Writing this review makes me nervous. Knowing that you, out there in Internet-land, will be reading this review, makes me nervous. For me, that’s what generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is: lots of things make me nervous. It doesn’t stop me from doing anything, it doesn’t prevent me from living the life I want to live, but it does make me a bundle of nerves and it does make me think very carefully before doing things that other people might not think twice about. Some of my anxieties and fears are perfectly reasonable, and others…not so much.
I can’t tell you when my anxiety began. In all likelihood it’s something that’s always been there in the back of my mind, but I was officially diagnosed with GAD in my mid-20’s. The diagnosis didn’t change anything for me, it just told me something I already knew: that I am a nervous Nellie. But somehow, putting a name to it made me feel better. If this is actually a condition it means that it can be treated. And if it can be treated that means it can get better.
One thing I have always loved is reading. Even as a child I could lose myself in books for hours at a time. Reading has always felt safe to me. Even reading scary books delighted me as a child. Books were, and are, a safe space for me. There are no judgements, no nagging questions in the back of my mind, no worrying about anything. Books are an escape. And just as books are an escape for me, lamps are an escape for 17-year-old Wilhemina “Will” Huckstep in Laura Lee Gulledge’s newest graphic novel, Will & Whit.
Will lives with her Aunt Ella Foxx in Virginia and together they run Foxxden Antiques. The first thing we learn about Will is that she loves to make lamps, and on the very next page we find out why her hobby is so important to her. As Will explains, “It’s embarrassing, but I’m scared of the dark. You could call it an overactive imagination, but if your shadows were like mine, you might be weary of them, too.”
Throughout the book Will talks about being afraid, about trying not to freak out, about trying to avoid thinking about things that bother her, but not once does she use the word anxiety. Everybody experiences anxiety differently and everybody describes their own anxiety differently, and some might not even call it anxiety at all. You might come from a family of worriers, you might be a worry wart, or a nervous Nellie, or Chicken Little. But no matter what it’s called, anxiety can still be a paralyzing part of one’s life. Like Will I’m lucky that my anxiety is manageable. I know for others that this isn’t the case.
Will uses a variety of coping mechanisms throughout the book to manage her fears and her anxiety. Building lamps and doing something constructive to distract herself may be a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for her. CBT can be helpful for some people with anxiety. I tried it and found that it did help, but my CBT didn’t involve building lamps. I focused on exercising, like running, walking, and yoga, to give my mind a goal to focus on and my body something to do rather than sit around and get quagmired in fear and worry.
Noel and Autumn, Will’s BFFs, provide her with a wonderful support network. Aunt Ella also encourages Will to go out and spend time with her friends and to do things that a normal teenager would do. A caring and encouraging support network of family and friends is something we all need, but this is especially true for those struggling with mental health issues. But I have to pause for a minute because I can only imagine at this point, dear reader, that you’re wondering who Whit is? Seven paragraphs into a book review of Will & Whit and I’ve only told you about Will…
I’ve focused my review on Will because she’s our main character, she’s the one with anxiety, and she’s the one from the book I identify the most with. But I also haven’t mentioned Whit yet because Whit isn’t a person. Whit is short for Whitney which is the name of the hurricane that’s about to blow through Will’s town, and for someone who’s afraid of the dark storms can be very scary things indeed.
The best part about this story being told as a graphic novel is Gulledge’s ability to show us Will’s anxiety. Throughout the book we can literally see the shadows and worries and anxieties that plague Will. Unlike the thick lines used to draw the characters and the backgrounds, Will’s anxieties are shown through stippling, or for those unfamiliar with art, drawn with groups of small dots very close together. This allows the background and other things going on in each frame to remain the focus, while still allowing the readers to see what’s going on in Will’s mind. For readers with anxiety, this probably won’t be surprising. For readers without anxiety, it might be surprising to see some of the things, both rational and irrational, that someone with anxiety might be thinking about or focusing on.
We’re also able to clearly see which parts of the story happen before the storm, which parts take place during the blackout following the storm, and what parts take place after the lights come back on. Initially, pre-storm, the pages are framed in white. During the blackout the pages are framed in…you guessed it! Black. And after the black-out the pages are once again framed in white.
Gulledge’s use of a main character with anxiety is honest and charming. Will’s fears aren’t shied away from, nor is her mental health overemphasized. Anxiety is simply part of Will’s life and Will’s story, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, anxiety is simply part of my life and part of my story. It doesn’t dominate my life, it doesn’t keep me from leaving the house, it doesn’t keep me from doing the things I love, but sometimes anxiety makes me hesitate, sometimes anxiety distracts me, sometimes my anxiety embarasses me, but anxiety isn’t WHO I am. It is a part of my story but it isn’t the whole story.
Also, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it is possible that in the story Will’s anxiety is a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is a condition I do not have. Readers interpret stories in different ways and as someone who has anxiety I read Will & Whit as the story of an anxious teenager who learns how to cope with and how to deal with her anxiety. If you have PTSD or know someone with PTSD you might read Will & Whit as the story of a teenager suffering from PTSD who learns how to cope with and how to deal with PTSD. I cannot speak to how true or realistic the story might be from a PTSD perspective, but from my perspective Will & Whit can certainly give readers insight into what it’s like to live with anxiety and what’s it like to deal with fears and worries that you know are perfectly irrational but that you still have anyways.