fall in love with, characters (I love character-driven stories!), and once I knew them well, I enjoyed crafting their stories. I definitely have a mission with this novel (to increase understanding and empathy), but I’m hoping I did it in a way that is engaging and fun. If people can laugh and cry as they read the story and realize that these characters represent humanity, I’ll feel happy that I’ve accomplished my goal.
I’m intrigued by the human experience, which is probably the reason I decided to earn degrees in education and in counseling. I enjoy working with people and helping them empower themselves to make their lives great, and I sincerely appreciate those who have helped me through my own challenges in this human experience (I’ve experienced counseling from both sides of the proverbial couch). I’ve worked at a school for homeless and runaway adolescents and in traditional schools as well. I also love to write, and I enjoy creating stories about the human experience.