May is Mental Health Awareness Month: ‘Sweet Tea’ looks at effects of mental illness on families

By Neil Schulman

On Thanksgiving in 1984, Olivia’s mother cooks an elaborate turkey dinner for her three children, but instead of serving it she buries the meal in the backyard, because she believes the turkey must be offered to atone for their sins.

Wendy Lynn Decker

Soon afterwards, though the family lives in a trailer park, she shows up with elaborate fur coats for herself and her two daughters. A co-worker had loaned her money to fix her car, and Mama somehow decided that meant buy some furs.

 

Thus begins Sweet Tea, a young adult novel by local author Wendy Lynn Decker.

While her relatives say she’s eccentric, nobody realizes, or is willing to admit, that Mama has schizophrenia. And Olivia tries to navigate having a regular teenage life with looking after her increasingly unpredictable mother, who hasn’t been the same since her father died on the same day John Lennon was assassinated.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Decker wanted to talk about her book, which she wrote inspired by her own experiences. Her own mother has schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Having a mentally ill parent is difficult when you’re a kid and don’t understand it,” she said.

In the time Sweet Tea is set, and when Decker was growing up, there were far fewer resources around than there are nowadays.

Today, in addition to her work as an author and publisher, she frequently gives talks about mental illness and the issues around it.

“I want to bring awareness. There needs to be someone to make a change, and create facilities,” she said.

Over the last couple of decades, many of the facilities that treated the mentally ill have shut down. While admittedly many were closed because they were poorly managed, Decker says that many suffering from mental illness now wind up either “in prison or homeless.”

Even when someone is placed somewhere, it’s not necessarily the right placement. That’s the case with Decker’s mother.

“My mother is in an Alzheimer’s home. She’s 71 and she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. She thinks she’s fine,” Decker said.

The treatment for Alzheimer patients is very different than that for people diagnosed with schizophrenia or other disorders.

Sometimes mental illness needs to be treated differently than other illnesses. Decker says that she’s repeatedly run into trouble due to HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. That law is designed to protect patient privacy, and it’s keeping her from getting access to her mother’s medical records, or from her mother’s doctors discussing their treatments with her.

“As the oldest child in the family, I had to learn” about mental illness, Decker said. “I really was a part of (mother’s treatment) before the HIPAA laws. I was able to help her along every day.”

“The system did fail my mother, and the system fails many.”

She knows many people who are looking at it from the other end. Parents of teenagers with mental illness worry about the fact they’ll lose access to the records when their child turns 18.

While Olivia’s story is based on Decker’s own, she didn’t want to make the book biographical. Decker grew up in New Jersey, but she set the book in the Georgia. While doing research for it, she spoke with area nurses who had worked on mental wards at hospitals there. She found the stories familiar.

“It’s the same everywhere,” she said.

More information on Sweet Tea can be found on Decker’s website, www.wendylynndeckerauthor.­com.

Decker has gone around New Jersey discussing mental illness. If interested in booking her, you can contact Jerry Spathis of Spathis Management and Entertainment, 732-710-1370 or YellowJerrySpathis@aol.com.

The field of writing can be a difficult and discouraging one, but it’s worth it, Wendy Lynn Decker says. Part of the reason she’s started her own publishing label, Serenity, is to encourage authors.

“13 Reasons Why,” a hit on Netflix which looks at teen suicide and has been getting a lot of attention due to opening discussions about a sensitive issue, is based on a novel by Jay Asher. A novel that almost never existed.

Several years ago, Decker and Asher were both associated with a group of writers.

“I was on the board when Jay Asher said, ‘I quit writing,’” Decker recalls. Shortly after that though, a publisher accepted his work, and Asher went on to have a bestseller with the young adult novel.

“It’s encouraging to all of the writers,” she said.

Decker also struggled to get Sweet Tea published, piling up rejections. It finally went to acquisition – when an author is offered a contract – but that fell through.

“I quit for a couple of years, and got encouraged to publish it for myself,” Decker recalled.

And soon after that, a publisher, Booktrope, decided they would pick it up and publicize it under their label Vox Dei, which specialized in Christian works. Decker says that the protagonist is Christian, though she considers this a book for everyone.

Sadly, after helping to provide publicity and support, Vox Dei and Booktrope closed. Fortunately, she maintained the rights and could get it back in print.

Now with her own publishing label, she works to “reach out to those who want to have a book because it’s something they desire,” said Decker. “It’s very, very difficult to get published.”

She currently represents about 10 books.

Decker continues to write. In addition to Sweet Tea, she’s also written The Bedazzling Bowl. She’s published several anthologies with other authors.

She recently obtained her Masters in Creative Writing from Wilkes University, and is working on a couple of manuscripts.

Publishing company helps encourage authors

The field of writing can be a difficult and discouraging one, but it’s worth it, Wendy Lynn Decker says. Part of the reason she’s started her own publishing label, Serenity, is to encourage authors.

“13 Reasons Why,” a hit on Netflix which looks at teen suicide and has been getting a lot of attention due to opening discussions about a sensitive issue, is based on a novel by Jay Asher. A novel that almost never existed.

Several years ago, Decker and Asher were both associated with a group of writers.

“I was on the board when Jay Asher said, ‘I quit writing,’” Decker recalls. Shortly after that though, a publisher accepted his work, and Asher went on to have a bestseller with the young adult novel.

“It’s encouraging to all of the writers,” she said.

Decker also struggled to get Sweet Tea published, piling up rejections. It finally went to acquisition – when an author is offered a contract – but that fell through.

“I quit for a couple of years, and got encouraged to publish it for myself,” Decker recalled.

And soon after that, a publisher, Booktrope, decided they would pick it up and publicize it under their label Vox Dei, which specialized in Christian works. Decker says that the protagonist is Christian, though she considers this a book for everyone.

Sadly, after helping to provide publicity and support, Vox Dei and Booktrope closed. Fortunately, she maintained the rights and could get it back in print.

Now with her own publishing label, she works to “reach out to those who want to have a book because it’s something they desire,” said Decker. “It’s very, very difficult to get published.”

She currently represents about 10 books.

Decker continues to write. In addition to Sweet Tea, she’s also written The Bedazzling Bowl. She’s published several anthologies with other authors.

She recently obtained her Masters in Creative Writing from Wilkes University, and is working on a couple of manuscripts.