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Book Review: Madness by Zac Brewer

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

madnessMadness by Zac Brewer

ISBN-13: 9780062457851 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/19/2017

Gr 9 Up—Finding a kindred spirit turns chilling in this exploration of depression, suicidal ideation, and toxic love. Seventeen-year-old Brooke is freshly out of a treatment program after attempting suicide. Back at school, her classmates stare, whisper, and write “RIP” on her locker. Brooke’s situation at home is strained, therapy seems pointless, and the only good thing is Duckie, her lifelong best friend. Angry to still be alive, Brooke is determined to die soon. That is, until she meets Derek, who recently moved to town with his abusive, alcoholic father. The two bond over depression and suicide attempts, Derek’s favorite topic of conversation. Brooke immediately falls in love with him and even feels that he has given her a reason to live (though, of course, her therapist encourages her to find ways to live for herself). She also begins to open up at therapy, gets involved in activities, and raises her grades, but she fixates on Derek, who is clingy, jealous, and needy and has a quick temper. Brooke’s story perpetuates the dangerous idea that love will cure mental illness. Even after her eyes are opened, she worrisomely believes Derek is ultimately a good guy but “troubled,” excusing his horrific behavior and conflating controlling, abusive behavior with love. While the novel is filled with suspense and offers a compelling, cautionary look at an unhealthy relationship, the underdeveloped characters and lackluster dialogue detract from the potential impact of the tale. Graphic descriptions of suicide attempts are included. VERDICT A strictly additional purchase only where the author’s work is popular.

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.

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Publisher’s description

we-are-okayYou go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

 

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525425892

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 02/14/2017

#MHYALit: How books and being a librarian help me cope with anxiety, a guest post by Erin

MHYALitlogoofficfialHi, I’m Erin. I’m a teen librarian, a wife, a daughter, a best friend, a mom, and an anxiety warrior. Notice how I put that at the very end. There was a reason for that.  The anxiety is the “least of my worries” for lack of a better phrase (insert uncomfortable laughter here). What I’m trying to say is that the anxiety is so much smaller than my other life roles. Yes, sometimes it can become all-encompassing, but, on a good day, one where my other human interactions, my meds, and my to-do list all live in perfect harmony, I might forget that I have anxiety. Crazy, right, but true!

 

Having anxiety has helped me in many facets of my life. Because of the constant drive to succeed, I have become incredibly efficient, and can adjust to the various paces that a day can take working in a library. I know that at 3:25 pm Monday – Friday the teens will come streaming in from school – they drop their backpack, pull up a seat to play a board game, plop down on the couch for a nap, drop into a beanbag chair for some screen time, or roll a chair over to my desk to share the gossip of the day. I can’t guarantee how many teens will show up each day, how much energy will emanate from the room or how much noise will filter out of the doors. Sometimes they come in and we all sit in complete silence, everyone with their heads down and their earbuds in. It’s days filled with uncertainty. Not unlike my anxiety.

 

In researching books for the collection, I commonly come across ones concerning mental health – specifically fiction novels. In doing my job every day I also encounter teens who may or may not share their stories with me. I find books that match teens and excitedly share the book with them in hopes that they will find a piece of them in the story, in the characters.

 

everylastwordAnd then I found a book for me. A book that spoke to me like no other in its genre.

 

That book was Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone.

 

As I read it, I wondered how the author was able to get into my head. The words, the surroundings, the main character and her situations were so real, so vivid, so ALIVE in my own mind. I want to share this book with the world. I want to thank Tamara Ireland Stone for writing it. I am humbled that I am able to select such wonderful works for a thriving Teen Department. To put books like these into the hands of those who need them the most, and of those who don’t know they need them.

 

Being a librarian includes so much more than reading and researching. It includes getting to know your patrons, the good and the bad in their lives if they choose to share. It means giving them the right book, using the right words in conversations, and even exposing your own vulnerability, because in being able to relate to you and all of your facets, a whisper of trust is established. They are not alone; you are not alone; I am not alone.

 

In this journey, we all encounter things that we wish we didn’t have to deal with but we do. Find your librarian; get him or her to give you that one book. Read it, talk about it, embody it, and show the world your strength even on your weakest days.

 

As librarians, we are warriors, fighting for our patrons, fighting simultaneously for our voices and our patrons’ voices to be heard above the roar of the world.

