Mental Health

Raising Children When You Have ADHD

Does having ADHD yourself affect the way you parent your own kids? Author Timothy Denevi had first-hand knowledge with both.

Diagnosed with ADHD when he was six years old, Timothy Denevi was the kid who couldn’t sit still, who spoke out of turn in class, who was humiliated by teachers who didn’t have the training or temperament to manage his issues constructively. He saw therapists and once threatened to kill himself in front of his mother after being put on Ritalin. Yet underneath all the madness was a sweet, vulnerable boy with an unusually high degree of self-awareness who was struggling to gain control over his life.

Denevi chronicles that fight in Hyper, a moving and thoughtful memoir that tells parallel stories of his own personal experience of ADHD alongside a clear but critical exploration of the medical history of ADHD, and the psychological theories, drug treatments, mistaken beliefs and advances surrounding it.

The kid who was ejected repeatedly from his third-grade classroom and made to sit by himself in the hallway is now a 39-year-old assistant professor at George Mason University. Married and the father of an 11-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, he is also the author of Freak Kingdom, a recently-published book on Hunter Thompson. We wondered about the legacy of ADHD on his life and how it influenced his role as a parent.

What form does your ADHD take now as an adult?

Probably a form of restlessness and difficulty with a sense of consequences and boundaries [or] the best way to estimate the effort I should put out and the time I should allot to do so. Like, pushing myself too hard at a sport or pushing myself too hard at writing.

What are some consequences these days of that restlessness or putting too much energy into a sport? What’s the effect on you?

With a sport, it’s fine, because as long as I don’t get hurt while I’m doing it, it tends to burn off the restlessness. [Other times,] it can throw me out of whack, like either trying to complete or finish a work of art I’m struggling with or by overreacting to and having a tough time planning out my work schedule at the university I teach at. I just [went through] a situation where for almost every instant of the day I felt overwhelmed and at the end of my abilities to be able to achieve all the different tasks I had to, because of poor planning and of overextending myself.

You’ve said that you believed that members of your family, particularly your grandfathers, struggled with ADHD-related issues. Do you see any of those traits in your own children?

I don’t see the need to burn off this excess restlessness in my children that I see in my family tree.

My son is a sweet boy. Like anyone his age, he can get distracted. He can play a video game for like 12 hours. I think he’s a normal kid. My daughter—she’s [more like me]. She’s like many of the women in my family. Her personality is very vibrant. She’s brilliant, but she is very fierce and determined and willful and exuberant. I think there’s a chance she may have some conflict because of her personality within the strictures of school, but it’s hard to say. Sixth grade was a nightmare for me, but my son is halfway through it and he’s doing great. My daughter is brilliant. She’s different than I ever was, she can sit and color a full book. She did blocks the other day. I always had to be active. I would make, like, sports games. My son is not like that. My son likes video games or he just likes to chill out. So I don’t see the overactivity. I don’t see the need to burn off this excess restlessness in my children that I see in my family tree.

You wrote a candid and revealing essay for Time magazine called “ADHD in Adulthood: To Prepare for a New Baby, I Had to Prepare My Mental Health.” You said that you thought ADHD was part of your past, but that understanding changed when your first child was born. How so?

You want to serve yourself in terms of rhythm and you’re afraid that people around you will suffer. It was a really hard time when my daughter was born. I had a new job. I was suddenly working more than I ever had. I didn’t have time to write. My wife was busier. We suddenly were strapped financially because we just bought a house, which was lovely but was difficult. It’s finally only gotten better in the last six months because my daughter’s over four years old now, we can just talk and engage, where she would just scream in the past and I would get really upset by that. I’d never been so overwhelmed as I was these past four years, working as much as I was, having a job that I didn’t understand that I’d be so busy and having that take away from my writing time.

You’re afraid that people around you will suffer.

Yet you took on another book project on Hunter Thompson. How did you manage all your responsibilities without super stressing out?

To finish the Thompson book from November 15 to March 15 of last year, I put myself on a nighttime schedule. I woke up at 5 PM and worked until 10 AM and went back to sleep. It was good because I saw the family from 5 to 7 in the evening and saw the family from 7 to 9 in the morning, but I didn’t see anybody else. I was close with them, but it was a way to avoid email distraction and politics and Internet distraction. I didn’t think I was going to make the deadline, and I was glad when I got it done.

To finish Freak Kingdom while managing his family and ADHD, Denevi had to put himself on a night schedule for six months.

After taking a deep dive in your life in Hyper and trying to make sense of your early years, how did that knowledge influence you as a parent or the way that you parent?

You start to see yourself as older versions of your children.

It helped with my son Jack. I think I was aware at the moment during which you stop seeing younger children or even 18-year-olds that you’re teaching as younger versions of yourself, but you start to see yourself as older versions of your children. And that gave me a lot more empathy toward students that I was interacting with. My son and I have a very nice relationship. [Because my wife traveled so much for her job, I spent a lot of time alone with Jack after he was born.] I spend a lot of time with [my daughter now], but I have to go to Virginia three days a week to teach, so I don’t have that luxury of time I had with my son. I have to manage things better.

In Hyper, you write about the time you were on Ritalin and threatened to kill yourself in front of your mother with a butter knife. You go on to write: “How would you respond if your own son, in the midst of taking a stimulant for hyperactivity, told you he was going to kill himself?” As a parent yourself now, how would YOU answer that question?

I would just try to do whatever I could to be there for them. The brain is often at its worst when the child is between 11 and 18 or between 9 and 20. Those are difficult times. The brain is the most complicated thing we’ve ever studied. The problem with the brain is that the variables are as many as the atoms in the universe. What’s fascinating when writing about ADHD is to see doctors really struggle to understand how to interact with these young men and women who are having such a tough time. There’s no right answer.

Whether they inherited his ADHD or not, Timothy Denevi just wants to parent his kids with understanding.

For parents who don’t have children with ADHD, what should they know about parents who are raising a child with ADHD?

The behavior is variable. Just because someone comes over to your house and has a tough time and might cause a scene or might be difficult doesn’t mean that that’s the version of the child that always exists. I think it’s pretty easy if you don’t have kids to be like, “Oh, your child is the child who can’t sit still,” when in fact it’s all about environment. There are moments when a child who is deeply overactive can be very still and engaged in a way that would surprise those parents.

It always gets better. It really does.

What advice would you give to parents of a child with ADHD-related issues?

It always gets better. It really does. The effort that’s put out by the parents will pay off exponentially down the line. If you’re a parent who can minimize the conflict that comes from ADHD in order to help your child through the conflict or to get perspective on the conflict, that’s the best way. Here’s a parent that the child knows will always be there and is not going away. I think that’s the best thing because it’s going to get better later.

Essays Mental Health

What My Students Don’t Know About My Mental Health

Being a high school teacher is challenging enough before you add anxiety, depression, and ADD into the mix.

