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Book Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

Publisher’s description

ra6Matt hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal, but Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.

Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.

So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?

Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger…and he isn’t in control of all of them.

A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

art of starvingFirst of all, I feel like it’s important to know that Sam J. Miller had an eating disorder as a teenager. Had Miller not had a personal experience with an ED, I probably wouldn’t be reviewing this book. I feel like books that deal with eating disorders are so fraught with the potential to be triggering/upsetting/completely done “wrong.” I have no experience with an eating disorder, so I still hesitate to review this just because the subject matter has the potential to be so triggering for readers. All of that said, I also think this book is important because it shows us someone we don’t see much of in YA: a boy with an eating disorder. And, while Matt, our main character, believes that power (and superpowers) can come from pain and starvation, his eating disorder is not romanticized. It’s awful to read about and awful to witness and just plain awful in general.

 

Matt, who is gay, is in dire need of medical and therapeutic intervention for his eating disorder. A school psychiatrist recommends urgent action after a visit with Matt proves he feels both suicidal and homicidal. But Matt swipes the letter from school, hiding it from his mother, just like he hides everything else from her. He’d like to run away, just like his older sister Maya has recently done. He suspects that soccer star Tariq and his bully buddies may have something to do with Maya’s disappearance, so he works to get closer to them to learn more. Matt is in complete denial about his eating disorder. He views his body as the enemy, keeps track of calories, and hates how he (thinks he) looks, but he doesn’t allow himself to ever throw up after eating, because that is what would indicate he has a problem. And, according to Matt, he does not have a problem. Also according to Matt, his hunger gives him clarity, insight, and superpowers that allow himself to get closer to truths, maybe read people’s minds, and allow him to control the uncontrollable. He is starving himself, still in denial, intent on further awakening his mind. He researches online for eating disorder tips and tricks, sharing some of them in his narrative. When he ends up in the emergency room, malnourished, he knows what he needs to do and say to convince people he’s okay. When an unexpected relationship grows, Matt worries that happiness is blunting his powers. He eventually admits to an eating disorder and ends up in treatment, where several months are summarized in broad strokes.

 

Matt is an unreliable narrator. Are his powers real, somehow, or is this all in his head? I found myself repeatedly doubting if he actually did or said something, or if it was just how things played out in his mind. At certain points, I doubted that any of the events were actually happening at all, wondering if maybe Matt was imagining everything (his relationship with the other boy etc). Matt makes some compelling observations about masculinity and social constructions of gender as he thinks about his body and how he tries to control and shape it. He even, at one point, notes that his story is not so much an actual guidebook for the art of starving as it is a desperate cry for help. This unique and well-written book is a dark, upsetting, and moving look at one boy’s experience with an eating disorder that will leave readers hopeful that he’s on the path to recovery, but maybe still doubting what has happened to Matt and what his future will hold.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062456717

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 07/11/2017

#MHYALit: Better Is Not a Place, a guest post by Sam J. Miller

MHYALitlogoofficfialI thought I was fundamentally and forever broken.

 

The sight of normal boys made me sick. I’d see them walking down the high school, easy and confident and cruel and strong, and I’d get physically ill. I’d skip lunch. I lived on coffee. My stomach hurt all the time.

 

Being gay and having an eating disorder weren’t separate issues. I watched the straight boys walk down the halls of my high school, saw their broad shoulders and flat stomachs and I thought—I will never be that. Never have a body like that. And I didn’t just want to be them. I wanted to make out with them, too. I hated them, and I wanted them. How messed up is that? Who wouldn’t be damaged by so many contradictory emotions?

 

Worse, all the boys knew I wasn’t one of them. It’s why they beat me up, why they said horrible things to me every single day. How could I not become just as disgusted at myself as they were? When I looked in the mirror, what I saw was grotesque. I was weak. And everything I ate threatened to make me more so. But when I didn’t eat, I felt halfway human. Hunger made me stronger.

 

art-ofThat’s the seed of my debut YA novel, THE ART OF STARVING, out in July from HarperTeen. Here’s an ugly truth that I wish wasn’t true: there is power in violence. There is power in self-harm. Hurting myself felt like the only power I had. I didn’t get the ability to read minds or control the fabric of time and space and launch a mission of bloody revenge like my MC did, but for once I felt like the world didn’t threaten to break me in half.

 

I managed to climb out of that miserable swamp. And fifteen years later, when I could finally see clearly what had happened to me, I wrote THE ART OF STARVING. To help other young people, boys and girls and straights and queers and folks who are none of the above, find their way out.

 

Maybe that’s a spoiler. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you what happens. But there’s lots of young people out there who are in the same hell I was, and it would be irresponsible of me to show that hell without trying to also show how I got out.… and besides, there’s lots of other stuff in the book that isn’t spoiled by that reveal. A Jewish/Muslim gay romance and bad words and sex and arson and plot twists and an army of vengeful hogs.

