Healing Through My Characters

by Julianna Holshue


Trigger Warning- Mental illness, specifically OCD and anxiety, is discussed in this post.


After having read the brilliant YA novel Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, I was compelled to try my hand at writing a young character struggling with mental illness. And as Mr. Shusterman took inspiration from his experiences, I followed suit. Wybie, my protagonist, and I both have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, which as she shows in my story, Overflowing Faucets, is subjectively defined.


According to the DSM-5, or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, OCD typically has two main components, obsessions and compulsions. The former being “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted”, and the latter being “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly” (235).


That’s an in-depth way of saying, “junk mail” thoughts get stuck and mental torture ensues. And I, like Wybie, have the same personal definition of OCD, one which is “still in progress” as each day we learn more about how to cope with this mental illness.


My experience with OCD came to a head in January 2018 when I realized I was crying multiple times a day for six months, straining my relationship with my significant other, and falling behind in some of my classes. I decided it was time to go to therapy. Getting help is one of the best decisions, if not the best decision I have ever made for myself and for my loved ones.


Please, if you have procrastinated getting help, do not wait any longer!


Therapy allowed me to understand my mental processes and what was chemically occurring in my brain, but writing was what allowed me to understand what I was feeling emotionally by giving me the space to sort through my thoughts.


While brainstorming ideas for my YA novel, I found myself analyzing my own behavior, emotions, and thoughts to use as source material for Wybie. This was an insightful experience as I realized that although my feelings were always valid, most of my thoughts were not.


Wybie did not start out as Wybie at all. Believe it or not, my first swing at creating a character was an old, southern alligator man who fixed watches. I planned out his appearance, personality, profession, fears, wishes, regrets, and pets. I even figured out all the goodies inside of his pocket, like one match box filled with seasoned (salt and hot pepper) dried flies as a snack and one old cinnamon stick wrapped in a green silk handkerchief to stir his coffee, among other pieces of scrap metal. Hot tip, you can tell a lot about a character from what they keep in their pockets.


And for some reason I got stuck on the scrap metal which anchored me to the story and allowed me to see the rest. I could feel its cold smoothness, taste its metallic flavor, feel the rough edges, see its reflection, and hear it jingle in a pocket. I pictured a character walking down the street with metal in their pockets, self conscious of the sound, thinking, “My sagging pockets sound like they are filled with little tin bells”, and then I saw Wybie and just rolled with it from there.


While writing Wybie, it was difficult at first to separate reality from fiction, to find the line between her and me. I made her family, living situation, age, and physical description different from mine, but for the most part her thoughts are mine, yet maybe slightly exaggerated. Wybie’s illogical thoughts drive her actions, feelings, and relationships, much like they did for me.


But, while creating her character, I realized the potential for comic relief behind these illogical thoughts. By using humor, I was able to turn down the volume on the severity of these intrusive thoughts. For example, one of my favorite lines in the story is when Wybie is thinking of all the bad things that could happen to her loved ones if she doesn’t follow one of her rules.


She reminds herself that, “I have to miss the final step or else something terrible will happen, like Benny will choke on a dinosaur bone he found in the trash, or in a random occurrence of spontaneous human combustion, grandma will be fried to a crisp, much like her banana bread.”


Now, let’s look at how ridiculous these worries sound. A dinosaur bone, really? When was the last time they found a dinosaur bone in a city, and how would Benny, a small cat, be able to choke on a huge bone? Now onto Wybie’s grandma. As of today, science has yet to prove the existence of spontaneous human combustion, so it is highly unlikely to occur.


And here’s the thing, I have thought about these things before. I have worried many times that my cat, Jinx, would choke on something ridiculous, or one of my loved ones would be the victim of a tragedy that probably isn’t even humanly possible! That’s the nature of OCD, worrying over irrational thoughts.


I was told by my therapist that the more you try to push away a thought either by ignoring it or distracting yourself from it, the louder it becomes. She said it’s best to accept it and face it. To laugh in its face and drain the power away from it, and I did this by creating Wybie. In the end, Wybie really wrote herself because I was writing my story and she taught me to accept my anxiety disorder and laugh at the ridiculous moments when they pop up, cause they will!


To all of you that struggle with OCD or another form of anxiety, please know that I am rooting for you and I understand your pain. I hope you can be like Wybie and accept and laugh at the nonsense her brain tries to convince her is real.


Sources:

“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, May 2013, pp. 235-237.

About the Author: Julianna is a Senior English major and Creative Writing minor. She would love to write and illustrate her own children's books as well as work as an editor and copywriter! In her free time, she enjoys baking desserts for her family, as well as making up stories about her cat, and watching her lop-eared bunny destroy cardboard. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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