By 8 a.m., sweat has soaked through my shirt. I am overweight, so most people assume the sweat is because I am out of shape. The secondary students in my English Language Arts classes are particularly rude about it, pointing out the dark stains on my chest and underarms.

“Mr. Sweeney, why you sweatin’?” a student says in the underdeveloped vernacular of the poverty-stricken area our school serves in Richmond, Virginia. “You ain’t doin’ nothin’.”

A ruder student grins and shouts, “Mr. Sweeney, you sweat ‘cause you fat.”

Then they laugh. Always, they laugh.

The students’ assumptions about my sweat are only partly true–I am out of shape, after all–but there’s more to the sweat that I am afraid to tell them.

“I get hot when I’m working hard,” I reply. On rare occasions, when I’m feeling especially chipper, I may say something more combative, like: “Mature people sweat; you’ll find out one day.” This usually gets a laugh out of one or two students.

I forgive them. They’re just kids, after all. Most of them don’t see me as a person: they see me as their teacher.

Still, the remarks sting. Because I am a person: in particular, a person struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mild ADD. And while my sweating may draw attention to my weight issues, it’s not caused by it.

I sweat because it’s a side effect of Effexor, the go-to medication to treat anxiety. Ironic, really. It forms a perfect loop: the kids notice me sweating, they make comments about it, which makes me more depressed and anxious, which makes me need Effexor.

But, of course, I can’t tell anyone this.

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors, lest they think that my mental acuity has been somehow compromised. It hasn’t, but the stigma around mental health in education runs deep.

My mental health challenges can often make my job more stressful. My principal wants me to appear organized and clean, but my ADD often leads to clutter. When I grade students’ essays, parents me to challenge them to succeed to greater heights, but my depression sometimes affects my mood while grading, making such efforts difficult. Students look to me for answers, but my anxiety causes me to sometimes make mistakes, like muddling my words or misspelling something on the blackboard.

“How you gonna teach us to write and you can’t spell?” a student says. In response, I tell the student that writing isn’t as much about spelling as it is about putting ideas across.

Mental acuity, communication: these are the most prized skills in education. Anxiety and depression may occasionally effect little things like spelling, but they do not impact my ability to communicate ideas or think critically.

As I’ve learned in therapy, life is a series of coping skills. My mental conditions are nothing to be ashamed about.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness. What one may call clutter, I like to call systemized chaos.  When students want advice, I can empathize to the best of my ability and be honest.

A plump young girl in glasses taps my shoulder.

“Mr. Sweeney, doesn’t it hurt your feelings when these other students call you fat?”

“It does hurt,” I admit.

“How do you deal with that?”

I have rehearsed the answer many times in my head. I’m almost excited that she asked.

“I remind myself that I have ideas and abilities that make me unique. And I work in a profession where I get to show off my intelligence and pass these valuable things on to others. That feels better than the hurt.”

She adjusts her glasses, and makes my day.

“Mr. Sweeney, it doesn’t matter if you sweat,” she says. “I like your class.”

Essays Mental Health

Watching My Way To Wellness

My mental health drove me to my mother's couch. What drove me to recovery was the relationship with her I formed, watching birds out her window.

I had never really been very interested in birds. Except ducks. I liked ducks. But birds, I thought they were not for me. That was then. Over the last few months, things have changed. They’ve changed a lot.

For most of my life I’ve struggled with severe anorexia. Late last year I had a significant relapse, which saw me requiring hospital. Desperate to avoid a return, I decided to give up my job, flat, and life in London to return back to my parents in Kent, England, at the age of 30, and have them help me eat again and gain weight. The process has not been without its challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine. But one silver lining, and there is always one, is that my mum and I have become even closer than we were before. One of the ways we’ve bonded is through birds.

My mother has always been interested in birds, and would try to impart her knowledge to us children as we grew up. Now there was a new opportunity to do so.

Becoming A Twitcher

It started over breakfast. The thing about recovering from anorexia is that you have to eat a lot, even by normal standards, and move very little, barely at all. Added to this that I was very frail and cold, and it didn’t make any sense for us to be going out very much. So my early days as a ‘twitcher’ happened from the comfort of our living room.

Sitting there with cereal in one hand and coffee in the other, we’d watch the dark November skies get brighter. And with no job to be running to or place to be, I had the time to sit, and watch. Watch the birds out there in our small suburban garden. For many the little sparrow isn’t exciting, but it was the first bird that I learned to properly recognize. The colorful goldfinch was another frequent visitor, and I loved to see their bright red faces frolic in the low sky.

The thing about recovering from anorexia is that you have to eat a lot, and move very little… So my early days as a ‘twitcher’ happened from the comfort of our living room.

One of the first trips out involved a visit to the local Poundstore for some peanuts for the birds. Dad filled the feeder and hung it up with wire. Now I could watch the birds eat breakfast whilst I did the same. We had to be careful, as the large magpies would barge some of the smaller birds out of the way. I’d always only known magpies by people’s muttering or saluting. Now I knew them as the bully of our garden. And of course, there were the red breasted robins. As Christmas came that year, for the first time I had seen more in the garden than I had on cards.

There was one bird that we didn’t init≈ially recognize. The reddish crest and black streaked eyes of this small bird were not familiar to Mum, and we had to leaf through the large bird encyclopedia. All the way to ‘W.’ It turns out that waxwings only come to the UK gardens in winter once every seven to eight years when the berry crop fails in their native Scandinavia. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 2017 Birdwatch survey waxwings were seen in around 19 times more gardens in the south east of England in 2017 compared with previous years.

The Health Benefits of Bird Watching

Many of the health benefits associated with bird watching are related to the fact that it encourages people to get out in the fresh air and have a change of scenery. Near us is Singleton Nature Reserve, a small community space consisting of semi natural broadleaf woodland, new woodland planting, mixed scrub and lowland meadow areas. It was a great space for some fresh air for the patient, and a gentle walk with my mum. The community woodland is home for a number of birds including endangered species such as skylarks and yellowhammers.  We were lucky enough to see the latter, and the brightly colored yellowhammer was an arresting sight against the grey skies of January, its white tail feathers fading into the clouds in flight. There’s also an excellent café at the visitor centre. It was time for tea and biscuits.

I had a memory from my childhood of driving through purple carpets. It turns out that the location was King’s Wood in Challock, Kent, and that magical carpet, bluebells. The 1500 acre wood was once a royal hunting ground, and a herd of deer still roam the wood. We didn’t see any of those, but by now I was more a fan of winged creatures anyway. The resident tits were in abundance – blue, great, coal, marsh and longtail – and if we listened closely the song thrush could be heard. Sweet Chestnut, Corsican Pine and Douglas Fir make up most of the woods, and along the trunks we watched treecreepers hopping up and down, heard the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers, whilst it was out in the carpark that we spotted green woodpeckers hopping along, looking for some sustenance.