 

Young women are disproportionately likely to develop eating disorders, but boys can get them too. That story doesn’t get told as much. Librarians and teachers and others who work with young people might not think to look for the signs, or to try to support young men with debilitating body image issues. Which is why I had to write this book.

 

I wish I had an easy solution—a switch I flipped to make myself not broken. But there are no easy answers. Not in my book, and not in life. Learning to love myself didn’t come out of nowhere. The most crucial piece was meeting people and reading stories that could tell me how awesome it is to be gay, and that not having the perfect buff male model body is actually completely fine. I didn’t believe I could be beautiful, until another gay guy said I already was. And I didn’t know my story mattered until I read it in a book, saw it on a screen. That’s what I hope my book can do for people. That’s the power of #ownvoices.

 

At the end of the book my main character, Matt, muses:

 

“In the hospital, and at the rehab center, I used to imagine Better was a place you could get to. A moment when I would look around and see that Everything Was Fine. But that’s not how this works. Being better isn’t a battle you fight and win. Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.”

 

Better is not a place. It’s process. I’m not cured. I still struggle with body image issues. I hope my book helps someone. I tried to dive deep into the ugliness, and maybe that might make the book too intense for some folks. It probably needs a content warning. But a lot of young people out there are waist-deep in ugliness already, and I’m hoping that they’ll need it as badly as I did when I was there.

 

Meet Sam J. Miller

Sketch1220659-1Sam J. Miller lives in New York City now, but grew up in a middle-of-nowhere town in upstate New York. He is the last in a long line of butchers. In no particular order, he has also been a film critic, a grocery bagger, a secretary, a painter’s assistant and model, and the guitarist in a punk rock band. His debut novel The Art of Starving (YA/SF) will be published by HarperCollins in 2017, followed by The Breaks from Ecco Press in 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and he’s a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. His husband of fifteen years is a nurse practitioner, and way smarter and handsomer than Sam is.

 

About THE ART OF STARVING (available 7/11/17)

Matt hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal, but Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.

Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.

So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?

Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger…and he isn’t in control of all of them.

A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.

#MHYALit: Unbearable: A Reflection on Hunger, a guest post by Lindsay Eagar

MHYALitlogoofficfialMy main memory of high school and the immediate years following is of hunger.

As the straight-A student, oldest daughter, star of the school plays, and overall golden child, I often carried the weight of others’ expectations on my shoulders, and I did so gladly. I knew I was capable. I wanted to please the adults around me. I had ambitions and I was a hard worker.

 

But all of that collapsed when I turned fifteen.

 

Let me paint you a picture.

 

It’s sophomore year of high school. I have been dating this boy for over a year. I am on one of our “dates”—all-day stretches in his basement where he plays video games and I watch. My stomach growls, because like many normal human teenagers, I require food and water every three or four hours. But the boy I am dating doesn’t notice. Of course he doesn’t—I’m sitting on the arm of his chair while he plays his game silently, and is it my fault for letting him treat me this way, or is it his fault for being a jackass, or is it the world’s collective fault for raising boys like this who fail to nurture, fail to care? When he finally does pause his game, it’s not a food break, it’s a fooling-around break.

 

Hours later, we are in the middle of a tear-soaked fight over the phone, a weekly occurrence for us. He says, with a sigh so loud it practically swallows me, “You’re saying you want commitment?” As if fidelity is a ridiculous thing to put on the table. “We’re in high school. You’re asking for too much.”

 

Too much.

 

The two moments are forever linked together. This is when it becomes clear to me—to desire anything at all is too much. Appetite is the enemy, and one of its main artilleries is food.

 

This is when I decide to bask in the feeling of hunger, and kill the thing inside me that wanted things.

 

I started with food.

 

lindsay1I’m not going to describe any of my specific eating disorder behaviors here, because I don’t want to risk triggering vulnerable readers who may be struggling themselves. But I will tell you this: I carefully conned my way into surviving on very little food. I lied to everyone—including myself—about how hungry I really was. I never whittled down to bones, but I was unhealthily skinny and undernourished. Later, after high school, I began writing down my daily calories in and calories out—my world became one of numbers, measuring and tracking and feeling disgusted if I didn’t hit my targets.

 

There were a lot of things I did in high school and the years after that I’m not proud of, and I’d like to share them with you now, because there may be others who have done similar things.

 

I suppressed my urge to make comments in class and stopped raising my hand. I stopped caring about my homework. I stopped going after academic achievements like National Honors’ Society and Sterling Scholars.

 

I suppressed my hunger for commitment or affection or even eye contact when the boy snubbed me at school, and I pretended none of it mattered, even though I died inside every time he kissed another girl, sometimes mere hours after he had been with me and told me he loved me.

 

I suppressed my hunger for real food when he asked me to the senior prom, pocketed the money his mother gave him for our reservation at P.F. Chang’s, and instilled a three dollar limit when he drove me through Del Taco on the way to the dance.

