One of the questions that Angela Misri asked me at our panel at Word on the Street was about the reaction of Ursa (the main character of Tangled Planet) to her new world – particularly her fear at aspects of living on a planet that we see as normal. In my answer, I talked about something I’ve never mentioned publicly before – my own anxiety, which had a big role in shaping this book. I was surprised by the number of people who spoke to me after to say they had been through something similar – I felt less alone, and was so glad to speak to other people who had the same experiences. So I thought I should be brave, and post something about it here.
I wrote Tangled Planet when I was struggling to adapt to a new world of my own – parenthood. That sounds cheesy, but the change in my life came as a bigger shock than I expected. In becoming a mother, I went from being someone who traveled the world and wasn’t afraid to jump out of a plane or move to a new continent on my own, to someone who was terrified of going to the park down the road.
After having my children I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), and for a while I couldn’t stand some everyday tasks, like giving my little ones a bath. It was unbearable – I’d be consumed with fear of them hitting their little heads and drowning, even though I was right there and would never let that happen. It’s hard to express how tough this terror made everyday life. Simple tasks and outings were agony. Taking them to the playground was painful. I was constantly on high alert, scanning the world for threats and seeing them everywhere. It was emotionally bruising and utterly exhausting, yet at the end of the day, I couldn’t rest. Fears chased each other around my head, leaving my pulse hammering and me wide awake, in spite of the fact that I desperately needed sleep.
It also affected my feelings about my writing. I felt huge shame and embarrassment about my first book, and about putting it out there. And that’s something I’m still working through. And the anxiety also touches on social interaction, with me constantly reliving conversations, wondering if I said something awful to make the person I was talking to secretly hate me.
I got help, and I’m a lot better. The fog of pain and exhaustion has lifted. I also know the signs of when I’m getting anxious, and have check-ins with my psychologist to nip things in the bud. I was able to use what I’d learned when my anxiety bloomed again after the election of Trump. Watching the resurgence of the forces that ripped the world apart in the 1930s and 40s, I spent sleepless nights wondering how I could protect my children if the worst happened. I was not alone, either – my psychologist said she’d been inundated with people afraid for the future after Trump’s election.
And in spite of all my strategies, I still worry way too much. I will always work to reduce risk where it makes sense to do so, but I struggle with the impossible desire to eliminate all dangers to my children. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that complete safety does not exist. Trying too hard to protect my children can limit their experiences and stunt their independence, so I have to let them do things that terrify me.
Since this was a huge part of what I’ve been going through, it had to come out in what I was writing. Although I didn’t want a main character with anxiety – that felt too close to home – I still wanted to explore the emotional truth of what I’d been going through. Because most of the symptoms that come with anxiety (heart racing, adrenaline flood, constant scanning for threats, etc.) are a healthy and useful reaction when you are in real danger – they only become an issue when you are reacting in that way to non-threatening, everyday situations.
So I wrote my SF hero as someone who was also struggling with a new reality – a world that looks familiar to us, but one that holds unseen risks that leave her feeling out of her depth. Ursa, like me, is trying to protect the people she cares about most. But Ursa is dealing with dangers far more real than those I’ve been facing. Dangers that threaten her whole crew, their future on Beta Earth and their very survival.
I know my children are as safe as I can make them. I know they aren’t facing a strange new planet, light-years from help, with a murderous monster in the alien forests surrounding them.
But, in spite of everything, that’s sometimes that’s how it feels.