Creative Commons photo by James Sensor.

As the days grew brighter and I grew stronger we ventured further afield. April saw us head down on the marshy coast of Kent to the Dungeness Bird Sanctuary. With open flat land filled with rushes and shingle, willow scrub and bramble bushes runs along a moat and bank and a shingle trapping area, the landscape is ideal for spotting both native and migratory birds. Walking the paths where purple orchids blossomed we saw and heard yellow chests of willow warblers and the slender green chiffchaffs. I was unable to tell the difference, but Mum is both more keen eyed and musical than I am, and recognized the difference in their melodies.

Dungeness is on the narrowest point of the English Channel, and is an important migration point. Out above the grey sea there were swathes of the common terns vying with gulls for our attention – or more likely some fish. The speckled down of the tern reminded me of the shingle of the beach, so different in size to the seagull we see all the time trying to get into bins and wrestling with tourists for their chips. And on the drive home through the Romney Marsh we were lucky to spot a peregrine falcon hovering above a stream, ready for dinner. Just like I was.

Recovery Through Watching

As summer came and the breakfasts grew bigger, the birdlife in our garden changed. With more energy I became more animated, and excited to see the latest visitors. It was over some dippy egg and soldiers that I first learned of the grey plume of jackdaws, and just why the pied wagtail got its name. We saw the white Vs on the wings of the great tit as it tried to beat away smaller birds from the bird feeder. I was going out and about more, and on gentle strolls I would see the bright little heads of moorhens, and recognize the familiar coo of woodpigeons. I would get excited at seeing a sparrow, just because I knew what it was.

I still struggle to tell the difference between a blackbird, crow and magpie at a distance, but I’m getting there.

It’s not only me that has found health benefits through bird watching. A 2017 study by the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland, published in Bioscience, found a positive correlation between the number of birds, trees and shrubs that people could see, and their mental health. It’s a meditative pursuit that can reduce stress levels and encourage awareness.

I still struggle to tell the difference between a blackbird, crow and magpie at a distance, but I’m getting there. Certain foods still scare me, but it’s a process. And Mum and I have always been close, but now we have a shared interest. It’s been a journey.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Airwolfhound.

Disability Mental Health Roundups

5 TV Shows That Get Disability Right

From Stranger Things to Keeping Up With The Kardashians, here's five shows that refuse to look at chronic illness and disability through an able-bodied lens.

When it comes to representations of disability and chronic illness in popular culture, it’s easy to be frustrated. Anyone that knows me will attest that I often lament the lack of realistic depictions of disability on TV, which is all too glaringly obvious when you spend the majority of your life propped up in bed with your laptop, like me. (I could probably get up: I just choose Netflix).

Any disabled or sick person will tell you that seeing an inaccurate depiction of the condition they’re toxically glued to for the rest of their life hurts. For instance, I found ballet show Flesh & Bone gripping until one of the dancers discovered she had MS, and her diagnosis was as hamfisted as a Joss Whedon rewrite.

But all is not lost. There are shows that are getting accurate representation right. These television shows refused to be lazy, and instead dared to get disability right… in some cases, even daring to cast disabled actors in disabled roles (Eddie Redmayne, take a seat).

If you want to support the change you’d like to see in television, here are five television shows that get disability right.

Breaking Bad

A man with cerebral palsy talks to a bald man in glasses in a living room with plaid curtains in the background.

RJ Mitte as Walt Junior in Breaking Bad.

RJ Mitte’s depiction of drug lord Walter White’s son remains one of the strongest examples of a disabled actor being cast in a role which doesn’t focus on his disability. That’s important, because the part could’ve so easily gone to an able-bodied, Mickey Mouse Club reject. Living with cerebral palsy in real life, Mitte’s character had the condition, but it didn’t have him. Walter White Jr. was never defined by his disability, and is basic proof that just as Shonda Rhimes employs colorblind casting on all of her shows, an actor’s physical or mental impairments shouldn’t limit their chance to audition for any part. Plus, Walter’s dad, as a person with cancer who’s undergoing aggressive therapies, is a literal disabled badass, and I invite you to fight me.

American Horror Story

Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome, is one of the core cast members of American Horror Story.

Actor Sarah Paulson recently said of American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy (via Variety): “His unfaltering commitment to telling the stories of women is noteworthy. This is a man who wants to tell the stories of women over 40.” And the same is true when it comes to casting disabled actors in unexpected roles. One such disabled actor is Jamie Brewer, a woman with Down Syndrome who’s played clairvoyant witches, cult members, and creepy dolls, and continues to recur on the series even now. Plus, Inside Edition recently called Brewer the “First Woman With Down Syndrome to Star in Off-Broadway Play,” and if that’s true, it’s no mean feat that the prolific performer is blazing a trail and hopefully, instigating a major change.

You’re the Worst

Gretchen Cutler of You’re The Worst struggled with depression.

Gretchen Cutler could’ve been a cookie cutter anti-rom-com heroine, breezing through her character arc on too much booze, sex, and witty repartee. Instead, when You’re the Worst returned for a second season, Gretchen revealed herself to have the sort of show-stopping depression that ends lives, and destroys relationships. For anyone familiar with clinical depression, breakout sitcom You’re the Worst became agonizing to watch because its representation was so damn close. When viewed next to fellow character Edgar Quintero’s PTSD, You’re the Worst significantly defined itself as the sitcom that wouldn’t sugarcoat mental health even for a second.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

Kim Kardashian struggled with anxiety on Keeping Up With The Kardashians after being robbed at gun point.

Love them or hate them, the Kardashians are honest when it comes to the truly negative and difficult-to-handle aspects of life. And when Kim Kardashian West was robbed at gunpoint in Paris in 2016, she developed a serious case of anxiety as a result, and viewers were given glimpses of her agonizing reality with the disabling condition. And despite mainly being off-camera these days, Rob Kardashian’s diagnosis with diabetes punctuated his own reality series, Rob & Chyna. Whether or not you agree with the Kardashian brother’s approach to handling his chronic condition, his denial and refusal to face up to the realities of the illness were endlessly relatable for any of us who have ever struggled to come to terms with our own diagnoses.

Stranger Things

Gaten Matarazzo of the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things.

Gaten Matarazzo finally got his big break when the creators of Stranger Things decided to write the actor’s disability—cleidocranial dysplasia, a condition which affects the development of a person’s bones and teethinto the script. In a recent interview, Matarazzo revealed that he’d lost out on several auditions in the past, “Because they couldn’t write in a disability into the show because they had already written the script” (via HuffPost). However, as the casting process for Stranger Things proves, there’s literally zero reason that any role should be defined as able-bodied in the character description. It just shouldn’t, and doesn’t need to, happen anymore.

