My Best Picks: Mental Health Lit

bestof

I’ve been reading a ridiculous amount of mental health lit lately, but then again, I always have. I’m constantly seeking to have my experiences validated by seeing them reflected back elsewhere. Of course, the search to see yourself in the world doesn’t always go well.

So I decided to make this post of my “Best Of”s — for those who are looking for great examples, and also for Future Me, who might need to re-read.

(I’m also considering updating this post as I discover more great books. The month of April just wasn’t enough to get my hands on all the books out there.)

Best Mental Health Memoir:

Loud in the House of Myself by Stacy Pershall

  • Borderline Personality Disorder & Bipolar Disorder
  • brutal honesty with respect to making mistakes, pushing people away, relapsing, etc.
  • one of my fave quotes about suicide ever:

    “A depressed person is selfish because her self, the very core of who she is, will not leave her alone, and she can no more stop thinking about this self and how to escape it than a prisoner held captive by a sadistic serial killer can forget about the person who comes in to torture her everyday. Her body is brutalized by her mind.”

Best Mental Hospital Setting:

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

  • depression
  • mental hospital story that doesn’t play into all the stereotypes: character’s depression stems from seemingly normal stress, which really resonates with me
  • (see guys, I can read male protagonists sometimes!)

Best Eating Disorder Rep:

Paperweight by Meg Haston

  • anorexia/bulimia + clinical depression
  • dual narrative between treatment center & events that led to this point; character struggles through self-blame behaviors similar to my experience with depression
  • shows that eating disorders are about more than just food
  • full review here

Best Anxiety Rep:

Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

  • agoraphobia/panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression & self-harm
  • a searing look at being inside the mind of someone with serious anxiety disorders, but with a positive outlook in the ending
  • full review here

Best Treatment of Medication:

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

  • anxiety (unspecified)

  • normalization of SSRIs (meds for anxiety & depression) wherein the anxiety doesn’t control character’s entire life; character’s generalized anxiety comes through in the voice in a way that’s both realistic & adorable

  • full review here

 

 

Best Intersectionality:

When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez

 

  • depression
  • two Latina protagonists who express their depression in different ways: one is loud & outspoken, acting up in school, while the other withdraws from her friends & family
  • my full review will be up here or on Goodreads in the near future

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So that’s it for now, folks. I’ll definitely update & re-post this at some point in the future. For now, these are my favorites. Have you read any of the books on this list? Let me know what you think in the comments! 

Unravel by Calia Read: This Is What Bad Mental Health Rep Looks Like! (Review)

Full List of Trigger Warnings: mental health stigmas, sexual assault/sexual abuse/incest, graphic sex scenes, self-harm/suicide.

This review will contain spoilers. I’m choosing not to hide them because they’re necessary for the argument I want to make about this book. I hope that any of the spoilers will deter potential readers from bothering to read this book in the first place.

Unravel

20820209Title: Unravel

Author: Celia Read

Genre: New Adult

My Rating: 1 of 5 stars (but I wish I could give 0)

Naomi Carradine, age 20, is locked in Fairfax, a mental institution, against her will. She doesn’t know why she’s there, nor does she feel that she belongs there. The story follows her present encounters with her psychiatrist as well as memories, both from her childhood, and the ones that directly led to her being committed. She talks about her relationship with Lachlan, her childhood best friend-turned boyfriend, and Max, the smoldering stoke broker who comes into her life six months before the present day narration. She talks about what happened to her best friend, Lana, and how that affected Naomi’s sanity. As the story begins to Unravel, the reader attempts to uncover the secret as to why Naomi is in Fairfax, hence the book’s label as “psychological thriller.”

trope city

I’ve unfortunately come to expect this from “New Adult” books: lackluster characterization, overly flowery description, and a heavy reliance on romance tropes. For instance, in Unravel we have The Girl Who Can’t Decide Between Two Guys (see also: Elena on The Vampire Diaries) aka every girl’s dream problem, right? We also have what I affectionately term the Christian Gray Male Lead: the slightly older, wiser guy who’s highly sexual in his treatment of the girl, who has awkwardly described sexy traits (like veiny arms—why is that sexy?!). And obviously we have InstaLove, in the sense that I never quite understood why Naomi fell for Lachlan or Max. I’m not even going to get into the romance here—it was so gratuitous and cheese-filled that I just don’t even want to say anything. Oh, and then there’s  trope of the Horribly Unhelpful Mental Health Professionals/Institution.

awful mental health rep

Want to know what not to write when it comes to mental health rep? Look no further than Unravel. This book does several things that aren’t uncommon in non-#OwnVoices books about mental illness.