 

So speak up, share, be proud of who you are, and find that one book that speaks to your mind.

 

Meet Erin

In addition to being a teen librarian, Erin is a mother of two and  enjoys researching, reading, writing and social media.

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Publisher’s description

underNorah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.
Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.
Readers themselves will fall in love with Norah in this poignant, humorous, and deeply engaging portrait of a teen struggling to find the strength to face her demons.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was really a mixed bag for me.

 

We really get to see Norah’s various mental illnesses and how they affect her and her life. We get great, intense descriptions of panic attacks and the urge to harm herself and what it can feel like to have agoraphobia. We see how small her world has become—she has hardly left the house in four years. We see her have multiple therapy sessions in various places. We are right there with Norah in her panic and fear and distress. Gornall’s writing, for the most part, is great. The writing is also funny. Though Norah’s a wreck who is often really caught up in fighting against her own brain, she’s also really self-aware and clever. She’s funny and gives good banter.

 

Norah’s mental illnesses are BAD. They are in no way under control. Yes, she’s in therapy, but often it has to be at her house or in her mom’s car because she can’t get as far as the clinic. Just stepping one toe past her front door is terrifying. She’s unmedicated. She’s hoping to keep depression at bay and often gives in to the urge to harm herself. All of this, and her mother leaves her alone while she travels for work. Really? Yes, she’s 17, but she’s NOT OKAY. She should not be alone. And her mom’s two day trip turns into a week or more when she gets in some mysterious car accident that requires multiple days in the hospital and feels completely unrealistic/never satisfactorily explained. All of this is to say, as a person who both battles mental illness and parents another human with mental illness, I wanted her to be taken better care of. Yelling at her mom for leaving her alone took me out of the book. But, seeing her alone is what makes us really understand how bad her panic attacks and agoraphobia are.

 

Then there’s Luke, the new neighbor boy. At first all Norah can really do is spy on him from the windows. Then they start talking through the door (closed and open). It’s pretty much insta-like. Norah is consumed with thinking about him, considering her appearance (after lots of time not really worrying about it). She forgets therapy appointments because her head is so in the clouds. She feels something small and awake inside of her thanks to him. He adorably slips notes through her front door when she can’t handle talking. She describes him as “10 percent human, 90 percent charisma” and she’s right. He feels too good to be true. It’s not that I don’t think there isn’t a chance that a charming and super understanding boy could fall for a girl who can hardly interact with other humans, but Luke just doesn’t feel real. He’s too good. And, while he doesn’t magically or instantly cure her, it very much does feel like Luke, and love, do save her and speed up her progress in ways that other things can’t. The hopeful ending is necessary, but also feels rather unbelievable.

 

So. Like I said, mixed bag. Here’s the thing: minus the “love will fix you” story line and the worrisome fact that I think Norah needs way more care than she’s getting, this is a good book. It’s well-written. It’s amusing. The clever banter between Norah and Luke and Norah and her mother is good. But I am a hard one to please when it comes to mental health plots. I want to see good work being done in multiple ways. And it IS being done here, but I really felt the story needed more. Norah is VERY UNWELL. You can tell, even without reading Gornall’s author’s note about her own mental health experiences, that she knows what she’s writing about. I really wanted to feel like there was more to Norah than just her mental illness. And, most importantly, I want her to get better because of what she’s doing and for her own sake, not because of a boy. I don’t know that any of these issues were a flaw in the story or writing, necessarily, so much as my own desire for more out of Norah, for more concern over her mental health.

 

All of that said, I hope this book finds an audience because of its vivid and powerful descriptions of what living with mental illness can be like. And while I wanted more out of this book than I got, I really did enjoy the writing and look forward to future books from Gornall. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544736511

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/03/2017

#MHYALit: What is Neurodiversity and How Did It Save My Life? a guest post by Olivia James

MHYALitlogoofficfialWhen I was 18, I stopped eating. There are approximately a million different reasons that I made that choice, and there is no way to sum them all up, but at the heart of all the poor coping skills that came to a head at 18 was the simple reality that my brain is different from other brains.

