Can I ask something? Can I ask you to think of something? Can I ask you to think of a time you felt as though you were at war with your brain, a time you felt overwhelmed by your own thinking? Can you think of a time you felt this way? I know I can. I have struggled with mental illness throughout my life resulting in a number of diagnoses, therapists, medications and assorted treatment plans.
After reading Portland writer Kathleen Lane’s new middle-grade novel Pity Party, published in January by Little, Brown, I knew I was not alone. I knew there were other people out there with minds often riddled with stress and worry. Most importantly, I knew that the focus didn’t have to surround dissatisfaction with my own brain.
Lane is also a nonprofit founder and program director, and all of her work centers on shifting the focus from what is wrong with us to what is right with us. Through her writing, her work with Create More, Fear Less (which helps kids combat fear and anxiety through creativity) and SHARE (in which gatherings of artists work in a single evening to create new pieces based on a shared prompt), Lane invites people of all ages to investigate their relationship with their minds.
Open Pity Party and you’ll find an invitation to the pity party. Right off the bat, Lane makes a point of letting readers know they are accepted and understood in all their wonderful wackiness within the worlds of the book. The book is separated into five parts linked together by the story of Katya and “The Voice,” which is the manifestation of Katya’s anxiety. Constantly filling her brain with what-ifs and reminders of danger, “The Voice” has kept Katya safe. However, it does so at the expense of Katya’s self-esteem until Katya stands up for herself.
In addition to Katya’s story, Lane tells the stories of a diverse group of children through a diverse means of storytelling. The stories cover topics from OCD to things as imaginative as a mood ring that tells you not your mood, but the truth about yourself. In True Story, a young boy named Caleb finds a mood ring in a thrift store, only to discover the ring shows his authentic emotions after flashing him words like “annoyed,” “startled” and “freaked out.” Of course, when he tries to take off the ring, it stays stuck on his finger. The ring forces Caleb to embrace his true self, the self that wears flowery shirts to school because he wants to, regardless of the bullies. Each story could stand on its own, and yet, each story follows a young person in their plight with their own brain and victories over their own shame. Lane’s series of short stories ensure no one feels left out: Everyone is invited to the pity party.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
The inspiration for Lane’s work comes from personal experience. She finally realized after “years of having a really antagonist relationship” with her mind that the very things she disliked about her thinking are the things that fuel her creativity and imagination. “I’m probably a writer because of all that complex thinking, all of my anxious spinning,” she explains. “I now think of all of those stories I told myself, all of my fear-based spinnings, as probably my earliest works of fiction.” Lane came to this realization after her first book, The Best Worst Thing (narrated by an 11-year-old girl with an anxious mind), was published in 2016. In visiting schools and discussing the book, Lane was able to talk to children directly about their own minds and their own worries. She found herself coming to a powerful realization about the shame connected to anxiety. “The shift in me when I stopped thinking of myself as broken and started seeing myself in this new way was so powerful that I really wanted to share it with kids,” she says. “Anxiety is one thing, but when we add that layer of shame on top of it sometimes it is so hard to get out from under. If we eliminate the shame, then we can get to work.”
Knowing she wanted to share this radical self-acceptance of anxiety with kids, Lane received a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to provide workshops at three Portland schools to help kids engage with their own creative minds. These workshops grew and expanded into the nonprofit OK You and its program, Create More, Fear Less, which Alex Behr wrote about for ArtsWatch a year ago. The organization provides free resources for anyone interested in forming a more compassionate and empowered relationship with their mind. Lane set out to create accessible tools to provide creative experiences “intended to engage kids in their own well-being.” Her resources invite people to make discoveries on their own: “There’s not one way to get there,” she says. “There are as many ways to get there as there are kids in the world.” Instead of teaching a lesson, the focus of the projects is personal relevance. While much of Lane’s work and resources are shaped with a middle school aged audience in mind, they are often used by people of all ages, inside and outside of classrooms. In fact, Lane facilitates a workshop at the NW Anxiety Institute with older youth and adults, and has heard from counselors who use Create More, Fear Less’s resources with first-graders. Lane sees building a new relationship with our minds as “so foundational, so important to how you show up in the world. If you can begin to form that kind of relationship at a young age, can you imagine how you’ll carry yourself into all future experiences? What a difference that could make.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 17% of children (ages 6-17) experience a mental health disorder each year in the United States. In the United States, anxiety disorders have the highest rates of prevalence among conditions coming in at 19.1% of adults. Lane has experienced first-hand the myriad of ways children describe, identify with, and experience anxiety. Often, children experiencing emotional reactions of all kinds, set off by feeling unsettled, are not seen as having anxiety. Therefore, I would venture to say the numbers listed in studies are far higher in reality. And yet, as a society, we attach so much shame to these struggles. “There is a lot to feel in this world,” Lane explains. “There is nothing abnormal about feeling anxiety when you’re in a world that is producing so much to be concerned about.”
I cannot think of a time in recent history that contains as many concerning factors as the past year. With a pandemic changing the world as we know it, political tension and unrest, racial protests and reckonings, changes in power and fights for safety and freedom, we all are bound to experience anxious moments. “What I want to work towards is this normalcy,” Lane says. “First of all, you are feeling anxious because you are a human and you’re having a very human reaction to a world that is confusing and upsetting. Second of all, as a human you also have this capacity to handle the world and handle these difficult moments.”
In my life, I have often found myself thinking, “I’m just an anxious person,” and connecting my identity to my anxiety. Lane shared an eye-opening shift of perspective by saying, “Moments are moments. This feeling that you are having is not who you are.” She reminded me that I am not “just an anxious person,” but “a human having an anxious moment.”
In addition to her work with anxiety and creativity, Lane writes short fiction and co-hosts the local arts and literary event series SHARE. SHARE brings artists together to create fresh work from the same prompt in an effort to remove the audience and put the focus on creation. Lane finds SHARE helpful in letting go of overthinking and perfectionism and instead creating, releasing and exposing process in a no-pressure group of fellow artists.
I recommend Pity Party for all ages. As an adult reader, I connected to the stories and found myself chuckling at Lane’s skill at using humor to portray struggle and her invitation to party with the messiness of human emotion. My favorite example of humor in the book is the ending of a story titled Odd, about a boy named Julian and his anxiety around bad things happening if he steps on the lonely shiny step in a series of dirty steps down to the subway: “And this is where our story ends. For, as Julian had predicted—just as he had told his therapist so many times—as soon as his foot touched down upon that single shiny step, the sky went dark, the planets dropped like fallen apples, the trees and flowers drew themselves back into the earth, space and time collapsed into one (the most dreadful of all odd numbers), and the world as we know it came to a sudden end.”
Reading Pity Party, I was struck by the representation within the book. Lane strove to make a book for all kids, and to include as many kids from as many different experiences as possible. Pity Party is the first book I have read with a nonbinary middle school character. I was even more excited as a genderqueer person when I continued reading and found that the nonbinary character’s story arc is not about their gender but instead about their haircut and piano playing. From choose-your-own-adventure style short stories, to personality tests, to the story of a girl making peace with the voice in her head, Pity Party engages readers of all backgrounds:
“Dear missing parts, broken hearts
picked on, passed up
Dear ADD, ADHD, OCD
WX, Y and Z
You are cordially invited
Come as you are
Help yourself to the cake
Spin your troubles round the dance floor
This party’s for you”