I met Mandy several years ago, a friend of a friend. She was (and is) delightful, funny, quirky, and well-read. We really only saw each other at my friend’s parties, so after a year or so at a Christmas party, I asked Mandy if she’d like to go out and see a movie with me or get a drink. I could always use another quirky, well-read friend.
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“I don’t go out,” she told me, smiling nervously.
“But you’re here,” I said.
“That’s different.” She nervously scratched her head and made a hasty exit.
I asked my other friend why she bolted so suddenly...was it me? Did she think I was weird? Did she think I was trying to pick her up, like a date?
“Oh, no,” my friend said as she rinsed plates shiny with ham, and macaroni and cheese remains. “She has trichotillomania.”
I had to admit, I didn’t know what it was. But when she explained, I understood: a condition where a person picks at her hair, eyebrows, pulls them out. It often causes bleeding, sometimes infection, depending on the severity.
“But she has hair,” I said, still puzzled.
“That’s a really good wig.” She wiped her hands on a chicken-printed dishtowel. “Mandy used to do data entry, she had a really great job. But she just couldn’t handle the stress, the anxiety, and the pressure. She had to quit eventually and go on disability.”
I’ve seen Mandy several more times over the years, and we’ve always had a great time. She even came to a party at my house, but she didn’t stay long. The more I knew about her story, the more I realized that such a condition is irrespective of intellect, social need, wit, or desire. It just happens, and you have to figure a way to manage it. Mandy had found her way, but many do not.
This interchange inspired me to write a novel featuring a character, Anna, who was inspired by Mandy. The story is fiction; but the character shares a lot of traits with Mandy (who was, by the way, a beta reader for the book). The challenges of living with a mental illness are so far off the radar of most people that they have no idea how difficult it is, and how painful it can be to try and navigate the regular world. I’ve seen this from many viewpoints; I coexist with depression. My husband manages OCD, and one of my sons has autism. Our journeys navigating schools, jobs, even grocery stores, gives me a great deal of insight into the difficult journey of so many. None of the journeys is identical to another, but they do bear commonalities.
For Anna Incognito, I chose liberally from my own experience as well as Mandy’s. I pick at my skin (dermatophagia) and have pretty severe anxiety in crowds. Disneyland is not my happiest place on earth; I shop online. Still, Anna’s experiences are her own; she deals with her own traumatic past and finds a way to heal it, at least partially.
One reviewer put it this way: “My favorite thing about this book was the author's ability to pull me into Anna's world. Her pain and suffering poured off the pages and into my heart. Being able to experience the unraveling of her mental illness was both devastating and eye-opening. Between battling OCD and the constant urge to pick at her skin and hair, Anna's plight was evident. Something as necessary as hygiene had excruciating consequences. Anna said, ‘I splash some water to support the story and pump some soap into my palm, but the soap stings and finds all the ragged crevices in my fingers, the cracks and fissures I break open anew every day. I am my own Prometheus. It heals, I bite it, it heals, I bite. Rinse and repeat.’ “
I live that. I know how it feels. Maybe writing about it will help other people see that they are not alone, and that healing doesn’t mean getting rid of challenges, but rather, finding ways to work around them.
Anna Incognito is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Mascot Books.
Laura Preble is the award-winning author of the young adult series, Queen Geek Social Club (Penguin/Berkley Jam), which includes the novels Queen Geeks in Love and Prom Queen Geeks. Her novel, Out, dealt with the concept of LGBTQ rights within a young adult dystopia; Alex Sanchez, the author of Rainbow Boys, says "Out explores an intriguing, mind-bending, and challenging portrait of an upside-down world that turns the tables on homophobia, acceptance, and love.” She has won a Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize and has been published in North American Review, Writer’s Digest, Hysteria, and NEA Today.