 

I suppressed my desires to travel when he asked me not to apply to any out-of-state colleges, and I threw away the pamphlets for Trinity College in Dublin I had taped up on my walls.

 

I suppressed my gag reflex when I let him take credit for my own accomplishments—from my essays to my ideas to a one-act play I wrote that was selected for a state-wide award to the song I composed and sang in front of the school in an assembly. “We wrote this together,” he said as he picked up my guitar and sang my part, and I quietly hummed the countermelody, relinquishing myself to the part of background singer in my own life.

 

I was hungry, and cold, and lonely, and sad, and full of profound self-loathing for myself. That was who I was in high school. My own parents barely recognized me.

 

lindsay2Our girls have a problem with wanting things, with being hungry. We’re not supposed to be hungry for good grades, or academic awards, or ambitions, or career goals—consider how Hillary Clinton was painted as “power-hungry,” as if that’s a bad thing, to want to be an influence on the world.

 

We’re also not supposed to be hungry for love, or affection, or marriage, or children. We’re definitely not supposed to be hungry for a good piece of chocolate cake. I remember feeling embarrassed whenever I needed something, terrified of being called “high maintenance,” worried that if I requested more than the emotional scraps I was given to survive on, I would be seen as unlovable or unsexy or “attention-seeking.” I put away things I had been dreaming of since I was five—finishing a novel, getting published, traveling the world.

 

I wish that I had listened to the adults in my life who saw me withering away and offered help. I wish I could have told them what was happening in my head.

 

I wish YA had been a thing. I would have loved to read a character like Celaena Sardothien in Sarah Maas’s THRONE OF GLASS, who delighted in her food and dresses and piano-playing with no regrets.

 

I would have loved to read Anna-Marie McLemore’s gorgeous YAs, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS and WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, both about girls who make healthy relationships for themselves and don’t pretend that romance is a sinful dessert to be politely declined.

 

Maybe I would have read TINY PRETTY THINGS by Sona Charaipotra and found a kinship with other teenage girls who had ambitions, who busted their butts to get places, who felt pressure.

 

Maybe I would have read NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED by Hannah Moskowitz, and finally exhaled, knowing someone else understood.

 

It’s embarrassing to be an adult now and look back at all the stupid ways I starved myself.

 

It’s not embarrassing to be hungry.

 

It’s not wrong to want things.

 

It’s not annoying to be needy.

 

It’s normal to need to eat food, get thirsty, need hugs, need cuddles, need kisses, need passion, romance, to need trust.

 

It is not too much to want to be heard.

 

The body can only go so long without food. Same with the heart.

 

When I finally allowed myself to want things again—that’s when I started to heal.

 

Having a baby at 22 healed much of my relationship with my body. But it didn’t get rid of the voice in my head that still tells me, too much, too much. Too big, too loud, too talkative, too bold, too needy, too hungry, too much, too much. I do hear those voices sometimes, and when I do, I try my best to drown them out. I email writer friends who assure me I deserve my ambitions. I work on my projects, gleeful as I inch towards completed goals. I go for a walk or dance around my kitchen or kiss my husband or play with my babies, anything to remind myself that what my body is capable of doing is far greater than what it looks like. I take a selfie to remind myself that my body actually does look pretty good.

 

I did finally see a counselor at age 20, for my depression, and she suggested I had an ED-NOS, based on the behaviors I’d described. And I began a healing journey—not just with my hunger for food, but my acceptance of hunger as part of living, and fulfillment of hunger as the other part—the important part.

 

The best part.

 

Meet Lindsay Eagar

lindsay3Lindsay Eagar is the author of HOUR OF THE BEES (Candlewick Press, 2016) and the forthcoming RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (Candlewick Press, 2017). She lives in the mountains of Utah Valley with her husband and two daughters and a mountain of books. Follow her on Twitter here: Lindsay Eagar (@lindsaymccall) | Twitter

#MHYALit: For Whom The Book Is Written: Addressing Intended Audience in YA Novels about Mental Illness, a guest post by Katherine Locke

MHYALitlogoofficfialWhen we write, we write for an audience. That audience may be ourselves, our friends, people whom we want to understand us, a broader audience, or ourselves when we were younger. But whenever we sit down to write, especially for publication, there’s an intended audience.

 

The way I see it, there are generally two types of books with mental illness at their core. The first type is for readers who suffer the same or similar mental illness. The other type is for outsiders, readers who don’t suffer that mental illness. The second group of readers might be curious, or pick up the book for other reasons, or have that type of mental illness in their family or friend group. But they don’t personally suffer through it themselves. This isn’t a quality statement–there are good and bad books in both groups–but it does change how I view, review, and recommend these books.

 

For example, a book about a character with anorexia could be for someone with anorexia nervosa, or for outsiders/non-sufferers who are curious (and there is endless cultural curiosity about anorexia).

 

In general, though there is one exception I’ve read which I’ll detail below, books for teens with anorexia do not include weight and numbers. Because anorexia isn’t about weight and numbers. It’s much deeper and more insidious of a disease than that. Eating disorder books which include numbers are for outsiders/non-sufferers. Weight and numbers are a way for outsiders/non-sufferers to understand the severity of the disease and they’re more tangible than the incongruous and seemingly irrational thoughts of an anorexic person.

 

Moreover, weights and numbers are one of the most common triggers for those thoughts to an anorexic person and merely reading them on paper can damage a recovering anorexic’s positive trajectory.

 

A novel that shows only the extremes of a mental disorder is usually–though not always–for outsiders. A novel that shows the nuances, ones that don’t fit a stereotype or introduce more complexity than may be seen on a TV show or in a movie, is for the people who are intimately aware that a disorder is no less real or a part of their lives on an everyday basis, not just in moments of crisis. When I say, “is for,” I don’t mean that one group cannot read the books intended for the other group. I’m speaking of intent, audience, and for whom that book might have the greatest impact.

 

And more importantly, when recommending books to (or writing books for) teens who may be suffering from mental illness themselves or who have a family member, it may help to keep this in mind.

 

Which book do you reach for?

 

If a teen is suffering from mental illness, they often seek a reassurance that they aren’t alone, that they’re understood, and that there’s a way out (or a way to a middle ground). They rarely need to know what Worse Case Scenario looks like–they need or want to be reassured that they are not the worse case scenario.

 

A teen whose parent, sibling, guardian, or close friend is suffering from a mental illness might want a book for outsiders, that helps explain why the person does the thing they do, and one that shows how outsiders can best support the ill person.

 

There are crossover books, and I do want to highlight a few of my favorites.

 

wintergirlsLaurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls is one of those books. While I am extremely careful when recommending it to teens with anorexia due to the numbers written on the page, I also think it’s one of the best YA novels about anorexia for people suffering. Lia’s hope at the end, for me, is enough to tip the scales toward for sufferers, though I’d only give it to a teen solidly in recovery. I’ve seen too many quotes from that book flying around pro-anorexia tumblrs and Pinterest (an issue also addressed in the book) to give to someone not working with a team of professionals. But I also think it functions very well for explaining the thought process, the re-rationalized thoughts, and the frustration of someone who wants to get better and yet doesn’t at the same time. In that way, it’s an excellent book for outsiders.

 

everylastwordAnderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is an excellent book about a girl whose father suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal shows a soldier’s return from war from the inside. Doller’s Where the Stars Still Shine is another crossover book that shows the complexity of mental illness and its ripple effects on the people around a sufferer without ever demonizing mental illness itself. Emery Lord’s When We Collided is an excellent book that crosses over, showing both a character whose bipolar disorder isn’t well managed and ricochets across the page, and a character affected by his mother’s depression and the other character’s mental illness. Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word is about a character with OCD that shows OCD without diving deep enough to be triggering (in my experience).

 

This issue is something I think about often, and that I am still wrestling with in my own recommendations, reviews, and writing. I don’t think there’s any easy answer to what you recommend kids or teens who are suffering themselves from a mental illness or who are experiencing someone else’s mental illness. But I do think we need to think about the intended audience of a book to reduce harm–I learned eating disorder behaviors from books when I was in my late teens–and make sure we create space in our communities for teen readers to safely discuss these books.

 

Meet Katherine Locke

headshotKatherine Locke lives and writes in a very small town outside of Philadelphia where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She not-so-secretly believes most stories are fairy tales in disguise. Her Young Adult debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives Fall 2017 from Albert Whitman & Company. She can be found online at @bibliogato on Twitter and KatherineLockeBooks.com

#MHYALit: You Won’t Find Girl Interrupted’s Angelina Jolie But At Least You’ll Be Safe! Why Being Hospitalized for Mental Health Issues Isn’t a Bad Thing, a guest post by Ami Allen-Vath

Today author Ami Allen-Vath shares her experiences with suicidal ideation, depression, hospitalization, and more. We continue to be so honored and proud to share these honest, vulnerable posts. Visit the #MHYALit hub to see all of the posts in this series. 

 

MHYALitlogoofficfialWhen I was in eleventh grade, I wrote a letter to my family and best friends. It was a goodbye letter, a letter to let them know why I couldn’t live anymore.

 

I basically told them I was having flashbacks from the sexual abuse I’d experienced as a middle-schooler. I told them I couldn’t handle life. I told them I had an eating disorder, that I was bulimic and couldn’t handle hating myself and my body anymore. But one thing I didn’t mention was my mom and stepdad’s alcoholism. I didn’t talk about the yelling and physical abuse I’d witnessed. The fights that seemed to happen every weekend. I didn’t say that I stopped inviting friends over and did my best to answer the phone first so friends calling wouldn’t hear their sloppy jokes and slurred words. The laughing and partying that went on a few hours before the fighting happened. I didn’t write about this because I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know. I’d already been through a lot, so I felt like I should have my shit together already. Being a teen in a home with alcoholics felt messy and embarrassing. So, I omitted the alcoholic and domestic abuse stuff, even though the stress and secrecy was wearing me down.

