Hello everyone! Please welcome the return of our friend Tamsen Parker for another thoughtful guest post.
A few weeks ago I read Heidi Cullinan’s CARRY THE OCEAN. If you haven’t heard about this book, it’s a m/m New Adult romance that features one hero who has autism and one who has severe depression and anxiety. If you know anything about my reading habits, you know kink and mental illness make my one-click finger twitch. No kink here, but the blurb and the awesome cover totally sold me.
As I was reading, I found myself alternately thrilled and devastated. Not just because that’s what well-written romance does—makes us feel things deeply—but because representation is powerful.
In Jeremey, the hero with depression and anxiety, I saw myself:
“Though this is pretty much me in a nutshell. I worry about all the rules, and then panic because there’s no definitive answer to anything.” (Loc 413)
“”It makes it difficult for me to be with people, but if I’m not with people, I feel more lonely.’” (Loc 505)
“Why was everyone acting like I was sick? Like I had a heart condition, not a stupid habit of being upset in public and easily overwhelmed by life? ‘I’m fine,’ I told her again. And again.” (Loc 845)
“I’m upset because you’re upset. […] This is my best and my best isn’t good enough for you. […] I don’t know how to fix this, and I’m afraid there’s no fix” (Loc 920)
For much of my life, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety. But because of the way they manifest for me, no one realized it. It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I started seeing a therapist. I didn’t try medication until I was in graduate school.
I don’t have the type of depression that means I can’t get out of bed in the morning or makes me suicidal. I don’t have the kind of anxiety that results in panic attacks. My symptoms bleed into my shyness and introversion and even my kinks, things I believe it’s really important not to pathologize. Which makes it difficult to tell what’s okay and what’s not okay. And because the edges are so blurry, for the most part, anxiety and depression are low level unpleasant hums that make life more difficult for me but that I manage.
Until I don’t.
This has been a hard year. A really exciting one in a lot of ways, but not without difficulty. And the past month has been brutal. Mr. Parker and I have both been travelling a lot, our beloved dog passed away, we’ve been dealing with unanticipated car and home repairs, throw in some illness for good measure, and some interpersonal conflict (which, as you can imagine, I’m super with) and the stress has been through the roof. And stress exacerbates what are annoying but livable symptoms.
If you’ve received an email from me, I can pretty much guarantee I’ve read it at least half a dozen times before I pressed send. More if I don’t know you very well or if it was of particular import. And I’m still terrified I said something wrong.
I usually do well when interacting with people one-on-one, and my old job required that I regularly talk in front of large groups of people. I was good at that and I enjoyed it. Small groups are where I flounder. I get paralyzed. Because I can’t read all the cues, I can’t tailor my humor or my opinions to everyone. I don’t have the protection of being an authority, and I’m certain I’ll say something wrong or stupid. These thoughts frequently result in me saying nothing at all.
Changes in plan or routine are difficult for me. Sometimes not just difficult but completely overwhelming. Having a spouse who travels frequently and a child, period, mean that consistency is a fantasy of mine.
I’m self-aware enough to realize that sometimes my feelings are my anxiety and/or depression messing with me, but that doesn’t mean I can always sort them. Sometimes I have to check with other people—Would this make you angry? Is it rational to cry about this?—because my own feelings can’t be trusted.
I worry that I am difficult to love. Or like for that matter. Even if you’ve been nothing but kind to me, I fear that will stop. Which is why I’m often cagey with my affections. Especially with the people who mean the most to me.
I frequently want to ask for help but I don’t because it’s not that bad. And people have better things to do. Or I don’t rate that level of time or effort. When I finally told my husband that I’m afraid because I think my depression and anxiety are getting worse and he offered to help, I felt like I had failed. I’m an intelligent, educated, capable woman. Why the hell can I not handle the very basic act of existing? But as Jeremey says, “sometimes being alive is v hard” (Loc 1236).
The point of me writing this is not for people to feel bad for me. I am blessed in so many ways and my illness is manageable. I also have the resources to call in the cavalry should I need it, and—possibly more importantly—be able to admit that I need it.
The point is not that I’m unique. I’m far from the only writer afflicted. I’m not exceptional. My story is no more interesting or valuable than anyone else’s. But every time I see someone talking about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue publicly, I think to myself Thank You. Thank you for saying something. Thank you for not being ashamed or secretive. Thank you for helping me feel like I’m not alone. And thank you to Heidi for giving these two heroes a happy ending without magically “fixing” things that can’t be fixed.
The point is that I want to return the favor. To say to all of you who suffer out loud or in silence that you’re not the only one. You’re not alone. Because seeing yourself is important. Even though I use a pen name, I feel like the romance community is the place where I am the truest version of myself. So here I am—having read this post twenty times and still scared I’ve made a mistake, agonizing over revealing something that up until now I’ve kept very private—saying me, too. Because it’s important. Because sometimes knowing you’re not alone makes it less hard to be alive.
Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet Rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee. You can find out more about her and her books at tamsenparker.com.