I’ve been vocal about this in the past, and for some reason, I tend to feel like it doesn’t need to be brought back up again, because I don’t want to be defined by my mental illness, but Canada’s #BellLetsTalk campaign has rolled around again, and I feel it’s my duty as a writer for teens to address the mental illness I have to live with. I want them to know that it’s ok to admit that you are struggling. It’s okay to ask for help.
I suffer from a compulsive skin picking disorder called dermatillomania. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember and unlike a lot of mental illnesses, mine manifests in a very visible way. I’ve been bullied and ridiculed for it, and made to feel disgusting and undesirable. I find it incredibly difficult to socialise when I constantly feel like no one could possibly value my company whether they notice there’s something wrong with me or not. As a child, I would scratch my face, chest, hands, and legs until I bled before I knew how to properly manage it (or even that it was something that could be managed at all). I didn’t know I had a diagnosable mental illness until I was 16 and happened to take on a project on OCD in science class.Taking that online test on a whim and finding out I fell on the OCD spectrum was terrifying. But that self-diagnosis led me to see a therapist, who helped me narrow down coping mechanisms that worked to handle my compulsions on a daily basis. I will probably live with derma for the rest of my life, and those coping strategies are the biggest thing keeping me sane. I seek out things that make me happy, things that calm my anxiety. I know what situations make me most anxious and the things I need to do to curtail that anxiety. I know when I’m travelling, I need to cut my nails, carry gloves, and keep face wash on hand. I know to exercise, go for a run, or do an hour of yoga if I start feeling frantic. I know to stop what I’m doing and turn on music and have a mini dance break when work is stressing me out. I have these things set in place so I can breathe easier.
As a teenager, I didn’t talk about this process of managing my depression, anxiety, and derma. I didn’t think it was something I could tell my best friends, even when I disappeared for an hour at lunch for therapy sessions. It feels silly now, because we all have some form of mental illness we own up to and it helps to talk. And I’d like to hope this generation of teens are given the safe spaces to talk about their issues. They shouldn’t be made to feel like freaks, or alone in the world, because they have something wrong with them, that doesn’t make them normal. After all, what is normal? Normal doesn’t exist anymore, least of all for these kids, or any of us.
And that’s why I write. That’s why I will always write about people who suffer and persevere in the world. That’s why I will always portray depression and anxiety in fiction as exactly what it is. I write about characters with trauma, about panic attacks, about gender dysphoria… all these things, because they’re real and not shared nearly enough in mainstream media for public consumption. But they should be. I want to be at least one safe source young readers can turn to when they’re looking for answers and too afraid to ask the questions. That’s one of my many motivations that drives me to get published one day.
The least we can do is talk about mental illness, and make it a natural thing to address, so that a scared teenager doesn’t have to stumble upon their diagnosis on their own. So that they can find help without feeling ashamed.