A few weeks ago, I reviewed Leave of Absence, a novel about two patients in a behavioral health center, by Tanya J. Peterson. As part of the blog tour for her book, Tanya kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work as a counselor, her drive to combat stigmas against mental illness, and the lives of her characters beyond the novel’s pages.
1. I know you’ve worked as a counselor in high schools and your community; what made you want to write a book about characters dealing with mental illness?
“I have a strong desire to help people, and the way I’ve done so has evolved over the years due to life experience and circumstances. The negative stigma associated with mental illness has always bothered me. This stigma—negative stereotypes and judgments—is hurtful and damaging. I’ve seen good people suffer because of it, and I myself have experienced it. Tragically, the stereotypes that are used against people experiencing mental illness are based on misinformation and misunderstanding. I realized that perhaps I could be part of the movement to change attitudes and reduce stigma, and that I could continue helping people by working on a bigger scale to affect change. I love to write, so I decided to use writing as a way to help correct all of the misconceptions out there.”
2. One of my favorite things about this book is the way Penelope’s schizophrenia is portrayed. It cast a new light on this highly stigmatized illness and really humanized people who suffer from it. I was surprised by how normal she was when in control of her mind. What has surprised you most in your work as a counselor?
“What originally surprised me when I first entered the field of mental health was something very positive: People truly are strong and capable of taking charge of their own lives. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve never viewed the human race as weak and helpless. I was just surprised at first how very resilient people are. People can indeed recover from extreme adversity, and that makes the stigma against people that much more senseless.”
3. Oliver clearly loved his wife very much, and his despair over her death was heartrending. I would have loved to know more about their relationship, and now I’m going to pester you for a few details 😛 What first attracted them to each other, and what did they do on their first date?
“Fair enough! Oliver and Maggie met at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Maggie was in law school, and Oliver was in graduate school for environmental science. They met in the library (where else?!). Oliver was head-over-heels for Maggie before the conversation ended, and he tentatively asked her to spend the next afternoon with him. Unbeknownst to Oliver, Maggie was equally attracted to him. They spent the next afternoon together strolling through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. When evening came, neither was ready for the date to end. They drove to a grocery store where they shopped together for food then went to Maggie’s apartment and cooked dinner together. From that day on, Oliver and Maggie were together, their lives entwined until that fateful Saturday morning years later.”
4. I was really touched by William and Penelope’s relationship. I loved that he was able to see her as she was before she developed schizophrenia, but I was almost surprised to see a character so relentlessly positive and supportive in the face of such a life-changing illness. Is devotion like his common among the partners of people who have mental illnesses? I’m probably super cynical for being surprised by his attitude, but it made me really curious.
“Just as each mental illness is very individualized, unique to the person who experiences it, so are the reactions of loved ones. I know people who have been completely abandoned by friends and families, and I know people who have the unconditional and unwavering support of their loved ones. How someone is going to react is very complex and determined by a number of factors. Things such as the individual temperament of the loved one as well as the person with mental illness, the quality and nature of the relationship prior to the onset of illness, the presence or absence of environmental stressors, and numerous other considerations all play a role. Most definitely, not everyone reacts like William. And most definitely, there are many people who react just like William. There is the perception out there that it’s unrealistic to think that anyone would react with such caring positivity as William when someone in his/her life is diagnosed with a mental illness. That’s stigma at work. It’s incorrect to believe that someone with mental illness would be so difficult to deal with that it would just be too hard for a loved one to remain loving and supportive. The truth is that, while mental illness is difficult, it’s not something that always ruins relationships or makes support impossible. Cancer isn’t easy and brings a great deal of hardship to a family that must deal with it, yet the cancer patient still receives support and love. Penelope has schizophrenia, and William has learned about it and is willing to stick with her because he loves her. That absolutely happens in real life, too.”
5. I’ve discovered that I’m really interested in books about mental illness; The Bell Jar is one of my favorite novels, and there’s a great story set in a psychiatric ward in Edward Belfar’s collection Wanderers. Do you have any suggested reading (fiction or non-fiction) for someone interested in learning more about the subject?
“I’ve read two excellent books very recently, actually. The first is a memoir written by Nathan Daniels. In a very frank, very raw manner, Daniels shares with the world his experiences with abuse and mental illness. The second is a novel by Juilann Garey. Entitled Too Bright to Hear Too Loud To See, it follows a character through a tumultuous life with bipolar I disorder.”
I really enjoyed reading your book. Oliver and Penelope were fascinating characters, and they changed the way I think about mental illness. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read and review Leave of Absence!
“Thank you, Leah, for being part of my virtual book tour. I’m grateful for your review and for allowing me back onto your blog for this interview. It’s so wonderful to be able to have a chance to talk about mental illness and the importance of Leave of Absence. Your statement about Oliver and Penelope changing the way you think about mental illness is one of the most valuable things that someone could possibly say to me, and I really appreciate that. I’d like to thank all of your readers, too, for taking the time to read your review and our interview!”
You can visit Tanya J. Peterson’s website at http://tanyajpeterson.com to learn more about her book and counseling work.