1) the lack of diagnosis to further the plot. At the beginning of the story, Naomi says she’s been in Fairfax for two months without a diagnosis. She also says that she was involuntarily committed by her parents. While I am not a mental health professional, I asked a friend of mine about this. She said that (a) it’s highly unlikely for a legal adult to be involuntarily committed unless she was a danger to herself or others—and that behavior would have to continue within the institution, otherwise they’d have no choice but to release her. And (b) it’s also unlikely that Naomi would’ve been there for two months without a diagnosis. Now, the argument could be made that Naomi is only in Fairfax because her rich parents pulled strings—but this is never addressed as being abnormal. If you’re going to write unrealistic aspects of mental health, the least you could do is acknowledge that your story isn’t the way it usually works.

2) the character who declares she’s “not crazy” while vilifying everyone around her as “crazy” stereotypes. Throughout her time at Fairfax, Naomi isolates herself from the other patients, whom she constantly refers to as crazy. There’s the angry anorexic girl who hates everyone else, and there’s the token postpartum woman who carries around a fake baby everywhere. Despite the fact that Naomi herself has actual hallucinations—she sees and hears people who are obviously not in the room with her, and may not even be real at all—she insists that she is “not crazy” and these other folks are “crazy.” I don’t feel that I need to say why this is problematic. Society has enough misunderstandings of mental illness and mental institutions. We already have sensationalist movies, books, TV shows. We’ve been there, done this already. So why is it still being done? Why is it still okay to write people off as “crazy” without having any sympathy for their situation? Bottom line, it’s not okay, and there’s no excuse, in my mind.

3) relying on mental illness for shock value. I tried to give Unravel the benefit of the doubt. I tried to see why the author would’ve made certain decisions. I had sympathy for Naomi, as I figured out the so-called Big Twist early on. Unfortunately, the way this book was written, Naomi’s un-revealed condition is used for total shock value. Ultimately, she’s diagnosed as having Dissociative Identity Disorder as a result of prior trauma—DID, aka everyone’s favorite sensationalized mental illness.

Formerly known as Split Personality, DID happens when a person dissociates from themselves in order to cope with serious trauma. The person develops a secondary (and sometimes more than one) personality that comes to the surface at specific times, resulting in serious memory loss. This is what I know from my college Abnormal Psychology class and Wikipedia—not exactly difficult research, but clearly the kind of research this author didn’t bother with. In the case of Naomi, it’s unclear that she has memory loss, since she refers to spending time with her secondary personality, who she thinks is her best friend. Additionally, Naomi hallucinates an alter-ego for her own boyfriend—something that ultimately the book doesn’t explain because somehow even the doctors don’t understand it. Maybe because it literally doesn’t make sense.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Naomi somehow “gets over” her DID by the end of the book when she magically realizes that she is Lana, Lana is her. Keep in mind that DID is extremely difficult to treat because it’s a learned behavior—but somehow Naomi just gets to move on with her life. This is unacceptable. Not only is it harmful to young women who have dealt with trauma, PTSD, and even DID itself (which, by the way, is incredibly rare, for all our culture is obsessed with it), this is spreading harmful ideas about mental illness in the name of a good story. A thrilling plot is not an excuse for harmful representation of real people struggling with real illness.

the treatment of abuse and trauma

The major trauma in Naomi’s life is that she allegedly witnesses her best friend Lana being raped by her father. As soon as I read this, I was sick to my stomach, and I knew right away that Lana was really Naomi. We find out that this sexual abuse has been ongoing for over a decade, that the mother knows but is protecting her wealthy prominent senator husband over own daughter. I wanted to slam the book shut at that point. Yes, I understand the realistic aspect of this, and I’m glad that we’re at a point where we can talk about rape and abuse out in the open. Problem is, this was triggering to me despite the fact that I’ve never been raped. I had nightmares in which I was running from the father character. Maybe some people can read a story like this and let it go, but that person isn’t me.

I understand why Naomi would feel like she had no control over her life. I understand why she would lean on Max/Lachlan to take care of the situation—even though I hate the way she perpetuates an unhealthy dependency on a male to maintain her sanity (which is completely unrealistic). I even understand her fear in talking about what happened to Lana (aka what happened to her).

What I don’t understand is how her mom, Lachlan, and presumably anyone else in her life didn’t see the signs. Especially after she’s admitted to Fairfax and starts telling the story to her psychiatrist. I’m just saying that if I, a lay person, can figure out the truth—why can’t a mental health professional? So what we have is bad rep on all fronts, in that psychiatrists get poor representation here as well. Therapists aren’t infallible, but they’re definitely not stupid either. I don’t care how powerful Naomi’s dad is, there’s no way they would release Naomi back into his “custody” (which, by the way, she’s 20, so how does that even work? they can’t technically control her).

overall do I recommend?

