Women are constantly making history. We look up to them because of their grace, their strong will, compassion, and bravery in the face of danger, among many other qualities. Names like Queen Elizabeth I, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Maya Angelou remind us of this. However, we also have inspiring women that have impacted society in various ways that are worth recognizing in the 21st century. Such is the case with Paula Stokes, one of the women I admire.
Paula is the author of eleven published books under her name and her pseudonym Fiona Paul. In addition to writing, she is also a mental health nurse, online instructor, freelance manuscript consultant, volunteer for the homeless, and adventurer by heart. Her books have been an inspiration to her readers, and her social justice activism on her Twitter account, @pstokesbooks, will have you wanting to take action in your community as well.
I had the great pleasure of asking a few questions to Paula to know her better as a person and as an inspiration.
HCUPR: What women have been an important influence on you in your personal life and/or career?
Paula Stokes: I know a lot of people would answer this question by naming famous politicians or actresses, etc., but although I respect celebrities who use their platforms for social good, most of my inspirations are everyday women who refuse to let pain and/or adversity destroy them. Once I was working as an RN and talking to a woman with leukemia, and I remember telling her that I’d been feeling kind of down for various reasons and then acknowledging that my stress was minuscule compared to what she dealt with every day. And she replied with something like, “You know, you don’t have to be dying in order to be stressed or sad. Your feelings are just as valid as mine. I don’t think you should downplay them.” This woman, who I was supposed to be caring for, paid me such a kindness that day. It’s people like her who give me the strength to keep going. The cancer fighters and the homeless women and the struggling single moms and anyone, really, fighting a battle and refusing to let it break them are the reasons I get up every day and try to do my part to make the world a little bit better.
However, if you want me to give you a couple of names, I would say I am inspired in my career by authors like Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray, who have managed to become successful authors while struggling with mental illness, and who have used their platforms to explain anxiety and depression and advocate for people who are struggling. My most important personal influence is Representative Barbara Lee of California, the one member of Congress who voted no on Bush’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force back in 2001, saying “I’m convinced that military action will not prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States. Our country is in a state of mourning. Let’s just step back for a minute and think through the implications of our actions, so that this does not spiral out of control… As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” I have been passionately anti-war ever since I dated a soldier in college and started to understand what our foreign policy really involves. Barbara Lee was called a traitor and received death threats for having the guts to be a lone voice of dissent in front of Congress. She put herself at risk to give a voice to people like me, and for that, I will always be grateful. And I will always remember what true courage looks like.
HCUPR: Girl Against the Universe is one of my favorites books that deal with mental illness and the medical treatment of them. Did you imagine it would have such a positive response from readers?
PS: I hoped that the book would remove some of the stigmas of therapy and mental illness, as well as portraying a positive therapeutic relationship that might encourage readers who were struggling to reach out for help. Maguire is initially embarrassed and tries to hide the fact that she’s in therapy, but Jordy isn’t ashamed at all, and once he reveals he and Maguire are seeing the same therapist, every other character in the book treats it as the completely normal thing that it is. I worked hard to make the therapy sessions feel realistic, though obviously they were abridged for the sake of length and pacing. I didn’t know how people would receive the book, and it’s been incredibly humbling and rewarding to receive so many letters from readers who found the novel empowering, even if their own particular situations differed from those of the characters.
HCUPR: Other than an author and freelance editor, you are also a mental health nurse and volunteer for the homeless, and you are also studying. From all these, what motivates you the most to keep helping others so passionately through your words and labor?
PS: I don’t ascribe to any organized system of religion, but the whole “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” rule that I learned in Sunday School as a kid has just always made a lot of sense to me. I mean, imagine the world we would have if everyone did this. There have been many times in my life where I felt like I was visibly struggling and no one cared. I have felt like people viewed me as hopeless, worthless like I wouldn’t ever amount to anything. A lot of people have these views about the homeless and about the mentally ill and substance abuse patients that I work with. So I hope that both my books and my labor reach people who feel like the world has given up on them and let them know that at least one person sees their struggle. At least one person respects them for trying in the face of adversity. At least one person believes their life is meaningful and that they should have hope for the future. Sometimes all it takes is one person, and this is what I say to anyone out there who feels powerless to exact real change. Maybe alone we cannot bring sweeping changes to society or government, but we can change individual lives, and as a wise person recently told me (spoiler: it was you ;D) impacting individual lives has a ripple effect.
HCUPR: In the book, This Is How it Happens, as well as your Twitter, you have expressed a love for American Ninja Warrior. What have you been able to take from this show and apply to your life?
PS: For me, the biggest takeaway from ANW is to be kind and supportive of others. I know a show about achieving athletic feats lends itself to an “if you practice hard and focus completely you can achieve your goals” kind of lesson, but honestly, that’s not true, and I think it’s harmful to perpetuate that myth. Almost all the competitor’s focus and practice and they won’t all achieve their ultimate goal of becoming an American Ninja Warrior. When it comes to writing, not everyone who works hard and focuses on becoming published will eventually get a book deal. Not everyone who gets a book deal and focuses on crafting the best book possible will become a bestseller—that’s just not how life works. Because of that, I think it’s important for people to invest their time and energy into activities that they enjoy and find rewarding, regardless of what kind of external awards await them in the end.
But back to ANW—one of the major reasons I watch is because even though the competitors are vying for a million dollar prize, and even though many of them are working-class people for whom a million dollars would be truly life-changing, I have never seen them trash-talking or insulting or being anything other than 100% supportive of each other. Most reality TV in the U.S. is so ugly, purposely creating rifts and drama to generate ratings. ANW does the exact opposite by highlighting how close the competitors become doing smaller obstacle course events and showing how even the “big names” will come to cheer on new challenges during their runs. Maybe it sounds dorky, but the ANW competitors remind me of the person I want to be :) .
HCUPR: Any further info or advice you would like to give?
PS: Be like Barbara Lee and rely on your moral compass, your conscience, and your God, if you have one. Trust your gut and act accordingly, even if that means going against all of your family or friends or classmates or colleagues. It may be terrifying at the moment to be the lone voice of dissent, but afterwar,d you’ll be proud that you stood up for what you believe in, and chances are your bravery will encourage others to do the same.
If you would like to know more about Paula Stokes’s books, or anything else, you can check out her website by clicking here.