by Hanah Sawaf
This interview series will feature a new creative each week. This is the first interview. This interview series was created by Hanah Sawaf and the first four interviews were conducted during her internship with HoldOn2Hope.
I understand that your book “A Breath Too Late” is centered around your experiences with mental health. If you are comfortable with this, do you mind telling us what you experienced?
The onset of my depression came on very suddenly and very strong when I was a preteen, and accompanying that depression was suicidal ideation. So, I was eleven and twelve years old, thinking about ending my life. At that time, I really didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the pain that I was feeling, yet alongside that, I had such ambition and such desire to prove myself, that I didn’t really let others see the severity of my depression. So, I graduated and entered college at sixteen, I was on the Student Government Association, I was part of so many fellowships, graduated, got married, had a kid, became a behavioral coach, and yet I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation during all of that. It really wasn't until I had my daughter when I understood the severity of it, because I realized that if I was gone, there would be such tremendous loss. I remember being pregnant and writing a letter to my daughter and saying, “I will not let go, because I know that I’m meant to be here for you.” And that was sort of my mantra. From then on, I started to become more vocal as I realized other people were struggling too, but it took years for me to open up. That's part of the reason I wrote A Breath Too Late, because I was suffering in silence and I know that others are out there suffering too.
Do you think your experiences as a behavioral coach helped you come to terms with your mental health struggles?
It did, because the things that I was helping others do were really exercises that I was doing for myself to be functional, and not just survive, but thrive in many ways. It was those moments of vulnerability and deep connection with the people that I was working with that I saw the tremendous impact of our work on both myself and my clients. Even now, I try to bottle up and compartmentalize my negative thoughts and emotions, and I did that for so long that it just got to a point where I couldn’t anymore. It was years into my marriage that even my husband knew the severity of the shame, pain, and thoughts that I was dealing with pretty regularly. But, the experience of helping others through their own pain allowed me to destigmatize the shame in myself.
How has what you experienced regarding mental health affected your present life? Would you say that those experiences have defined who you are today?
I feel like after so many years of struggling with my mental health, and then sitting with my mental health and understanding that it is this part of me that doesn’t need to be witnessed with shame, that I am now able to look at my own experience and my mental health journey with so much compassion. I also think that my experiences have impacted me and the way I live my life now by being almost like a bridge, because now that I am very public and open about my mental health, I see so many people reach out to me and share their journeys too. So, I feel like my journey has really impacted my life now because instead of ignoring it or shaming it, I am owning it. I feel like once we start to own all parts of ourselves we can make peace with all parts of ourselves, and forage our way forward in a healthier way.
How and when did you realize that you could use writing as an outlet to manage or express your mental health struggles?
I’ve always used writing as an outlet. Even when I was eleven years old, I wrote poems, stories, and did character sketches all the time. However, there was a point in my early teens where I really had ambition, so I set aside my author dream to do other things that I was passionate about, but I did them more because I thought that that was what I needed to do to prove myself. Then, I came to the point when I was pregnant with my daughter where I realized that if I wanted her to live her dreams, it was time for me to start living my own. It was then that I started writing with the intention of publishing again. In retrospect, it was when I was writing A Breath Too Late that I went through such a healing experience because writing that book was really a huge part of me owning all of these memories and experiences that I had kept hidden. It wasn't until writing Breath and sharing it that I started to come out publicly about my own experiences.
The world has placed a large stigma around mental health. Did you ever encounter this stigma during your mental health journey? How were you able to deal with that? Was writing the outlet used to deal with that?
When I was in graduate school, I remember my classmates saying that they would never write about suicide, and I was like, “That is exactly what I’m writing about!” So, there was a lot of fear around tackling issues like domestic violence, suicide, and mental health, and I could sense that there was a lot of uncertainty around me about what it would mean to put this kind of book out into the world. Luckily, it was more of anxiety, nerves, and fear previous to publication that I had to work through because I was unsure about how it would be received. Upon publication, I have only gotten incredible support from readers. I’ve had people come to me and say that they felt seen, or that Breath helped them finally understand their mother, or that this book comforted them because they lost someone too and they didn’t feel like a book addressed the issue from a loved one’s perspective. So, prior to publication I feel like there was a lot of fear and hesitation around tackling these issues in such a raw and blunt way as I was dong with Breath, but after publication, in terms of the readers and librarians and teachers who reached out to me, it has just been endlessly supportive.
I understand that you worked as a behavioral therapist before writing your novel. Did you ever meet anyone whose story you identified with?
