For this week’s Freudian Script, Lucy V Hay (aka the infamous script guru Bang2write) talks frankly about her struggles with her mental health as a teenager and how that contributed to the latest book in her THE DECISION series, JASMINE’S STORY.
You drew on your personal experiences in THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY to write about teen pregnancy. How did your experiences shape JASMINE’S STORY?
Being popular is a huge part of growing up, especially for girls. I was not popular and I felt it every day, but I was not hugely unpopular either, so I got through school relatively unscathed… I got the usual taunts about being ugly or fat or whatever, but probably no worse than anyone else. I was very much The Outsider at school and felt very “detached” from it all, as if I was watching myself and others there. This was underlined by the fact I attended a school out of catchment where I lived; there was no real opportunity to socialise after school, everything had to be planned in advance. Teens don’t plan that well, so often I’d get left out.
I wanted to encapsulate that experience in Jasmine herself: this feeling of isolation, confusion, uncertainty. Is it her? Is it everyone else? A combination of the two? Where I lived, people literally didn’t know me, as we’d moved into the area when I was about twelve and missed out on going to the local primary school like the rest of my siblings. I recall one moment so clearly, when I was about fifteen, walking into the living room and a friend of my mother’s saying to her, surprised, “Oh is she one of yours as well?” Of course, she just meant she hadn’t seen me before, but for me, at that time, I felt like I was this invisible creature, of no consequence.
Though her actual experiences are not the same as mine were, Jasmine feels like that: I wanted to evoke that same feeling of being that Outsider. In comparison, Jasmine’s best friend Olivia is her polar opposite: an outgoing party girl who everyone knows. I always wanted to be that girl as a young teenager, but as I grew older I realised they had their own problems and that’s what I wanted to draw on in the story – this sense of contrast, yin/yang if you like.
How did your mental health affect your life as a teenager?
I was the eldest of five kids and a teenager during a very tumultuous time in my family; we moved area up and down the country several times in a very short space of time. We also went from being quite well off to dirt poor practically overnight when the recession of the 90s hit.
I was prone to anxiety attacks and frequently felt animals were following me, especially dogs. I fixated on the idea of our parents dying and what would happen to us all if we had to go into care, because I knew we had no relatives who would be prepared to take us all five of us in. I would plan obsessively in case of emergencies, such as fires: who could I save? What could I save? I was terrified of being abandoned, or of someone kidnapping my younger sisters in the night, even though we lived miles from anywhere.
And possibly most noticeably I would starve myself. I enjoyed feeling light-headed, but most of all I liked the attention it got me: from my parents who would try and cajole me into eating; from my friends who would say how they wanted to be as thin as me; and yes, from boys, because despite being thin I had a large bust! But that’s how everyone knew me on the surface; I was completely different to the scared, paranoid, invisible lost girl I felt.
I seemed like I was confident, opinionated, even jolly; but I felt I had split in half. I became convinced for a long time I was a liar, essentially; I was playing two different roles, and that people would “find me out”, which gave me even more anxiety!
What support did you have? Was there anything missing that you feel could’ve helped?
My mother and I are pretty close and it was good to have the release of talking to her, but I always felt I couldn’t tell her the whole truth because she had problems of her own. I tried going to teachers and doctors, but no one recognized what I was “really” asking, which was to help me understand what was going on.
Looking back now, I recognize a couple of moments where an adult did make an attempt to reach out, but because I was also quite paranoid, I suspected they had ulterior motives. I was so sure the problem was with me and that I was some kind of evil person deceiving everyone, I wish I could have just had Facebook or Twitter and seen other people have the same thoughts!
There’s a lot of stigma around self-harm and mental health problems among teenagers. What do you think are the best ways to combat it?
I suspect that if I was a teen today, I might be one of those “Emos” or “Pale Girls” and have one of those Tumblr blogs filled with so-called “depression quotes”. I understand that some people worry about these blogs, especially those that show graphic images of cutting or videoblogs, but I don’t think the answer is to take them away; it doesn’t make the thought processes magically go away! I’m not sure what the answer is, but teenagers with mental health problems pre-date the internet.
