Why Representation is Important (to Me)

Photo credit: scribbletaylor on Flickr
So I’m finally reading OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu thanks to some eager online recommendations and a family member who wisely chose from my long Christmas book wishlist, and the more I read, the more I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a teenager. 

I think I had my first mini panic attack when I was maybe eight or so, but it wasn’t until I was sixteen that anxiety became a constant thing. But as my anxiety manifested so often as (ridiculously unnecessary) guilt, I didn’t recognize it for what it was until four years later, at which point it was totally out of hand and became much harder, if not impossible, to hide.

Now between a no-sugar diet and OTC stuff, I’ve been able to handle the anxiety pretty well on my own, but I can’t help but wonder if I would’ve saved myself four years of internal torment if I’d had a book like OCD Love Story to help me recognize it for what it obviously is—a disorder. 

When I was sixteen, all I knew about OCD was hand washing, counting, and obsessions with neatness. I didn’t know it was also terrifying, intrusive thoughts (or ones considered morally reprehensible, which of course lead to more guilt), or being terrified you’d accidentally poison dinner by not washing utensils enough, or feeling guilty/obsessively worrying over your friends’ actions, or driving twice around a parking lot to make sure you backed into the curb and not a person. I didn’t know OCD was not being able to lie, or having a mini panic attack wondering if what you just said was 100% true (because you didn’t arrive at 3:30, you arrived at 3:27). 

I still hesitate to say I’m definitely OCD because I’ve never been officially diagnosed. But I wonder if reading a book with OCD or some other anxiety disorder representation would have made me realize four years earlier that what I was dealing with wasn’t just me, or just something I had to deal with. Maybe if I’d recognized myself in the pages of a book I would’ve talked to someone about it. Maybe I would’ve asked for help much sooner than I did. 

Representation is important to me because the combination of stereotypes and the lack of true representation made me ignore my symptoms for years. 

Representation is important to me because I can’t begin to explain how gratifying it is to find a protagonist in a book with anxiety issues, to see a character who thinks the same way I did (and sometimes still do), to see that there are others like me who understand exactly what I mean when I say, “I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety.” 

Representation is powerful. Knowing you’re not alone and your story deserves to be told is essential. 

And that’s just one reason why representation is important to me. 

What do you think? 

Twitter-sized bite:
Writer @Ava_Jae shares one reason why representation in media is important to her. What do you think? (Click to tweet
"Representation is powerful. Knowing you're not alone & your story deserves to be told is essential." (Click to tweet)


Briana Morgan said...

How did you cut sugar? I have anxiety, too, and I really think it would help me.

Also, excellent post. After reading FANGIRL and realizing it might be the first novel I've read with an anxious character, I couldn't agree with you more.

Ava Jae said...

So cutting sugar was probably one of the hardest diet changes I've ever made ha ha. I used to have super sugary Starbucks and ice cream every day and my sister would bake frequently and...yeah.

Basically, I just stopped cold turkey. Except I replaced with honey for two weeks, then did a 30 day sugar detox (so NO added sugar or honey or anything like that for thirty days). Now I use honey as my sweetener (raw honey is the best because it doesn't raise your glycemic levels). I've also read that (pure) maple syrup can work (not the sugar water kind, the real kind).

But it was tough. And took a full commitment. I eat a lot of fruit now (natural sugars are okay in my experience). But I'm so glad I did, because it really really helped.

And thanks, Briana! Fangirl was the first book I read with an anxious character, too (I think you knew that?), and I love it for that. Seeing yourself represented (even in small ways) is really special.

Sam Taylor said...

For me, Laurie Halse Anderson's WINTERGIRLS was the novel I'd wish I'd had as a teenager. I battled an eating disorder for most of my teenage years, and I battled it alone. I wasn't ever officially diagnosed and didn't receive treatment for it, and many of the people closest to me didn't understand what I was going through. Some seemed to think I was doing it for attention, and kept telling me to just stop it. And I couldn't. Because you don't wish away something like an eating disorder. I knew the thoughts I was struggling with were not healthy, and deep deep down, I knew my concerns about weight were completely unfounded, but it took me years to break through. When I read WINTERGIRLS, the story instantly resonated with me, because Lia's thoughts had been my thoughts, and the breakthrough she reaches at the end was the same one I'd had to reach myself. I looked at this character and I saw me. And now I had a strong resource to point others toward, to help them understand what it means to have an eating disorder.

I too love representation of all kinds and all situations in books, because sometimes books are the only way, or at least the first way, we recognize that we are not alone in our struggles. And that is the first step to making a change.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much for sharing that, Sam. I haven't read Wintergirls, but it sounds like the way you identified with it is very much like the way I've identified with the few books I've read with anxiety rep. I completely agree that recognizing you're not alone (and that it's not just you) is absolutely the first step to recognizing the issue and making a change.

Stephsco said...

I so agree about representation; and since everyone has their own thing, it's important to see a variety of issues in YA. I remember hearing a negative comment about YA a few years ago that all the books were trending toward cutting and drug use and that wasn't what this parent wanted her daughter to read. And that's her choice to filter what her kid reads, but statistically speaking, her kid probably has friends who do those things, and what better gateway to understand the repurcussions than through a book? In my area, one of the wealthy schools has a huge heroine problem. So you have kids living in million dollar homes with a top notch school system, and many of them are doing hard street drugs. Books are not the issue!

Taylor Lynn said...

It's really crazy how much I can relate to this post. What you wrote about your own struggles with anxiety sounds so much like the anxious thought processes I went through for years: excessive guilt, obsessive worry, inability to tell even the whitest of white lies. Like you, I was never officially diagnosed, so I hesitate to say I was definitely OCD, but whenever I read through a list of the symptoms of OCD I find I can relate to most of them--even some of the stereotypes, like excessive handwashing. (When my anxiety's flaring, I often STILL start washing my hands more than usual.)

Thankfully, over the years I've come to be able to manage my anxiety much better, and it doesn't take over my life the way it used to (though it still flares up every now and then). I'm so glad to hear that you're able to manage your anxiety better now, too, because it's an incredibly tough thing to struggle with. Thank you so much for sharing this, Ava; I'm sending big hugs your way. <3

Braden Russell said...

Stories are a wonderful way to say "You're not alone, there are other people like you, and it's gonna be okay." There were several books that did this for me in my childhood, and I'm so thankful for that.
Thanks for another great post, Ava!

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Taylor! It definitely sounds like we can relate to each other's anxiety experiences (I was nodding along to just about everything you described, handwashing included). I'm really happy to hear that overall, you've been able to manage your anxiety much better as well, and I'm send hugs right back at you! :)

Ava Jae said...

Love this answer! Thanks, Braden.

Aimee Hyndman said...

This is a really powerful post. I've dealt with anxiety since the end of middle school and, like you, I had no idea it was anxiety. I thought I had food poisoning because I threw up every time I got an anxiety attack. And when I found out I was unwilling to accept it because I thought not being able to control my emotions and fears made me weak. I didn't realize, at that time, that mental disorders were common and nothing to be ashamed of. Because there weren't any people with anxiety in the books I read. Books like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell spoke to me on an amazing level because it understood how I often saw the world. Everyone deserves to have characters that they relate to. Whether by race or class or gender or sexual orientation or mental and physical disorders.

Great post :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Aimee! And thank you so much for sharing that—I really appreciate it! I absolutely agree that everyone deserves to be able to relate to characters and see themselves represented (even if it's just one aspect of themselves that they don't often see acknowledged). It can make a huge difference.

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