I was not quite nine when I had my first real panic attack. We were on a family vacation in Montenegro, where we went every summer, and it happened at night; I don’t remember what triggered it. I To do remember being rushed to the hospital – the kind of dark Communist-era institution that most Americans would probably associate more with horror movies than routine medical care – by my parents, who were understandably very frightened by their child’s pounding heart, trembling legs and sudden inability to breathe properly.
To really enhance the experience, the pediatric specialists on site had obviously never seen (or recognized) a child having a panic attack before. They administered an ECG, tranquilizers, and cardiac medications to prevent what they thought was the possibility of an impending heart attack (…in an otherwise perfectly healthy nine-year-old child).
Almost thirty years later, it remains one of my most frightening memories.
When the cure is worse than the disease
After that first time, it became clear that I would have to deal with these “episodes” on my own, because the kind of help I would likely receive if I reached out would be worse than going blank.
To be clear, I never thought it was my parents’ fault. I grew up in Eastern Europe, and at the time, local medicine barely recognized mental health issues as a medical concern. Neither my parents nor the doctors were equipped to take care of me, when “nerve problems” were widely seen as the worst thing that could happen to you, functionally incurable.
I also didn’t give them the chance to react differently. After that first time, the panic attacks happened often, and usually at night. They would arrive with racing hearts, trembling legs and an intense, overwhelming sense of fear – and sometimes they would last for hours. It lasted at least two or three years, increasing and decreasing as I got older. I started to avoid social situations in which I couldn’t hide them; I stopped wanting to go to the movies, to sleepovers, to restaurants for family dinners.
Anything that wasn’t within arm’s reach of my bedroom’s safe haven seemed like a huge risk, because how could I hide what was going on, if it was happening where everyone could see it?
It’s not in the books, so it must be really evil
Already a devoted bookworm, I began to spend even more time reading, with the books serving as a personal safe space, the easiest way to soothe me whenever I felt panic rising. What I soon noticed was that in the stories I loved the most – sci-fi and fantasy, preferably with a strong magical component – the characters rarely echoed my experience.
Even once I figured out how to frame and name my own internal struggles, I can’t remember ever reading about a favorite witch, wizard, or superhero who experienced something like generalized anxiety or panic. They were hardcore people who took matters into their own hands, and if they did struggle with mental health, it was usually with substance abuse, PTSD or anger management – almost as if these equally difficult issues were seen as thornier, and therefore more acceptable to otherwise cool and “strong” people to face.
But there’s nothing weak about having to deal with panic, anxiety, or some hellish mix of both most, if not all, of your days. Once I started writing my own stories, that was what I wanted to write, as a form of active therapy for myself as well as representation for other readers. I wanted to create cinematic and mythical worlds filled with characters with magical powers that dismantled the most harmful and crippling notions that I had internalized over the years, such as:
You can’t be a badass and have mental health issues
This one is, by far, the most insidious takeaway. This implies that being wired in a certain way prevents you from being a high achiever, boss, or otherwise strong and impressive person, which is, of course, complete nonsense. When I wrote From bad to cursed, I wanted Isidora Avramov, an extremely powerful demon summoner and necromantic witch, to demonstrate that someone so badass could also deal with basic anxiety and frequent panic attacks.
Because there is nothing mutually exclusive about being both strong and vulnerable – most of us are both! This is the human condition, and in my experience, the lessons that come from navigating this tension are often the most valuable.
You can’t be sexy/attractive/lovely and have mental health issues
Oof, this hit me so hard growing up. The idea that others might find you fundamentally helpless due to mental health issues is a terrible blow to anyone’s self-esteem – and again, in DamnI wanted to portray Issa as a sensual, vivacious and very attractive person, so attractive that even her own nemesis, green magick healer Rowan Thorn, turns to her call.
Anxiety and panic are your shame and your problem
As a child and young adult, I felt compelled to hide my anxiety and panic attacks in order to protect myself, not only from traumatic hospitalizations, but from the judgment of others. Issa initially reflects this defensive position, and part of his journey in Damn deals with her learning how to ask for and accept help without fear – starting with Rowan, who clarifies that Issa’s panic attacks are just another part of her, nothing to warrant fear or shame.
There’s no better way to strip something of its power than by losing your fear and resisting the urge to deny its existence. That’s why magical stories featuring larger-than-life characters dealing with mundane mental health issues are so important — to illuminate that darkness.
Cast the shadows into oblivion, until there is no reason to be afraid or ashamed of who we are.
From bad to cursed
Opposites attract in this charming romantic comedy from Lana Harper, New York Times bestselling author of revenge is a witch.
Wild child Isidora Avramov is a thrill-seeker, an adept demon-summoner, and for all the sexy evil witch vibe, also a cuddly animal lover. When not designing costumes and new scenarios for the haunted house of the Arcane Emporium, Issa harbors a secret and conflicted dream of abandoning her family’s witchcraft business to become a freelance fashion designer in her own right. .
But when someone begins to sabotage the celebrations leading up to this year’s Beltane festival with dangerous dark magic, a member of the rival Thorn family is gravely injured, immediately casting suspicion on the Avramovs. To clear Avramov’s name and step in for her family when they need her most, Issa agrees to serve as co-investigator, helping none other than Rowan Thorn get to the bottom of it.
Rowan is the very definition of legitimate good, so tragically noble and rule-compliant that it hurts Issa’s teeth. In keeping with their families’ complicated history, he and Issa have been sworn enemies for years and have come to hate each other deeply. But as the unlikely duo follow a bewildering trail of clues to a startling conclusion, Issa and Rowan discover how little they know each other…and stumble upon a maddening attraction that’s getting harder and harder to ignore. day by day.
From bad to cursed releases May 17.
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