[NOTE: Jess has kindly agreed to an advance review copy giveaway of QUINTESSENCE, which publishes July 28. See details at end of post.]
Before I was a full-time mother and author, I was a full-time therapist. I worked with lots of different populations, but my favorite were young adolescents. And what was the number one thing that these kids who came to see me struggled with?
We live in an anxious world. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health illness, for both adults and children. In fact, one study from the National Institute of Mental Health reports that the lifetime prevalence rate for anxiety disorders among adolescents is nearly 32%, which is staggeringly high. We also know that adolescence is a time when kids explore who they are and how they fit into the world, and when anxiety is thrown into the mix, these questions can seem even more difficult to answer.
So when Alma, the main character of QUINTESSENCE, showed up in my mind with an anxiety disorder and lots of questions about who she was, I wasn’t one bit surprised. I was happy to see her. I was ready to write her story, which also happens to include fallen stars, alchemy, and magical telescopes.
In QUINTESSENCE, 12-year-old Alma has just moved to a new town, and on her third day at her new school, she has her first panic attack. Alma describes the way she feels after the panic attack this way: it was as if the bright stuff inside her, the stuff that she imagined made her herself—her Alma-ness—was growing dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. She doesn’t feel like herself anymore.
This is something I’ve heard many young clients with anxiety express. The onset of anxiety symptoms can be scary and confusing. Alma’s parents do their best to help her, but the learning curve is steep. Her father views anxiety as a problem to be solved, while her mother thinks a more optimistic outlook will turn things around. Both parents over-focus on Alma’s problems and forget about the rest of her. It is difficult for them to even use the term panic attack, so they call them episodes.
To escape their scrutiny, Alma begins to lie, telling her parents that her panic attacks have stopped. She notices that their relief at hearing that she was better had been palpable. And once she’d told that lie, she had kept going. The truth had felt overwhelming. The truth had felt like failure.
This is something I’ve seen often as a therapist as well. This won’t be a surprise to anyone, but kids are not always upfront with their parents about their feelings and symptoms—because they don’t want to get in trouble, or don’t want to be judged, or want to have the power of withholding information rather than the vulnerability of revealing pain, or because they are not fully aware of the truth themselves. Alma, in fact, lies a lot in this story—about her anxiety, about the star that falls in her backyard, about the nighttime adventures she goes on with three new friends.
It’s not just her family that Alma lies to either—she lies to her friends too. She doesn’t tell them about her panic attacks. In part, this is because of the stigma that remains attached to mental health issues, even ones that have become so prevalent. Alma doesn’t want to be seen as weird or messed up. She’s also still confused about what exactly her anxiety says about her and what she thinks about it. Her sense of self seems so up in the air, so jumbled and shadowed and confused, that it’s hard to even find the words to describe what she’s experiencing.
Ultimately, Alma’s secrecy lays the ground for honest, deep conversations with her family and her friends. Over the course of her quest to save the star that fell into her backyard, Alma is able to see that her friends all have their own struggles and challenges that are part of their identities. She faces fears, with the support of her friends and family. She speaks her truth. She helps someone else. She learns to breathe, to use coping statements, to be honest. She finds her light.
Much of what Alma does—coming to understand her complexities and challenges, her strengths and growth areas, the well-lit and the hidden places of herself—is simply part of growing up. As the somewhat unorthodox therapist who meets with Alma puts it: These are things that everyone has to figure out, panic attacks or not.
But some of Alma’s journey is specific to her anxiety, and what I hope is that her story speaks to the many other anxious kids who are searching for their own light. I believe stories are tremendously powerful in helping kids with the work of identity-formation. When we see ourselves in a story, it lets us know that we are not alone. It gives us the language to explore and explain that mixed-up sense of self. It shows us that, in fact, our experiences are common enough and important enough that an author somewhere sat down with a pen and wrote a whole book about it.
Earlier this year, I was on a panel of middle-grade authors at a conference, and I mentioned that my next book, QUINTESSENCE, featured a fallen star and a girl with an anxiety disorder. At this, a young girl in the audience sat up straighter, and she listened to every word I said for the rest of that session and for the next.
Later, while I was signing books, that girl approached with her mother.
“She said she’s too nervous to talk to you,” the mother said, “but she wants you to know that she’s excited about your next book.”
I gave them stickers and bookmarks. I told them more about the story and about myself. The girl did not look at me or speak until they were about to walk away.
“I love magic,” she said. “And I’m anxious too.”
“This book is for you then,” I told her.
Thank you for reading. For a chance to win a free advance review copy of QUINTESSENCE, just follow Jess Redman HERE, AND subscribe to A Novel Mind HERE. A winner will be chosen at random in about a week. Thank you!
Jess Redman is the author of The Miraculous, which Kirkus called “layered, engaging, and emotionally true” in a starred review, and Quintessence, which comes out July 28, 2020. She is a therapist and currently lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, and an old cat named SoulPie. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at jessredman.com.