Writing about mental illness when it hits close to home: An interview with Barbara Claypole White

Sandra Hutchison interviews Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of THE PERFECT SON.

Author Barbara Claypole WhiteBarbara, I enjoyed THE PERFECT SON, about a mother coping with her son’s Tourette syndrome, her husband’s undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and her own heart disease. All your novels involve challenges from mental illness to some degree. What inspired that?

I was working on my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, when my young son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. After I put the story aside to focus on coaching him through therapy, a character barged into my mind and refused to leave. His name was James Nealy, and he was a brilliant entrepreneur determined to reclaim his life from OCD. James came from my darkest fear as a mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his quirky behavior and obsessions to love him for the incredible person he is? Infatuated with James, I took the novel apart, ditched the original hero, and rewrote the story with James as the love interest.

About the same time, I joined a non-fiction project—EASY TO LOVE BUT HARD TO RAISE—created by a group of parents raising kids with invisible disabilities. As my fiction and non-fiction projects merged, I found my passion: chipping away at the stereotypes of mental illness. I have my own little niche in the fiction world, which I call hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness, but I credit James with everything. Thanks to him, I went deeper and darker until I found Felix, the hero of THE PERFECT SON. (Felix has undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which is quite different to obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

There’s something I didn’t know. I’ll have to go learn more about it. But to get back to your work, what’s your number one hope for what your readers will get out of it?

I see fiction as a powerful vehicle for navigating life and emotions. My hope is that while my characters come from my imagination, their private wars can help educate people about the impact of mental illness on families. There is so much misinformation about mental illness, and it’s time we treated it on a par with any chronic illness that needs treatment, management, and understanding.I see fiction as a powerful vehicle for navigating life and emotions. -- author Barbara Claypole White @bclaypolewhite Click To Tweet

Agreed! My own family hasn’t escaped these issues, either. I’ve actually been a little surprised this semester by how many of my community college students chose to write their research papers about anxiety and depression, which they admit to suffering from. (I ask them to write about a topic they have a personal connection to, so that’s not entirely out of the blue.) I’m not sure if this suggests anxiety and depression are actually becoming more widespread, or if it’s a sign we’re finally putting the stigma it once carried behind us. What do you think?

Such a great question, and after reading a recent article in the New York Times about the rise in reported cases of anxiety and depression among teenagers, I’ve been wondering the same thing. I’m not a therapist or a sociologist, and I’m sure the causes are many, including the increased collective anxiety among adults about the future, climate change, politics, economics, etc.

We’ve made progress—not enough—against the stigma of mental illness, and in part that can be attributed to celebrities openly discussing their own struggles. I’d never heard of OCD when our son was diagnosed, but I’ve seen a substantial shift within the OCD world as public figures—for example, David Beckham—have come out of the OCD closet. There’s even a reality show on English television about OCD, and yet… certain manifestations of OCD still carry unbearable shame, and many people suffer in silence. (Both harm OCD and pedophile OCD fill your mind with intrusive, unwanted thoughts of the darkest, most horrific fears you can imagine—things you know you would never do, but your brain shows you otherwise. Even if you understand that the fear is irrational and comes from messed-up serotonin levels, the anxiety you experience as a result is still real. Yup, OCD is one sick bastard.)

The holidays can be especially challenging for those who suffer from anxiety or depression, and those who love them. Any recommendations to help people enjoy this season despite that?

Think small and be aware of loved ones who need to retreat from planned events. While structure is important—along with good sleep, exercise, and eating habits—even planned family gatherings can trigger anxiety and depression. If you’re a caregiver rather than a sufferer, make time to nurture your own mental health (yes, you can garden in December!).

Think small and be aware of loved ones who need to retreat from planned events. -- Author Barbara Claypole White on helping those who suffer anxiety or depression survive the holidays @bclaypolewhite Click To Tweet

I’m thinking North Carolina is way more amenable to that than upstate New York! But I do start my garden planning when the snow is on the ground.

So far you’ve published with MIRA Books and with Lake Union (an Amazon Publishing division), and I recall you mentioning recently that you are now off contract for the first time in five years. What does that do to your own mental health and personal writing momentum? What do you hope comes next?

Writing to deadline adds a heavy layer of stress to an anxious family, because despite your best intentions, you’re never in control of your own time. Throw two aging parents into the mix—one an ocean away—and I’m often struggling to meet contractual obligations while juggling the latest family crisis. The universe has a nasty habit of throwing me a curve ball at the worst moment!  As I write this, I’m hyperventilating about how to manage another mad dash to England—to see 87-year-old my mother—with book launch looming and a dead laptop. However, my guys are incredibly supportive and know that writing is my therapy. They understand that my novels help me process our world and craft stories that always ends in hope. I need that hope!

Being off contract is both liberating and terrifying. I have more time to excavate my characters and find their story, AND more time to listen to doubt. My poet-musician son and I have talked about co-writing a memoir on OCD, but right now a new idea is chewing at me—the story of an ex-addict who, while on an impossible mission to earn her family’s forgiveness, discovers that her long history of failure has the power to save lives, including her own. It’s a story about social outcasts, teen bullying, and the influence—both good and bad—of social media. Mostly it’s a story about how our greatest triumphs can grow from failure and defeat. The moment I have a functional laptop, I’ll be back to bashing out my daily word count!

As a traditionally published author, what’s your #1 piece of advice for aspiring authors?

Let writing be the cure. Publishing is a tough industry, and books don’t always perform in ways that make you happy. The secret to adapting and staying alive as an author is to keep writing. Write through bad writing days, disappointments, and rejection. Always keep writing.

Tell us more about THE PROMISE BETWEEN US, which releases January 16, and is available to pre-order now.

THE PROMISE BETWEEN US is based on a simple premise: Can you be a good mother if you abandoned your baby? It’s the story of Katie Mack, a metal artist who is hiding a dark secret. Ten years earlier, unable to escape the thought that she was a monster, Katie abandoned her baby—to protect her. What Katie didn’t know at the time, but knows now, is that she was trapped in postpartum OCD, with her brain playing non-stop images of her deliberately causing Maisie harm. Ten years later, when Katie accidentally crosses paths with Maisie, she realizes her daughter is also struggling with the irrational fear of bad things happening to someone she loves. Katie is faced with another dilemma: Should she reach out to the husband she left behind? Should she reinsert herself into Maisie’s life and risk triggering more anxiety? What would a good mother do?

Bestselling author Barbara Claypole White creates hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Originally from England, she writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina where she lives with her beloved OCD family. Her novels include The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family. The Promise Between Us, a story of redemption, love, and OCD, releases January 16, 2018. She is also an OCD Advocate for the A2A Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes advocacy over adversity. To connect with Barbara, visit www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com, or follow her on Facebook. She’s always on Facebook.

 

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