 

It’s a fact that human brains contain variations: some people fall into anxiety more quickly, while others tend towards joy. Some people find solace in being around others, while for the introverts among us, socializing is exhausting. When I say that my brain is different from other brains, I don’t mean it as a judgment. It is simply true. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that for many, many years I believed was a problem. It makes sense that I believed that: mental illness and neurodiversity are generally seen as negatives in American society. They’re shameful, dangerous, and awful. We tell certain stories about mental illness that say it’s a nasty thing that happens to you, but if you’re lucky you can survive it and it won’t be part of you anymore.

 

The narrative goes like this: I was very unhappy. Something bad happened in my life, or I found myself struggling with school or bullies, or I hit puberty, and I just couldn’t deal anymore. I hurt myself/starved myself/wanted to die. Finally it got so bad that I knew something had to change, and I asked someone for help. I went to therapy/got medication/talked to a trusted adult, and learned that life was worth it/I could be happy/how to manage my emotions. Now I still struggle with my mental health during hard times, but I “beat” my mental illness, and I feel stronger than ever. I’m not depressed/anxious/starving anymore, and now I’m a better/different person.

 

That’s not my story. When I went to therapy, it was because my mother had threatened to withhold my college tuition money until I did. I lied and I evaded my therapist for years. I had no desire to “get better” or to change. As an aside, I do not recommend this method of therapy at all. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, it’s deeply unpleasant, and it does not actually provide positive results. Therapy works considerably better when you actually are willing to work with your therapist.

 

But I was unwilling, because the narrative that I had about mental illness was one in which my mental illness was an essential part of myself, and I had to give up that essential part of myself in order to get “better.” I had to behave or think or feel differently, and the therapist would make me do it. More than anything, I did not want to change. I did not want to give up my deeply held beliefs about meaning and purpose. My eating disorder made me feel safe. My depression seemed to be the most accurate response to a world that was really screwed up. My anxiety seemed like it was the only thing that kept me functional. If I wasn’t anxious, what motivation would I have to accomplish my goals? Who would I be if I wasn’t all these things that had been a part of my life for years?

 

Sometimes it is easier to die in the grip of something familiar than to live in the unknown. I felt safe. I was dying, but I felt safe. Maybe I wanted to die. I probably wanted to die. Maybe I should’ve gotten the hint when I chose “Wanting to Die” as the poem I performed in my senior year speech competitions.

 

It took years before I finally started to properly listen to some of the things that my endlessly patient therapist was saying to me. I don’t mean to be discouraging to those seeking treatment, but it’s also important to be realistic: therapy takes a lot of time and a lot of work before you see results. And here is where my story diverges most thoroughly from the normal stories that I hear: I did not learn that I needed to “fight back”, I did not “hit rock bottom”, I did not have a moment in which it all became clear. Rather, I slowly began to realize that there was nothing wrong with me except that nobody had given me any tools to deal with my life.

 

What was helpful to me (and be forewarned, that this is what worked for ME. Other people find completely different things helpful) was to embrace those parts of myself that were causing me all this anxiety and stress. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually a pretty basic tenet of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that differences in brains aren’t just a fact, but that those differences are in fact an important part of how the human species thrives. Different brains bring different strengths and weaknesses. So embracing my brain meant recognizing that yes, there are some elements of my brain that are particularly challenging in unique ways, but there are also parts of my brain that (excuse my French) kick ass. What was causing me lots of problems was the fact that society is set up for brains that aren’t like mine. I had to readjust my life to work for MY brain. Some people think that this is sad, or that it means I “can’t” do a lot of things. I don’t see it that way. I prefer to see it as “not doing things that I hate doing.”

 

I don’t see anxiety as limiting me, I see a society that expects me to do things that are anxiety provoking as limiting. I’m really quite happy to socialize with games and in small groups, not go to parties, not go to large and crowded events, not talk to strangers, not talk on the phone. Sometimes I can’t do things that others consider “basic functioning”, like being able to cook and feed myself. That’s ok: I can always ask for help. Recognizing that I need these accommodations is what keeps me from overtaxing my abilities and falling apart.

 

Choosing to do things that work (and not to do things that don’t work for you) for you isn’t sad or wrong. It’s just different, and the realization that I could just stop doing things I hated and start doing things differently was pretty mind blowing to me. It also meant that I could tap into some of my talents: once I wrote a 50,000 word novel in two weeks. My focus is impeccable and my drive is pretty impressive as well. But instead of blowing all that focus getting through a two minute phone call that I hate, now I just text instead. By limiting the things that are uncomfortable and painful to me, I open up so many other possibilities.