Under no circumstances do I recommend this book. For a lot of people this book claims to represent, reading this would be incredibly triggering. For everyone else, if reading about someone dealing with ten years of sexual abuse is fun for you, then you might want to rethink your life anyway. It’s not just that this book is inaccurate in terms of mental health; it’s the fact that this kind of sensationalization of mental illness perpetuates harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes about mental health across the board. This kind of story perpetuates the mental health stigma that still exists in this country. This kind of story keeps young women from seeking help for less serious mental illnesses. This kind of “romance” novel perpetuates the idea that True Love will cure your mental illness with the snap of a finger. This kind of book is harmful, and I’m infuriated that, as of this writing, it has a 4-star average on Goodreads. I would give this 0 stars if I could.

#MentalHealthMonday: Common Misconceptions

Hello, and welcome to my very first ever #MentalHealthMonday!

If you’ve been following my blog, you might notice that I talk a lot about mental health, and depression in particular. I’ve dealt with clinical depression on and off for about a decade now, both with and without meds and therapy.

Over those years, I’ve encountered a lot of people who don’t really “get” depression. It’s a difficult thing to understand when you haven’t experienced it yourself. I think most people with mental health struggles will tell you that at some point, someone has said something wrong and potentially extremely harmful about what they were going through.

I decided to make this post to hopefully dispel some of the misinformation and misunderstandings as well as to find some healing in writing about it.

#MentalHealthMonday

Top 5 Misconceptions About Depression

5. Depression looks a certain way.

People tend to think of mental illnesses in general as looking a certain way—namely, the stereotypical appearance of “crazy.” Depression flies under the radar simply because it’s often silent and invisible. This is one of the main reasons that suicide warning signs are so difficult to catch. It’s also a good reason not to judge anyone else when it comes to what they’re going through.

For example: when I was a kid and a teenager, I was often very high-energy, so much so that a friend once (harmfully) joked that I should be on Ritalin. When I was around people I was comfortable with, I was often bubbly, giggling, and goofily grinning. And yet, for all those moments, there were definite warning signs for the depressive episodes that were to come. As I grew up and began to recognize that depression, I wondered how I could be depressed when I was such a bubbly, vibrant person—because I’d internalized this understanding that depression had to be dramatic and obvious.

The reality is that someone who struggles with depression can often have moments of joy, even happiness. They can laugh with friends and enjoy a comedy sketch or a good movie. There are most certainly levels to any one person’s experience of depression. For me, there’s this base level of general restlessness and inability to choose an activity—an inability to enjoy things that I once would. Of course, then there are other times when I’m not in the midst of an episode when I appear relatively normal and happy.

Moral of the story is, depression doesn’t look a certain way. It depends on the person, where they’re at in their process, and more factors. Never assume you know everything about someone else’s mental health.

4. Being depressed is the same as being sad for an extended period of time.

This is another one I’ve struggled to explain to even well-meaning people. If you look up depression in a dictionary, the definition isn’t all that far off from sadness—the base emotions are, in theory, the same. The difference is that clinical depression takes on other forms than just emotional sadness, and this is different for different people.

For instance, in my case, my main depressive symptom is this weird form of anhedonia: disinterest in normal activities, loss of pleasure in things that once gave me joy, and a sense of restlessness, indecisiveness, and inability to figure out an activity that would bring me joy. This doesn’t necessarily manifest as “sadness” in the traditional sense, in that nothing in particular sets it off. which brings me to…

3. You can only be depressed if something bad happens to trigger you.

Whenever I tell a person that I’m depressed, they immediately want to know why. Most of the time, they’re pretty unsatisfied with my answer: “I was born like this, and it just comes out sometimes. Sorry ‘bout it.”

A friend of mine is a therapist who also struggles with depression. She explained to me that depression doesn’t always work in the logical sense of (a) something traumatic happens, like loss of a loved one or a breakup and then (b) depressive episode occurs. Sometimes there isn’t an obvious explanation or traumatic event to point to.

So in my case, I tend to blame myself for depression taking hold of me when, in theory, I have everything going for me in life. The reality is that clinical depression doesn’t care how well things are going for you. It will find a way in.

2. Depression is selfish and attention-seeking.

Guys. This one is so hard.

It’s been years since anyone outright told me I’m selfish and attention-seeking, but I still hear those words in my head every time I have a particularly bad day and need support. For years, I blamed myself every time I got depressed. I told myself that it was my fault for being “sensitive” and that I needed to take care of it myself so as not to burden others. Then I came across this quote from Stacy Pershall’s memoir, Loud in the House of Myself:

“A depressed person is selfish because her self, the very core of who she is, will not leave her alone, and she can no more stop thinking about this self and how to escape it than a prisoner held captive by a sadistic serial killer can forget about the person who comes in to torture her everyday. Her body is brutalized by her mind.”