 

So, I folded up the letter, took a bunch of pills and cried. And then I was sobbing. I realize now, I wanted to be heard. My crying woke my sister. What I remember from the rest of the night is my stepdad carrying me to an ambulance and soon after, the hazy snippets of the noise and chaos of an emergency room.

 

After being in the hospital a few days, I was admitted to the AIP. Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry Fifth Floor Locked-Unit. Prior to my hospitalization, my association to a place like that was “crazy house.” I didn’t want to be there at first, but I really didn’t want to be at home. I met doctors, therapists, took different tests and went to groups and individual therapy. I met kids that had similar and different issues. I took a break from life. I really, really needed that. It was a time to focus on me and shut out the outside world. It was a safe haven and I couldn’t be hurt by the bad choices of my family and I couldn’t hurt myself. Most kids stayed for a week or two. I saw a lot of kids come and go but I stayed for a month.

 

When I went home, my problems were still there but I was equipped to handle things better. Life’s past and present issues didn’t want make me want to die anymore.

 

But about ten years later, it happened again. I had a two-year-old and had just left an awful relationship. I was living with my best friend and her new husband and they were wonderful and supportive. I also had an amazing therapist. The work I did with her had set me on a life-changing journey of healing from my past. I was working through a lot of issues I had because of the sexual abuse I’d been a victim of as a kid. I was trying to manage my eating disorder. It was very “one day at a time,” but I was trying.

 

But due to the issues I had with my ex, single motherhood, and trying to figure out how to get back on my own feet, I felt trapped. I felt like the “old Ami” who couldn’t get ahead. I became very delusional and found myself snapping into a different person. I’d write journal entries as the “old me” and slowly felt myself becoming “her.” I had a suicide plan. In a bad snowstorm, I drove my son to his father’s and said I couldn’t take care of him until I found a job and “got it together.”

 

But once again, even though I was telling my therapist a lot of the things I was dealing with, I wasn’t saying the important stuff. The stuff that had me teetering on the edge of the cliff. I didn’t tell her about my suicidal ideations. I didn’t say I’d sort of split into two people.

 

The “sane” side of me called the hospital. I made an appointment at a mental health facility and once there, the lady asked if I was going to hurt myself. I couldn’t talk. She asked if I needed help, if I needed to stay. At first, I didn’t know if I should tell her or not. But after a minute, I wanted to be heard. I cried. And shook my head yes.

 

Once again, I was in a new psych ward. I was with other adults who had problems that were just as heavy to them as mine were to me. The food wasn’t amazing. The rules could be annoying and patronizing, but being there was good. It was needed. I was safe.

 

I was there for a little over a week. I continued getting care and treatment after. I did my best to go to doctor’s appointments, therapist appointments and take the advice they were giving. Eventually, I stopped wanting to hurt myself.

 

And ten years later, which was last year, I got sick again. I’d recently moved with my husband and children to New Jersey from Georgia. Miles and miles away from close friends and family. My husband travels out of the state and country. He’s gone a few days every week. The town I live in is quiet and isolated, especially in the winter. I was now in a state where winters are cold and dark. I started writing more but once I was agented, I didn’t have enough time or space to do it. I didn’t have any family or friends to help out. I felt very alone. The stress was building at a rapid rate and once again, I felt trapped. I’m a pretty introverted person and love alone time but I missed adults. I missed having friends come by during the week. I missed going out to lunch with a coworker every once in a while. I missed going to my sister’s house on Friday or Saturdays, eating dinner together, and talking until late while the kids played.

 

I was seeing a therapist. It’d been great. We worked through a lot of the issues I had with my mom’s alcoholism. I told her about the anxiety and frustrations about not having enough time for myself and my work. I hinted at feeling overwhelmed, but I didn’t tell her the whole truth. That I was constantly thinking about suicide and wishing I could just do it and get it over with. I didn’t tell anyone that once again, I was becoming very comfortable with the idea of death.

 

But then, with much prodding from my best friend, I broke down. I cried. I admitted that it’d gotten so bad that I wasn’t safe. That I was going to hurt myself. I told her she could tell my husband because I didn’t want to. I was too afraid, too ashamed. I felt too much: I am a mom! A wife! I have a book deal and my dream is coming true! I’m supposed to have my crap together. For my family, for me.

