On this episode, I discuss the book Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton. This book is a young adult fiction about a teen who is trying to hide his diagnosis of Schizophrenia from the new people in his life because of a bad experience he had. This story discusses the impact of stigma and misconception from family, community, and the media on an individual with Schizophrenia. It’s recommended for grades 7-9.
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: This information is being provided to you for educational and informational purposes only. It is not psychotherapy or counseling. This information is to be used based on your own judgment. If you need to speak with a professional, you should find one local to you and contact them directly. IF THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, PLEASE CALL YOUR LOCAL EMERGENCY NUMBER OR GO TO YOUR NEAREST EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.
Hi, this show talks about books that feature mental health and mental illness topics. The discussion will be from the point of view of mental health professionals. There are many books that include this topic and my hope is that more and more people know about them because they help to decrease the stigma and help people not feel so alone in their struggle.
I am your host Robyn Tamanaha, LMFT. Today, I will be talking about the book Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton, which is about a teen boy living with schizophrenia, who is trying to keep his diagnosis a secret from the new people in his life.
This book is a young adult fiction. It’s recommended for grades 7-9. The story follows the main character, Adam, and it’s written in first person as if he’s explaining his thoughts and experiences on paper to his therapist. This book not only talks about mental illness, but also about stigma that comes with it. because people at his previous school had a lot to say and assume about Adam, which can be assumed is the reason why he’s at this new school. His stepfather even had to use his power as a legal professional to advocate for Adams rights at his school and also to ensure that his diagnosis was not found out about to parents of other students. I’ll get into the backstory of that in a little bit. Throughout all this, while Adam is navigating a new high school and making new relationship connections, he’s also second guessing himself because he’s actively having to tame his hallucinations, or at least, not pay too much attention to them.
Before I delve into different parts of the book, I want to give you the disclaimer that there will be some spoilers in this episode. So, if you don’t want to know any spoilers, I recommend that you read the book first then come back to this episode. If you don’t mind about hearing spoilers, or have already read the book, continue listening.
Topic #1: Trauma. The trauma was Adam’s loss of friendship with childhood friend. What happened was the parent of his childhood friend had disconnected their friendship. When Adam was first diagnosed, he told his friend everything. That friends’ mother called Adams mother and all Adam heard was his mother saying, “He is nothing to be afraid of.” Adam later sees this former childhood friend in a grocery store and it’s obvious that the former friend is trying not to look at Adam. Adam had friends at his old school, grew up with them, but when they found out about his diagnosis, they were afraid of him. Another trauma was his stepfathers’ mother who was vocal about how she did not like Adam. She looked at, talked about, and talked to him, as if he was a monster. When someone experiences a traumatic event because of their diagnosis, such as these, it understandably feels bad, but also it can really impact how the person feels about themselves and their future. It also can set the stage for how they feel about the prognosis, aka outcome, of their life in relation to the mental illness. Understandably, a person could think well this bad thing happened because of my symptoms or diagnosis, so that means that these other things could possibly go bad. There’s a researcher by the name of David Miklowitz, who does a lot of research on bipolar disorder and what he describes is this overidentification with a diagnosis. In these cases, an individual will think about how they’ve experienced losses because of their symptoms or diagnosis, and oftentimes view their diagnosis as a “life sentence.” This decreases hope for the future because the individual will think about how future events or scenarios will go wrong because it did in the past.
Topic #2: Stigma and misconception. In the book, the media had influenced how
certain mental illnesses are looked at, which also what we have seen in real life. I found it really interesting that media example in the book was a real example, which was the Sandy Hook shooting. I kind of feel like that made it even more powerful. Adam experienced being looked at, judged, and shooed away because of people assuming he would be violent like someone else, like someone who does a mass shooting. When the Adam describes his experience with this in the book he states, “I’d like to take this opportunity to say that I don’t like guns. I don’t own guns and I don’t have any desire to shoot anyone ever. I don’t play violent video games…I don’t even really like laser tag.” Adam was pretty much saying, “Hey guys, what you think, that’s not me.” I think it’s important to see warning signs in an individual; however, there’s also importance in knowing that diagnoses are on a spectrum, from mild to severe with symptoms manifesting in different ways depending on the individual. In our DSM, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), symptoms are listed; however, only a certain number of symptoms are required for diagnoses, meaning that someone will NOT display all. For schizophrenia, aggression is not a criterion for the diagnosis. Here’s an excerpt from the DSM, “Hostility and aggression can be associated with schizophrenia, although spontaneous or random assault is uncommon. Aggression is more frequent for young males and for individuals with a past history of violence, non-adherence with treatment, substance abuse, and impulsivity. It should be noted that the vast majority of persons with schizophrenia are not aggressive and are more frequently victimized than are individuals in the general population.” As therapists we look at the whole overall picture and the individual’s history.