What These Shows All Get Right

These shows might all be majorly different in content and tone, but they’re linked by the fact that they’re not framed through an able-bodied lens. Instead, each depiction, regardless of genre, explores the highs, lows, and mundane details of disability, chronic illness, or mental health. Even more important is the fact that actual, real life, bonafide disabled people were cast in roles that were rewritten completely or simply created for them. Rather than farming out these roles to able-bodied actors, casting directors, creators, and show-runners took the time to consider disability. And in the cases of Matarazzo, Brewer, and Mitte, character arcs were altered for the better thanks to the actors portraying them.

These shows might all be majorly different in content and tone, but they’re linked by the fact that they’re not framed through an able-bodied lens.

Whether there’s strictly a “right” way to handle disability in the arts is questionable, but thanks to the growing number of crucially truthful roles for disabled and sick performers, the television landscape is getting more and more relatable. For instance, the first show by and starring Maysoon Zayid, co-founder of New York’s Arab-American Comedy Festival, is called Can-Can and is currently being developed at ABC. The autobiographical sitcom will (per Variety) follow a “Muslim woman who has Cerebral Palsy (Zayid), as she struggles to find love, the right career, and discover who she is separate of her opinionated Muslim parents,” which sounds super promising, and a little overdue.

It’s time that the stories of chronically ill and disabled human beings weren’t erased, glossed over, or summarized in a “case of the week” episode on a generic medical show. Sick people are tired as it is without having to fend off another inaccurate, depressing, or infuriating depiction of their well-worn diagnosis. And thanks to the television shows above, that’s slowly starting to change.

Chronic Illness Features Mental Health Roundups

The Best Podcasts For People With Health Conditions

Five podcasts that will make you laugh and feel less isolated as you deal with a chronic health condition or disability.

You can already tell: it’s going to be one of those days. Your symptoms are spiking, it’s impossible to focus on anything and you’ll be lucky if you make it out of bed. On days like these, sometimes it just helps to feel understood. Other times, a motivating kick in the pants is what’s required. That’s where podcasts come in.

Isolation can be a major side effect of chronic illness, but fortunately, podcasts are trying to change that. Just ask Michael James, an avid podcast listener who has lived with a balance disorder for over 19 years,.

“Probably the best thing about the Internet has been that it connects people who may have previously felt completely isolated and alone, and this is especially true for people with health challenges,” he says. “At their best, health-related podcasts remind me that I’m not alone; relax or shift my mood and/or perspective; and clear new paths for thinking about my health challenges.”

Here are some of our favorite podcasts for people managing chronic health conditions.

Made Visible

Made Visible podcast logo.

Made Visible

What it is: According to founder Harper Spero, “Made Visible is a podcast that gives a voice to people with invisible illnesses. The podcast aims to change the conversation around invisible illnesses, helping those who experience them —whether as patients, caregivers, or friends or family members — feel more seen and heard.”

What to expect: A 40-ish minute interview with an individual about their invisible illness, how they cope and what they’ve been able to achieve despite their setbacks. Recent topics included Job’s syndrome, depression, addiction and narcolepsy. Listener Jennifer Rapp comments, “The openness of Harper and her guests gives me insight into the experiences of those who are managing illnesses in their lives. I feel a great sense of gratitude for the generosity of the guests sharing their stories.”

Good for: Hearing about other people’s journeys with chronic conditions.

Listen and subscribe to the Made Visible podcast here. 

The One You Feed

The One You Feed podcast logo.

The One You Feed

What is is: This podcast is based on a parable about two wolves and how the one you “feed” is the one that survives.

What to expect: Host Eric Zimmer begins each episode by asking the guest for his or her interpretation of the parable. Then the interview continues, focusing on how other people keep themselves moving in the right direction. Topics center on mind-body connection, wisdom, motivation, and philosophy.

Good for: While not specifically a podcast about health conditions, this is a fantastic one to tune in to when you need to work on your mindfulness.

Listen and subscribe to The One You Feed podcast here.


Mr. Sickboy podcast logo.


What it is: Three friends get together in this podcast to break down the stigma associated with illness and disease.

What to expect: Irreverent, funny and graphic, this podcast makes you feel like you’re instant friends with the hosts and their guests. A warning, though: it can be medically graphic and cringe-inducing. This is one of our favorites: “I appreciate how dark humor can help shift my perspective on what is a pretty unfunny situation (chronic illness),” says Michael James.

Good for: when you need to laugh about the situations that occur from chronic illness.

Listen and subscribe to the Sickboy podcast here.

Invisible Not Broken

Invisible Not Broken podcast

Invisible Not Broken

What it is: Host Monica Michelle describes Invisible Not Broken as “a podcast that interviews people with chronic and often invisible illness along with panel episodes about issues that affect us with disabilities.”

What to expect: A casual, hour-long conversation covering a range of topics—from sexuality to travel to holiday survival—all within the parameters of invisible illness. Episodes are often filled with practical tips and advice, like good gift recommendations for “spoonies,” (people with chronic illness) and how to travel.

Good for: when you feel like sitting with friends and chatting.

Listen and subscribe to the Invisible Not Broken podcast here.

Mental Illness Happy Hour

Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast logo

Mental Illness Happy Hour

What it is: Whether you suffer from mental illness on its own or as a side condition to another chronic ailment, Mental Illness Happy Hour was designed to make you not feel so alone. Comedian Paul Gilmartin aims to break down the stigma associated with anxiety, depression, phobias and more and brings the listener into a welcoming cocoon of solidarity.

What to expect: Each episode lasts at least an hour, and contains an interview with a guest who discusses his or her own particular struggles. Paul then reads listener mail and discusses issues such as shame, keeping secrets, and struggling with depression.

Good for: when you need to feel like there are other people out there who struggle.

Listen and subscribe to the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast here.

Advice Explainers Mental Health

How To Go To Therapy

Think you don't need therapy? Think again: therapy is for everyone. But there's a right way to do it, and a wrong way.

A lot of people think therapy is only for people who have psychological problems.

Let’s put that stigma to rest. Everyone can benefit from therapy. It’s like going to the gym: going to therapy helps you live a happier, healthier, and more productive life, even if it seems like a drag at the start.

“The biggest misconception about therapy is that you need to have a problem or that there is something wrong with you in order for you to go,” explains Justyna Wawrzonek,  a licensed social worker at the West Hartford Holistic Counseling Center in Connecticut. “That is not what therapy is about. Therapy is basically learning to come home to yourself and be as close to yourself as you can be.”

So even if you think you don’t need a therapist, you should consider making an appointment to see one. It’s an investment into your own wellness every bit as important as eating right, exercising, or the myriad other things people do to improve their quality of life.

But how do you start? How do you find a therapist? And how do you make the most of it?

How to Find a Therapist

First things first. Before you begin the search for a therapist, check with your insurance company.  If you choose to work with a therapist in-network, your insurance company may only cover a certain amount of sessions per year. If you select a therapist who is out-of-network, it is essential to understand your deductible as well as what can and cannot be submitted for out-of-network reimbursement.