 

I know that for many people (particularly artists, writers, and other creative types), talking positively about mental illness is dangerous territory. There’s a history of equating creativity with depression. Neurodiversity does not mean leaving people with mental illnesses to fend for themselves, nor does it mean ignoring the fact that some kinds of brains come with negatives that are serious and dangerous. I embrace my brain, which has depressive and anxious traits. I do not embrace the depression and the anxiety. I do my best to find the underlying traits (perfectionism, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness) that can be brought into balance and made useful. I think there’s a huge difference between saying that art, depth, or thoughtfulness come from mental illness and saying that mental illness is not ALL awful, or that my brain is unique and there are some elements of that uniqueness that I appreciate or that are positive.

 

You don’t have to keep hating yourself. There is nothing WRONG with you. You might have some work to do to understand your own tendencies, needs, and wants, and to create a life that relies on your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. But it’s possible, and I really cannot articulate the relief that comes with realizing that it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. You have all the pieces to build something glorious. You just have to figure out how they go together.

 

Meet Olivia James

11193332_10152762213502601_1744363452546004244_nOlivia is a marketer by day and a writer by basically every other time. If you met her you’d probably think “well there’s a big ol’ nerd” and you’d be right. You can often find her playing Dungeons and Dragons, cuddling with her cats, or ranting at anyone who will listen about social justice. Olivia has a weird obsession with octopuses and Latin, which is why it’s very important to her that it’s octopodes not octopi. In addition to blogging at “We Got So Far To Go” and doing actual work that she gets paid for, Olivia’s current projects are a young adult sci fi novel and her wedding to the coolest nerd partner anyone could ask for.

#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 My Suicidal Friends, On the Election of Donald Trump, a guest post by Olivia James

MHYALitlogoofficfialTrigger warning for suicide, real talk about racism, sexism, and mental illness.

This post originally was posted on November 11, 2016 on We Got So Far To Go

I’m scared about the election of Donald Trump for many, many reasons, but one of the most pressing is the fact that it has retraumatized a number of already vulnerable people. I have seen reports (although currently unsubstantiated) of up to 8 trans youth who committed suicide on election night alone. While I do not have hard evidence of these suicides, I find it easy to believe that number or a higher number based on the number of personal friends I have who have quietly told me or others that they are in a place where they don’t feel safe. My office had to open extra space for individuals who were afraid to be alone. People are feeling hopeless and helpless, and when you apply those feelings to populations with histories of trauma, mental illness, disability, harassment, and discrimination, you end up with people who don’t see the point in living. That is dangerous.

 

I’ve lived most of my life with some level of suicidal ideation. I like to think I have a degree in hopelessness, since I spent my entire time in undergrad wanting to die. I know this isn’t quite the same, but I’d like to talk a little bit about how I get through. Maybe it will help you. I hope it does. If any of the reasons in here feels like pressure or doesn’t work for you, skip it. Take care of yourself. Please.

 

  1. First and foremost, I want you all to know that your fears are valid. Anyone who tells you that you’re overreacting or that we can get through this and we’ll all be ok can suck an egg. We don’t know what will happen in the next four years. Whatever is happening politically, we have already seen acts of harassment, violence, and hatred around our country in the last couple of days. If you have feelings of fear, grief, and hopelessness, don’t for a minute think that you’re “crazy” or even that you’re alone. Pay attention to those feelings. Take care of those feelings. Step one is to notice that you are feeling things and let yourself feel the feelings.

 

  1. That being said, it’s easy to let feelings of hopelessness and depression overwhelm you. It’s easy to think that there is no reason to go on living, because there are so many things to be afraid of and so many things that can hurt you or the people you love. But despite the Bigness of what we face and your feelings, there may be some things that you have forgotten. I know, I know, you don’t want to be reminded that good things exist. Of course they do. But the bad things are outweighing the good right now, aren’t they? Well, maybe. But it doesn’t matter how many bad things there are, it doesn’t change the nature of the good things. No matter how awful things get, my cats will still be Very Fuzzy. That sensation will still be pleasurable to me. There is nothing in the world that can change that. Try to remember a few of the things that don’t change because of the bad things, whether that’s your significant other, a pet, your favorite game, a good book, your preferred form of exercise, or what. You may find it harder to enjoy things right now, but keep in mind that what has changed is YOU not the activity. Remember that there are good things in the world too. The bad things still exist and they’re still bad. But they’re not IT. They’re not the whole story. You are actively lying to yourself when you say that nothing is good. Hold yourself to a higher standard, and do not let Donald Trump win by taking away the joy of Pokemon Go or Dungeons and Dragons or Moscato.