Topic #3: Therapy. Therapy with youth takes time and this book is one example of that. Oftentimes, it’s when the person attending therapy is doing so because someone else told them to go. In this case, Adam is a minor so we can assume he’s in therapy because his parents took him or that he was required for some reason. Adam goes back and forth between his feelings about his therapist. One myth is that by taking a teen to therapy means they’ll immediately just talk about exactly what their parents or caregivers would like them to talk about. This is not true. The therapy process is more organic. Trust has to be built first, and then they may open up on their own time. Also, unfortunately, talking about feelings to a stranger can be awkward. When it comes to commitment in therapy, it’s not just through sharing details, it can also be measured by behavior, and in this book, Adam did show up to session and after some time he did begin to look at his therapist positively and was appreciative. The book also talks about the creative way that therapy can be provided. “Talk therapy” does not work for everyone and there are many different types of therapy because of that. Art therapy. Play Therapy. Psychodrama. The purpose is that an individual is able to express themselves and it doesn’t necessarily have to be through just words, it’s what works for them and allows them to convey what they’re experiencing.
Topic #4: Importance of interactions with others that don’t have to do with the diagnosis. There’s an adjustment when an individual is diagnosed; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean a complete overhaul of relationships. Adam reminisced and longed for interactions he used to have with people, such as family members. It was times when the interactions were just like any other people, such as watching a movie and being silly, as opposed to the other person awaiting a time bomb to go off. This is important because individuals can feel a loss of identity. Diagnoses can make individuals of any age think, “Okay so who am I now? Was who I was before real? Am I different person now?” It brings up a lot of questions about themselves and their place in the world. My standpoint when it comes to diagnoses is that it is NOT an individual’s sole identity, which sometimes the individual can feel for different reasons. There are many other things that the person is, such as a son, a friend, a soccer player, a certain profession and there are positive qualities to them.
Topic #5: Social Support. Adams parents were informed. The mother educated herself and stepfather used his knowledge in law to help Adam when it came to ensuring that new school staff knew diagnosis, but that it didn’t get out to students. Mother assisted in Adam’s social interactions. The planning she did was beneficial. Those living with mental illness benefit from this extra step to schedule and maintain the individuals’ interacting with peers. Also, having a parent that advocated was helpful in making sure Adam wasn’t pushed away or treated negatively. His best friend maintained permanency. Even after finding out Adam’s diagnosis, it didn’t lead the best friend to recluse, and they continued to hang out. After Adam was discharged from the psychiatric hospital, his friend showed up on Monday to play tennis and said he knew that he was in hospital. Then they ate oreos and packed up his stuff. It was almost like it didn’t matter. This was good for Adam to experience because it went against his fear that friendships would end. Adams girlfriend was also supportive by acknowledging the diagnosis and outright expressing that she was going to be there for him.
Topic #6: I love that Harry Potter was mentioned. Twice. I pretty much love any Harry Potter reference. One reference in the book was Adam thinking about his symptom of hearing a voice through the walls and relating it to Harry Potter because he was waiting for his letter to Hogwarts, which never arrived. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans, I’m sure you can feel how devastating that is. What this essentially conveys is a huge let down. Harry Potter had a tough childhood and was treated like dirt, then when his magical abilities began manifesting and he got his letters to come to Hogwarts school of magic, everything that he had been told to believe about himself, which was that he was weird, strange, and not accepted, was not true. Instead he learned how his abilities were gifts and was looked at highly in the magical world.
Topic #7: Hallucinations. Book does a good job describing what the experience might be like for an individual. The author met with professionals to learn correct information about Schizophrenia. When people hear about hallucinations, they most of them think about hearing or seeing things others don’t; however, there are many other hallucinations, such as taste, touch, and smell. Adam experienced multiple types, and they would occur at the same time. One theme that I noticed when it came to the hallucinations was Adam would stall or wait before reacting because if it was something new, he would have to try to figure out in that moment if what he was seeing/hearing was real or a hallucination. This was very powerful for me because when seeing an individual living with Schizophrenia, we notice a slow reaction time, and this scenario was an example of why that may be. Imagine going about your day and seeing or hearing something you never noticed before, and then having to stop and think about if it’s real or not. And to have to do that all the time. That shows how challenging it is to experience these symptoms.
Topic #8: Coping skills. Adam liked cooking and it was an activity that helped shift his focus. When it comes to any diagnosis or distress it’s important to have go to tasks or things when you’re flooded with the symptoms or emotions. These coping skills are also added to an individuals’ safety plan. I saw an interview with the author who had mentioned that she wanted to give Adam something else to manage what he was experiencing; other than the experimental drug he was on.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was accurate and a good story. I liked how it was really comprehensive in covering different aspects of the diagnosis, life stage development stuff, and how other people in the individual’s life come in and where they stand. There’s other topics related to mental health that I did not cover, so if you’re interested definitely check out of the book. I read recently that this book is being made into a movie, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Thanks for listening. Hopefully this was informative or helpful. If you have any book suggestions, or books you would like discussed on this podcast, you can email it to
BooksBetweenSessions@gmail.com. If you’re a mental health professional and would like to on the podcast, contact me at BooksBetweenSessions@gmail.com. Also, this podcast is not psychotherapy or counseling. If you need to speak with a professional, you should find one local to you and contact them directly. IF THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, PLEASE CALL YOUR LOCAL EMERGENCY NUMBER OR GO TO YOUR NEAREST EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.