Utah author Erin Stewart’s new book “The Words We Keep” illustrates the very real battle many teens face today: anxiety disorder. (Erin Stewart)
Estimated reading time: 8-9 minutes
UTAH COUNTY — “When the problem is in your head, no one but you can carry it.”
Though spoken by a fictional character in an all-new young adult novel written by Utah author Erin Stewart, these words illustrate the very real battle many teens face today: anxiety disorder.
“The Words We Keep” is a novel centered on 16-year-old Lily Larkin – the perfect college student, perfect girl, and versatile perfectionist who tries desperately to keep her life together months after her older sister ends up in rehab. after a mental health crisis. As she struggles to break a track team record, earn a scholarship to UC Berkeley, and stop giving her father reason to worry about another daughter, she experiences relentless abuse from the voices in her head telling her she’s not enough.
Her sister may be the one diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but Lily’s fear of going her own way and further stressing her dad prevents her from identifying her own mental health issues, which only makes make things worse.
Stewart, who has suffered from anxiety disorders most of her life, initially did not want to write a novel about anxiety. But thinking about it more, she realized it was a book that needed to be written.
Growing up, “anxiety” wasn’t the buzzword she is now, so Stewart didn’t have a name for the constant thoughts in her head telling her she needed to be more than herself. she was. She thought it was just her personality. When she decided to write “The Words We Keep”, she wanted to write a character who thought her anxiety was a flaw instead of an illness she had to live with, but who learns what it really is and to face it, confront it and possess it.
“I feel like in my life, once I did that, I was able to separate myself from those thoughts and see them not as me but as a part of me instead of defining me,” Stewart said. “And I wanted to write a book where kids like me who struggle with anxiety can see that: one, they’re not alone, there are a lot of people who have these thoughts every day and live healthy lives. and wonderful with them. and second, that the best thing they can do is speak up and get the help they deserve.”
Lynne Sill, COO of the OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center, believes “The Words We Keep” would be beneficial for anxious teens to read, as it might help them relate to the characters and, hopefully help them spark a conversation with someone. about how they feel.
“That’s what we’re hoping for so much – and we love that there’s more attention on mental health right now, whether it’s in the media via Simone Biles…or books like this – it’s is that it sparks conversations and makes people have a little bit of hope for more help,” Sill said.
Throughout the text, numerous thoughts in Lily’s head are crossed out on the page, demonstrating how much of her war of degrading words is in her head, while on the surface she is a star-loving, logophile English student.
If we can realize that there are a lot of people going through this, then we can get help – but we can also just get the companionship, friendship and reassurance we need.
“I feel like people with anxiety have a lot of things they don’t say, and it feels like we’re constantly censoring ourselves so people don’t know what’s going on in our heads and thoughts. that we have. … and we kind of keep them to ourselves,” Stewart said.
Because Lily knows she’s considered Miss Perfect, she’s horrified that anyone knows what’s going on in her head. Shame propels her into a downward spiral of isolation. But Micah, no stranger to depression himself, recognizes the warning signs and becomes something of a mentor to her as she navigates her way to acceptance.
“I think the biggest problem with anxiety and depression, or any other mental health issue, is that if we feel like we’re the only ones having it, we’re going to distance ourselves from everyone else. ..until we’re all alone in it,” Stewart said. “And if we can realize there’s a lot of people going through this, then we can get help – but we can also just get the camaraderie and friendship and comfort that we need.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Utahns have suffered from a mental illness in the past year.
Stewart believes coping with a global pandemic, and in particular the resulting isolation, has contributed to some people’s mental health issues.
“We heal together. We heal each other. We heal as a group as a society, and we need each other for that,” she said.
Sill said anxiety drives people to avoidance, and the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled avoidance, as evidenced by quarantining and mask-wearing.
“In many ways, for anxious people, it felt good. But then when you had to reenter the real world, and as we started coming out of quarantine and even taking off our masks, it was exponentially harder for people with anxiety disorders,” Sill said.
She added that a positive aspect of mental health and the pandemic is that it provides unprecedented opportunities for people to receive treatment virtually through telehealth, which, according to the OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center , was just as effective as an in-person treatment.
Some people may wonder if the chaos of today’s world or what the current rising generation is facing is causing more anxiety than generations past. Leah Jaramillo, executive director of the OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center, said it’s not necessarily the current external circumstances that cause anxiety, but rather how each of us as humans processes our experiences.
“I worry sometimes that we just look at the generations and say, ‘That must be what’s causing the anxiety,'” Jaramillo said. “What we’re missing…is this idea that it causes anxiety because they’re human beings – and anxiety is a mental health issue – not because of what’s going on in society, but because she’s attacking a human being. It’s creating a human being to feel like they can’t handle the threats that are present in their world. And every time I’ve tried to assume that I knew what these threats were, I was proven wrong time and time again.
We love that there’s more attention on mental health right now, whether it’s in the media via Simone Biles…or books like this – it’s that it sparks conversations and brings people people to have some hope for more help.
–Lynne Sill, COO of OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center
Lily, the protagonist of “The Words We Keep”, doesn’t just feel anxious. She has an anxiety disorder and Stewart said it was important to note the difference. Lily’s anxiety disorder inhibits her daily ability to function.
Sill said a key way to identify when your child may be struggling with an anxiety disorder is if they show less interest in activities they once enjoyed.
Jaramillo said what torments the parents she meets is that they don’t know if their child’s behavior is normal for their age or abnormal.
“Parents go through a lot of questions and doubts themselves, and I would just tell them: if you have a question, just ask a professional,” Jaramillo said. “Don’t… worry about getting the right answer. Just start the conversation, and then those answers will come out.”
In the book, Lily has a loving father and stepmother who Stewart says are both doing their best. But when Lily’s dad says things about her being such a perfect girl, it triggers for her and her perfectionism. Stewart said the best thing she thinks parents of people with mental health issues can do for their children is be aware of them and what they’re going through and be present with them. them. She thinks the worst thing parents can do is avoid these conversations with their kids.
Stewart shares that she takes medication and goes to doctor’s appointments for her anxiety disorder with her three children. She doesn’t want it to be a stigma in their family and she wants them to know they can talk to her if they are having the same difficulties.
“I think people would be surprised if everyone was a little more open (about) how badly people deal with mental health all the time,” she said.
Sill said people often feel like they have to “fix” things for their loved one who is dealing with a mental health disorder, but they really need to be there to support them, listen to them and help them. to like. She said loved ones can let mental health professionals be the ones to guide the mental health journey.
Stewart specifically wanted her main character to struggle with an anxiety disorder because she wanted to show that the battle was in her head and her outward symptoms might not be obvious.
“I think all of my characters…who struggle with these mental health issues are actually beautiful, wonderful people who are completely fulfilled outside of these issues,” she said. “They are not those things. They have those things, but they are not those things.”
The book contains themes of anxiety, depression, self-harm, bipolar and suicidal ideation. However, it does not glorify these diagnoses and instead offers a hopeful approach to receiving help and rallying around those in trouble. Stewart said she wanted the book to be hopeful.
The Words We Keep, published by Penguin Random House subsidiary Delacorte Press, was released on March 15. It can be purchased wherever books are sold.
Resources for people struggling with mental health issues in Utah: