Author: Tanya J. Peterson
Published: June 2014
Publisher: Inkwater Press
Edition: Trade paperback
Source: a complimentary copy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
HealthyPlace columnist, National Certified Counselor, and award-nominated author Tanya J. Peterson tackles anxiety disorders and the redemptive qualities of unexpected human connection in her new novel, My Life in a Nutshell.
A brilliant and talented man crippled by extreme anxiety and panic attacks, Brian has carefully crafted his world so that his interactions with others are severely limited. Although incapable of changing his situation, he discovers that, somehow, he is the only person seven-year-old Abigail can trust. Having bounced from one foster home to another, she has unexpectedly come to live with a childless uncle and aunt she has never known. For very different reasons, both Brian and Abigail are trapped in emotionally and socially isolated lives. Can they learn from each other?
Empathetic, insightful, and emotionally stirring, My Life in a Nutshell delves into the thought processes and erratic habits of a regular man dealing with life-altering mental illness, providing a unique, personal glimpse into a misunderstood and often stereotyped condition.
My thoughts“Life in a Nutshell is a powerful and poignant novel. Written from a very clear and well-informed perspective, Peterson should be lauded for navigating the field of mental illness and presenting important relative issues in an affable fiction manner. It is a truly fine work that entertains, as well as informs.”
—The US Review of Books
Brian, 37, works as a janitor and an IT fix-it person at a local school where his shift begins at 3pm, just before the bell rings and the school empties for the day. Alone, he is comfortable to work on his own, cleaning and fixing. But for the 1/2 hour that overlaps his shift with the day janitor, Brian is uncomfortable. His counterpart chats with the children, high-fiving them; visits with the teachers and all in all is a jovial sort whom Brian envies for his ability to converse and develop these relationships.
Brian prefers the solitude of his job, the quiet, the lack of person-to-person interactions. That's why he likes Walmart. He can shop at 3 am and get what he needs without many people around. People make Brian anxious.
"I'm trapped. My chest constricts even more, and I'm suffocating. I feel like I can't get enough oxygen, and my lungs spasm again in a loud cough. Now that I've started coughing fully, I can't stop. .... I raise the bag to my face and begin to breathe into it. It works, and my breathing gradually calms down. My heart slows down again, and my vision returns to normal."
At the beginning of one of his shifts, Brian discovers a 7 year old girl, Abigail, sitting in the janitor room where she had gone to hide. She screams at Brian, frightened at being found. Brian can see the scars near her eyebrow and the tell-tale cigarette burns. Abigail has been bounced from foster home to foster home and has obviously been abused somewhere along the way. She doesn't trust and fears being abandoned. But this little girl thrusts her hand into Brian's, that first day in a new school for Abigail, and a friendship is born as two people recognize in one another the frailties of the human condition, the scars seen and unseen; and together platonically find an avenue of inner redemption and release. What they learn together and from each other helps them both to find their place in a world that seems so frightening.
As Tanya J. Peterson did with Leave of Absence, in My Life in a Nutshell, she created characters that bring mental illness into the light, shedding the stigmas related to such, and doing so in a manner that puts a face and heart to the illness. Anxiety disorder affects about 18 percent of the US population and is one of the most common mental illnesses in the US. That being said, Ms. Peterson uses her vast knowledge, education and experience to put a personal touch on mental illness. Fiction is the avenue she does it with because she "believes that fiction is a powerful vehicle for teaching fact. Further, she knows that people empathize with characters in novels, and commonly they transfer their empathy to real-life human beings." Peterson has definitely hit on something there as you may recall movies such as As Good As It Gets and What About Bob, both of which address anxiety and mental illness; movies which have put a face to the illness and in doing so have enlightened the public, helping to change the perceptions one might have and helping to erase the stigmatization thereof. Peterson achieves that very thing with her novels.
Tanya J. Peterson holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, Master of Science in counseling, and is a National Certified Counselor. She has been a teacher and a counselor in various settings, including a traditional high school and an alternative school for homeless and runaway adolescents. Peterson is an active volunteer and support group facilitator with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and she is a regular columnist for the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog on HealthyPlace.com. She has presented at the national conference for the Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society, the Avera Behavioral Health Center, and with libraries and book groups nationwide. Her previous titles include Leave of Absence, a novel about schizophrenia, grief, and the power of human connection, and Losing Elizabeth, a YA novel about an abusive relationship.