Sarah Mendivel is an author, therapist, and public speaker who works with children and teens burdened by trauma. Sam's Theory is her debut novel. See the trailer for Sam's Theory on YouTube.
Sarah recently talked with Rose City Reader about her book and her work with young people.
Tell us a little about Sam’s Theory and why it is more than a typical YA fantasy adventure story.
Sam’s Theory was written to honor the teens and adults who have experienced trauma and adversity in their lives. Like any good YA novel, this book provides a world to escape to and a special magic to believe in. But offering another world to simply run away to wasn’t quite enough for me. I needed to know for certain that these readers were feeling connected to a higher purpose by the end of this story. There was a sense of responsibility in contributing to their journeys by offering lessons that were realistic and achievable. I wanted readers to leave the book feeling as if they had allies in healing through the characters. Sam’s Theory gives survivors permission to feel, dream, and use their voices. It is infused with coping tools and learning, which is different than other commercialized novels. It is a story that encapsulates and nurtures the human experience in a direct, intentional way.
How did you come to write Sam’s Theory?
The idea for Sam’s Theory blossomed during my work as a milieu therapist on a pediatric inpatient psychiatry unit. I was working intimately with teens and children who had survived some very serious abuse, neglect, and loss. There was one night in particular where the universe had brought together a group of teens who all had similar histories and were currently living in residential centers. I remember feeling frustrated as they spoke about the lack of support they had.
I decided in that moment that enough adults had taken from these kids, and that I would role model what giving back looks like. I needed a way to reach more kids, and decided writing a book would be the best way to do so. Books are safe, non-invasive, and personal. They offer connection in a unique way, to every type of temperament. Sam’s Theory came from a real place, and you feel that when you read through it.
Why did you decide to write a fictional story instead of a more traditional, nonfiction self-help book?
There is something intrinsically healing about storytelling. I have always believed that imagination is the key to resiliency and wanted to offer the opportunity for people to explore that. Most teens and survivors have been bombarded by “advice” on how to live their lives by various people and groups with their own agenda. Sometimes this advice is helpful, but sometimes it can be unwanted and misinformed. The world doesn’t need more passive dialogue about how to do things; it needs action-oriented doers with integrity. Teens and adults are more apt to trust people who are willing to live by example. In all of my professional work with kiddos and adults, I have never asked them to try something that I wouldn’t try myself. I made sure the book practices that same code of honor. The journey of healing can be a scary one; and this story should resonate equality in that it offers a hand to hold during it.
What tools does your book offer for readers coping with trauma?
Sam’s Theory addresses and problem solves many issues related to trauma, including disassociation, disorganized attachment, grief, depression, anxiety, and the stigma of getting help. The book begins by educating readers about how trauma is stored in the brain and then explores how to process it effectively. Understanding how your brain and body works after scary things happen to it immediately creates the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with yourself.
We are, as humans, naturally built to regenerate. Readers begin to experience this as truth as they walk in Sam’s shoes. The book offers practical life advice, grounding techniques, conflict resolution ideas, examples of healthy coping behaviors, and insight into dealing with other temperaments that might differ from your own. It validates a survivor’s experiences in a way only survivors know.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
I often ask people what the world would look like if we raised just a single generation of trauma-free kids. My ultimate goal is to get this book into the hands of every kid, teen, and adult who has ever felt disempowered, taken advantage of, or hurt by an unhealthy adult. It is my hope that readers will feel strength in this story and allow it to inspire their own. I want them to feel alive when they reach the final page and believe that more exists for them than the reality they have been struggling with.
I would also love for people without trauma histories to read Sam’s Theory as a way to build a bridge of understanding to those that have. Trauma affects everything we do in school, work, relationships, our diets, etc. People have been doing the very best that they can with what they have up until now. But more than just that minimum exists. There is beauty and freedom in finally discovering your brave voice and taking back your life. I am making it my purpose to get to as many kids as possible and feel very committed to this goal.
What is the best way for your book to reach the people who need it?
My biggest networks are currently rooted in the mental health, social work, and educator communities. Survivors are a protected population and these professionals have been the most instrumental in making sure people in need have access to the book. I encourage people to share the book with others when they’re done, because this story has validity for everyone.
I have also been donating books to foster homes, domestic violence shelters, schools, psychiatric units, child life departments, and other places that might not have the financial means to buy it themselves. People can make book donations on my website www.sarahmendivel.com. Most of the money made at the book’s launch party was in donations and I was elated to be able to bombard the post office with so many packages addressed to marginalized kiddos all over the country.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
There is a certain vulnerability that goes into writing a story like this. It is a constant, conscious effort to stay courageous in sharing your own experiences, while trying to protect and honor the backgrounds of others you have worked with.
The biggest surprise came when people began to read it and say, “Oh my God! This is exactly how I’ve felt, but never knew how to put it into words!” That’s when I began to realize that this story wasn’t just for a specific group of kids, but it was speaking to the human condition as a whole. I think the world has been waiting for something like this, and it’s a good time for it.
Can you recommend any other books or resources for young people dealing with trauma?
First and foremost, it takes a lot of courage to ask for help. There is no shame in needing a little bit of backup sometimes. It is our right as human begins to access our worth by seeking the caring and competent guidance of others. If you can’t ask for help for yourself, do it for someone or something else as a motivator.
I am a huge advocate for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) as a therapeutic tool. It is quick, deeply effective, and everlasting. There are many therapists certified in EMDR, and can be found through www.PsychologyToday.com or www.EMDR.com. Teens can also text/call/email www.teenlineonline.org for immediate advice when hard feelings arise. “Asking for help doesn’t make you weak; it makes you an army.” - Sam’s Theory.
What inspires your work?
I work with kids of all ages and backgrounds. I have seen and used countless therapeutic interventions to gather the gritty details about their experiences. But what I realized years ago is that all anyone ever wants is validation. Kids just want to be loved and recognized as a whole person. They want to play and be hugged and eat ice cream. They want to be able to tell a funny story using their “outside voices” and try on different roles.
Trauma is only one part of their story. When I see a kiddo laugh, or play a prank, or draw me a picture after they just shared the scariest secret they’ve ever had to carry, it lets me know I did something right. I can’t imagine a higher calling than the work I do. Every single high-five or excited “Hey Sarah!” I get from a kiddo is the best feeling in the world. I have a box of notes from the kids I’ve worked with in the past, and it will forever be my most prized possession of goods. Kids are the best thing that’s ever happened to us as a human race. Their authenticity continuously reminds me of my own.
SAM'S THEORY IS AVAILABLE ONLINE IN KINDLE OR PAPERBACK. OR VISIT SARAH'S WEBSITE TO DONATE A COPY TO A KID WHO NEEDS IT!