Review: Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

“I tell the truth slowly. I think that’s how the truth shows up sometimes.”

For much of this book, we don’t know what’s wrong with the main character Sarah. That’s because Sarah can’t even bear to think about it herself. After all, she tells the truth slowly, but she gets there. This is the main source of tension and intrigue for the reader. Not a lot happens in this book except for the character’s internal shifts and the artistry in how they are conveyed to the reader. If that sounds boring, then this is not the book for you. If you can appreciate introspection in your fiction, however, this is a masterpiece of YA.

I connected wholeheartedly with this book, and found exceptional catharsis in it, despite how different the facts of 16-year-old Sarah’s life are from mine. For one thing, she is an artist and I am a writer. She is cisgender and I am transgender. She doesn’t go to school for weeks at a time and my high school attendance was exemplary. However, the overall atmosphere of the book conveyed the exact feelings I had as a teenager with a dissociative disorder, previously known as multiple personalities. In Still Life With Tornado, her dissociation has a magical but poignant twist in that other people can see her other selves as separate, very real, people. When she first meets her other selves (at ages 10, 23, and 40) she is startled and confused, but gradually she and the people around her come to see them as allies. This is the exact trajectory of healing from trauma with a dissociative disorder, and A.S. King has portrayed her version with immense empathy and care. What may have initially seemed to be an unconventional literary device leaves readers stinging with the truth.

Note: Big TW for physical and emotional abuse.

On Creativity and Healing

As I have said before, freewriting doesn’t work for my mental health. Instead, I decided a few months ago that I wanted a structured journal to keep track of my moods and symptoms. (I have a separate Bullet Journal, which I use for planning, habit-tracking, and tasks, and then I have my more-recently-started “symptom” journal in a different notebook.)

I highly recommend symptom journaling so that you know where your headspace is at. Tracking your symptoms and/or moods can help you find patterns that you may otherwise miss. Our emotions (especially when we struggle with mental health) can feel gigantic and like they last forever, when in reality they change like the tides and can often be very different from day to day. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t downward or upward trends! Seeing those trends can help us do damage control (in the form of self care) or even just enjoy good moods while they last. I feel much more in control of my life when I journal briefly about my symptoms.

To do a daily symptom journal, I split two adjacent pages into three sections. Each of the six daily sections in my symptom journal has about five lines devoted to it, which allows me to elaborate a little while still keeping the entry brief enough to be useful at a glance. (I almost never run out of room.)

Things I write about daily:

  1. How I felt that day. Obviously not all my emotions are symptoms, but I write about them all in my symptom journal anyway. Giving myself a little bit of room to be descriptive allows me to record causes of my mood (“had nightmares and woke up very dissociated”) or complexities (“had some anxiety in the afternoon but felt okay for most of the day”).
  2. Any physical symptoms or problems I had. Maybe my knees hurt, I had a stomachache because I ate too much curry, or I slept badly. (Often I write that I forgot to eat. Oops!)
  3. What I did to solve/help any symptoms/problems (physical or mental) and how well my strategy worked. Maybe I took ibuprofen for my knee pain, but it didn’t really do anything. Or maybe I was depressed but I felt a little more energetic after a nap. I don’t always have anything to write in this section, but I think it’s really important to track how your experiments go!
  4. What I thought about that day. This is one of my favorite sections. It’s my chance to write about what was going on in my mind, which (to me) is always interesting! It also gives me a sense that I’m moving forward in my life. For example, maybe I thought about what to write on my blog and came to the conclusion that I should write about journaling, or maybe I thought about what to build with a certain material in Minecraft. Often, I’m thinking about recovery strategies I want to integrate into my life, and when I journal about them, I don’t lose any potentially brilliant ideas!
  5. My happiest or best moment of the day. (It doesn’t have to break through the depression barrier to be the happiest moment of the day, since it’s all relative.) Often, this will be spending time with my boyfriend.
  6. Any information my alters have told me that day. Since it’s hard to keep track of multiple people in the same brain, I have a section devoted to that. For example, [LITTLE] told me the other day he doesn’t like green beans, so as a system we’ve decided to not force ourselves to eat the green beans languishing in the freezer.

