Anxious Voices

by Suzanne Selfors

I had the fortune and misfortune of being born into a family that overflows with mental illness.

I say fortune because my family has provided me with some of the most colorful characters I’ve ever met. They’ve raised me, shaped me, influenced and inspired me.

I say misfortune because I don’t know anyone who would choose mental illness. I don’t know anyone who would say, “Hey, I’d sure like to be depressed and anxious, throw in some paranoia and addiction, and I’m good to go.”

I was an anxious child. But I didn’t know that word. Depression and anxiety weren’t common terms in the 1960s. And they certainly weren’t words that were taught to children. Armed now with hindsight and life experience, I can see how anxiety was always there. My mom said I was “tightly wound,” and I remember that whenever I stayed up too late or did too many things, I would break down by vomiting. While I didn’t have panic attacks, there were a few episodes when everyone’s voices would suddenly speed up and the world seemed to be going too fast. My heart would race. I’d find a quiet corner and sit until it passed.

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The first anxiety attack came in high school, and I didn’t understand what was happening, so I didn’t tell anyone. Then college changed everything. During my senior year, I began to withdraw from friends. I lost my appetite. I slept too much. I walked around in a fog, my weight plummeting to 102 pounds. Somehow I got through my degree, cum laude, with honors no less, but I didn’t stay for the ceremony. I went home to doctors, endless tests … What was wrong with me?

Finally I went to a psychiatrist. Five minutes on her couch, and she said, “Suzanne, you have severe clinical depression and anxiety.”

And there you go.

Highly functioning anxious people find ways to cope. Writing helps me a great deal. I turn to the page when I need to calm my mind or to distract it. This is why I tend to write funny rather than dark. Why I write hope rather than cynicism.

I feel deep compassion for children who are anxious. They may not tell anyone how they’re feeling. The symptoms—racing heart, a desire to flee the room, the trembling, the nausea—are scary. They find ways to cope, and thus, get labeled as hyper or shy. Eating disorders and OCD are fed by anxiety. When it’s occasional, it’s normal. When it’s chronic, it can make you want to die.

In my latest novel, Wish Upon a Sleepover, I made the conscious decision to highlight anxiety. And so it flavors my characters in varying degrees. Leilani, our hero, is anxious in a way that every reader will understand—she worries about making friends. Autumn is painfully shy and avoids parties and large groups. But William Worth is more extreme. He has selective mutism and will only use his voice when he feels completely safe. Three very different kids. Three different ways of being in the world.

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Both of my children inherited my depression and anxiety genes, my son most deeply affected. But they’ve also inherited my knowledge. I told them, when they were in preschool, what anxiety feels like, what depression feels like, and most importantly, that those who suffer are not alone. I gifted them with words.

My hope is that my story will gift young readers with words. Words they might use to explain how they are feeling. While our instinct is to protect children, to keep them from words that might bother them, by giving them words, we are giving them the gift of understanding.

We are letting them know that they are not alone.

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Suzanne Selfors is a national bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. She’s received four Junior Library Guild awards, appeared on a dozen state lists, earned starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. The Sasquatch Escape won the WA State Book Award and was Amazon’s Best Children’s Book of 2013. She lives on a northerly island where rain falls like music, which is why she gets so much writing done.

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