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M. Evan Wolkenstein: When Turtles Fly (anxiety, depression, body-image)

My three year old daughter is a pandemic baby. The same year she learned to speak, joke, and play was the year she spent in a safe little bubble at home. I was her daddy, her teacher, her playmate and her tour guide: I taught her to hike, to eat spicy snacks, and to listen to They Might Be Giants.

That was the great part. The sad part, however, was watching her grow without frequent access to new places and people, especially the company of little ones like her. She tells us she doesn’t like other children. Or any people, really. Only animals, she says. She’s a duck, she tells us.

On this matter, I can relate. You see, I am a turtle.

My own metamorphosis to secret animal form took place in middle school. Like my daughter, I’d already spent some formative years living in a bubble; I had few friends, and did not like new experiences. The final phase took place at an overnight family retreat. I remember sitting in the communal dining hall, surrounded by the cheerful din of conversation, but stealing glances at my watch, calculating: I’d be awake for three more hours. Then, I’d need to survive a strange-smelling bed and in the morning, suffer through hours of unknowns: canoeing, hiking. I began to feel like I was floating somewhere outside of myself, with nothing to stop me or catch me.

The moment my family finished dinner, I suggested we go home.

“Back to the cottage?” my mother asked. “You can go back anytime.”

“Home-home,” I answered. But we didn’t go home. And then, when I woke up in the middle of the night, there was something new in the darkness. Nausea. I was certain I had food poisoning, though my only symptom was wave after wave of queasiness, like motion sickness without the motion.

This strange, new ailment followed me home and as 9th grade began, it joined me everywhere I went; I began coming up with excuses not to go to movies, not to visit my friends’ houses. I spent my weekends hiding in my room, dreading Monday morning and I spent my week trying to get to the weekend. I was only 14, and yet, life seemed an endless, interminable purgatory.

From where I stand, now, it’s clear that I was probably suffering from depression with a side of anxiety disorder. And no wonder -- I had very poor self-concept. Vast research has underscored the way in which poor self concept acts as a filter, imparting negative judgment on situations, and I remember that negative judgment hanging over me like a dense, dark cloud. At home, we never spoke about depression or anxiety, nor the other elephant in the room -- (that being the turtle on my face). Kids at school called me “Turtle Boy,” a reference to a Loony tunes character with a similar profile. Since puberty, my chin and jaw had been growing in such a way that my teeth stuck out, I had a severe overbite and a receding chin.

When I set out to write my middle grade novel Turtle Boy, I wanted to capture the feeling of being trapped in a prison of my own fears, the alienation from my body. The main character, Will Levine, is diagnosed with the same condition I had, but instead of needing to wait some indeterminate time to get the green light for major surgery (as I did), the dreaded date hurtles towards him, just a few months away. He’s caught between suffering where he is and the terror of moving forward with an operation.

But my protagonist also has a few things going for him; externally, his mother and friends care for him, deeply. And internally, Will has a kind of indomitable spirit -- (I chose the name on purpose); he is compelled to push forward towards the light. I, too, had a supportive family. And I had that will to be free, to express myself, not just to crawl but also to fly.

I came out of the hospital with a new facial profile. But more importantly, relieved of the teasing and the self-fulfilling prophecy of my nickname, step by step, year by year, I became interested in the world. I wanted to try my hand at public speaking and joined my high school forensics team. No longer petrified by the idea of my face being visible in public, I successfully auditioned as the guitarist for a professional Zydeco band. No longer terrified of the new and unfamiliar, I backpacked solo through the Middle East. Then, in a swerve that would have beggared the imagination of my 13-year-old self, I started a men’s style blog. In a final leap of faith, I shared my worst, adolescent nightmares with the world in the form of my book, Turtle Boy. It was another stage of healing for myself, and just as importantly, a gift to young readers -- whether humans or ducks or turtles, all yearning to be free.

Tomorrow, I will bring my daughter to her first day of preschool. She’s been chattering excitedly about it, but she’s unaware of how her life is about to be flipped upside down. She will no longer be in this tiny bubble. Watching my wife pack the tiny purple narwhal backpack with bunny grahams, I know two things: one, this will not be easy. My daughter will come home with many feelings -- not all of them pleasant; certainly, the other ducks in her preschool pond will not cooperate with her every whim. I promise, I’ll help her confront her fears. I’ll also give her space, if she needs it, to climb back into her bubble for a few hours.

But I also know that this particular duck isn’t built to spend her life stuck on the ground. Even as a nauseous teenager, somewhere deep inside, I had a strong urge to fly. It lifted me up and out of my shell. And when I watch my daughter sing They Might Be Giants Songs to entertain other Trader Joe’s shoppers, I know she does, as well. I know our little ducky will fly, just as this turtle learned to move out of the shadows, day by day, slow and steady.


M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and writer. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Hebrew University, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. His work can be found in The Forward,Tablet Magazine, The Washington Post, Engadget, My Jewish Learning, and BimBam.

He lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area. Turtle Boy is his first novel and winner of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award.


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