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Interview: March 28, 2002

March 28, 2002

Teen suicides have reached epidemic numbers in our country, and many parents are at a loss to know why their teenagers feel so hopeless or even how to recognize the signs of Depression. Shelley Fraser Mickle, author of THE TURNING HOUR, answers some questions for Kathy Hale on what she discovered in researching her novel, and what she hopes her new book will accomplish.

BRC: What inspired you to want to write a book about teen suicide?

SFM: In l995, I was over at the beach near St. Augustine, which is near where I live, and I met a woman who said she had read my two novels and felt that she had known me forever. Furthermore, she said she felt that perhaps I could know her in ways no one else could. And she wanted to give me a story she had lived, and encouraged me to do with it as I might. She then proceeded to tell me over the next hour and a half how her child, as a senior in high school, attempted suicide and that something she had unwittingly done had contributed to her child's drastic decision. She then explained that even though it was the darkest time in her family's life, it turned out to be one of the most enriching. For they all emerged in an enlightened kinship. She ended by saying she knew she would never talk about this again, for suicide is such a taboo subject, and yet, so much was learned from this dark time.

Well, I filed this story away. I simply did not want to "go there." I have to admit, though, it was one helluva plot; but still, I didn't want to have to crawl into the dark hole into which that young adult had fallen --- which is what I knew I would have to do in order to write a literary novel. Then one day years later, it occurred to me: If I wrote this story from the point of asking, Once someone has made the drastic decision to give up life, then is turned back physically, how does one get back emotionally? In other words, how does one come back to an emotionally vibrant life?

I called around town to find an expert on teen suicide. It turned out the person I was referred to was someone who was getting her Ph.D. while we were raising boys together --- carpooling, etc. When I told her what I was thinking about doing --- writing a novel about young adult suicide --- she said, "My God, Shelley, you've got to do it. You won't believe how many young women and men (of high school and college age) I see in my practice each month who have attempted to end their lives."

The new statistics from the CDC is that one in five high school students each year considers committing suicide, and 1.3 million attempt to end their lives. This is a heartbreaking crisis. So off I went --- writing THE TURNING HOUR --- because I could not say no to bringing this most pressing story to life.

BRC: Are Bergin and her family based on real people?

SFM: No. As a novelist, all my characters are composites of people I have known. I always have to find myself within them, too. For I can't bring a character to life unless I've had dinner with them, showered with them, taken a long trip and paid our income taxes together! I borrow stories from my friends and family, too, as my Acknowledgments admit. I chose to write the book from a young woman's viewpoint rather than a young man's, because I had just finished writing REPLACING DAD, my novel told by a 15-year-old boy and his mother, and I wanted a different challenge. The point is, though, the cultural influences that lead to Bergin's crisis in THE TURNING HOUR are also many of the same pressures for young men.

BRC: Has suicide ever touched your life?

SFM: No, thank goodness. Looking back, however, I realize that a young man I once dated in my twenties committed suicide. If I live a story, I can't write about it. I'm too close, and too emotional. I need that distance. But of course, all literary artists have to understand the emotions of their characters and find them within themselves. That's the way we work.

BRC: In researching your story, did you draw any conclusions about the most prevalent cause of teen suicide?

SFM: Suicide is always a complicated set of events leading to a profound sense of hopelessness. Basically, though, loss is always a part of the set of circumstances that leads to suicide --- loss of a relationship or loss of self-worth through humiliation. And then that loss is coupled with isolation. Our literature and media have romanticized too often the act of suicide following the loss of a loved one. Clusters of suicides can result. The depression that leads to suicide creates a distorted sense of reality. That's why the facts leading to a suicide never seem believable. Of course we want to deny that any reason is a good one to end a life. But simply, the person who wants to end their life sees the world in their own very logical but twisted way. It all makes perfect sense to them. And frequently it provides a secret form of having power over what is uncontrollable. Chemical imbalances seem to always be in play. I recently attended Grand Rounds on Teen Suicide at the University of Florida Medical School, and the chemical imbalances from depression were emphasized. Also disturbing was the statistic that 40% of young adults hospitalized for a suicide attempt drop out of treatment. This is why I think a novel such as THE TURNING HOUR may be able to reach young adults in ways that conventional treatment cannot --- and aid in prevention.

BRC: Why do you think that so many parents miss the signs of their kids' depression?

SFM: Kids are good at hiding their most intimate feelings from their parents because they are at that time in life when they are pulling away from their family and asserting their independence. Frequently in their flight toward independence, communication lines break down. It's a difficult and painful time for both parents and kids because it's nature's way of turning kids into adults --- to prepare them to go out into the world on their own. Often, parents forget to listen to their young adults. They forget how to be silent and just spend time doing anything at all with their kids who are in the midst of the struggle to become adults. It's always important for parents to lend their kids their strength and not use it against them. Part of being a good parent is empowering the child.

