I love the direction romance is heading with inclusion and representation, and how romance heroes and heroines come in the full variety of the human experience these days. On this, World Mental Health Day, I wanted to write about my journey writing a heroine with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety runs in my family, to varying degrees. From knowing my grandma was ‘a worrier’ to comparing my own behaviour to other new mums when I had my kids, it’s helpful to have a label for it. Not a label like ‘she’s an anxious person’. That kind of label doesn’t help. But a label for that thing that sometimes stops us from doing the things we need to do. Over time, self-awareness and talking to my family has given me more of an idea of the legacy of anxiety I grew up with, but it still took me a long time to recognise that thing and, by recognising it and labelling it, beginning to work around it.
I knew early in the planning process for My Christmas Number One, that a core part of the heroine Cara’s character was this strength she had to get to the core of a problem, label it and work with it. It’s something that impresses (and scares) the hero Javi, who has dealt with his problems by avoiding them until it’s too late. It was a natural decision when I created Cara with an anxiety disorder – more serious than my own experience, because she also has PTSD and a much more difficult history. But I wanted her to have already found her way through that, so it was just part of who she was and not part of her romantic journey (except that Javi recognises her struggle and honours it).
Through researching the condition more deeply and writing Cara’s experience (which is very physical at times – and it was sometimes hard to write, because I was deep inside the character and feeling all of these unpleasant things along with her), it helped me to proactively watch for those times when I tend to dip into obsession about things that don’t warrant it.
I also worked with a mental health sensitivity reader, the lovely Laura McKendrick (who sometimes writes as Eilidh Lawrence), because it was important to me that I was writing about and for people who live with mental illness. We had some really interesting online chats about word choice and attitudes to medication and it enriched my experience of the topic greatly.
It’s not always possible to avoid the obsessive spiral of worry, as 2020 has shown us. I also had some of my worst bouts of anxiety around the release of this book, mainly connected to imposter syndrome. But that’s why I want this book out there. Cara is a talented, passionate heroine of a romance novel. That she has an anxiety disorder is just another element of her character. She has no expectation of a life completely without panic attacks or obsessive worries. But she can still have what she wants in life. And she gets her romantic happy ending with Javi.