Your insurance company’s list of eligible therapists can be overwhelming, so review their specialties. As an adult, you can cross off any therapist that specializes in children or adolescents. Depending on your age, you can either seek out or cross off those who serve geriatric patients. If you are confident that you do not suffer from a specific condition—such as an eating disorder, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression—you can eliminate those specialists as well. However, it’s important to recognize that while you think you understand why you are seeking therapy, once in therapy you may discover there is a different reason entirely.

It’s important to recognize that while you think you understand why you are seeking therapy, once in therapy you may discover there is a different reason entirely.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, ask your primary care provider for recommendations. You can also check with friends and family if you feel comfortable. Next, rule out deterrents such as location, cost, or lack of appointment flexibility. Then set up initial interviews and ask a series of questions about their approach. This will help you determine if the therapist seems genuine and empathic, if they listen well, and if they ask good questions. During this interview, pay attention to how you two interact: some patients, for example, prefer their therapists to be blunt, while others want their therapists to be more affirming.

What to Expect from Therapy

“In an ongoing therapeutic relationship, you will develop a stronger bond with a therapist,” explains Brian Cassmassi, an adult psychiatrist. “You may not become best friends, but there is definitely a friendlier and easy rapport. Plus, it’s a lot easier to talk about what happened with your days and for the therapist to recall things that may have happened in your past that can clarify a current situation.”

As you become more comfortable with your therapist and continue to learn about yourself, you will develop a growing awareness of the patterns in your life, and how these patterns influence the way you feel and behave. This is what therapy is ultimately about: to gain a deeper understanding of the way everything in your life ties it together.

“Therapy should be challenging and hard—that’s when you know that you are growing.”

“You are the expert of your life,” Wawrzonek explains. “You know where you need to go, what you need to do, and what you want out of life. But you may not know exactly how to get there. It’s the therapist’s job to walk along with the client and help them sort through all the different roadblocks. It is not the therapist’s job to take the client’s hand and lead them somewhere. The client is always in the driver’s seat, and the therapist is using their best judgment as to what may be helpful for their client.”

“Therapy should be challenging and hard—that’s when you know that you are growing,” Wawrzonek continues. “But it also has to have a component of feeling safe, nurturing, and supportive. Without it being hard, safe and supportive, there is something that is missing. All of those components are important.”

What Not to Do in Therapy

Believe it or not, self-sabotage can be common in therapy.

Some of these examples of self-sabotage are obvious. It should go without saying that if you are chronically late or miss the majority of your appointments, you aren’t getting the full benefits of therapy.

But keeping secrets and not being totally honest will also sabotage your therapeutic goals. If your therapist isn’t working with the truth, it’s hard for them to understand what is happening in your life. Therapists aren’t there to judge you or your actions, regardless of their personal beliefs, so don’t be afraid to share.

Your therapist can’t change the world, but they can help you to change yourself.

“If there is a topic that is way too sensitive for you to discuss with your therapist at the moment, but you know it’s important, it may be helpful just to say, ‘there was this rape that happened when I was a teenager, but don’t touch that right now,’” Cassmassi recommends. “During a later session, if you say you were uncomfortable with your boss touching you a certain way last night, the therapist may ask if you want to talk about the rape now or if you still want to talk about your boss.”

Playing the blame game is just as bad. Instead of blaming others for a problem, your therapy should focus on the things you can control. Your therapist can’t change the world, but they can help you to change yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid To Switch Therapists

It’s common to develop a strong connection with your therapist over the years.  Because of this, it may be hard to recognize and accept that you are no longer progressing with your therapist. But if therapy has become a weekly obligation and you are no longer growing, then it may be time for a change.

Remember, therapy is for you, and you should always put yourself first in this relationship. When it is time for a switch, don’t worry about how the therapist will handle the news.

“By the time that somebody is a practicing therapist or psychiatrist, they have gone through thousands of hours of supervision and training,” Cassmassi explains. “While you may think you will hurt our feelings if you leave us, that has been hammered out of us from our training. We are usually well-trained to adapt, and you aren’t going to completely break our hearts if you want to switch.”

Remember: Therapy Is For Everyone

When people haven’t gone to therapy before, they tend to believe it’s only something you do when something is “wrong” with you. But there’s nothing wrong at all with wanting to gain a better understanding of your world, and the tools that therapy teaches us to use—like mindfulness, or coping skills–have broad applications in everything from your career to your love life. .

“One of the things I often hear is, ‘why didn’t someone tell me this in elementary school so that I had this defense skill in my repertoire when I became an adult?’” Cassmassi recalls. “When people finally go to therapy as an adult, they feel like they wish they had at least known a simple trick to help them get through their teenage years. Patients also say, ‘I wish I had that under my belt when I was going through all of this. Maybe those skills would have helped me with some of the minor things, and I would have felt slightly less anxious.’”

“The most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself.”

And, it provides a safe place for you to learn and grow under the guidance of a professional who has your best interest in mind.

“The most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself,” says Wawrzonek. “And when we can nurture and foster and grow and have a healthy relationship with ourselves, that is going to mirror every other relationship that we have in the world: work, family, and friends. The deeper you get to be yourself, be okay with yourself, accept yourself, love yourself, and be your own best friend, that greatly benefits every area of your life.”

Essays Mental Health

My Threesome With An Eating Disorder

Dating is hard. Dating while trying to keep your anorexia in check is even harder.

First date jitters are normal. But when you’ve spent your life wrestling with an eating disorder, those jitters can quickly overpower you.

On my first date after a long hiatus, I was consumed with anxiety, not about my date, but about the menu. Instead of worrying about witty banter, or getting to know my date, I spent all my time trying to figure out the calorie content of each dish. Would I go over my calorie limit if I ordered a cocktail? If I asked him to split an entrée, would he think I was cheap? Would it be weird if I ordered something off the kid’s menu?

Fighting against the tidal wave of neurotic thoughts, I finally managed to order a salad.

My date immediately scoffed. “Oh, you’re one of those girls.”

Is it too late to swipe left?

How To Tell Your Date About Your Eating Disorder?

Telling potential love interests about my illness is something I’m never ready for, never quite know how to do. When’s the “right time” and how should it be done? If they ask me to dinner, should I say I’d rather go to the park? If I have to cancel my date because my body dysmorphia suddenly renders me incapable of leaving the room, should I explain why, or risk seeming unreliable? Would it be better just to put it on my dating profile and be done with it:  Hi, I’m a Virgo, my Hogwarts House is Hufflepuff, and I’m battling anorexia.

I’m not ashamed of my illness—I’m managing it as best I can, and actively working to be healthier. But when you tell someone you have anorexia, it changes their opinion of you: suddenly, instead of being the woman who can quote from every line from Moonstruck, you’re now the woman with a mental illness. Both things are true about me, but I feel like I have to choose between the two—to appear normal, or to appear ill.

