Shattering Stigma as Book Advocates
My young adult novel Truest, which came out last year with HarperCollins, features a teenager with a depersonalization disorder that makes her question whether real life is actually real—or if she is just dreaming it all. To me, it’s a compelling concept, sparking thoughts around philosophy, reality, and the nature of existence, not to mention mental illness and depression. Although I’m not a doctor or psychologist, I still felt qualified to write this story. Why? Because I dealt with solipsism syndrome myself.
It was an unbelievably painful, heartbreaking time of my life. I was a year out of undergrad, and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder was a millstone around my neck as I plunged into the ocean of post-college life. On the outside, I looked fine: I’d graduated summa cum laude, settled quickly into a career, and daily entertained my new coworkers with my stories and jokes.
But then I’d go home, shut myself into my room, crawl into the corner of my bed, and battle paranoia: Were my friends really my friends? Was my view of reality the right one? Was everything I perceived to be happening just a very vivid dream? It was horrifying and lonely, purposely locking myself away from interaction with people so that they wouldn’t be given an opportunity to fool me. I remember having dinner with my best friend and her mom (who is like a second mother to me) and thinking, “I can’t let them know that I’ve caught on.”
Thankfully, these experiences were followed by life-giving advice from my favorite writing mentor, and I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, fifteen years after my earliest symptoms. This lead to five years of searching for the right medication and the right treatment, which for OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy or ERP. During that long slog, I discovered the term “solipsism syndrome,” which so perfectly described my bout of paranoia. I slipped the term into my pocket, knowing that I would write about it someday.
And so I did.
While reviews were overwhelmingly sweet and generous, I would sometimes run into reviews that said things like “Laurel is suffering from some weird disorder that I don’t even think is real” or “This is a romance novel trying to add emotional weight by including an obscure mental illness.” While from a writer-perspective, this is 110% fine for people to have their own opinions of my novel, from my advocacy-perspective, it hurt. In cases like the first, it was hard to think that the reader couldn’t take ten seconds to google it. In the second, it was hurtful to think the reader thought I was being manipulative. Statements like these just reinforced to me that we have so, so far to go to eliminate stigma around mental disorders.
I remember the first time I read Kissing Doorknobs, a novel about a girl with OCD. Even reading this children’s book as an adult impacted me deeply and I wished so hard that my elementary-aged self could have read that book. To find myself in the pages of a beloved book would have changed the trajectory of my life. I want that to be true for my novel too, and yet it is sometimes teachers and school libraries who are discounting the disorder in my novel. The very people I want to partner with to get these books into the hands of young readers are sometimes the same people who have a wall of stigma built up too high for me to vault. And that breaks my heart too.
I am not ashamed of my OCD, nor of my experiences with solipsism syndrome. But I do remember clearly the desperate loneliness of it all, and I hope my novel finds its way to the right hands and hearts. In this way, people who are book advocates (book bloggers, librarians, English teachers, etc.) have such a tremendous opportunity to shatter stigma. I so appreciate Shannon for hosting this series and for inviting me to share my story.