Chelsea Harvey Garner knew if she wanted to sell the idea that sadness is the key to happiness, she’d have to come armed with real-world examples. And where better to start than with her own story.
The Omaha native and now therapist in New York City faced trauma early in her life. Her grandmother, Janis Campbell, became her defacto mother and role model as Garner navigated life, adversity and healing. That journey led to the book, “A Pity Party Is Still A Party: The Feel-Good Guide to Feeling Bad,” written and illustrated by Garner, which is available July 11 through HarperCollins. She will be on tour for the book, with a stop in Omaha at Dundee Book Co. on August 5 at 6 p.m.
The book offers a roadmap to facing difficult feelings and helping others in similar situations. In it, Garner uses her own comical, emotional and genuine story to show people if she can do it, so can they.
“I just believe in the wounded healer model of being authentic and, I just think there’s some healing power in it,” Garner said.
A central character in the book is Garner’s grandmother — a woman built from steel who endured hardship but always led with kindness.
Throughout Garner’s life, whether she was a young person finding community in Omaha’s music and improv scenes, or an adult helping people heal as a therapist in New York City, her grandmother’s principles stuck with her. When her grandmother died in 2017 the lessons she taught Garner helped the therapist cope with loss and inspired the idea that later became “A Pity Party is Still A Party.”
“It never got easy,” Garner said. “She had a hard life until the end… [but] she had developed this attitude of like, ‘This is life and there’s still beauty and all we can really do is be with each other.’”
Garner’s own parents lived with addiction and cycled through the criminal justice system. As a child, she found support and stability with her grandparents, who ended up raising her.
Despite dealing with anger and frustration over her parents’ situation, she had the ability to see beyond her circumstances. It was obvious to Garner that supports were lacking for people and families living through similar situations. There were not enough services to help her parents, and very little support was offered to families trying to help loved ones dealing with addiction and incarceration.
“I could see how the lack of resources and the lack of support, and the continuous nature of the trauma was also limiting their ability to make better choices,” she said.
Garner’s grandmother never shamed her for feeling sad, and always allowed Garner to express herself. When Garner was in school and being bullied, school administrators encouraged her to hide her feelings.
“Don’t let the bullies see that you’re hurting,” she remembered them saying. “If you do, they will have won.”
But even at a young age, Garner didn’t think that made sense. Her response was, “If I’m already hurting, what good will hiding it do?”
School staff didn’t agree, but her grandmother was proud.
“She felt comfortable in whatever state I was in,” Garner said.
And it’s this recognition of emotions and confronting trauma that allowed Garner to carry on, even after the passing of her grandma. The book offers a guide of sorts to contemplate the societal objections around expressing emotion, and how this leads to trauma instead of dealing with it.
This trauma informs her practice today. Garner is aware of how systems impact people, and the cycles of trauma people experience.
One of her main societal targets is what she calls “toxic positivity.”
Positivity is desperately sought in American culture. Posters abound with affirmations and positive messaging. While balancing negative with the positive has benefits, to Garner this movement can shroud important emotions that help us grow and find happiness.
“Toxic positivity takes it too far by implying that attitude is the only thing that matters, and that by changing our mindset, we can alter or even evade the most painful aspects of existence,” Garner said.
The book is also coming at a time when people are still coping with the collective trauma wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ninety percent of adults believe the country is facing a mental health crisis, according to a March 2023 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The COVID-19 pandemic also coincided with increased rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Garner didn’t write this book as a response to COVID-19. She sold it to HarperCollins just before the pandemic hit as a guide to coping with loss. But the messaging of seeing people for who they are, allowing them to work through trauma by acknowledging flaws and accepting imperfection is just as apt.
The confessional tone of the book came naturally, Garner said. It only seemed fair to be candid about her own experiences in a book if she was going to convince people to be vulnerable to their most challenging emotions.
She also is uncomfortable with being a blank slate. Honesty and transparency are important, especially in this kind of work.
It also stems back to her relationship with her grandmother. She instilled a mission in Garner to start with herself and then learn how to care for others.
“That was something that I can see now really shaped like who I am and how I’m able to show up with others as well and with myself,” Garner said. “And I didn’t quite realize how rare that messaging was at the time.”
Garner believes caring for the collective, and not just the individual, must be the fundamental shift if our society is going to face our mental health crisis. As a writer and therapist and founder of Big Feels Labs, an organization focused on treatment and education, her goal is to create safe spaces, and help people harness their pain in order to find purpose. Finding that mission
Beyond promoting “A Pity Party is still a Party”, Garner isn’t sure what the future holds, but she knows how proud her grandma would be.
“She would be just so excited, and this is what she thought would happen to me,” Garner said.
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