You can tell someone what an eating disorder is, but they’ll never be prepared until they experience it.

And that never necessarily goes away. You can tell someone what an eating disorder is, but they’ll never be prepared until they experience it.

In my last relationship, I met my significant other at a conference where I led a panel my first-hand experience with anorexia. Afterwards, I was deeply touched when he came up to me after and told me how powerful my presentation was. But two years later, at the bitter end of our relationship, he cited my eating disorder as a reason. “You knew what you were getting when you met me!” I shouted at him.

He shrugged: “I thought you were over it.”

Meet Edna

I gave the violent being inside me leeching off my body the name Edna.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. I am one of them. My severe eating disorder affects my both my physical wellbeing and my emotional health, and spills into every aspect of my life, including dating.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any mental illness, yet I am still called one of those girls for ordering a salad.

I’ve had an eating disorder since I was fourteen years old. It started as bulimia, then turned into anorexia by the time I was 18. No one ever told me about eating disorders, so I didn’t know I had one: I only knew that something was wrong with me, a deeply-rooted internal wound I could not reach. To describe what was wrong with me,  I gave the violent being inside me leeching off my body the name Edna. It was a coping mechanism of sorts: these thoughts are so intrusive, so never-ending, it’s like they’re coming from another source, so giving it a name helped me deal.

Author Ellen Ricks.

An Uncomfortable Love Triangle

Edna was, and still is to this day, a constant voice in my head. She tells me what to do, what to eat, and how much to weigh. She calls me names: fat, lazy, unlovable. When I cave to her wishes, she holds my hair back while I throw up, telling me what a good job I’m doing. And when I’m in a relationship with someone… well, like it or not, they’re in a relationship with Edna too.

When I’m in a relationship with someone… well, like it or not, they’re in a relationship with Edna too.

So when I date, what my partner might want me to do is the exact opposite of what Edna wants. If they want me to eat, Edna wants me to lie. If my partner tells me I’m beautiful and sexy, Edna tells me I’m hideous. It’s a constant tug-of-war between a boyfriend who wants to save me, and the illness that wants to consume me. And both of my partners are powerfully jealous of one another.

So I suppose it’s no surprise when the men who tell me I’m beautiful and brave eventually call me suffocating and a burden. I imagine it must have been hard to watch me slowly kill myself by loving an illness over them. But Edna doesn’t want to share me.

Dumping Edna

A few months ago, I was talking with an ex of mine when he said something insightful about my illness. “You’re like a junkie,” he told me. “It’s difficult to be in your life.”

I flinched. The comment hurt, but he was right. I am very difficult to be with because I love Edna more than anything else in my life. I’m stuck in my own abusive relationship: I keep coming back to Edna, even though I know she could one day kill me. And when I do so, I did not choose my mental illness, but I made a choice to not get better.

I feel like I’m finally ready to ditch the third wheel and swiping right on a healthier me.

After many years of failed romantic relationships, forging a healthy relationship with myself felt nearly impossible. But I think I’ve finally learned that being well is like learning a language or playing an instrument: it’s a skill.  It takes a lot of practice, and you have to practice every day. I started out being terrible at stability, but with years of practice, I’m slightly less bad. And I hope that means something.

After years of falling for the unwell voice, I feel like I’m finally ready to ditch the third wheel and swiping right on a healthier me.

Chronic Illness Disability Mental Health The Good Fight Vision & Hearing Loss

The Big-Hearted Org That Brings Scuba Diving To Everyone

Disability doesn't exist underwater. Founded by Jim Elliott, Diveheart is an Illinois-based organization that wants to make sure everyone can experience what that's like.

Scuba diving is the only gravity-free activity in the world. For the physically impaired, this is an especially attractive fact. “The obstacles that individuals with disabilities face on land disappear in this forgiving gravity-free underwater world,” says Jim Elliot, the founder of Diveheart, an Illinois-based organization which submerges the disabled. The organization works both in pools and open water and now has programs from Atlanta to Asia. They are the world’s leading force in adaptive scuba diving.

The idea for Diveheart, which Elliot started in 2000, came about while instructing a group of blind people in skiing. His oldest daughter, who is blind, was involved. Elliot was struck by the enormous psychological benefits that the activity afforded the participants and wondered how it could be expanded. “I got to thinking, ‘Gosh, you can only ski at certain times and in certain places but there’s a pool in every community,’” Elliot recalls. Some years later, Elliot left his job in the media business to build Diveheart. Though founded with his own money in Illinois, the organization is now supported by individuals and foundations around the world. Diveheart has trained “well over 1,000 instructors” in the Caribbean, Malaysia, China, Australia, Israel, England, Singapore and hundreds of cities in the U.S. Recently they launched a team in Borneo.

“The obstacles that individuals with disabilities face on land disappear in the forgiving gravity-free underwater world [of scuba]…”

The organization works with all kinds of disabilities and conditions, from muscular dystrophy to blindness to those suffering with PTSD. Instructors work within a unique training program that Elliot developed, part of which involves trainers undergoing disabled “simulations”, having to do the lessons with a given disability. Diveheart also participates regularly in university research studies aimed at figuring out the various therapeutic benefits that diving affords to the mentally and physically handicapped. We reached out to Elliot to hear more.

An older man with a shaved head in scuba gear helps a disabled man in a wheelchair into the water,

Jim Elliott, founder of Dive Heart, helps a student into the water for the first time.

How did you first get involved in adaptive scuba?

I have a long history of working with people with disabilities. My dad was a disabled army vet; growing up one of my best friends had cerebral palsy and I’d walk him to school because the bullies would pick on him otherwise. I married a lady with two boys and they had their issues, healthwise, and then we had two children together. My oldest daughter was blind and my youngest ended up having scoliosis. I was a journalism major at Northern Illinois University. I started diving thinking that if I ever met Jacques Cousteau as a journalist I better know how to scuba dive. I just fell in love with it.

How did you get Diveheart off the ground?

I started diving thinking that if I ever met Jacques Cousteau as a journalist I better know how to scuba dive. I just fell in love with it.

My youngest daughter went to Shriners Hospital to have work done on her spine. I knew quite a few people with physical disabilities from there. When I first started I had this idea for the trademark, the dive heart, and I went to a trademark attorney friend of mine. I told him my crazy idea. He and his partners decided to handle all of the legal registration stuff pro-bono. They’ve been watching our back ever since and haven’t taken a dime. Could not have done it without them. We initially started with Shriners Hospital and the Rehab Institute of Chicago then started working with the VA hospitals and special rec associations. We began to expand. I started teaching instructors all over. I became the number one instructor trainer in the world for adaptive diving.

A group of dozen or so scuba divers, many of whom are disabled or in wheelchairs, posing on land in a group shot.

Diveheart is the world’s leading organization for adaptive scuba diving.

How did you learn how to train others?