As a behavioral coach, I worked very intensely with people one on one. So, it wasn't that they would come and see me for an hour a week; instead, I would work full time with them in their home with their families, and we would do intense behavioral work from the time they woke up to late in the day. While I had people that dealt with depression and cases like that, what I more resonated with was the fight. Each person that was going through their own mental health journey was in a battle, whether it was a battle with the thoughts in their mind or it was a battle with habits that were hurting them, and people don’t understand that when you have a mental health diagnosis there is so much energy that’s put into the simple maintenance of that diagnosis. So, I always just stood in incredible reverence to everyone's plight and everyone’s journey and their minds and understanding that the small wins were massive wins. By seeing that and being that person for someone else, I also came to realize that I had to be that person fo myself and to realize that my own small wins matter too. I think that, collectively, we need to recognize that we are all in a different struggle and we have to meet each other with tremendous compassion, because we never know how far that compassion will not only take us, but someone else as well.
What part of A Breath Too Late did you have the hardest time writing and why?
All of it! What's funny is that I wrote the first draft of this book in just over a week, and I wrote it with such ferocious urgency because it was like I needed to rip the Band-Aid off. Every day that I was writing, I was sobbing - I wrote a lot at night to avoid having witnesses. After I finished the first draft, the editorial process was also very difficult because I had to figure out how to balance the raw reality of domestic violence, suicide, and mental health, while also not putting too heavy a burden on the reader. In terms of what was most difficult, I would say that writing the relationship of Ellie and her mother was what took me the longest because I really wanted to show that you can be in a state of pain or have a strained relationship with somebody, and then heal it through compassion. Ellie had a level of anger towards her mother that I never had, but I did want to show what it is to sit in the dark when no one's watching: Ellie had the opportunity to do that in this story. I wanted to show that there are so many people you hurt around these issues, and so often we only look at one side of it.
What barriers were you able to break with your work? In other words, what perspectives and beliefs did your work challenge?
Especially with Breath, it was the barrier of “can I write this?” I really didn’t know if I had the capacity, the talent, or the ability to tackle this issue the way I wanted to. Really, there was a tremendous amount of imposter syndrome and fear, and even when I had my agent it took me months to do the revisions she asked for because I was so stuck in fear that I was not going to be able to deliver and that this book was going to fail. So, some of the things with writing was cultivating creative confidence and knowing that the simple act of continuing to write even when you don’t think you can is a powerful exercise because you are giving yourself evidence that you will show up for the page. I think a huge thing for any creative is that showing up is half the battle, and as long as you keep doing that then you’re going to win.
What advice would you give to someone who is currently struggling with mental health?
If you’re currently struggling with mental health, seek help. It can be professional help, help in communities, or help from loved ones, but you need to find your safe spaces; sometimes those are outside of your household, and that’s ok: there are people outside the familiar places that can be refuge for you. So, the first thing is to understand and to be proud of yourself for acknowledging the fact that you’re struggling. Then, move into finding the support that you need, and that support is going to be different for everybody. For some, you’re going to be met with tremendous, glorious, wonderful support from the people you love most, and sometimes you’re not. What you need to understand is that seeking help doesn’t need to stop there - keep going. To find communities, especially those online, is really important as well. To be in communities where there’s a feeling of support and people who just talk about their mental health journey and normalize the conversation can help you realize that you’re not alone, and you can find people who are willing to walk the road with you.
What advice would you give to someone who has a loved one that they believe is hiding their mental health struggles?
When you can see a shift in someone’s behavior, whether they’re withdrawing, lashing out, or starting to do things that you know are harmful to them, you can speak up and say, “There is something going on here.” I think what happens with a lot of people is that we can say “go seek help,” but oftentimes people feel so anxious or unsure about how to seek that help. So, as a loved one or family member, simply sitting with that person and saying, “It’s ok that you’re hurting, I’m here for you. You don’t have to say or do anything, but just know that I’m here and I will be steadfast beside you.” I wrote an article a long time ago where I talked about when my husband became aware of my struggles. At that time, I had completely withdrawn: it was hard for me to communicate or speak at all, and it was just because my depression had taken over and he noticed that change. As a loved one, noticing and speaking up is huge because I think that it makes a person feel seen, and that helps the person realize that maybe you’re safe enough to speak with and open up to. So, when you see a change in someone or you’re worried about them, sharing your concerns with that person and then offering reassurance that when they’re ready, you’ll be there for them to listen is a big part of how you can help as a loved one.
Rocky Callen (she/her), daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, is a former behavioral coach and the author of the young adult novel A Breath Too Late, which was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year and a Chicago Public Library Best Teen Fiction of 2020. It was also featured on the Mujerista’s list of Ten Best YA Books by Latinx Authors in 2020. The novel grapples with suicide, depression, and domestic violence and was inspired by Callen’s own experiences. She co-edited the forthcoming anthology Ab(solutely) Normal: Sixteen Stories that Smash Mental Health Stereotypes. She founded the HoldOn2Hope Project.
Hana Sawaf was the media and communications intern for the HoldOn2Hope Project and she created and launched this interview series. She is a high school student in Dallas, Texas. As a passionate advocate, Hana enjoys using her voice to help others. In the past, Hana has spoken about refugee rights, criminal justice reform, gender equality, and more through various internships and school engagements. Outside of this, Hana enjoys traveling, competitive swimming, and spending time with friends and family.