DiversifYA: Olivia Hinebaugh

OliviaOlivia Hinebaugh is with us today! Olivia writes (delicious) YA as well as parenting articles, and she’s represented by Carrie Howland. She is also an outspoken advocate for mental health issues, and she’ll be a performer in This Is My Brave, a live presentation of touching essays, original music, and poetry will be performed by a dozen individuals living with―or loving someone with―a mental illness. For those of you in the VA area, This Is My Brave will be on at the Artisphere’s Spectrum Theatre in Arlington.

Follow Olivia on Twitter and read more about her writing on her website.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I identify myself as an anxiety sufferer. Specifically, I have panic disorder with agoraphobia. (some stats: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, Anxiety disorders include: General Anxiety disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Specific Phobias including Agoraphobia and Social phobias, around 6% of children 13-18 have a severe anxiety disorder, of those teens only 18% receive help, average age of onset for children is 6, Women are 60% more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men [per NIMH]

Often the age of onset for Panic Disorder is early twenties, the average age of onset being 24. So while it is less likely for YA characters to have this specific problem, it isn’t unheard of, and there are quite a few factors that would probably resonate with any anxiety sufferers. 1/3 of all Panic Disorder sufferers also have Agoraphobia. Agorphobia comes about from having panic attacks in a place outside the home and the fear of having another one. For me, at first this meant I was afraid of public transportation because I had my first attack on a trolley. But subsequently I had attacks at restaurants, many in the car, at red lights, in line at the post-office, in line at the grocery store. As a result, I avoided all these situations.

Oftentimes sufferers are also suffering from major depression, which I was as well.

2. What did it feel like growing up a panic disorder and agoraphobia?

While my panic attacks and agoraphobia did not begin in earnest until I was 23, I can see that I’ve always tended toward the more anxious side of things. I had major depression in high school. (And these things are so physiologically linked). I often had stomachaches as a kid. I’d also often have tummy upsets when I went unfamiliar places or traveled. I was cautious as a teen. I definitely did not take unnecessary risks.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

At its worst, my biggest challenge would just be overcoming the crippling fear and leaving the house. I had to overcome the overwhelming compulsions to go to the bathroom whenever I could, because I specifically had a fear of not being near a bathroom, since I had the nervous stomach. Also, anxious thoughts are nasty buggers. Sometimes they come out of nowhere and they don’t leave you alone. I would have catastrophic thoughts all the time. I wouldn’t always know I was having anxious thoughts until I was in a full-blown panic attack, and sometimes, even then, I wasn’t sure what triggered it. Not feeling comfortable outside your home (and sometimes even in your home) obviously has challenges. Most aspects of my every day life became unmanageable. I was quite understandably depressed because I had absolutely no life. When I did attempt things, I was miserable.

Perks! Thank goodness I had a therapist point these out to me. Like I said before: I’m cautious. Never have I been incapacitated by alcohol. I never drank without a sober friend, and often I was the sober one. I’ve never tried any illegal substances (I have a phobia of medication) which is definitely a perk, because self-medicating can become a problem for people with panic disorder. I have a lot of patience with other peoples’ hang ups, because I know mine didn’t make logical sense. I have a great capacity for compassion in general, especially regarding mental illness.

4. What do you wish people knew about having a panic disorder and agoraphobia?

First of all, I wish people knew how how serious and scary panic attacks are. Oftentimes sufferers think they are dying. Your heart feels like it will beat out of your chest, you can feel a great weight on your chest, you get hot or cold, sweaty, shaky, you may hyperventilate or hold your breath, you may feel like you’re going to pass out, your bowels and bladder want to release in prepare for fight or flight, and emotionally you might feel terror, you might lose your sense of reality and the fear of dying can be very very real. Sounds fun, right?

When people say “panic attack” with flippancy, it diminishes the suffering I felt. If someone plays a joke on you and startles you, very likely you did not “almost have a panic attack,” and if you truly did almost have a panic attack, you may have a problem. If that makes sense. (I get similarly upset when people talk about OCD when they mean controlling and perfectionism.)

Also, the fear is very real. Even though we may know logically that driving over a bridge or waiting in line at the bank won’t kill us, our bodies and our brains don’t believe it. Personally I hope that the people who knew me at my worst realize I was struggling with mental illness instead of thinking I was avoiding them or dissing them. (One of the reasons I’m so open about my struggles!)

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

I’ve touched on this. I hate when people think panic attacks are no big deal. So many people with their first panic attack end up calling an ambulance. It feels that serious. Also, if you meet me, I don’t seem tightly wound at all. Sure, my anxiety is a personality trait, but it is not the biggest part of my personality, not by a long shot. I also like to think I’m funny, friendly etc etc.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

We all experience anxiety. It’s healthy and keeps up safe. Don’t be afraid to explore what it would be like if this part of a character was amped up. Look up the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. Lots of our characters end up in tricky situations, and it’d be great to see more characters really feeling those physiological changes. But also, I’d love to read more characters that work hard on their phobias and disordered thinking. (One reason I loved OCD LOVE STORY). Also, chances are very VERY good you know someone who has an anxiety disorder. As a human being, be supportive. As a writer, ask them about it!

One Response to DiversifYA: Olivia Hinebaugh

  1. Olivia: Thanks so much for this excellent description of panic disorder. I struggled all through college, grad school, and much of my adult life with panic. I’ve also been through bouts of major depression and post-partum depression twice. But after much therapy and sometimes meds, I am finally over 99% of my anxiety. It was a long road, but life is so much better now. I am amazed when I look back at how hard it was just to function when I was in the thick of daily panic attacks. I hope lots of folks read your post to better understand what it’s like. I work in Rosslyn and would love to come see your show. I’ll check it out. Congrats on the agent and good luck! The MC of my YA thriller has OCD and Tourette Syndrome. Hope we see more honest portrayals of these illnesses.