 

The next day, my husband drove me to behavioral/mental health hospital. It was my birthday. But, I was safe. I couldn’t hurt myself. I took a break. From the stress and depression that made it hard for me to breathe. It gave me, doctors and therapists time to come up with solutions in a space where I didn’t have to deal with everything else. I learned some new coping skills. And after a week, I went home. But I wasn’t done. I started a wonderful day program. I was there for about two and a half months. Aside from new coping skills and a sort of “survival” plan, I learned a lot of ways to change the irrational thinking that had been a catalyst to my stress and catastrophizing.

 

And finally, I learned that I NEED TO TALK. I need to be honest about how I’m feeling. I shouldn’t wait until my toes are slightly over the cliff’s edge to finally ask for help. I also learned the true value of hospitalization.

 

Being admitted or admitting yourself to a psychiatric facility is not failure. When you’re overwhelmed and trapped, when it feels like there’s no way out of your depression, you’re in crisis mode. Your life is in danger. And when you’re in crisis or almost crisis mode, it’s okay and sometimes very, very necessary to take a break from “the outside world” until you are safe.

 

Hey, I love vacations. I prefer them to be somewhere warm and sunny. I like great food and tropical views and access to a nice pool. But when you lose yourself, when you’re incurably depressed, you’re going to need a little more than amazing guacamole and pina coladas to get you rejuvenated enough to want to go back home. So, the next time you hear about someone going to a mental hospital/psych ward/behavioral health facility, or if you or a friend is in crisis, don’t discount a “mental health vacation.”

 

I know my experiences aren’t going to be the same as everyone else’s and I won’t sugarcoat all the details about if you ask. But don’t dismiss hospitalization because of what you’ve seen on TV or movies. It’s not glamorous but it’s also not a giant cuckoo’s nest. A big reason my stays were successful was because I was able to drop the stigma attached to being hospitalized.

 

For me, this is true: All three times I stepped into a psychiatric ward, I went in ready to take my life. And all three times I left, I was safe. I was still alive.

 

I’m here today and I will be here tomorrow.

 

 

Note to reader: I’m very aware that hospitalization requires money and/or a good healthcare program. In my case, my first two hospitalizations were paid for using state’s healthcare program/healthcare assistance. In the third instance, my husband’s healthcare covered a lot of the bill. We were then able to pay the copays with a payment plan. It was a lot of money, but hello! The cost of a life…very worth it. Please don’t let finances or the stigma you may have attached to lack of finances prevent you from seeking help. Here are a few resources you can start with:

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 24 hour toll-free crisis hotline, 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255) can put you into contact with your local crisis center that can tell you where to seek immediate help in your area.

Child-Help USA 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) crisis line assists both child and adult survivors of abuse, including sexual abuse. The hotline, staffed by mental health professionals, also provides treatment referrals.

In areas where 211 is available, this number connects you with mental health crisis services in your area.

 

Meet Ami Allen-Vath

Ami Allen-Vath author picAmi Allen-Vath is an ice cream enthusiast and a loather of cilantro. She’s the author of LIARS AND LOSERS LIKE US, about a teen dealing with anxiety, grief, and first love––all during prom season. Ami can be found on Twitter: @amilouiseallen, Facebook and amiallenvath.com.

 

 

 

 

About Liars and Losers Like Us

liarsKeep calm and make it to prom night—without a legit panic attack.

For seventeen-year-old Bree Hughes, it’s easier said than done when gossip, grief, and the opportunity to fail at love are practically high-fiving her in the hallways of Belmont High.

When Bree’s crush, Sean Mills, gives her his phone number, she can’t even leave a voicemail without sounding like a freak. Then she’s asked to be on Prom Court because Maisey Morgan, the school outcast nominated as a joke, declined. She apologizes to Maisey, but it’s too late. After years of torment and an ugly secret shared with their class’s cruel Pageant Queen, Maisey commits suicide. Bree is left with a lot of regret…and a revealing letter with a final request.

With Sean by her side, Bree navigates through her guilt, her parents’ divorce, and all the Prom Court drama. But when a cheating-love-triangle secret hits the fan after a night of sex, drinks, and video games, she’s left with new information about Sean and the class Pageant Queen. Bree must now speak up or stay silent. If she lets fear be her guide, she’ll lose her first love, and head to prom to avenge the death of the school outcast—as a party of one. (Sky Pony Press, March 22, 2016. SEE AMANDA’S REVIEW HERE.)

#MHYALit: “Eating Disorder” Books: How They Only Show Half of the Struggle, a guest post by Jen Petro-Roy

MHYALitlogoofficfialToday librarian and blogger Jen Petro-Roy shares with us her experiences with an eating disorder and what she’s learned from her eating disorder, from treatment, and from recovery. See all of the #MHYALit posts here. 

 

 

 

Screaming in the middle of the night.

People getting dragged off the Eating Disorders wing for self-harm.

Temper tantrums and hissy fits during meals.

Counselors hovering outside the bathroom, listening to me count OUT LOUD while I peed.

Counting down the hours until “bench,” that wonderful fifteen minutes when we were all allowed to troop outside and loiter around a bench while getting our dose of fresh air.

