DiversifYA: Heather Kaczynski

HeatherToday, DiversifYA welcomes Heather Kaczynski to the blog! Heather writes books about teenagers saving the world–because she believes they can–and works in a library on an Army post. She is currently seeking representation for a YA SF about a half-Indian teenage girl who competes for a chance to go into space. (Awesome, right?!) She blogs and tweets, and joins us today with a wonderful look into social anxiety and panic disorder.

1. How do you identify yourself?

In general, I’m a girl scientist, a former band geek, an animal lover, a writer, and a wife. I’ve had social anxiety disorder all my life, and in college I was additionally diagnosed with panic disorder.

2. What did it feel like growing with social anxiety and panic disorder?

It felt like being locked in a tiny box without a key. I felt incredibly restricted by my own fears. From childhood, I had a lot of trouble in social situations – which really meant anytime I was in public. I was afraid to go out, but I had no idea what I was afraid of. The worst part was not being able to explain to my parents what was wrong, because I didn’t have the words to describe why I couldn’t bear to do things that were normal, things that I enjoyed. But I have the words now.

Imagine what it feels like to be taken to the guillotine to be executed – to be walked out of a prison cell on your way to the electric chair. To me, that was the total-body terror of facing certain situations that were perfectly benign, like going to school or church or softball practice. Things like ordering food and talking on the phone induced the same fear in me as if I had been asked to jump out of an airplane without a parachute. I once went an entire day without eating during a school trip, because we stopped for fast food and I couldn’t make myself talk to the cashier. I went a year without using the restroom at my elementary school because I was afraid to ask to be excused. I used to beg my mom, in tears, to let me stay home from school or to write me an excuse so I wouldn’t have to give a speech in class. Those things felt like the end of the world, and I didn’t feel strong enough to handle them.

In seventh grade I started taking anti-depressants and going to counseling, which helped get me to a place where I could see the world as a little less frightening, a little more possible. I gradually got a little better with handling my anxiety until college, where my anxiety manifested itself in panic attacks at random times. First I’d be sitting in class on a normal, no-stress day, and suddenly feel like I was having a heart attack: my chest hurt, my heart raced, I felt like I was choking, like I was losing my mind. My brain just kept telling me to get out, get out, get out! I started leaving classes early. Then I’d have a panic attack in my car on the way to class, and, afraid of getting into a car accident, I stopped going to class. Then I’d start to panic in the grocery store. Then the movie theater. So I avoided those things, too.

I was fast becoming agoraphobic. It didn’t help that in my junior year of college, there was a mass shooting at my university which left three of my college faculty dead. One of my professors had shot six people in the same building where I spent all my time. My life-long anxieties had been confirmed: I now went into every room with a plan for how to escape from it. And I escaped a lot.

Months of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy and an exercise routine helped me get back to a more normal baseline, luckily without medication. I finished school on time and got a job. I was lucky. Right now, I feel better than I ever have, but I still struggle every day.

Anxiety makes a lot of things feel impossible. I have to force myself to go to the grocery store alone – whenever possible I cajole a family member come with me. I’ve never driven on the interstate or flown by myself, and at this point I can’t imagine ever doing so. I never call anyone unless I absolutely have to. When I get lax on my exercise routine, I feel myself slipping into old thought patterns. I’m even getting anxious writing this!

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

The biggest challenge, aside from CBT (it’s seriously not fun, guys) and making myself do things I’m afraid to do, is trying to explain to people that I’m not just really, really shy. A lot of people don’t like to use the phone or speak in front of crowds, so they think I’m just over-reacting to things I don’t want to do. It’s not like that.

I’m not sure about perks, except that it has given me more empathy for the struggles people go through with more severe manifestations of anxiety like PTSD, OCD or compulsive hoarding.

It does give me good motivation to exercise regularly!

4. What do you wish people knew about having social anxiety and panic disorder?

Anxiety disorders are common in America. Thousands of years of evolution honed human brains so they are hardwired to look for danger, but the lack of life-threatening situations in modern life make our brains over-react to normal, nonthreatening situations just as if they were, say, an attack by a saber-tooth tiger. It’s biochemistry; it’s not a personality problem. Panic attacks and anxiety are not things that can be reasoned with. There’s no reasoning involved. You can’t talk someone out of this kind of fear.

What you can do is support them and give them the tools they need. If someone is having a panic attack and says “I need to get out of here right now,” let them go – keeping them in a frightening situation is only going to make things worse. (And managing panic attack triggers needs to be handled be a professional.) My parents didn’t know whether to force me to get over my fears or to protect me from them. I can’t be objective because I’m grateful that my parents both gave me the allowances that they did and pushed me when they did. It’s a balancing act, and it has to be done very, very carefully. So please, seek outside help if anxiety is interfering with your life or your child’s life. In most cases, it can be managed.

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

People who are stressed and saying “I’m having a panic attack!” while breathing heavily into a paper bag. At least in my case, my panic attacks didn’t have reasonable triggers; they weren’t brought on by a deadline or a test. I didn’t even recognize it as panic. To me, it was my body saying “I’m dying, I’m about to throw up, I have to get out of here NOW.” I’ve not seen many people with anxiety disorders like mine portrayed in media, so I can’t say I really know of a stereotype.

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

If you want to write a character who comes from a different background than you (and I hope you do, at some point!) , find some real people who actually live the kind of life you’re writing about. Ask them questions. Get in their heads. Give under-represented people a voice that’s accurate and well-researched and true. And don’t make their stories revolve around what makes them different.

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