Having created a training program for the blind ski group, and working with my own kids, I had a fount of knowledge that was very helpful. There were some organizations out there and I compared what training programs worked best. We worked a few for some years but I saw a lot of flaws and about five years ago we launched our own training program and certifying organization. Now we train instructors all over the world and have really become the cutting edge training program for adaptive scuba.

What is the training course like for divers?

We require the person to begin training through a standard agency, like PADI. They learn the basic science of diving (the number one PADI program in the world is in Key Largo and they do our programs every month). They go through that as far as they can then they come to Diveheart. They get a book and do online training. Then we get them in a pool. That’s maybe all they want to do. But if they want more we get them into open water. If they can’t afford to take one of our trips, then we have scholarships.

What is some of the research Diveheart has been involved in?

When autistic divers go underwater the ambient pressure is soothing, like a weighted blanket.

With Midwestern University we did the first study on autism and scuba therapy. In most cases this is a cognitive disability but sometimes there’s a physical component as well. When autistic divers go underwater the ambient pressure is soothing, like a weighted blanket. Going underwater also eliminates surface distractions, like a sensory deprivation room. That helps them focus. I remember we once took a kid who was non-verbal, who stood up at the end of a twenty minute session in four feet of water and said to the teacher, “That was amazing, I’d like to try that again.” Our mouths just fell open.

Researchers from the University of Illinois found, working with our participants around the country, that the very first pool session is the most powerful. That’s the one that creates the paradigm shift. Suddenly it’s not Johnny in a wheelchair anymore, it’s Johnny the scuba diver.
In 2011, doctors from John Hopkins found that when you get deep it creates a serotonin kick. They were working with one of the teams we had trained down in Cayman. Eighty percent of the PTSD symptoms of the veterans involved in the study were alleviated on this trip. We knew anecdotally that diving helps with pain management. We’ve had guys with chronic pain say to us on dive trips that they become pain-free for the first time. It’ll last that whole week then two additional weeks after.

A bald man helps a man with cerebral palsy into the water for a diving lesson.

Diveheart has trained “well over 1,000 instructors” to help disabled divers feel empowered underwater.

Right now we’re doing research with Northwestern and Midwestern universities on developing a ventilator system that will allow for fully paralyzed divers to get deeper. We’re working with university medical researchers in Malaysia as well. The top people in tourism there want to make Malaysia a destination for adaptive scuba, which is really exciting.

What are some ways in which you have seen scuba change lives?

We had one Marines veteran, Greg Rodriguez, who had a traumatic brain injury. He tried to commit suicide twice before he came to us. He told me, “What the doctors said I have is a traumatic brain injury but I call it my worst nightmare. But Diveheart changed everything.” Diving turned his life around. We also had a young girl who was a barefoot water-skiing champion, Amber Rangel. She caught a jump wrong at nineteen, landed on her head and is now a C5 quad. She was so depressed she wouldn’t leave her room. Her sister drug her screaming to one of our events.

If someone is born with a disability, it could be the first time in their life they see themselves upright. That’s the high for me

When I got her standing up underwater and she looked down and saw herself vertically, using her breath to control her buoyancy, totally independent, she said, “Oh my god, I’m standing up for the first time since my injury.” This happens a lot. If someone is born with a disability, it could be the first time in their life they see themselves upright. That’s the high for me: seeing someone get that aha moment. It just changes everything. Now they focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. That inspires people around them, too. It’s a ripple effect that really can touch society.

Mental Health Profiles

President Of The Drowning Girls Club

With her popular series of designs symbolizing issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, tattoo artist Fidjit is helping people like her struggling with their mental health.

On the underside of her chin, tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle has the words “I don’t scare easy” inked in bold black letters. While most of the tattoos that cover her arms and legs reference things like loved ones, childhood memories and favorite films, her neck piece touches on another major part of her life: the debilitating phobia she’s struggled with since she was 8 years old.

The now 28-year-old artist, who only tattoos in black ink in a process known as blackwork, began her first tattoo apprenticeship at the age of 19, right at the tail end of an awful two-year period where her phobia was so intense she couldn’t leave the house due to intense panic attacks.

“It was very difficult in the very beginning,” she says, “There were a lot of times I would make excuses for not going in, leave suddenly, or just feel terrible the whole day while at work.” After the first year, things began to improve, which she credits in large part to hypnotherapy, and she became used to having to wait out feelings of panic and dealing with them after she left the studio.

Tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle.

Today she’s based in Southend, England and frequently works in studios in London and abroad, having attracted a large following who often identify with the personal and feminist themes found in her work.

In talking about her own mental health, Fidjit points out that while she has Tourette’s, which is a neurological condition, it comes with a number of comorbid conditions like OCD, OCB and PTSD. She also experiences difficulty in social situations, sensitivity to sensory overload, dissociation and mixed personality problems.

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life.”

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life,” she says, describing her flash sheets (pre-drawn images that anyone can ask to have tattooed) as a visual diary. “I don’t have any interest in just drawing pieces that have nothing to do with my brain or me personally. I’m lucky in that a lot of my clients are on the same wavelength, so they’ve specifically picked me because something I’ve done has spoken to them in a certain way.”

One popular image that still strikes a chord with many of her clients first appeared three years ago in a flash sheet inspired by the suicides of female authors. Adapted from a painting Fidjit had made based on the death of Virginia Woolf, the drawing shows the top of a woman’s head peeking over stylized waves.

One of Fidjit’s blackwork tattoos, which often symbolize mental health issues.

Since then over 1,000 people have gotten variations of the tattoo, members of what she now calls “The Drowning Girls Club.” She says that while some versions are sarcastic or have light-hearted additions like party hats, many clients get them for reasons related to their mental illness or the struggle of keeping their heads above water. Whether people ask for the original drawing or add personalized details, she loves that the image has resonated with so many and that a community has formed around it. “I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have,” she says.

Recently she’s found herself working on a new series of custom tattoos based on mental health. Like with the drowning girls series, it began with a flash sheet, but this time with drawings inspired by her own experiences with dissociation, panic attacks and an eating disorder.

“One person got one of the pieces done and I wrote what it was about [on Instagram] and then someone asked me to do a custom piece about dissociative disorder,” she explains. After posting that second tattoo and a brief description online, more and more requests came pouring in from people wanting to have their own conditions turned into tattoos.

“I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have.”

The tattoos, often framed with radiating lines that almost vibrate around the central figure, give viewers a sense of the full-body sensations that accompany many mental conditions. A tattoo depicting panic attacks, for example, recreates a feeling of claustrophobia as seven detached hands reach at a floating head, the character’s distressed face half in shadows as lines emanate along their profile.

“There’s obviously so many different reasons why people get them, but I think there’s an ownership element,” she muses, talking about how people often place their trust in her when coming up with a design but the process is still a collaboration and conversation about how they personally picture their condition.

Capturing often overwhelming experiences in simple visuals, each piece is a unique window into how a specific person experiences and understands their own mental health. Just as putting a name or diagnosis to a condition can be validating, so can creating a representation of your relationship to it.