Mumbling.

Cold shoulders.

Suspicion.

Overly attentive counselors.

Crying.

Utter fear.

 

This was eating disorder treatment. It’s all stuff you’ve probably read about in the many young adult books written on the subject, where a girl (usually only a girl) gets sick, reluctantly goes into treatment, experiences horror after horror, has sick thoughts, then gets better.

I’ve read a few of these books. Wintergirls. Perfect. Tiny Pretty Things. How I Live Now. Believarexic (the last being perhaps the best, most accurate treatment-related book I’ve read). These authors have done their research, and, in many cases, experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating themselves. As you’d expect, there’s a common thread in so many of these books: the evils of eating disorders. The pain. The torment.

These are some of the phrases I see and the feelings I get when I’m reading a so-called “eating disorder book”: My brittle bones. Aching hunger. Isolation. Misery.

 

I’m not saying that an eating disorder isn’t miserable. I suffered from severe anorexia for three years. I went into treatment seven times. Then I hovered in some middle-of-the-road no man’s land between almost recovery and full recovery for another ten years. I was miserable for a lot of that time. My stomach was a pit and my body almost collapsed from over-exercise. I lied and deceived. I did all that knowing how awful I was being, knowing that I was valuing my disease over my life. I lost friends and harmed relationships. I transferred colleges and took time off and missed out on so much.

I gained so much, too.

 

I’m not talking about just weight, although that’s obviously a key factor. A vital factor. I did gain weight. I “weight-restored,” to use the technical term that was bandied about so much.

But I gained knowledge, too. Knowledge about myself and knowledge about the world. Like that this society is royally messed up. That people treat a “you look like you lost weight” compliment like it’s the equivalent of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or like it’s a better compliment than something that really matters, like “you’re a good friend.” That my Facebook feed is filled with posts about Beach Body cleanses and how eating chocolate makes someone bad.

You know what makes someone bad? Breaking the law. Discriminating against others. Not liking to read. (Kidding!…Maybe.)

Bad isn’t gaining weight. Bad isn’t losing weight. Bad isn’t eating kale or cheesecake or oatmeal or peanut butter. Weight has nothing to do with morality. It’s a number. A NUMBER.

I’m not trying to lecture, because god knows, I beat myself up for a long time about that whole peanut butter thing. But that’s what a lot of these books don’t show—the slow process where someone learns that peanut butter isn’t so awful after all. The push and pull, the advances and backslides. The knowledge that comes with time.

 

And there has been so much knowledge. I learned that I can’t go on diets anymore. I learned that my brain is wired in such a way that if I start to cut back on food, then I’ll want to keep cutting back. I learned that if I drop below a certain weight (for any reason), then my brain will do a happy dance. I learned that I need to eat a lot. I learned that food is freaking fantastic. (A fact that I honestly knew all along, but tried really hard to suppress.)

 

I learned that I’m wired a bit differently than other people, and that medication brings me back to that state of equilibrium that some achieve naturally. Medication isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It’s my insulin. My beta-blockers. My brain food.

I learned that I don’t need or want a scale in my house. I learned that it’s quite satisfying to toss said scale out of the window and watch it smash to pieces on the cement below.

 

I also learned that when I stop obsessing about shrinking my body, my life expands dramatically.

Young Adult “eating disorder stories” get part of the story right. They show what it’s like to suffer and ache, to obsess and hunger. But where they often fall short for me is on the recovery front.

Recovery is hard. Damn hard. Soul-searching, relapse-having, losing what you thought made you you hard. It’s anxiety so fierce that you want to hide from the world and that you think will tear you apart inside. It’s getting new clothes and making new friends and for some, even finding a new place to live. It’s changing career paths and confronting loved ones and figuring out what you want in life.

Recovery isn’t just that time in treatment or therapy, or that time when you’re gaining weight. You don’t leave treatment cured. You don’t even leave treatment almost cured. You leave treatment with a toolbox of skills to use and are then shoved/gently coaxed/pushed into the same world that helped you develop your eating disorder.

 

You aren’t at the starting line of a journey. But you aren’t at the end yet. Not by far.

I understand that books are supposed to have a happy ending. There needs to be a narrative arc: pain, realizations, struggle, pitfalls, closure. Readers want that closure, that hope that recovery is possible.

Because it is. It’s so possible. My life, my career, my family, my marriage, my body is proof of that.

But the happy ending didn’t come right away. And that’s where I think YA books about eating disorders can do the reader a grave disservice. That’s where I think our cultural conversation about eating disorders does us a grave disservice. Because those suffering, along with their friends and family members, come to expect a cure right away. They want that narrative arc in their lives or in their loved one’s life. And when it doesn’t happen, they despair. They backslide. They relapse.

There’s no magic pill to take that will immediately clear up the obsessions, compulsions, and irrational fears. Just hard work, time, and transformation. Of body, of self, and of mind.

