Panic in the streets of London…
It sounds like a line straight out of my novel, London Belongs to Me, doesn’t it? But, it’s actually a lyric from “Panic”—one of my favourite songs by The Smiths. As much as I adore that song, I have a big issue with the word ‘panic’. It has haunted me for most of my life…
May is Mental Health Awareness Month
When I set out to create the character of Alex Sinclair in London Belongs to Me, I had hoped her life of anxiety and panic attacks might help inform and enlighten people who weren’t familiar with these mental health disorders. I also hoped her situation might make fellow sufferers feel like they weren’t alone. Thankfully in the six months that LBTM has been in readers’ hands, I have heard from many people with anxiety who have said that they could relate to Alex and felt inspired by her journey and its ups and downs.
What I didn’t expect was for some readers who don’t get anxiety to call Alex weak, a pushover, even spineless … (colour me gobsmacked). In an age when we’re trying to encourage people with mental health challenges to feel comfortable in their own skin and seek help (if needed), comments like “weak”, and “pushover’ don’t help the cause. They only perpetuate the stigma surrounding anxiety.
Here’s the deal…
When you have anxiety, your strength ebbs and flows. I know this first-hand because I have had anxiety my entire life. Some days you can tackle the world, while other days you want to hide. Some days you make your opinions known, while other days you just…can’t. That’s real. It’s not *weak*. It’s how anxiety sufferers survive. And if anything, anxiety sufferers have to be stronger and braver than most people just to get through their day.
Calling a fictional character with anxiety ‘weak’ in a book review can make real-life sufferers question whether *they* should ‘come clean.’ If readers joke and label fictional characters with anxiety disorders as weak, wishy-washy, or spineless, why would a real person want to expose themselves to that same criticism?
In my own life, that’s exactly why I held back and didn’t tell people that I had anxiety issues. I didn’t even tell my physician, until recently. No one wants to be looked at as the ‘mental’, ‘unstable’ girl who cannot deal with normal life stresses. No one wants to be the ‘weird one’ who has strange meltdowns over random things.
So you hide it
I did—for years. And then I wrote London Belongs to Me, and felt somewhat liberated. I also felt like a bit of a fraud. How could I expose Alex without exposing myself? So I crept out of the shadows and shared my life-long secret. I also wrote a piece about my own experiences with anxiety and panic attacks (including a cringeworthy fainting spell in Toronto’s largest department store) for Psychology Today.
It felt good to be honest with friends and strangers, but most of all, it felt good to be honest with myself.
But, I’ve dealt with anxiety for decades. For a younger anxiety sufferer in her teens or twenties who is new to the heart pounding, breathlessness of a panic attack, seeing negative words linked to Alex’s struggle—a struggle that mirrors their own—might make them feel like the world is pointing a judgemental finger in their direction.
Is that how we treat people who need empathy and understanding? Shove them back into the shadows—or worse—keep them there? People think twice about shaming or labelling individuals (both fictional and real) with physical challenges, so why are we so quick to cross that line with people dealing with mental illness? I thought we were better than that…
Readers often tell authors to be responsible with their words, to be aware of triggers, and write with compassion when it comes to marginalized characters. As an author, I think readers should also follow these suggestions when reviewing books, too. People are allowed their opinions: you may love my book or hate it—that’s cool. It would be a dull place if we all agreed—but be careful when you label or sneer at a character who has ongoing mental health challenges. Your words can do more harm than turning someone off from reading a book.
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