Anne Thériault: The Toronto writer working to better define feminism and equalize and destigmatize mental illness

Anne Thériault is a feminist writer who lives in Toronto and is the mother of a seven-year-old son. Anne openly shares her journeys with parenting, mental illness and feminism through her writing, via speaking opportunities and on Twitter.

We saw Anne speak at the launch party for Happy If You Know It, the third anthology by independent publisher With/out Pretend. Here, Anne discussed her essay from the collection, Vacation Photos. In this essay, Anne shares the impact that spending time in a psychiatric ward has had on her and her loved ones, along with the challenges she faces when talking about being admitted.

Committed to better defining feminism and reducing the negative stigma that surrounds mental illness, Anne is also passionate about empowering others to understand what they love and welcome what they don’t. Her social media profiles are painted with honesty – the highs and the lows of creativity and simply being human.

We spoke with Anne to learn more about her creative process and why she writes about mental health and motherhood.

Read our full interview now:

  1. When did you first resonate with the word “writer” as a title?

Only fairly recently, and it’s still a title that I struggle with. I feel a lot of impostor syndrome about it, like am I really a writer? Do I get published enough to be a writer? Do I write the right things? And yet, I’d be the first to reassure someone else that writing any amount of anything, published or unpublished, makes one a writer.

  1. Did you have any experiences growing up that you think influenced you to become a writer? If not, why do you think you’re the professional writer you’ve become?

I read a lot as a kid. I mean, a lot. I read at the breakfast table, I read on the bus to and from school, I hid a book in my desk and read during class, I read in the bath. If I had to wait in a lineup somewhere, I would pull out my book and read. Reading feels as necessary as breathing to me, and it’s impossible to imagine a life in which I don’t read. All of which is to say that I think the thing that most shaped my desire to be a writer was being such an avid reader – when I got older it felt very natural and right that I should try to distill my thoughts and experiences into writing.

  1. How many years have you been writing? Who has been your biggest support during this time?

I’ve been writing in one way or another since I was pretty young! I won my first short story contest when I was 11 (it was through my local library). But professionally speaking, I started my blog in 2012, and started earning money for my writing in 2013. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of people in my life who have been supportive of my writing, so it’s hard to pick just one person.

  1. What about the term “feminist?” When and why did you first come to resonate with feminism?

I definitely resisted the term “feminist” throughout my teens for a variety of bad reasons (I wanted boys to like me and I thought boys didn’t like feminists, I wanted to be cool and funny and I didn’t think feminists were cool and funny, I didn’t really know what the word meant, etc.). I think I came around on it when I was in university and became more politically active. That being said, I was really lucky to have a very solidly feminist mother who modelled good politics for me, so in a sense embracing the idea of feminism was like a homecoming.

  1. How have your experiences as a writer impacted your journey as a feminist? As a mother?

Being a feminist writer has definitely only made me more fiercely feminist. It’s definitely a Lewis’ Law type situation. I’m not sure how being a writer has impacted my parenting, if at all! Maybe it makes me more attentive to detail?

  1. You also write openly about your journey with mental illness. You’ve written a book called My Heart is an Autumn Garage about living with depression and recently, you published a piece in Happy If You Know It. Understanding that creating work that reflects a personal journey can be intimidating, what steps have you taken to become more comfortable with opening up?

The first thing I ever wrote about mental illness was a piece about postpartum depression (PPD). I felt like that was a “safe” way to start engaging in a public dialogue because if I didn’t ever want to talk about it again, I could just pretend that the PPD was a random incident and not, like, yet another manifestation of a lifelong struggle for mental health. The response I received to that piece was so overwhelmingly positive that I was encouraged to write more. Honestly, out of all the topics that I write about, the one that seems to have resonated the most with other people is mental health.

I write and speak about mental health so much now that it feels very casual, but I remember that before I wrote that PPD piece I was so intensely ashamed of being mentally ill. I had a real bootstraps-y attitude about myself and thought that if I just never talked about my mental illness then I could just pretend that it didn’t exist. Being able to admit that I was struggling was such a huge relief.

  1. The creative process is a subjective one, and it can also be quite daunting and lead to feelings of vulnerability. How would you describe the highs and lows of your creative process?

My creative process basically goes like this:

  • Come up with an idea and get excited about it
  • Get a pitch about the idea accepted somewhere
  • Actually have to sit down and write the thing
  • Wonder what I have ever done to deserve this punishment
  • Refresh Facebook 50 times
  • Tweet a bad joke
  • Hate myself
  • Stare at a blank Word Doc
  • Take a shower
  • Realize I have an hour left before my deadline
  • Cry
  • Finally write something
  • Yay, it’s eventually done!
  • Now it’s published and I can share it on social media!
  • I love writing again!!
  1. Since you started writing about mental illness – in print, in online outlets and on social media – what type of positive, empowering feedback have you received from audiences?

