The Question of Mental Health

When I started writing the story that later became my book “Convince Me the Winter is Over,” both protagonists had been well established characters. I had written numerous stories on fanfiction.net about them. The circumstances were different, they would have had different professions and family history, but the core qualities were the same. She had always had high intellect, a collected, slightly OCD personality, and had been introverted, empathic, and controlling. He had always shown himself passionate, courageous, imperious, impatient, and dominant.

Except this time she had a clear and undeniable mental disorder. In chapter one she mentioned scars covering her back from abuse, her inability to touch or even talk to strangers, and since the story was presented through her eyes the text was frantic, almost delirious. These days, editing the first chapters for publication I sometimes have to take a break and do some breathing exercises. Some days I just can’t edit at all. Wren in the first few chapters is resistant, avoidant and plainly unpleasant to be in the head of.

And several readers didn’t like it. They had been used to the little know-it-all Wrennie, the ‘perfect match for our grumpy King,’ the woman capable of controlling her emotions after being threatened by her husband’s sword and the woman who knew how to rule a country and its moody King.

When Wren started suffocating from painful anxiety at the prospect of sitting on the same sofa with a male person, half of those readers felt pity. Other half would question whether she was even good for him. It was John, their beloved John, the modern version of Thorin Oakenshield, and they did not want him to go through what it is like – to be with someone with severe anxieties.

I would get angry messages. Or “Poor Wren…” would appear in almost every review. Rejection or pity, these are the two most common reactions. “Pull yourself together” (also known as “Snap out of it”) or the stigma of being broken/sick/incomplete/in need of fixing.

And then I got that first personal message. A reader, and bless the anonymity of fanfiction.net, told me they were the survivour of childhood abuse and my story was important for them. They told me that every day, at least once (or a dozen times) they felt there was no way out, that the life they had built would fall apart any moment, and my daily updates made them see that there was hope.

‘Hope’ was the word that stood out for me. It reminded me that that is what art is about. About making difference, and making a statement, and if you have even the mediocre ability to do it, you have no right to not to.

Other messages came, more and more. Different stories, different people, those readers that were new, and those I had talked to many times before. I cried, I agonised over my answers for days, I felt honoured and awed.

***

When I took my draft to a professional writer to have a look at for the first time, I was told to get rid of the clinical language.

‘Don’t label it,’ I was told. ‘No one would want to read about a person with C-PTSD.’

Why, I asked myself? Because there is a stigma on mental health issues? Because people are told to be ashamed of them, to hide them?

“Stop letting yourself emotional-ise!” I was told when I would have a panic attack in my teen years. And yes, there was a word invented specifically for that state of mine.

***

There isn’t enough awareness. There aren’t enough words for it. And those words honestly shouldn’t be ’emotional-ise.’ There isn’t enough resources. When you are depressed, you have nowhere to go, and you need to, right now, and talk to someone.

We need to talk about. We need to give it names. We need to be open about it.

I felt this story had to be told.

***

I distinctly remember one personal message from that time. The reader was enraged with “poor Wren” once again appearing in other people’s reviews. She was not ‘poor,’ she was not a victim, she was a survivour, as cliche as it sounded to many. She was fighting, she was growing, she was healing.

That was and is what the story’s about. Healing.

It isn’t a love story, because it is not love that heals all wounds. The person does. Wren was trying to. John was a trigger, an impetus to shake her out of her stagnated, frozen world of highly functional and thus somewhat ‘comfortable’ anxieties. But she did it herself. Through making steps and making effort.

She has C-PTSD as a result of childhood abuse trauma.

She sees a therapist.

She has panic attacks.

She self-regulates.

She brings her mind onto breathing. It has to be done gently, otherwise it can trigger higher level of anxiety.

She is in the state of constant vigilance, she experiences fear-potentiated startle.

All that needs names. We need to talk about. We need to be open about it.

With awareness we will get rid of the stigma.

 

The Question of Tattoos

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People always ask what the tattoos mean. That is when people are slightly more comfortable with me.  Those who are very comfortable with me, those who know me well, either smirk knowingly or smirk condescendingly. Because, no matter how you look at the ink, it seems that I have commemorated my fanfiction in them.

That is not what happened.

I just gave up teaching at the university then, the profession that was chosen for me by my parents and by the societal expectations of Russia at the end of 1990s. And I was just starting to write my fanfiction. And I saw the most wonderful necklace in a shop, a tree, in silver, made by a wonderful talented Winnipeg based artist.

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It was my 31st birthday then, and I went and got my first tattoo. I showed my necklace and told the artist that it was what I wanted. I also told him that I wanted to change my life and to take care of trees from now on. I wanted it. I wanted to feel life, and growth, and withering. And he told me that this profession was called ‘arborist’ and of course he would be happy to ‘ink this oak onto my wrist.’

“Oak?” I gasped. I didn’t even realise. It was cute though, I thought then. Oak as in Oakenshield, as in Tolkien’s character. My favourite, since I was six. I had been very fond of the old grumpy Dwarf, and later, with a certain measure of embarrassment also very fond of the blue eyed hunk in Peter Jackson’s films. By then I had written a few stories with my OC named Wren and Thorin, and while the tattooist was creating the lines on my skin, I smiled.

“Is it the tree of life?” I am always asked. And I nod. Of course it is. It is my tree of life. The life that I finally live, the life that is full of choices I make myself, the life where writing takes a lot of space, and where Thorin Oakenshield became an inspiration for John Greaves, the protagonist of my first novel Convince Me the Winter is Over.

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It was my 32nd birthday, and I once again went into Rebel Waltz Tattoo, and sat in that chair. It was a different artist, and he didn’t tell me anything about being an arborist, but I didn’t ask. By then I was working in my bakery and was mostly concerned with the heat and how my birdie would heal.

“I want a wren on a wire,” I said, and he stared at me.

“A what on a wire?”

He googled wrens, and we debated the design for an hour.

Wren on a wire. My wonderful friend Erin suggested it as a title for a novel, and I was in love. Its half alliteration, the song of my beloved Leonard Cohen it reminded me of, the simplicity of it, – all of it was perfect for that second novel I was writing, and I thanked her. She only claimed bragging rights, and she gets all of them.

Now, when asked, I say the bird is a symbol.

“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on its wings. Always believe in yourself.”

If I know the person a bit better, I explain that Wren on a Wire is the title of the novel I’m working on right now.

So, no, these are not fandom tattoos, and I’m not mad enough to ink my fanfiction characters into my skin. And yes, Wren is that important for me that there could have been no other bird to sit on a branch or a wire for me to remember that I need to believe in myself.