We need a society that recognizes how arduous recovery can be. In this country of Starbucks drive-thrus and microwave bacon, of 10-day detox diets and multitasking, we need to understand that some things take time.

Some things need time. To realize who exactly you are without your eating disorder. To understand what you want to do with your life and what harmful messages were leading you to hide behind food or the lack thereof. To filter out the toxic influences and start to craft an identity beyond your illness.

It took me fourteen years from my initial symptoms to get to 100% full recovery. That time included a good eight years where I was convinced that I was fully recovered, too.

I wasn’t. I was still sick in a lot of ways. Unnoticeable ways. Little ways. Ways that still held me back from the life I wanted to lead.

I’m there now, though. And those characters will get there eventually, too.

We need to read about that part.

 

Of course, I understand that a book has to stop somewhere. Each novel can’t go on and on detailing every slip and fall and stumble and rise. But there should be more narratives out there that cover the “after,” not just the “before” and the “during.”

Because the after is what we all want. Not the lurid details or the dramatic numbers, but the peace and acceptance that comes with recovery. Where you find not the new you, but the true you.

 

Meet Jen Petro-Roy

YMPKbSIxJennifer Petro-Roy is the Young Adult Librarian at the Chelmsford Public Library, where she also runs the Young Writers Club. She got her MLIS from Simmons College and is also a middle grade/YA writer. She blogs at http://www.losingmylabels.com about parenting, body image, and self-esteem. When she’s not writing or talking about books, Jennifer is reading many more books and spending time with her husband and two daughters. You can find her on Twitter as @jpetroroy.

Take 5: Books about eating disorders

Did you know that under the Teen Issues link up there on the menu bar, you can find lots of great posts and book lists organized by issue? Everything from addiction to violence is covered. If you don’t see a topic covered that you think is of interest, please leave a comment, tweet us (Amanda MacGregor @CiteSomething or Karen Jensen @TLT16), or email us at the addresses provided on the About TLT page.

 

Take 5: Books about eating disorders (2014 and 2015)

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 22-28. Visit the National Eating Disorders Awareness site for more information.

All descriptions of these recently published books from the publisher. Check the links provided for reviews and other posts by us on most of the books. See the “Body Image and Eating Disorders” list under Teen Issues for many great previous posts on TLT that cover this topic.

 

Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan

Publisher: Albert Whtiman & Company

Publication date: 3/1/2014

ISBN-13: 9780807573976

Summary:

Sixteen-year-old Jack, nicknamed “Bones,” won’t eat. His roommate in the eating disorder ward has the opposite problem and proudly goes by the nickname “Lard.” They become friends despite Bones’s initial reluctance. When Bones meets Alice, a dangerously thin dancer who loves to break the rules, he lets his guard down even more. Soon Bones is so obsessed with Alice that he’s willing to risk everything-even his recovery.

(Check out “Skin and Bones: Talking about Teens and Eating Disorders,” a guest post on TLT by Sherry Shahan.)

 

 

Pointe by Brandy Colbert 

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 4/10/2014

ISBN-13: 9780399160349

Summary:

Theo is better now.

She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

Brandy Colbert dazzles in this heartbreaking yet hopeful debut novel about learning how to let go of even our most shameful secrets.

(See my review of Pointe, and Christa Desir’s guest post for TLT, “Consent and Teenage Vulnerability: A Look at Pointe)

 

Running Scared by Leslie McGill

Publisher: Saddleback Educational Publishing

Publication date: 9/1/2014

ISBN-13: 9781622507061

Series: Cap Central

Summary:

Capital Central High School, or Cap Central as the students like to call it, is in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Any urban school faces broad challenges, and Cap Central is no different. But some tight-knit juniors meet the difficulties head-on with courage, friendship, determination, and hard work. Rainie’s grades were slipping. Good grades were a lifetime ago. Back when her dad was around. Before her mom’s boyfriend started hanging out at their house. Commenting on her figure. Looking her up and down. Before she decided to stop eating. Become invisible. Her friends were alarmed, especially Joss. She knew times were tough for Rainie’s family. But she felt like there was more going on. Something serious. And she was going to figure it out.

 

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz 

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 3/3/2015

ISBN-13: 9781481405966

Summary:

Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere—until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca might be Etta’s salvation…but can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

(See my SLJ review of this title here)

 

Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkel

Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC

Publication date: 5/19/2015

ISBN-13: 9781452121512

Summary:

Seventeen-year-old Elena is vanishing. Every day means renewed determination, so every day means fewer calories. This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety becomes artillery against herself as she battles on both sides of a lose-lose war in a struggle with anorexia. Told entirely from Elena’s perspective over a five-year period and cowritten with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena’s memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering from an eating disorder.

 

If you would like to recommend additional titles on this topic, please leave us a comment. We always look forward to hearing what books others value and recommend.