In this insightful and evocative novel, Tanya J. Peterson delves deeply into the world of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. When Oliver Graham’s suicide attempt fails, he is admitted to Airhaven Behavioral Health Center. Unable to cope with the traumatic loss of his beloved wife and son, he finds a single thread of attachment to life in Penelope, a fellow patient wrestling with schizophrenia and its devastating impact on her once happy and successful life. They both struggle to discover a reason to live while Penelope’s fiancé William strives to convince her that she is worth loving. As Oliver and Penelope try to achieve emotional stability, face others who have been part of their lives, and function in the “real world,” they discover that human connection may be reason enough to go on.
Publisher Inkwater Press and author Tanya J. Peterson generously offered me the opportunity to speak with the author and learn a bit more about her process in writing this book.
Q & A with Tanya Peterson
1. In Leave of Absence, Oliver has PTSD and Penelope is schizophrenic. Why did you choose to focus on these mental illnesses in particular?
My goal in writing Leave of Absence was to help increase understanding of mental illness. There are many negative stereotypes associated with mental illness in general. Schizophrenia in particular is one of the most negatively stereotyped and misunderstood of all mental illnesses. Likewise, there is a lot of mention about PTSD in the news, but many people don’t fully understand it. Both schizophrenia and PTSD are often feared and associated with violence. This is sad, because violence is not inherently a part of either. Leave of Absence shows what schizophrenia, PTSD, and depression (both Penelope and Oliver have depression) are like for those who experience them.
2. How did your experience as a teacher and counselor inform the writing of this story?
I drew on much from my background in writing Leave of Absence. Having a graduate degree in counseling and being a Nationally Certified Counselor were definitely helpful in contributing to the factual base of the story. Working closely with people, whether through teaching or counseling, has helped me understand people – the humanity behind the illness. Additionally, I have personal experience of my own that was helpful in creating a realistic, albeit fictional, story. I’ve been a patient myself, and I’ve even spent time in a behavioral health center such as Airhaven in Leave of Absence. It was there that I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder.
3. I’m intrigued by Penelope’s fiancée, who remains loyal even when Penelope feels herself undeserving of his love. In your experience, what are the biggest challenges facing those with loved ones who are mentally ill?
Everyone’s experience is unique, of course, so it can be a bit difficult to generalize. Some difficulties often experienced, though, are a distancing between the loved one and the caregiver, such as what happens to William with Penelope. There can be a sense of guilt from both sides: someone with a mental illness can feel that they are burdening their loved one or inhibiting their lifestyle (Penelope feels that she is ruining William’s life); likewise, a caregiver can feel as though he/she isn’t doing enough to help the one they love. There are also difficulties that are associated with the specific mental illness involved. Each one has its own unique thoughts and behaviors associated with it that bring challenges to the person experiencing the illness as well as the people who care about them.
4. You mention in your website that you are deeply passionate about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. How can fiction create that change?
I think that fiction can be a very powerful vehicle in bringing change. There are many wonderful non-fiction books out there that explain various mental illnesses, and that’s great. These are important, too, in increasing understanding. With fiction, though, a wide variety of readers (not just those interested in a specific non-fiction topic), can connect with characters who experience mental illness. It’s important for everyone to look beyond the mental illness to see the person behind it. Fiction makes this possible. Fiction can increase not only factual understanding but empathy, too, and that understanding and empathy can carry over beyond the pages of the book and into the real world.
5. You’ve also written a YA novel Losing Elizabeth. How is writing about mental health for a YA audience different from writing for an adult audience? What are the challenges unique to each genre?
I admire those authors who can write great YA books, because, for me, YA is a difficult genre to write. While I like the story behind Losing Elizabeth (it’s about a girl who becomes trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship and was inspired by the shockingly large number of students I had across the years who became involved in unhealthy relationships), I don’t really love how I wrote it. To me, the biggest challenge was creating thoughts and dialog that truly sounded like how teenagers sound. I’ve worked with adolescents, and I currently have a teenager of my own, but I just don’t feel that I can make my characters sound like teens. For me, writing for an adult audience comes more naturally. Each reader, no matter his or her age, has different interests and tastes, and that is a challenge. That’s absolutely not a bad thing but merely something of which I’m aware as I write.
6. What do you want your readers to walk away with after reading Leave of Absence?
I would love it if readers walked away from the story with a deeper understanding of mental illness and those who experience it.
7. What do you think of how mental illness has been portrayed in books, movies and pop culture? How does Leave of Absence present an alternative view?
So often, mainstream media negatively stereotypes people with mental illness. A very common depiction is a mentally ill person as a deranged, raging, lunatic who is unpredictable and violent. Another one is the person who is not “all there,” lacking sound mental faculties and with low intelligence. Sadly, characterizations like these have been used so often that they are accepted as truths. Accordingly, a stigma has developed against those with mental illness, and too often, people don’t want to associate with (in the workplace or socially) with someone who experiences mental illness. I don’t believe that most people would negatively judge people with mental illness if they knew the truth about it. In Leave of Absence, neither Penelope nor Oliver fits the stereotypes. Readers will see what schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, and loss are like for them. In writing Leave of Absence, I have broken away from the misunderstandings and stereotypes to help contribute to deeper understanding and empathy.
Jaclyn, thank you sincerely for interviewing me! I appreciate the chance to share a little bit about why I wrote what I did. It was kind of you to invite me onto your wonderful blog. Thanks, too, to your readers for taking the time to read this interview. 🙂
Thank you to Tanya for giving such an insightful interview! And thank you as well to Inkwater Press for organizing this!
To learn more about Leave of Absence, check out the author’s website or see the book trailer:
About the Author
Tanya J. Peterson is a mental health writer and speaker who holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, Master of Science in counseling, and is a Nationally Certified Counselor. She has been a teacher and a counselor in various settings, including a traditional high school and an alternative school for homeless and runaway adolescents, and she has volunteered her services in both schools and communities. She also has experience with mental illness from the perspective of a patient, as she experiences Bipolar I disorder and struggles with various forms of anxiety.
Her most recent work is the novel Leave of Absence in which she uses fiction as a powerful vehicle for portraying the realities of schizophrenia, depression, and PTSD. Tanya has given mental health presentations in her home state of Oregon, she is active in her local NAMI, and she will be a featured speaker at the conference of Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society, Inc. to be held in San Diego in August, 2013.