 

  1. I’ve seen quite a few people say that the things they used to care about don’t matter anymore. They’re too trite. Why should we care? Here is why. I believe that just being alive is not a good. Some of you may. But I personally think that the reason life is a good is because of all the things that make a person smile or laugh or have any amount of joy or good feeling. So it really does not matter how trite or small a good thing is. It is literally the reason for life if it makes you smile. I have given up on feeling guilty over my pleasures or worrying about laughing in inappropriate situations or missing the big picture. We are all fighting on the big picture front. We need to focus more on the small front in this moment. It is ok for your joys to be trite. They are still joy. Sometimes I laugh at butts. I don’t care how immature and pointless it is. It brings me joy. So butts are important. Whatever you care about? It is important because you care about. Please do not stop caring.

 

  1. Ok, this is pretty much here because of Number 3. I find that when I’m being incredibly judgmental of the things that should bring me joy, it’s because my brain is focused on the Big Picture and whether this will Change the World. Does it Matter? Honestly, no, whatever is happening in this exact moment probably won’t make a difference in the larger scheme of things. But that probably doesn’t matter if you focus on this exact moment. Life is made up of this exact moments. Most of the time they’re Do you have footie pajamies or a comfy blanket? Do you have a soft cat? Can you eat something delicious? If you have anything like that available, do it and try to only pay attention to that good thing. Turn your focus completely to it. It may just be a moment, but those moments, again, are the reason for living. That’s ok. It’s ok for those small moments to be all of it. If this moment’s only purpose is to give you a brief reprieve from depression, that seems like a pretty amazing purpose to me.

 

  1. Let’s talk for a second about hope. I have spent the last few days talking to as many people as I can. Connections are what keep me alive. What is astounding me is the resilience of the people around me, and the kindness of the people around me. The first impulse of every person I know is to ask if I’m ok, to see how others are, to volunteer their time, money, and resources to help other people. Racism and sexism are alive and real. I cannot deny that. At the same time, even the people who have unintentionally supported the racist and sexist systems are looking around and trying to see what they can do differently. People are acting. People are fervent to ensure the safety and health of their families and friends. There is someone there who can be this hope for you. Start a conversation with someone, anyone, and I will bet you that even if you’re asking about them, they will ask within the first 30 seconds how you are. This is one of the Good things. Not even the KKK can take it away.

 

  1. Your existence is important. If you die, we are losing. I cannot stop using this Audre Lorde quote because it is so perfect, and when I copy pasted it, the formatting was absurdly large. I think I’m going to keep it that way because it’s just that important.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

bamfordListen to Maria Bamford. If you have issues with the current political elite, the best revenge you can exact is to stay alive and thrive. We cannot fight without you.

 

 

 

  1. And finally, remember that people need you. Maybe this is selfish of me, but I cannot handle anyone else dying right now. I need you here. I need to know that you’re ok. And I honestly mean this: anyone, any time, if you are afraid and not ok, email me. I will talk to you. I will listen. Your fears and your feelings are real and valid, and I still believe that you can survive.

 

You all have my deepest love and support. Please, contact someone if you feel unsafe. See your therapist, talk to a close friend, call a hotline. Stay with us. We are stronger with you.

 

Meet Olivia James

11193332_10152762213502601_1744363452546004244_nOlivia is a marketer by day and a writer by basically every other time. If you met her you’d probably think “well there’s a big ol’ nerd” and you’d be right. You can often find her playing Dungeons and Dragons, cuddling with her cats, or ranting at anyone who will listen about social justice. Olivia has a weird obsession with octopuses and Latin, which is why it’s very important to her that it’s octopodes not octopi. In addition to blogging at “We Got So Far To Go” and doing actual work that she gets paid for, Olivia’s current projects are a young adult sci fi novel and her wedding to the coolest nerd partner anyone could ask for.