3 Chicago Authors Get Real About Mental Health at Printers Row Lit Fest

One in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That number includes the writer of this article and three Chicago authors on “The Power of Compassion” panel at Printers Row Lit Fest. If you take anything away from the words below, it’s that you are not alone if you’re struggling with mental health.

lit fest
From this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest. Photo by Caroline Hetzel. 

Writers Tyler Feder, Courtney Cook and Christie Tate joined the 36th annual Lit Fest for a discussion on mental health on Sept. 12 in the historic Printers Row neighborhood of Chicago. They spoke about the ways compassion for yourself and others can be healing when it comes to mental wellness. 

Feder is an artist and writer whose debut work, Dancing at the Pity Party, won the Sydney Taylor gold medal for young adult literature. Her graphic novel explores her feelings before and after the premature death of her mom. She’s a Northwestern University grad, and you may have seen her viral work-from-home fashion illustrations on Instagram. 

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Cook, a Winnetka native and former Make It Better intern, is the author and illustrator of The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces. She shares her experience with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in her illustrated memoir.

Tate is a Chicago-based essayist and author of Reese Witherspoon book club pick Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life. She writes about her real and honest experience in group therapy and how it transformed her life. 

“Every page of this incredible memoir by Christie Tate had me thinking, ‘I wish I had read this book when I was 25,’” Witherspoon said. “It would have helped me so much!”

Through grief, BPD and group therapy, these authors have learned indispensable truths about mental health. Here are five things they shared that everyone on a mental health journey should know.  

1. A mental health diagnosis can be freeing.

lit fest
A selection of used book at this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest. Photo by Caroline Hetzel. 

Cook was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when she was 13, but she didn’t receive a BPD diagnosis until she was 23. 

“For 10 years, I was treating the peripheral symptoms of what was going on rather than the actual root problem,” she said. “You can’t fix something you don’t know exists. Having that diagnosis for me was so freeing. I know some people see a diagnosis as limiting, but for me it gave me the freedom to be able to recognize what I was doing and then break free of that.”

2. Mental wellness is not a destination; it’s a continual practice.

The panelists shared a pet peeve when it comes to mental health: the assumption that one day you’ll be “over it.” But healing is neither linear nor finite. 

“I was supposed to come in and shoot toward mental wellness and never backslide,” Christie said of her expectations for therapy. “I did more backsliding than forward scooting. I really wanted people to have a testimony from somebody whose wellness took more than a year, more than two years — took more than three years, took more than four.”

Time doesn’t make things go away; instead, we come to terms with the way we feel things and learn how to cope. 

“My mom died when I was in college,” Feder said. “I’m 32 now. It’s been almost 12 years, and it’s still very much a thing in my life. I’m still a person with a dead mom. I can feel pressure from other people to get over it, and I don’t think that’s realistic, and I don’t think it’s really something that can happen. It’s just my life grows around it, and it’s part of who I am. That’s okay.”

Feder, Cook and Tate spoke on compassion and mental health at Printers Row Lit Fest 2021. Photo by Caroline Hetzel. 

3. Share your story. You never know who might need to hear it. 

Cook found very limited personal accounts of what it was like to experience BPD — and far too many stigmatized depictions. When these authors couldn’t find the stories they needed, they wrote their own. 

“I wanted to write the book I wish I’d had when I was diagnosed that provides some account that was like, ‘Hey, this isn’t a death sentence. It’s hard but you will be okay. You’re not a freak or abnormal or beyond repair,’” she said. “I was hoping that just by sharing my own experience I would be able to reach people and let them know that even if it’s not directly stating it.”

Sharing your own experience may also help someone else find the tools they need to heal. Had Tate known about group therapy earlier, her mental health journey may have looked much different. 

“I couldn’t find myself in any of the stories about therapy, and I couldn’t find the joy of it,” Christie said. “My hope is we can have more conversations about mental health solutions and what might work and give people more tools, whether they use them or not.”

4. You are more than your mental health diagnosis. 

Cook addressed the “personality” in BPD. She won’t let it define her and hopes that sharing her experience will help end the stigma. 

“I think it would be unfair to characterize my whole personality as doom and gloom even though I do have depression and experience anxiety and have all these other symptoms as a result of borderline,” she said. “I’m a normal person even though I deal with this thing. I wanted to humanize it.”

5. We heal through compassion.

Tate said the compassion she received from others in group therapy allowed her to find compassion for herself. Their sessions included a lot of much-needed laughter.

“I don’t want to be a part of any healing process that doesn’t include some humor, some softness and compassion,” she said.

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Caroline Hetzel lives in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago with her fiancé and two dogs. She’s a Tennessee native who likes local breweries, DIY projects, and vintage Pyrex. After graduating from Northwestern University, she spent three years in the San Francisco Bay Area creating videos and content for Brit + Co and Sunset. Caroline loves dogs and has volunteered at PAWS Chicago and supports Second City Canine Rescue, where she adopted her second dog Foggy. 

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