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Alyson Gerber of ‘Taking Up Space’: “One thing we can all do right now islisten to each other”

One thing we can all do right now islisten to each other. Start with the people in your home. Check in and see how they’re doing. Then, believe whatever they say, especially kids. They’re not used to being taken seriously. And they should be. If someone says, they’re sad, don’t try to talk them out […]

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One thing we can all do right now islisten to each other. Start with the people in your home. Check in and see how they’re doing. Then, believe whatever they say, especially kids. They’re not used to being taken seriously. And they should be. If someone says, they’re sad, don’t try to talk them out of their sadness or dismiss their feelings. Let the person be upset and ask what you can do to support them where they are, not where you want them to be. They might not have the answer, but it always feels good to be asked and acknowledged and supported.


As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Alyson Gerber.

Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically-acclaimed, own-voices novels Braced and Focused published by Scholastic. Her third novel Taking Up Space will be in stores on May 18, 2021. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Alyson! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Growing up, I saw myself as a person who took up too much space in the world. My undiagnosed ADHD created constant problems in every part of my life. I also wore a back brace during middle school to treat my scoliosis and started to develop disordered eating. I often compared my problems to others people’s struggles and convinced myself that what I was going through didn’t matter, when in reality everyone deserves to get the help they need. At 21, I started therapy and was diagnosed with ADHD. I found that writing was a way I could explore and understand everything I’d been through.

You are currently leading an initiative that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you are trying to address?

Writing is how I fight to change the world for kids and show them they matter. I wrote Braced, Focused, and Taking Up Space because I want kids to feel validated and believed. My latest middle grade novel Taking Up Space is about struggling with food and body image and discovering that true self-esteem comes from within. This book will ignite honest, multi-generational conversations about how we value ourselves and encourage kids to ask for help.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When I started writing Taking Up Space, I was pregnant with my daughter. For the first time since I went through puberty at 11, my body felt like it wasn’t mine. Pregnancy triggered my deepest pain — the mixed-up way I saw myself growing up as a person who wasn’t worth being loved or fed. When I shared how I felt about being pregnant, people often dismissed my feelings. I was told I should feel lucky and happy. I didn’t have anything “real” to complain about. It felt like my problems didn’t count. And my self-esteem plummeted. Food started to take up all the space in my mind, again. So, in addition to therapy, I did exactly what I tell kids to do during my author visits — write down your truth, and it won’t matter what anyone else thinks. Writing gives you power over your own experience.
 
 So, I wrote notes in my phone. Flashbacks on scraps of paper. And because I was pregnant and not allowed to take my ADHD medicine, I was unfiltered. I was also determined to make sure my daughter didn’t become a statistic — kids of parents who struggle with body image and food are at an increased risk for developing unhealthy eating behaviors. What I discovered in all those scribbles, which eventually became Taking Up Space, is that I was writing a book about self-worth and how we learn to value ourselves. And how for many of us that journey is long and complicated and hard.
 
 I hope Taking Up Space will help readers see that whoever they are and wherever they come from, their feelings are real and they matter. We all need and deserve empathy and support.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

At 24, I applied to MFA programs in creative writing. I was rejected from Columbia University and waitlisted at The New School. I was devastated. I spoke to my writing mentor, who had also written my letter of recommendation, and she offered to ask The New School about my application. What she learned was that the committee felt I had applied to the wrong program. The pages I’d submitted were not adult fiction. Instead, I’d unknowingly written the beginning of a young adult novel. They suggested I re-apply to the MFA in writing for children and teens. After I spent some time thinking about their suggestion, I realized that everything I’d written had been about my experiences growing up and that I was most interested in writing about being a kid.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Since my first novel Braced was published four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to kids and families around the country. With these groups, I share my experience and talk about how I managed to find my voice. My presentation always includes a book signing, where I have a chance to spend a few minutes with each person in the audience. Many people take that time to share their experiences with me. Sometimes kids hand me messages or drawings with their truths inside. Early on, I had a student share something very personal in one of these handwritten letters. That note changed the way I saw myself and helped me to understand that I could make a difference.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

After I finished my MFA, I started a job in marketing. My very first week, I was tasked with creating an annual video montage. As soon as I started working on the project, I could tell it wasn’t going to be very good, so I asked my boss Elise if instead of using photography, we could tell a first person story about the organization through short interviews. Elise agreed. And by the end of the week, the project had become much bigger than I expected.

I was trying to set up an interview with one of the most influential, female thought leaders in New York City finance, when Elise walked into my office. She wanted to make sure everything was all set.

It was not.

“You’ll make it happen,” she said and walked out.

There was no question. She believed I would handle it. She saw me as capable and smart. After all, I’d shown her I wasn’t going to just do what I was told. So, I called that thought leader’s office until I got in touch with someone who could help me and booked the interview.

Over time, with Elise’s help — first as my boss and now as a mentor and friend — I became the smart, capable person she knew I could be.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Our society treats differences and emotions as weakness. We’re taught to fix or hide or overcome these parts of ourselves — if we can. We’re constantly being told and shown that there’s a “right” way to look, act, and be a successful person. When in reality, there are all kinds of people who live and contribute and make an impact in unique and incredible ways. And there would be even more if we made physical and emotional space and accommodations for everyone to be themselves. In order to get rid of the stigma about mental illness, we have to actually dismantle and eliminate racism, ableism, sexism, fatphobia, and all other forms of discrimination.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

One thing we can all do right now islisten to each other. Start with the people in your home. Check in and see how they’re doing. Then, believe whatever they say, especially kids. They’re not used to being taken seriously. And they should be. If someone says, they’re sad, don’t try to talk them out of their sadness or dismiss their feelings. Let the person be upset and ask what you can do to support them where they are, not where you want them to be. They might not have the answer, but it always feels good to be asked and acknowledged and supported.

Part of the reason I wrote Taking Up Space is that disordered eating is not a medical diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). I wanted to tell a story where the main character doesn’t technically have a mental illness and so she doesn’t believe that she needs professional help. When in reality, she does.

I would encourage everyone, especially right now, to consider that most of us don’t fit so perfectly into boxes and neither does our mental health. We all need help along the way. It’s very brave to ask for support. I wish more people would see it that way.

I believe professional mental health services should be accessible and available to everyone at every age. The barrier to entry for mental health care is way too high. Mental health is an important part of our health, and our psychological wellbeing should be treated as essential and in need of care and support.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Therapy is the most important part of how I actively take care of my mental health and work out my feelings and experiences.

Writing has become a form of therapy for me.

I always have a book and an audiobook going at the same time. Reading and listening to stories are one way that I practice using my imagination and also part of how I build empathy.

I cry a lot. I always have. In fact, usually I know something is really bothering me when I can’t cry.

I have to laugh, so when nothing seems funny or I haven’t laughed in a while, I re-watch a show or re-read a book that I know for sure will make me smile.

As someone with ADHD, I often need physical activity to process information. It’s a natural stimulant for me that supplements my medication. So, whenever I’m stuck in my writing or thinking, I’ll take a walk around the block.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Here are a few middle grade novels I recommend that address mental health:

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller

Guts by Raina Telgemeier

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I’d recommend reading a book outside your experience written by an own-voices author to begin developing empathy for people who are different than you.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter @AlysonGerber and visit alysongerber.com/books for updates.

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