Published by Spencer Hill Contemporary on October 14th 2014
Hot girls get the fairy tales. No one cares about the stepsisters’ story. Those girls don’t get a sweet little ending; they get a lifetime of longing.
Imogen Keegen has never had a happily ever after–in fact, she doesn’t think they are possible. Ever since her mother’s death seven years ago, Imogen has pulled herself in and out of therapy, struggled with an “emotionally disturbed” special ed. label, and loathed her perma-plus-sized status.
When Imogen’s new stepsister, the evil and gorgeous Ella Cinder, moves in down the hall, Imogen begins losing grip on the pieces she’s been trying to hold together. The only things that gave her solace–the theatre, cheese fries, and her best friend, Grant–aren’t enough to save her from her pain this time.
While Imogen is enjoying her moment in the spotlight after the high school musical, the journal pages containing her darkest thoughts get put on display. Now, Imogen must resign herself to be crushed under the ever-increasing weight of her pain, or finally accept the starring role in her own life story.
And maybe even find herself a happily ever after.
Hello! Today I have Kelsey Macke with me in Wonderland. Macke is the author of DAMSEL DISTRESSED, a young adult contemporary novel about happily ever afters and mental illnesses. Hi, Kelsey! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. How are you?
I’m wonderful! It’s “back to school” time in my world (I’m a middle school teacher by day), which has always been when I really feel my years start fresh.
I’ve just finished reading Damsel Distressed and I have to say I really loved it. You portrayed Imogen’s anxiety and depression perfectly while also keeping it light-hearted in a way. The humour was spot on, but so was the mental illness. How much of Imogen came from you and your own experiences? What’s your story like?
It’s funny… I didn’t realize how much of me was in Imogen until the book was finished and published. I should have seen it though. I was in high school theatre, I had a male best friend, I had issues with my weight and how I dealt with food. I, like Imogen, tend to cover myself with a shield of humor when I’m feeling insecure. That said, I am certainly not Imogen, and there is a lot that she deals with as a junior in high school that I didn’t experience until I was much older (if at all). My first experiences with depression and anxiety happened as an adult. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that my passion for mental health awareness really blossomed.
What made you decide to write about mental illness?
As a teacher of students with emotional and psychological differences, I experienced an intense reality: there are young people all over the world that are facing difficulties (often on their own) while also being expected to get good grades, get their chores done, and study for their driver’s test. I was shocked that many people in American public schools don’t even know that there are special programs for students with pervasive emotional issues. Over the years, I taught many students who had attempted or considered suicide, who self-harmed, or who simply felt lost and alone. I felt strongly that they deserved to see a character in a book that was “like them” and set out to write her.
We have a lot of reasons for hosting our Shattering Stigmas event, but one of the main reasons is (as you can tell by the title) to destroy the stigma and taboo around mental illness. By talking about it, we strive towards informing our readers and encouraging them to open up with their own stories. How important is mental health awareness to you?
It is truly a matter of life and death. Modest estimates are that one in four people live with some type of mental illness (though it is likely a much higher number). There is, quite literally, nothing to be ashamed of. The generations before us were told that presenting perfection was paramount, but modern culture seems to be lifting that veil. Our differences make us beautiful, and I live a beautiful life even though I deal with depression.
What do you do to raise awareness?
I listen a lot. But I also speak a lot. I visit schools and speak on panels as often as I can to discuss how important mental health care is and how important it is to talk about it. In the weeks prior to the release of Damsel Distressed, my husband Daron and I took the book and its soundtrack on tour. We performed songs from the soundtrack that we wrote for the book—many of those songs with mental health themes. Those concerts gave us a platform to speak about mental health to folks who might not have been interested in listening otherwise.
What helps you when you’re feeling low or anxious?
For me, snuggling with my cats in a blanket fort and watching hours of Netflix is GOOOOD therapy. I also try to focus my breathing and listen to my self. Sometimes I need something that I can actually get and fix the situation. Other times I just wait it out. Being unafraid to take the quiet time to recover is something that gets easier the older I get.
One thing that I noticed was that you decided to really show Imogen’s road to recovery – including the intake of meds and therapy sessions. Was this important for you to show?
I simply do not understand why one pill would be socially acceptable and another taboo. Nobody calls you names for treating a headache or cold, but the physiological symptoms of mental health conditions should just be suffered? I say a hearty HELL no to that. Sorry, loves. I deserve to be well, and if that takes therapy—literally therapy is talking about what you’re going through; why that gets stigmatized, I’ll never understand—so be it.
I just felt strongly that the people I know who do take medication or who do go to therapy deserve to see that in a story, just like any other part of being a person who’s taking good care of oneself.
How has the response been to Damsel? Do you find that it inspires people to open up about their own mental health stories?
I know mine is considered a “small” book, but I refuse to believe that it’s impact has been small. I still receive notes from readers who’ve stopped self-harming following the reading of the book, or who sought help, or who simply felt less alone by reading it.
I have always believed that the people who need this book are the people who love it. And if it’s not the book for you, then that’s fine by me. On the whole, my readership has been so generous in their feedback, reviews, sharing the book with others who haven’t heard of it, and to me.
Do you think mental illness is romanticised a lot?
I think it is very, very hard to hit the publishing sweet spot with books about authentically flawed characters. Imogen is HARD to read. She is self deprecating, she’s often awful to those she loves most, she’s selfish—these are all qualities that can be hard to swallow. But that is REAL life. Sometimes you dearly love someone who is messed up and who can’t see past their own crap. I tried to balance the realities of relationships among flawed people and making the book enjoyable to get through.
Thank you so much for talking with me today! ♥
Thank you so much for having me in Wonderland. I believe that events like these are critical for bringing help and support to people who just want to know they’re loved even though they’ve got something heavy in their heart. And they are loved, so dearly.