Telling Our Secrets

When I was ten years old, I lived in a neighborhood that seemed perfect from the outside. The grown-ups came and went in their cars. The kids walked to school. We rode our bikes around the block. In the summer, we caught toads and fireflies, and in the winter, we built forts. Everyone seemed happy and well-adjusted. If you look at pictures of me from back then, you would think I was happy too. There was one of me as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz with the ruby slippers we dipped in red glitter. (I remember there was glitter on the kitchen table for weeks). There was one of me sitting on the lawn with my dog. Just a goofy neighborhood kid you thought you knew. No different than any other ten-year-old.

You never would have guessed that I was suffering in secret. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  OCD takes many different forms. Some people who have it experience a fear of germs or feel a compulsion to wash or disinfect. Other people have rituals that stave off the feeling of disaster. My OCD mainly expressed itself in the repetition of intense and constant worries about ideas that disgusted or terrified me. Once a bad thought entered my head, I became consumed by it. I was completely unable to stop focusing on it for months at a time, and the thought would grow bigger and bigger until it became very difficult to do anything else besides worry. Most of my obsessive thoughts had to do with death, probably because my father was very ill when I was a child. I would think about AIDS or heart disease or terminal cancer or senility. Sometimes I would think about what would happen if one or the other of my parents were dying. Sometimes I would worry that I myself was dying. I would imagine my death bed, I would imagine being buried alive. I would imagine murder scenes.

Each of these worries would cycle continuously through my mind every moment of the day, growing in intensity from the time I woke in the morning, until I went to bed in the evening. It was a kind of constant existential pain. No matter how I tried to distract myself, I could still feel the worry clawing in my chest and my belly. When my obsessing was at its most desperate, and I became physically unable to keep the thoughts a secret any longer, I would begin to ask people around me if the things I worried about could possibly be true. But no matter what the person said in their attempts to soothe me, I would always doubt. Asking for reassurance doubled or tripled my anxiety, inspiring new questions that could never be answered. “Are you sure I can’t catch AIDS from a water fountain? Completely sure or just a little sure? Are you just saying this to make me stop asking, or do you really mean it? Will you always tell me the truth? How can I know you are telling the truth now?” I would ask and ask until my poor friend or family member would become so exhausted from my questions that they would eventually find a way to escape and I would turn inward, disgusted with myself, but still completely unable to stop.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness asserts that today, one in five adolescents suffers from some sort of serious mental health issue (NAMI, 2018) but because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many teens suffer in silence as I did.  When I was a child, I didn’t know there was such a thing as OCD. I didn’t know there was a name for what was going on inside my head. I didn’t know that there were other people whose brains got stuck in the way mine did, or that a careful combination of therapy and medication would one day, finally, help me live a normal life. It was not until I was in my twenties that I finally became brave enough to seek help.

I wrote Trowbridge Road, so that children living in families with mental illness might see a reflection of their own experience and realize that they are not alone. In Trowbridge Road, June Bug discovers how harmful and exhausting it can be to keep secrets. She forges an unusual, imaginative and powerful friendship with a strange neighborhood boy named Ziggy, and discovers that she is not the only child in this neighborhood whose life is imperfect. She is not the only one who keeps secrets. She is not the only one who has been suffering in silence. Little by little, as trust grows between them, both children eventually feel safe enough to tell each other the truth for the first time, and in telling, they realize that sometimes when your own family is shaking you can find someone from the outside who can feed your spirit and even save your life. I wish that when I was eleven years old, someone had put a book like Trowbridge Road into my hands so that I could see that there was no such thing as a perfect neighborhood. Maybe I would not have waited so long to get help. There are many reasons why Middle Grade literature is powerful, but I think one of the most important is the ability to provide mirrors for children who have never seen themselves in literature before and windows for children who are the perfect age for empathy and connection. I hope Trowbridge Road finds its way into the hands of someone like me, who needs to know that what she is feeling can be put into words. I hope it gives some young person courage to find help if she needs it or to find hope in the promise that there are people out there who will feed your spirit and hold you until you are no longer afraid.

Marcella Pixley teaches eighth grade Language Arts at the Carlisle (MA) Public Schools. Her poetry has been published in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Feminist Studies, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ms. Pixley has written three acclaimed novels for children: FreakWithout Tess, and, Ready To Fall. Freak received four starred reviews and was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year; Without Tess was a School Library Journal selection, and Ready To Fall was named a best books of 2018 by Bank Street Society of Children’s Literature. Ms. Pixley lives in an antique farmhouse in Westford, Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and a ridiculous shaggy dog named Mango. She is a graduate of Vassar College and Bread Loaf School of English.

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