There are over a thousand variations in the Drowning Girls Club series.

She says that for many, “It makes them feel more in power of something that’s maybe hindered their life in a certain way, because when it’s invisible and kind of floating about it seems a bit harder to take control of. If you have a visual representation you can look at it and remember that’s what it is. It’s just that. I think sometimes it’s quite a nice reminder that is just one part of you and it’s not something that necessarily that needs to rule you.”

“It’s odd, because it’s just a tattoo, but it really does help,” she adds, reflecting on her own piece. “Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control, that I’ve got power over it.”

Having the invisible made visible can other benefits as well. She knows of people who’ve gotten these tattoos partially as a conversation starter, a visual way of announcing and explaining their condition or simply showing that they aren’t ashamed.

“Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control.”

Fidjit’s own openness about her experiences on Instagram is one reason for her major following, which she credits to changing trends in the tattooing industry. Whether it’s the movies they love or the social movements they support, she says social media has made it easier for people to seek out artists they identify with. “I think clients are really interested in the person behind the work and their lifestyle more than their actual work sometimes,” she observes.

Her own posts about things like an abusive ex-partner and the experience of having her rapist acquitted, along with participating in fundraisers for rape crisis and domestic violence charities, has helped her attract customers with similar stories who know her studio is a safe space, even if they might not want to specifically talk about their experiences.

Fidjit’s tattoos help people struggling with mental health issues remember that they are not alone.

Fidjit says that the greatest difficulty her conditions present in terms of tattooing are often social interactions, since talking is often a major part of the job but she can find making normal conversation difficult and doesn’t always know how she’s coming across. That doesn’t stop her from offering a sympathetic ear or calling out abuses she sees in the tattooing industry.

“I’m happy to tell anybody who to avoid – I’ve had tattoos on my body from people who are abusive and it’s a horrible feeling because it’s this thing on your body from a horrible person. I hate that feeling, and I hate other people to have that feeling.”

Because while a tattoo might just be an image on skin, the story of how that image got there can mean everything.

Mental Health Q&As

How Writing A Heroine With Autism Helped This Novelist Understand Her Own Asperger’s

Helen Hoang’s debut book, The Kiss Quotient, paints a refreshing and sincere portrayal of a heroine with Asperger’s syndrome.

Stella Lane, the main character in Helen Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, tries to conceal her autism. Being around crowds, any kind of surprise, and intimate relationships can make Stella uncomfortable. French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. She’s an unlikely lead for a romance novel. Hoang, however, understands the quirks that come with being autistic: as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, she has many of them herself. She also knows romance novels; it’s a genre she fell in love with at an early age.

The Kiss Quotient, published by Penguin Random House, is out now. Folks spoke with Hoang about the book and how and why she drew on her own diagnosis to create a character who’s easy to love.

The cover of Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient.


Why did you make your main character, Stella Lane, autistic?

I wrote Stella as autistic because that made the most sense for the character. It was also something I strongly wanted to write at the time, as I was pursuing an autism diagnosis for myself.

I read in an interview that you decided to give Stella autistic traits that you were concealing. What were those traits and why did you conceal them?

Since I was little, I’ve been hiding my stimming (ed: self-stimulating, or stimming, are repetitive body movements such as head shaking or hand flapping many autistics exhibit) and social awkwardness. In an effort not to draw attention to myself or annoy people, I found ways to stim that you can’t see or hear. As for the social awkwardness, I carefully observed my peers and learned how to mimic well-liked kids so I could have friends.

My sensory issues are not severe, so I’d say I ignored rather than concealed them, which is what Stella did in order to be accepted.

Can you talk about how writing this book helped you with your Asperger’s diagnosis?

Writing this book was an opportunity to explore traits I’d been hiding, understand them better, and embrace them. As I pursued and eventually attained a diagnosis (at age 34), Stella, my autistic heroine, was born on the page. I knew her intimately.

Writing this book was an opportunity to explore traits I’d been hiding, understand them better, and embrace them.

Stella hates surprises. Can you discuss how she prepares to be around people, noise, and anything else out of her norm? And do you relate to this? If so, how?

I showed Stella preparing to be around new people by running through a list of socializing do’s and dont’s and forming conversation trees in her head beforehand. These are things I do. My own conversation trees can get quite elaborate, including stories and anecdotes which I think people will respond to favorably. I plan when to raise my eyebrows and what to do with my hands for proper delivery, sometimes I practice in a mirror. I usually lose sleep before events like this because I’m obsessively trying to predict and prepare for the future.

As for noise, I didn’t show her preparing for it because that’s not something I’ve been able to figure out how to do, aside from earplugs or headphones, which I’ve gotten in trouble for using in social settings because it’s considered rude.

There are so few main characters in books with autism. What was the reaction from the San Diego chapter of Romance Writers of America to Stella being autistic?

In general, I’ve found people are very welcoming of Stella. The San Diego chapter of Romance Writers of America has been supportive.

When my therapist finally diagnosed me with autism spectrum disorder… the hard part was sharing my diagnosis with friends and family… I needn’t have worried, though. My loved ones have been supportive.

Can you tell me how the Autistic Women’s Association helped you?

The Autistic Women’s Association has a private group on social media where women can meet and interact. They welcome self-diagnoses, so it was a safe place to be before I sought a professional opinion. It was incredible connecting with women who shared so many similar experiences with me, and unlike what you see on TV, they were warm, supportive, and intensely compassionate. They happily answered my questions and were always around to talk when I needed it. I very quickly understood that among these women, I belonged, and that’s important when you’ve spent most of your life feeling otherwise.

Writing the Kiss Quotient helped Helen Hoang understand her own diagnosis. Photo: Eric Kieu

You said you “eventually attained a diagnosis.” How did you handle it? What was your reaction?

Prior to obtaining an official diagnosis, I’d already begun to identify with it based on my research, personal experiences, and sense of belonging with other autistic women. When my therapist finally diagnosed me with autism spectrum disorder, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The hard part was sharing my diagnosis with friends and family. I feared they would be disappointed or ashamed, and I wrote this insecurity into the book. I needn’t have worried, though. My loved ones have been supportive.

Everyone on the spectrum has their own valid experiences, impairments, strengths, and points of view

Have you met anyone as wonderful as Michael Phan, the romantic leading man in the novel? He’s so patient and caring. If you have, who is he based on?

Michael was composed from bits and pieces of real people and fictional people. I wanted him to be caring like my husband and considerate like my cousin but have the deep-rooted sense of honor from heroes in my favorite wuxia sagas.

There’s a saying in the autistic community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.” Can you respond?

Everyone on the spectrum has their own valid experiences, impairments, strengths, and points of view. My experience, and therefore, Stella’s, is just one among many and cannot be taken as “standard.” There is no standard.

Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient can be purchased on Amazon here.