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West Hartford Teen Publishes ‘Changing Ways,’ a Story about Teen Mental Illness that ‘Needs to be Heard’

Julia Tannenbaum. Courtesy photo

Julia Tannenbaum, a senior at West Hartford’s Hall High School, has published her first novel, ‘Changing Ways.’

Courtesy image

By Ronni Newton

Julia Tannenbaum is in a really good place right now, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Writing is her voice, said Tannenbaum, an 18-year-old senior at West Hartford’s Hall High School. She recently published her debut young adult novel – a story about a teen’s battle with mental illness that was inspired by her own years-long struggle.

“I started writing in eighth grade,” Tannenbaum said. “I was in a very dark place, battling an eating disorder, anxiety.”

She continued to write, through years of treatment and multiple hospitalizations.

Tannenbaum said she’s in a much better place now, and has been in recovery for about three years. She said that last year, while visiting family in California, the idea of writing a book, a novel, just came to her.

“I just kind of started writing,” said Tannenbaum. “I love writing so much.” She said she was always an avid reader – consuming four or five books a week – and pretty much taught herself how to go about the mechanics of writing a novel.

“Changing Ways” is definitely fiction, but Tannenbaum said that she has pulled many of the elements, and the emotions, from her own experiences. It’s a story that “needs to be heard.”

The main character in “Changing Ways”  is Grace, a high school junior who is stressed, and struggling with anxiety she seeks control and “sanity” through dieting and cutting. “There’s all kind of build-up that just manifests itself in mental illness,” Tannenbaum said.

“In eighth grade, that happened to me.”

In “Changing Ways,” Grace ends up hospitalized for treatment of her restricting. Ultimately she realizes that the only way to recover is to face her illness, Tannenbaum said.

While the circumstances in “Changing Ways” are different, Tannenbaum said that the inside knowledge of the journey to recovery is inside her. The hospital experience, the doctors and other patients, are created from bits and pieces of people she met.

Tannenbaum said she has read many other novels about teen mental illness, but they are full of inaccuracies. “One of the things that makes mine unique is that I’ve been there.”

The process of writing “Changing Ways” forced Tannenbaum to relive some of her past experiences. While that wasn’t always pleasant, “overall the experience was very cathartic,” she said. “It was a really good release to get all of the memories off my chest.”

One thing that Tannenbaum said she was careful about was avoiding “triggering.” She purposely doesn’t include specifics about weight, which those who are struggling with eating disorders could start comparing themselves to.

Tannenbaum finished her first draft in October 2017, and hoped to find an agent, but she soon realized how tough a road that would be, and how long it might take. She was really hoping to have the book published before applying to college, so decided to go the self-publishing route.

She reached out to others who also self-published books for assistance and advice, and one woman even designed the cover for her. The process of getting the book into print has also been a learning experience, Tannenbaum said, and has reinforced the lesson that it’s okay to reach out to others for help.

“Changing Ways” was published on Sept. 2, 2018, and is available in paperback through Amazon.com. It can also be found in the West Hartford Public Library, in the Hall, Conard, and Kingswood Oxford school libraries, and as an e-book through Barnes & Noble.

Tannenbaum will be holding a book launch at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford Center at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3. Click here for more information or to register.

She will also be participating in a panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, at Hall High School on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 7-8:30 p.m. At the panel discussion, “Figuring Out How to Handle It,” which is sponsored by the Hall PTO, Tannenbaum will join former West Hartford Public Schools guidance counselor Steve Boyle of Dorm Room Coaching and Consulting; Geoff Genser, LCSW; Latoya C. Watson, LCSW, Evolve Behavioral Health; and Hayley Zinn-Rowthorn of REALize Learning.

“I’m pretty open about my mental illness,” Tannenbaum said. “I don’t really see anything to be ashamed of.” Mental illness is not her “identity,” she said, but she wants to talk about it, to help teens and others.

Without giving away the ending of “Changing Ways,” Tannenbaum said that it’s “realistic” and “hopeful in a sense.”

She’s actually working on a sequel now. “It’s not ‘happily ever after’ because that’s not how mental illness works,” she said. “But just talking about it helps. People have so much misunderstanding, and that’s not beneficial.”

Tannenbaum would have graduated from Hall in 2018, but said that she missed a lot of school early in high school while she was hospitalized. She’s got a few more credits left to finish, and plans to graduate in the spring of 2019. She’s about to start the college application process, and will be applying to schools that have a heavy focus on the arts.

Tannenbaum said that while she is still on her journey of recovery, she’s definitely in a place where going away to college is “doable.” But she understands it’s a big step and she’s not losing sight of what she has been through and has already been testing out the experience of eating in a college cafeteria. She also plans to apply to schools that are no more than two hours away.

She doesn’t yet know what she will choose for a major, but said, “I would love to write for my career, but I will probably also need another job.” No matter what, she won’t stop writing. “I love to write. It’s my passion, and I spend hours a day at the computer.”

She’ll stick with the young adult genre for now because it’s what she knows, but Tannenbaum said when she is an adult, she thinks she’ll be able to write for adults as well.

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