Writing a book was a dream of mine ever since I learned how to read. I was 3 when I was devouring children’s books. My health destroyed by the Chernobyl radiation, I was not allowed to watch television due to migraines and seizures. Often too sick to go to school, books were both my entertainment and my friends. And I swore that one day I would write one. I was 6 when I wrote my first short story. It was 5 pages. It was going to be a Best Seller! Or at least the 6 year-old me thought so. I showed it to my brother, who is 9 years older than I am and is the very definition of “cool.” He was always the kind of guy that all guys admired and many girls crushed on. In short, his opinion really mattered.
The 6 year-old me showed him my story and held (or tried to hold) my breath while he was reading. I waited for the sea of compliments. But it never came. When I asked what he thought about it, my brother shrugged and said, “Eh… it’s kind of amateur.”
I did not know the definition of that word but I knew it was not a compliment. I went into my parents’ room where all the books were, including a large dictionary. I looked up the term. I understood.
My brother was completely right, of course. But that word stayed with me. I didn’t attempt to write creatively again for 22 years.
In the meantime, I was studying psychology. More specifically, behavioral neuroscience, followed by clinical psychology. No matter how much education I received, no matter how many presentations I’d given or how many years I’d been teaching, that word stayed with me.
A few years ago, my colleagues and I went to an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training workshop with Dr. Steve Hayes, a pioneer in the field of psychology and one of the co-creators of ACT. Steve had all the workshop attendees put on name tags. Only instead of our names, he asked us to write down the one word or phrase we’ve held as our core belief, as our deepest sense of shame. For some people it was “I’m not attractive enough,” or “Not lovable enough,” or “Not smart enough.” Mine was “Amateur,” which for me encompassed all of the above listed core beliefs. I felt so naked and ashamed of wearing that name tag that I actually covered it up with my hand for the first couple of hours. Only a funny thing happened. As I started to look around me, I saw that everyone was also covering up their name tags.
By lunchtime, people seemed to grow more comfortable with displaying their tags and I was shocked to see how many messages were similar to mine. I discovered that day how common this fear is and how many of us hide behind our biggest insecurities. I somehow developed the courage to speak to Steve Hayes about an idea I had – to write an ACT self-help book using superheroes as examples of demonstrating how our struggles with depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorder, or other mental health struggles don’t need to hold us back from being our own superheroes. I don’t know exactly what I said to him. I just remember how incredibly nervous I was and how amazingly reassuring he was, telling me that he thought it was a great idea and that I should go for it.
Around the same time, I got a chance to meet one of my biggest writing heroes, Neil Gaiman. I went to a book signing event he was doing in San Diego. There was a Q & A and a person sitting next to me asked him the very question I wanted to ask him, the very question he gets asked everywhere he goes and, most likely, several times a day on Twitter, “do you have any advice for an aspiring writer?”
“Yes,” Neil Gaiman said. “Write. Just write. Put a pen to the paper and just write it down. You have something to say. Your ideas matter and no one else has had quite your experiences and therefore only you can tell your story your way. So, please, write.”
I went home that night and finished my first fictional work in 22 years – a retelling of Harley Quinn’s origin story. Although I doubt that I would ever show it to anyone, the experience gave me a new direction in life. I wanted to write a book that would combine both my knowledge of psychology and neuroscience with my geeky interests and superheroes – “Superhero Therapy.” I started writing while at the same time sending out book proposals to agents and publishers.
Most rejection letters I received were encouraging – “Interesting idea,” “Unique concept,” “Thanks, not for us, but do keep going,” etc. Some were less kind. One letter in particular stood out, where an acquisition editor at a large publication company told me that my book idea would never work because “girls don’t read comic books and boys don’t read books.”
Finally, one publisher seemed interested. However, they wanted me to change everything about my book. Instead of it being a self-help book, they wanted a generic psychoanalysis of popular culture, which in itself is quite interesting, but was not my passion and intention for this book. When they ended up passing on the contract, I was initially crushed. I was ready to give up forever. I felt like the biggest amateur, feeling deeply ashamed and largely small.
And then, a miracle happened.
I received an email from an acquisitions editor at Little, Brown, Co (J. K. Rowling’s current publisher!). They were interested in my book! As a self-help book! Exactly how I wanted to write it.
The rest felt like a dream. My editor became one of my biggest superheroes in supporting me on this journey and we were able to find an amazing illustrator, Wellinton Alves, known for his work for Marvel Comics. And the book somehow came to life. And today, December 1, 2016, it came out in the U.K.
A few weeks ago I received advanced copies of my book. I did a Facebook live video of me opening the envelope to reveal the book inside. It was very emotional and I still tear up thinking about it.
I am extremely and over the moon grateful for this amazing opportunity and I hope that this book will help others who need it. Thank you all so much for all your love and support. I couldn’t have done it without you.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management. Her book, “Superhero Therapy” with Little, Brown Book Group released on December 1, 2016 in the U.K. and is expected to be released with New Harbinger on August 1, 2017.
If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Janina Scarlet via Twitter @shadowquill, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Shadow.Scarletl, or via her website at www.superhero-therapy.com