BRC: You capture the depressed personality very well in THE TURNING HOUR. Have you ever had any personal experience with depression?

SFM: No one gets out of living their life without knowing something about The Blues. I have not had a personal experience with clinical depression, other than dealing with family members who have suffered from it. A number of years ago, I read an interesting article on depression that indicated some experts believe depression has a chemical basis that at one time aided our primitive ancestors to hibernate when food sources were low. This seems very possible to me --- that there could be biological reasons for our moods that they help us survive. Certainly, The Blues have always made me emerge feeling stronger, more clearly focused, and energetic. I like looking at Depression in this positive way.

However, I am talking here about ordinary run-of-the-mill Blues, and not clincial depression, which is a complicated medical condition. From what I understand about the chemical basis of clinical depression, it requires diligent and professional treatment that sometimes must be attended to for a life-time. I have always felt, though, that it is these challenges in life which make us who we are. For someone to be diagnosed with clincial depression, seek treatment, continue to monitor and live with their condition, they become heroes in the story of their own lives. These people are smart!

I know that the fact that I had polio in 1950, spent most of my childhood in children's hospitals, then in wheelchairs, braces, and crutches has made me on special terms with myself. I would not be who I am without having experienced this and knowing how to take care of myself. I strongly believe that these experiences are like buying strength on the lay-away-plan. We get to pull out the goods, one day. How we wear them is our personal decision.

BRC: According to your website, you have a dog named Stella, and so does Bergin. Is that just a coincidence?

SFM: I thought it would be fun to put my dog Stella in the novel. The name of my farm is also Blueberry Hill Farm. I had no ulterior motive other than to be playful. A good friend of mine had a pot belly pig named Spam, too; and I thought that was such a cool name for a pig, he ought to be in the book also.

BRC: Do you think that Leslie's childhood experiences influence how she reacts to the situation with Bergin?

SFM: Most definitely. Children of alcoholics are always quick to deny problems and good at covering them up. Shame is such a strong force in their lives that subconsciously they do all sorts of things to make themselves feel better about the secret they are keeping --- that someone in their family is not functioning and cannot be related to in a healthy way.

BRC: When Bergin is hospitalized, Leslie tells her colleagues that she has mono or hepatitis. Do you think that most parents are honest about their children's mental illnesses, or do they choose to hide them?

SFM: You know, parenting can get as competitive as the last lap in a NASCAR race. Being a parent, I can say this with no qualms. I've been there and done that myself, and have also been greatly disturbed by the pressures some parents can put on their kids. Luckily, the powers in the universe tend to even things out for parents --- give them one easy-to-raise kid who seems to do everything to society's highest standards. Then they are given one child who makes them know the real values in life --- that being a good, kind person who can be steady, loving, and have a humorous outlook on life is worth more than any number of degrees from prestigious colleges or a fat bank account. Furthermore, these are talents no one can buy. So yes, parents tend to hide their children's problems. Then often they wise up and see the value in how difficulties help kids grow, and then they themselves begin growing. It's the parents who don't let their kids teach them things who miss out. These are the ones I feel sorry for.

BRC: What is the one thing you would like teens to learn from reading THE TURNING HOUR?

SFM: Resilience. If there is one thing I want readers of all ages to take away from THE TURNING HOUR it is that life requires patience. Bad weather passes. Don't let our culture dictate to you who or how you should be. Follow your head and hold hands with your heart. Growing up is a tempestuous time. It's supposed to be. You've got to try out all sorts of things and make mistakes. Unlike Bergin, in the beginning of the book, don't ever think anything is hard and fast. Everything changes. The way you feel now won't be the way you feel always.

I would also like men to read THE TURNING HOUR so they would see more clearly that their children don't want them to be only providers. Fathers play a crucial role in the emotional life of their children. I don't want THE TURNING HOUR to be seen as only a "Babe Book." And remember, my novel is about Life, not Death. To go through this world, we all have to learn how to take care of our lives.

BRC: What advice would you like to share with parents about dealing with their teenagers?

SFM: Listen. Wait. Be patient. And enjoy them. Lend them your strength, rather than overpower them. And don't try to be a teenager again with them --- parents acting like teens make for too many in the house!

BRC: What are you working on now?

SFM: I've got three things going and have to decide which to finish first. One appears to be a nonfiction humor book called OLD WIVES TALES TOLD BY A HALF-DOZEN OLD WIVES. I also have a new novel going, and a memoir. I've lived long enough to almost become interesting --- even to myself.