Novel sheds light on living with mental illness

‘Continue Breathing’ has many images from Josh Greenfield’s journey

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Joshua Greenfield has seen the conversation about mental health shift dramatically over the course of his life.

When he was going through his own mental health episodes early on, it wasn’t really something anyone talked about. Addressing it would be scary, and it was easier to write off mentally ill people as damaged or otherwise incomplete.

Although people are now better equipped to talk about mental illness and mental health, Greenfield still wants to add his own story to the ever-expanding conversation. And for the first time, he won’t need to self-publish to do so.

Greenfield’s own therapist told him he had quite a knack for storytelling. He’d known about it deep down, as he’d been doing amateur stand-up comedy for a few years. But his therapist suggested there might be more to it than a tight five: Perhaps writing could be an effective coping mechanism for Greenfield.

He started writing fiction in 2008, and along the way, Greenfield self-published a few books. But his newest novel, “Continue Breathing,” is the first of his pieces to be published by someone other than himself: Adelaide Books.

“Continue Breathing” is in part inspired by Greenfield’s own life and experiences with mental illness. But standing at the core of his novel is the same theme that informs much of his other work: recovery.

“I’m writing so that people can realize that it’s OK to talk about these things,” Greenfield said. “There doesn’t have to be this incredible fear and stigma about them.”

Greenfield himself had a few mental health crises throughout his life, stemming from obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. And although his recovery has its own ups and downs, Greenfield’s outlook on his life and where he goes from here is largely positive.

“I’m learning to control it,” Greenfield said. “And I’m learning to live with it successfully — not to be afraid of it. Just to do what I can to mitigate the symptoms, and to live successfully, and to share what I learned in my writing.”

Not only are certain scenes from the novel inspired by Greenfield’s own experience with mental illness, some of the setting might be familiar to local readers. Warren — the town where much of “Continue Breathing” takes place — is a fictionalized version of Riverdale. And much of the local scenery makes its way into the novel, such as the greenery and the train station along the Hudson River.

“The final chapter of the book is about living and writing in Warren — the degree to which it’s peaceful,” Greenfield said. “It has trees and parks. And what we may lose out to Brooklyn in social cachet, I think we make up for (in) the fact that we have this degree of nature around us.”

Obviously, the discussion around mental illness has changed dramatically from when Greenfield was in college during the 1980s, and even more so from the days when mentally ill people would be locked in sanitariums. But according to Greenfield, how people talk about and address mental health has shifted — even from 2008, when he drafted the first few scenes of “Continue Breathing.”

“When I wrote it, it felt like I was doing something that was very groundbreaking, and that no one else was talking this way,” Greenfield said. “And now, by the time this finally comes out, it’s not quite as earth-shattering to be speaking in these terms.”

Society shifting its discourse to speak more carefully about mental health certainly had an impact on Greenfield. But he also relied on his attitude toward his own mental illnesses to move forward. Part of it was refusing to be afraid of his mental illness. And part of it was also having a sense of humor about it, because when something is funny, it becomes less frightening.

Being able to laugh at himself was crucial in Greenfield’s own mental health journey, and he thinks having that ability might help others deal with the same issues.

“Being able to laugh at yourself is what will make you better,” Greenfield said. “If you can see the humor in your own situation, you’re a step ahead.”

Greenfield hopes his story will provide a unique perspective on living with and recovering from mental illness. And though he might have his own story to tell, many others are in the same situation — living with mental illness, but just going about their daily lives. When they share their situation openly, it might make it less scary — both for them and for others.

And ultimately, that’s what Greenfield hopes people take away from “Continue Breathing” — It’s OK to be open about your mental health.

“It’s not like 150 years ago when nothing changed and all you could do was lock someone away,” Greenfield said. “People are out in the world, and we’re getting better. We’re talking to each other. We’re communicating. And people are getting better. And it’s OK to talk about it.”

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