January-February 2021 | Health

‘Finding the water’

A Rockville mom’s new children’s book captures her mental health struggles

Angela Willingham (at home with her dog, Ranger) writes about mental health issues, based partly on her own experiences. Photo by Liz Lynch

Shortly after graduating from college in 1998, Angela Willingham was volunteering at a retirement home in New Jersey when she met a retired Catholic priest, the Rev. Clark Yates. “I was arrogant and thought I had all the answers,” Willingham, now 44, says during a Zoom interview from her Rockville home. “I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but he said something, and I said, ‘That’s what’s wrong with the world.’ And he went, ‘You’re like a fish looking for the water.’ And I said, ‘You mean a fish out of water?’ And he just said, ‘Nope. You’re in it. You just don’t see it.’ ”

This October, more than 20 years later, Willingham’s children’s book, Little Fish, Big Question, was released by Balboa Press, the self-publishing division of Hay House Publishing. The book, inspired by that moment with Yates, follows Little Fish’s quest to “find the water.” The fish pushes past characters like the cynical octopus and the dismissive herring before discovering the answer for herself.

During the time it took to make the book a reality, Willingham was seeking answers of her own. She’d been quietly drowning in clinical anxiety and depression since her high school days in Oklahoma. A cheerleader and captain of the soccer team, she was a self-described approval addict. “If I was with a group of friends who drank, I drank. If I was with a group of friends who were athletes, I was an athlete,” she says. “I was really robbing myself of living an authentic life.” Willingham’s father had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and she recalls not wanting “to be a bother” while growing up. Her disorders went untreated until she was 26, when her doctor connected her with a therapist.

Despite professional help and medication, Willingham’s symptoms worsened in her 30s. She had trouble sleeping and binged on sugar to manage her fatigue. At times, she struggled to go through the motions. “I would only get out of bed when I absolutely had to,” she says. What Willingham calls her “rock bottom” came in 2008 while living in Dallas and facing bankruptcy after her husband lost his finance job. She was in the passenger seat of the car her husband was driving, with three little kids at home. She asked for a sign from the universe on what to do with her life. At that moment, their car was rear-ended. Nobody was injured, and she decided that was enough. She closed her photography business and eventually earned a Master of Arts in strategic communication and leadership from Seton Hall University in 2013.

Willingham moved to Montgomery County from Dallas with her husband and children in 2012 to work at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda as director of institutional advancement—her dream job. When a student approached staff in 2014 to see if anyone would speak at an assembly on mental health, Willingham stepped up and did it, recounting her lowest point in Dallas, her obsession with approval and the importance of reaching out for help despite the stigma. “I would tell the girls, ‘I’m being brave with my story so that you can be brave with yours,’ ” she says. Teachers told Willingham that her presentation resonated with students, especially those who struggled with perfectionism. Though Willingham left Holton-Arms in 2018—she says the high-intensity environment reignited her own perfectionist tendencies—she still returns to speak at the school’s mental health symposium.

It was in 2016, while she was on a run in Potomac, that things changed for Willingham. A line in the Oprah podcast she was listening to caught her attention. “It was the line from the Bible, ‘Be still and know,’ ” she says. “I’m not super religious, but when they said that, I was like, that’s it—that’s how Little Fish finds it.”

In the book, Little Fish only finds the water through mindfulness, inner peace and letting go of expectations. “She was looking for it outside of herself, and that’s what we’re all doing,” says Willingham, who now works as the associate vice president of development for the Greater Washington Community Foundation in D.C. “That was just something that was nagging on me for so many years. It’s like, ‘Why can’t I get this story right?’ And it’s because I hadn’t gotten my life right. And once I got my life right, Little Fish—the story—just opened right up for me.”

After her podcast epiphany, Willingham wrote the book on her phone in the middle of the night over the course of a few months. She read the finished version to her children—now ages 13, 15 and 18—for the first time on Christmas Day in 2016. “My daughter said the other day, ‘I can’t believe this has been in your heart for 22 years,’ ” Willingham says. “I hope that I’m modeling for them that when you have something that’s really calling on you to do it, that, you know, you do it.”

The lessons found in the book apply to both children and adults. “For the kids, the story is really about being curious and asking big questions and being brave to go look for the answers,” she says. “But what happens to us as adults is that we get that conditioned out of us.” Reclaiming these traits, she says, transformed her into “the hero of my own story.”

Willingham’s mental health issues, though well managed, still come in waves, she says. But she’s found the water, which for her means “knowing that you’re worthy,” intrinsically and unconditionally. “I didn’t know that I had everything within me to live the life I needed to live,” she says. “Mindfulness is a way of life, and it’s just being present—being aware, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. …If we can teach our kids to do that? Oh my gosh, we’ll change the world.”