Every Sunday, I do a weekly summary for each of the sections. I draw an extra page with my usual six sections, and write about how the week went and my happiest moment!

Some other ideas you may want to try if you pick up a similar journaling habit:

-Gratitude journaling. This was not helpful for me, but many people swear by it.

-Therapy summaries. If you go to therapy, you can write quick summaries of what you talked about at your appointments. You might also record your homework for next session, if that’s something that you and your therapist have decided on.

-Rate your mood out of 10. I really struggle to rate my mood, because it feels so much more complex than a number. Maybe I had a good morning but got depressed in the evening, or I was anxious but hopeful. However, this works for a lot of people, and having quantitative data on your mood can be really helpful when dealing with mental health professionals. (You may want to use color-coding instead!)

Intro to Multiplicity

When I meet a new person, I often feel anxious about introducing them to the fact that I’m a system. It’s an important part of my life, but not something the average person understands. (You have multiple people in your brain? Like Jekyll and Hyde?) Therefore, I made an approximately one-page introduction to Dissociative Identity Disorder/Other Specified Dissociative Disorder and my own experience with it. You may want to read it to get a better sense of me as a person, but you may also want to use it as a template for your own similar creation! Here it is:

Hi! You are someone that [HOST] cares about and therefore here’s some pertinent information about   his system!

-DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, is when one body has multiple full-fledged people in their head. Sometimes they have noticeably different personalities. They will almost always have amnesia between alters— for example, one alter will go to the grocery store, and the next alter to front will not have memories of doing that and wonder where all the food came from. I have OSDD, which is like a less “severe” form. While my different selves (alters) have names and are separate/different in a very real way, we share a brainspace and don’t have a lot of amnesia between us. That means that if one alter does something, we will all be aware of it. (However, we are very forgetful in general due to dissociation so please be patient with us when this symptom manifests!)

-Being multiple is a result of childhood trauma. Basically, everyone starts out a blob of consciousness that solidifies into a single identity over time during the childhood/teen years. With DID/OSDD, the person undergoes abuse/trauma that, for various reasons, makes them solidify into multiple identities. These identities can shift over time as new alters are created or merged, but the status of being a system or not is generally decided by age 8.

-Part of the point of being multiple/a system is to HIDE the damage that the trauma has done to someone, so often (even for people with “severe” forms of the disorder) switches between alters are undetectable.

-Yes, everyone has different parts of themselves (Google “Internal Family Systems Therapy” for more info) but alters are much more distinct than that. They have personalities that I might describe as moods (ie “this alter is depressed”) but they are different than normal moods or whims. They have names, ages, and a sense of individuality that is hard to describe.

-Just because it’s a trauma disorder, it doesn’t mean it’s bad! My alters help me survive. Together, we are a team. I would rather have not had trauma in my life, but I love my alters.

-Switching isn’t bad either! Switching alters is not analogous to a panic attack or another mental health crisis! If you notice us acting differently, try to just roll with it! It will probably be fun!

-For us, the most externally noticeable feature of our system is that we sometimes act like a child. This means that [LITTLE] is fronting, and while we are just as smart during these times, we often get distracted easily and babble a lot. It’s okay! If he’s out, it means we feel safe around you and we’re having fun. It might also mean that we are physically uncomfortable (like we have a stomach ache for example). He will not (generally) act in ways that are ill-advised or against our own best interest, but he may want to cuddle or play! :3 If he’s affectionate with you, then we all feel that affection!

-We have around 10 alters, but [HOST] and [LITTLE] are the only ones who “front” or take charge. 99% of the time, I am your friend [HOST], but the other alters are often loud inside my head during that time. They influence my thoughts and actions even when I’m undeniably [HOST].

I am definitely open to any questions that you may have, so ask away!