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Fall Tidings of Mental Health

How Jessica Darling Helped Me Feel Sane

For most of my life, the first hints of cold weather have been a balm to my heat weary soul. Living in the deep South means a lot of things, but the weather being hotter than Hades most of the time is not one of my favorites. I often say I was born in the wrong place and joke that I have reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. Though, SAD is no laughing matter. It’s a serious issue that you should seek help for if you need it. However, when I was a journalist, I learned that crime goes up in the hottest days, so I’m not alone in my hatred for hot weather.

But hot chocolate, warm clothes, and the holidays have always been there to lift my spirits. Halloween and Christmas are a toss up for a lot of us. Many of us can’t decide which we love more, and for me it’s Christmas, but by a hair (though upon discussing that with my husband he seemed to think I was kidding myself – he thought it was a mile). For now, my toddler is absolutely obsessed with all things Halloween. It’s super cute, and I’m sad that this year things won’t be normal. But it’s ok. Normal things will come again, and she probably won’t remember this weird year in the grand scheme of her near century on Earth. I don’t remember being three and the list of people who do is pretty short.

But, for some reason, fall and the holidays often make me think of a few of my favorite book series, probably because I often spent the days off from school tucked away in my room reading voraciously. Also, Harry Potter at least has become almost synonymous with Christmas thanks to the movies. (Don’t rip me a new one. Clearly, we didn’t know yet.)

The holidays also make me think of another of my well-loved book series featuring brilliant, sarcastic, angsty Jessica Darling. My copies are very well loved, since I’ve read the series numerous times; so, I was super excited to see that they’re getting a 20th anniversary reboot. It’s the perfect excuse to spend my book budget on a new set. But, also, twenty years? It’s been twenty years!? I grew up right alongside Jessica. When did I get so old?

At surface level, I don’t think I had a lot in common with Jessica. I was a first generation college student, an only child, and I came from a broken home. I didn’t have a dad until I was eight. If you’ve never read the books, she’s a middle-class typical suburban early 2000s teen. It’s a story about growth, change, stepping outside your comfort zone, learning about yourself. Typical coming-of-age story. I never realized it until I read this article by Kelly Jensen on Book Riot, that it’s also a story about depression and probably anxiety.

In the early 2000s, even in a home where my mom experienced major depression and anxiety, I still didn’t understand or identify that it might be something I had. My mom’s experience made me deny it even further. I’m perfectly normal, I whispered to myself, even as I did some destructive teen things and wrote angsty poetry. And, growing up with Jessica, I always felt a kinship with her. I, too, didn’t feel like I really fit anywhere. I had friends, but I didn’t actually like most of them, and longed for the day when I could get out of my small hometown. Internally, I was witty and sarcastic; externally, I was a Sunday School teacher and valedictorian. Jessica Darling was my literary soul mate.

Here’s my well-loved copy of Sloppy Firsts.

It took me having a weird life experience for me to finally admit maybe I wasn’t “normal.” My doctor at the time put me on pills and agreed it was the extraordinary circumstances, not wanting to call it anxiety. But I’d always been a worrier. When I got pregnant and couldn’t take the pills anymore, I finally tried counseling. The first session was enough to reveal I have anxiety. Not a little anxiety. Not “oh I’m a worrier.” I have extreme, serious anxiety. Conversations with my husband and my counselor have helped me realize that my brain doesn’t work the way it’s “supposed” to. To my husband, my brain is a scary place to live. To me, it’s home. It’s the only brain I’ve got, and it’s the one I’m (mostly) comfortable in. But, I’ve worked hard to make it more comfortable for everyone.

As a teen, I wasn’t comfortable in my brain yet. OK, honestly, I’m still not some days. But I am thankful for characters like Jessica Darling that absolutely helped me through it. My life diverged a great deal from Jessica’s after high school, but I always felt that kinship. No matter how many times I read Jessica’s story (something that happens every few years), it’s like a comfort blanket. Maybe in these troubling times, it’s time for another visit to Pineville of the North. If you’ve never given them a read, “Sloppy Firsts” by Megan McCafferty is the first in the series. You can’t pick up the new covers until next year, but I’d still recommend the old ones.

Thanks, Ms. McCafferty. Representation matters. I hope one day, my stories matter as much to someone as yours have to me. For more information about her works, visit her website.

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