Arguably, depression quotes can have a very useful function for many teenagers as it helps them realise they’re not the first to feel that way. Feeling isolated and alone was a major issue for me and for many young people. But many teenagers hate these quotes and say those who like them are simply attention seeking. I believe this attitude is fuelled by many adults’ patronising stance on mental health issues, telling teenagers they “haven’t really” got any problems, or that depression is “romanticised”.
Let’s be clear: depression quotes are barely even the tip of the iceberg. We, as adults, need to stop invalidating teenagers as standard; just because they are young does not mean they deserve to be dismissed. We should also be encouraging teenagers to be kinder to one another and gently pointing out that everyone has problems adjusting to the various issues of being a teen. We also need to be framing conversations about mental health with teens in a variety of settings, but especially at school.
At one school I worked at, a young teenager tried to kill herself. When she attempted to come back, she was not met with sympathy; she was completely ostracised and eventually had to change schools. I know so many teens who champion gay rights, gender or race issues, yet would STILL not see the problem telling someone on Tumblr she is an “attention seeking Emo” and how pathetic she is. That’s not good. It’s not that the conversation hasn’t moved on, it’s barely begun from what I can see.
As a writer, would you recommend any particular films/TV shows/novels that do a good job of portraying teen mental health problems that other writers could use as inspiration?
I think WINTER GIRLS, a YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson is an absolute masterclass in tearing back the secretive world of eating disorders and the competitive element between young girls over who can be thinner. I remember that feeling so well, it was how I validated myself. Of my group of friends, someone else can be the cleverest, the most beautiful, the “sluttiest”… Me? I would be the thinnest. I remember making that decision quite consciously. It’s an obsession; nothing else matters. Others say people with eating disorders are selfish, but they don’t understand; it’s not about vanity, it’s about control. Anderson totally gets this.
He’s no longer a teen, but Gary’s panic attacks in CORONATION STREET are well represented. He becomes agitated, pacing, rubbing his face, unable to speak properly. This is how I experience them. For years, I didn’t realise I had panic attacks because all the ones I’d seen on television usually portrayed them as mainly hugely exaggerated breathing. Sometimes panic attacks would be played for comedic value, yet I’ve never felt they were funny in the slightest!
What would you like to see more of in terms of young characters with mental health problems?
I would like to see more portrayals of self harm as being something other than cutting. Not because cutting is not important, but because it’s been covered very extensively in fiction (especially soap opera), so it’s now the first thing anyone thinks of. Yet self harm covers myriad things people to do themselves: anything that someone does to themselves on purpose that is bad for them and endangers them physically or mentally is a form of self harm.
I was very keen to avoid cutting in JASMINE’S STORY on this basis. Olivia, who is a self harmer, binge drinks, has one night stands, even uses social media against herself. Obviously all of those things are fine for many people, but for Olivia they’re not, her life is getting out of control and that’s the point I’m trying to get across.
What one piece of advice would you give a young person struggling with their mental health?
Know that you’re not the only one who feels like this; you feel alone, but you’re not alone.
And what advice would you give to writers looking to portray that struggle accurately and sensitively?
Do your research. Know that some people live difficult realities for complicated reasons you know very little about. Ask people their experiences, how it made them feel, but don’t jump in with theories, or be intrusive. Be sensitive. Just listen.
Lucy V. Hay is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy at www.bang2write.com. Lucy is the author of The Decision Book Series of YA novels and WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS for Kamera Books’ “Creative Essentials” range.
If you’re a young person struggling with your mental health, there is help available:
MindFull – online support, information and advice for 11-17 year olds
Young Minds – leading UK charity for young people’s mental health
WellHappy – app for London-based 12-25 year olds to access local support services including mental health, sexual health and substance misuse.
Samaritans – 24-hour support for anyone struggling with mental health, by phone, email or drop-in.