You know that moment in Pixar’s Inside Out where Joy is trying to keep Sadness from touching things, trying to make her stay in the “circle of sadness?”
Yeah, I related to that movie a little too much.
My senior year of college, I was living with girls I’d been with since the freshman. My squad and found-sisters. But that semester, every single one of them was coping with really hard things, including and especially some serious mental health challenges. I felt helpless. Worse than helpless, sometimes. I was desperate to know what to do, and nothing felt like enough.
So I started writing. I began a story about a girl who takes a road trip with her beloved big sister, a big sister dealing with clinical depression, whom she would give anything to help. Many years and even more drafts later, that story is my upcoming second novel, Breathing Underwater.
In the story, Olivia and her big sister Ruth take a trip in an RV from their home in Tennessee all the way to the California coast, where a scuba-diving adventure is waiting for them. But Olivia knows the signs of Ruth’s depression, and it’s been getting worse and worse. So with her new camera in tow, Olivia takes pictures, and sets up a treasure hunt along the road that she hopes will break through to her sister -- show her things worth being happy about.
But what if things keep getting worse, or never go back to the way they were? Along the way, Olivia must learn that loving her sister, not changing her, is all she can do—and maybe that’s enough.
This thematic arc, and the lessons Olivia has to learn on her journey, were incredibly difficult for me to write. Like Joy from Inside Out, I wanted to keep all the bad things in the tiny little “circle of sadness” in the corner. Why listen to Sadness when there was Goofball Island to monkey around in, or hockey to play?
Joy, Olivia, and I all had to learn this together: sadness matters. Because when your internal emotional control panel goes black—when real depression comes and wipes out all the other emotions ability to be heard—sometimes it’s empathetic sadness that finally reaches through. This is something I’m still learning, with the help of writing, my patient friends, and the genius of Pixar mastermind Pete Docter.
While my brain chemistry doesn’t tend toward sadness and depression, I have definitely had mental and neuro-atypical challenges of my own. I was born with a genetic disorder that is often accompanied by NVLD, or non-verbal learning disorder. This means poor executive and strategic planning skills, and, among other things, a solid dose of anxiety. (Let’s just say it’s Joy and Fear fighting over the controls in my own emotional cortex).
This is something I explored in my first book, What Stars Are Made Of, a book featuring a main character, Libby, who was born with my same genetic disorder, NVLD, and worry for her sister. (If you’re seeing a pattern… you’re not wrong.) In Stars, Libby wonders if she’d be a different person without her genetic and learning disorders. What is the line between mental health/neurodiversity and true identity?
While trying to help her sister and family, Libby learns about the Japanese art of kintsugi, or the practice of mending cracked ceramic pottery with gold. This creates a new piece of art, even more beautiful than before the pottery had broken. When Libby asks if she’d be a different person with a different brain, her big sister says, “Then you’d be a different person. But you’re not.” Libby learns to see every part of herself as valuable, and part of who she is as a whole. In Breathing Underwater, Olivia has to learn the same thing about her sister.
That is what I hope readers take from these books—a willingness to give those around them the gift of seeing them complexly, and to see themselves complexly too.
We all have broken parts, and tender, hurting parts, and that’s what makes us so gloriously human. Our cracks, as Leonard Cohen says, are how the light gets in.
Sarah Allen is a poet and author of books for young readers. Her first book, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, was an ALA Notable Book of 2020 and her second, BREATHING UNDERWATER, is a Jr. Library Guild Selection for 2021. Kirkus Reviews called it “a heartfelt, multifaceted treasure hunt.” Born and raised in Utah, she’s currently a poetry MFA candidate and graduate instructor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and spends her non-writing time watching David Attenborough documentaries and singing show-tunes too loudly. Like Libby, she was born with Turner syndrome, and like Ruth and Olivia, she’s always looking for treasure. Find her online @sarahallenbooks and at https://www.sarahallenbooks.com/