I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Theresa Larsen to talk with me today about her book. A Florida native, Theresa graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. Her writing credits include a Welsh children’s book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on several online websites and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother. Learn more about Theresa here
How did you discover indieBRAG?
I came across indieBRAG when I was researching writing awards.
Please tell me about your book, “Cutting the Soul.”
Cutting the Soul is a journey into the mind of a mentally ill teenager as he faces intense feelings of depression, psychosis, addictive cutting, and suicidal behavior. This memoir details four years of Matthew’s life through the eyes of his mother, health care workers, and Matthew’s own journals. It shows the desperation of a mother battling through the world of mental health and her own “demons” of the past and present, in an effort to save her son. It is an informative guide into mental illness today and illustrates how it is an illness in need of a treatment. This is a story for everyone, not just those directly experiencing mental illness.
Mental Illness is so complex. What were the challenges in writing your story?
During the writing of Cutting the Soul there were times when I had to physically get up and walk away from my computer because the subject matter or episode I was writing about became overwhelming. When I came to difficult sections of self-harm or psychosis I broke those up into small pieces and wrote a little at a time.
I wanted to be open and honest with my story, but I was also conscious of not letting the story overwhelm the reader. Editing was also a great challenge for me. I poured out my soul and wrote over 144,000 words and after I edited my memoir I reduced it to 78,000 words, cutting almost half of the original manuscript.
Could you please share an excerpt?
“Seeping in through my skin. A depression so thin, so thick to think. What would it be like to feel not this?”—Matthew’s journals
There are no words to describe the fear that gripped me day after day, the absolute knowledge I had that if I did not react quickly, my child would be dead by his own hand; of this I was absolutely sure. I wanted to flee from my life and the course it was taking. Every day became a day to dread. Every day was a day I agonized over. Every day grew worse than the one before. Each morning since Matthew had come back from the hospital, I dragged myself out of bed and the same thought dominated my mind, would today be the day I find him dead? With shaking hands, I would dress and brace myself for whatever I might find. Biting my lip, I would climb the stairs to his room, stand on the landing, and give myself a mental pep talk, before taking a deep breath and opening the door. My willpower to do this was slowly dissipating, but somehow I managed to find the strength and courage to continue.
What are some of the emotional issues-in your story-that Matthew was dealing with and how was it dealt with?
Matthew had to deal with an intense emotional pain from depression, post-traumatic stress, and psychotic thinking. Matthew’s solution to his overwhelming and unmanageable pain was to suppress it and ignore his worry and distress. This required a great deal of energy and he was not entirely successful at it; his feelings leaked out in self-harm, intense anger, dissociation, violent drawings, and impulses toward suicide. When this became evident at home I obtained help from counselors and psychiatrists, where he was given therapeutic goals and medication. This was not enough to help him, so I researched other choices and decided on a residential treatment center where he could get the treatment he needed. Matthew spent 17 months in full-time treatment and various other times in partial treatment. It took many years for him to find a healthy balance in his life.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
I started by calling this book Matthew’s Book (name has been changed to protect the privacy of my son) just to put a name on it when I saved it on my computer, then I changed it to Striking the Match because one of my son’s journal entries mentions striking a match and I thought the analogy of the match changing from cold to hot worked well, but it wasn’t quite right until I honed in on Cutting the Soul. This title summed up everything about the story in three words.
Who designed your book cover?
The cover of my book is a self-portrait of my son. He is an amazing artist and I felt that the picture conveyed a dark mood and feeling. He didn’t draw this specifically for my book, this was an art piece he had done several years prior to my writing, but it seemed to fit perfectly. The fascinating example of the right side of the brain controlling the left side of the body was pointed out to me by a friend in the psychology field. The right side of the face in the illustration is in shadow, the left side of the brain, that controls the right side of the body, is responsible for understanding and use of language, memory, and detailed analysis of information. During my son’s darkest times, his ability to communicate and interpret information was poor or I could say shadowed. The artwork depicts this state of mind beautifully. I choose the back cover picture of a phoenix because this is how I see my son, “a powerful being with the strength and ability to rise above harrowing and tragic circumstances and recreate himself.” The covers have a mixture of dark and light, creating an element that is a thread throughout the book. I had specific ideas of how I wanted the cover to work and my graphic design team helped me with the final product.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on the biography of Dr. Erik Larsen, a man whose life spans nine decades. Born into a working class family in Denmark, Erik Larsen would have become a civil servant or tradesperson, with no hope of higher education. Luckily his family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. Dr. Larsen later went to medical school and was drafted into the army during the Korean War, where he served as a surgeon in the first M.A.S.H. unit. He continued to deliver outstanding medical service in the United States over the next fifty years and was eventually knighted by the king of Denmark.
Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
I have an office at home that I write in. I enjoy writing in the morning when everyone has left for school or work and the house is quiet.
Do you stick with just one genre?
For the time being I am writing biographies or memoirs. I enjoy writing about inspirational people who have made a difference in somebody’s life.
Is there a particular hobby you enjoy when you’re not writing?
I love to read, but I don’t do it often enough. I can become an obsessive reader and not want to put a book down, so I have to limit myself. I also do Pilates and play tennis in a league.
Is there a favorite food or drink you like to enjoy while writing?
I enjoy munching on Fritos when I work.
A Message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Theresa Larsen who is the author of, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.