The best comments are the ones that say something like, “I have also experienced this and never been able to articulate it,” because I completely know that revelatory feeling of seeing someone else perfectly describe something you know so intimately but have never been able to talk about.

Photo by: Diana Nazareth.
  1. Have you received any intimidating, negative feedback? If yes, how do you choose to react? Why?

I’ve never had any real negative feedback to anything I’ve written about mental health, thank goodness! I have had people threaten me (or, worse, threaten my kid) over feminist stuff that I’ve written, though. I reacted by writing about it, because I feel like what the people who write these comments want more than anything is to frighten when into silence.

  1. What lead you to put pen to paper and share these raw experiences of life with depression, regardless of feedback?

Writing is how I process things! I often don’t really know how I feel about something until I write it all out. To me, writing feels like taking a comb to a huge snarl of hair and slowly smoothing it out.

  1. How has writing impacted how you cope with depression and anxiety?

Sharing my experiences and realizing I’m not alone has definitely helped with my anxiety and depression. Even just knowing that I can post something like, “I feel sad today and it sucks,” and people will get it is a pretty great feeling.

  1. When I saw you speak at the Happy If You Know It launch party in late 2017, you talked about how you’ve been coping with depression as a mom and how your relationship with your son is benefiting your mental health. Are you open with your son about your mental illness?

I try to be open with my son about my mental health in age-appropriate ways. He knows that sometimes I feel sad for no reason and sometimes I cry. He knows that I was in the hospital last year. I try to find the balance between being honest with him and not burdening him by making him feel like he has to take care of me, if that makes sense. As he gets older I’m sure I’ll tell him more, if and when the time seems right.

  1. What do you want your son to learn from your experiences with mental illness and writing?

Oh gosh this probably sounds glib but I’m not sure if I want him to learn anything. I don’t want him to have to worry about me or feel like I am in danger. On the other hand, of course I want to teach him to be compassionate and empathetic with everyone he encounters, regardless of their mental or physical health. This is still something I’m trying to figure out, obviously!

  1. How do you hope your work as a writer, feminist and mother improves how we shape and understand mental health?

I hope I can contribute to the understanding that fighting ableism is part of feminism. Also I hope I can help stop so-called feminists from labelling bad things as “crazy” or “insane.” Words mean things! If you mean that something is terrible or unreasonable, then say that instead of using terms that have historically been used to marginalize people experiencing mental illness.

  1. As a writer myself, I often experience moments of fatigue and creative drain – sometimes nothing feels inspiring and no ideas seem fun enough to explore. What do you do or where do you go when in need of a refresh/reset?

I draw! Drawing feels so calming to me. It’s like a make-your-own adult colouring book. I also take a lot of fancy baths with bath bombs and epsom salts and face masks and bath snacks.

  1. You’ve also been sharing a series of hand-drawn tarot self-portraits on your Instagram. Why were you inspired to create this series? Do you have a favourite illustration from the collection, so far?

I love tarot as an intuitive tool, by which I mean that I don’t really think it tells you about the future, but I do think it tells you about yourself. Like, if I turn up a card about, say, a friendship ending and my mind immediately goes to a specific friendship in my life, then that’s a good indicator that I have to sit with my thoughts about that friendship for a while and figure out what I really feel about it. Using tarot as a vehicle for self-portraits has been really soothing, because no matter what I feel on any given day there’s a card that can be interpreted as a representation of my feelings. I think my favourite one that I’ve done so far has been Strength, because it touches on a lot of my feelings about the early days of motherhood.

  1. On A Quarter Young, we highlight subjective definitions of the word, “success.” At this time, how would, or wouldn’t, you define success? Why?

I think we have a very weird binary idea of success and failure! Like, if you are married for 10 years and get divorced people call it a failed marriage even if for a long time it was a healthy relationship that nourished you and helped you grow? And maybe you take the stuff you learned from that marriage and use it in your next relationship and you’re with that person for the rest of your life? What, exactly, constitutes a failure? Most of my quote-unquote “failures” have set the foundation on which I’ve built my successes, so I try to view everything through that lens.

On the other hand, I wept to my therapist this morning that I am a person who does nothing but fail, so probably you should take my advice on this topic with a grain of salt.

  1. What advice would you give to other Canadian creators? To other young people reading this who may be living with depression and/or anxiety?

Be kind to yourself! Be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else who is going through whatever you are going through. Eat something when you feel cranky, just in case your crankiness is due to hunger. Drink more water than you think you need. Also take the train whenever you can.

Photo by: Matthew Coe.

Anne, thank you for responding to our questions and for opening up! Your work as a writer and speaker motivate us to continue to support creators and their commitment to bettering society, for the present and the future.

To our readers, if you haven’t already clicked “Follow” on Anne’s Twitter, do it now!

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