Of course depression is selfish. It’s literally a survival tactic. Being depressed is exhausting on the mind, because you feel like you can’t escape the aching feeling of being inside yourself. But to call someone who’s depressed—especially suicidal—selfish is to invalidate the pain they’re experiencing. Calling a suicide attempt attention-seeking is to say that wanting to end your life isn’t worthy of someone extending a helping hand.

(Side note: there’s a moment in the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, when Hannah anonymously tries to reach out, expressing the wish to cease to exist, only to have her classmates dismiss the comments, claiming that it’s just attention-seeking, or possibly a joke. I started crying at this scene. This kind of insensitivity is unacceptable.)

1. If you’re still Depressed, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

There’s this weird thing that happens when we tell people we’re depressed. Somehow, non-depressed folks seem to think they have the answer to our problems. Like “have you tried yoga? what about vegetarianism?” and it’s like, “ok, even if I haven’t tried said thing that you’re suggesting, what makes you think that I’m not giving everything I have to keep myself from slipping any further?”

People seem to have this weird idea of what “recovery” looks like, some idea of the threshold of try that we have to reach before we’re let off the hook. Nobody wants to say to a depressed person, “it’s okay that you’re feeling this way, and I’m sorry that it sucks for you.” A simple thing, and one that’s a lot helpful then saying or even just implying that we should try harder.

Let me tell you, recovering from depression is hard fucking work. When you’re in the midst of an episode, a period of two weeks or more of total self-hatred, the very idea of trying to get better seems like absolutely too much. Getting out of bed, getting dressed, and going about your life seems nearly impossible. You don’t have the spoons to think about how exercise might help, or meditation, or whatever it is that everyone seems to think is the magic cure.

Don’t get me wrong, yoga has definitely helped me over this winter. But it’s not magic cure, because there is no magic cure for depression. There are things you can do to manage it, absolutely. But keep in mind that it’s a long road, and you don’t know where somebody else is on that road.

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If you struggle with depression and you want to talk about it, leave me a comment, find me on social media, or email me (address is on my “about” page). I want to hear from you! Talking about it is the best way we can keep from feeling like we’re all alone.

As always, thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you guys!

Review: The Upside of Unrequited

Upside (2)

30653853The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Rating: 5 of 5 heart-eyes-emoji stars

Read for: anxiety rep & other diversity

The Blurb (from Goodreads): 

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. If Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s a chubby Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him.

Right?

I’ve put off writing this review for two reasons: (1) I can’t seem to pare my gushing feelings down into coherent thoughts and (2) I’ve seen dozens of reviews going around and I’m not entirely sure that I have anything to add.

I picked up The Upside of Unrequited after hearing a lot of buzz about the diversity: Molly is fat and Jewish; her twin sister Cassie is a lesbian and dating a pansexual Korean-American; the girls have a biracial two-mom family, and a big element of the plot is the moms planning their official wedding after same-sex marriage is legalized in the U.S. All of this sounds like a lot of info-dumping, but it reads so naturally, because diversity is just a part of Molly’s world.

I will say this: Molly’s voice resonated with me so fucking much. More than any fictional character has in a long while. I could talk about so many different elements of this story—the #OwnVoices fat rep, the biracial lady-loving family, the nerd references, the incorporation of texting that didn’t feel at all forced—but I’m going to stay in my lanes for this review.

I can honestly say that this is the first book in memory that talks so openly about two things that were such an important part of my life—

mental health rep & SSRIs.

Right away, we find out that Molly takes Zoloft, which, for those unfamiliar, is a popular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor)—drugs commonly prescribed for a range of things, but commonly known as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds. Meds like Zoloft help a depressed or anxious person get their brain chemistry back to a base level, rather than being debilitated by anxiety or stuck in a grey-cloud-filtered world. I have not taken Zoloft, but I’ve taken several of her cousins; although I’m not longer medicated (because I’m lucky), I began taking SSRIs when I was 17.

Why am I talking about meds? Because Becky Albertalli does such a great job of showing that taking Zoloft is just a part of Molly’s life. She mentions it and references her history of panic attacks. But taking anti-depressants doesn’t define Molly. She’s not controlled by her anxiety, and she doesn’t feel weird about the fact that she’s medicated. It just is. And this is so beautiful because I spent years feeling awkward about taking anti-depressants.

While I do wish that Upside had focused a little more on Molly’s anxiety, I realize that this wasn’t the book for that. It’s not a book about mental health, any more than it’s a book about same-sex marriage or biracial families or being Jewish. Mental health is an aspect of Molly’s personality, but it isn’t the whole story. It was honestly incredibly refreshing to see that representation, rather than reading about those who are really struggling. It made me feel…seen…in a weird way.

unrequited teenage love.

The reason this book made me want to cry: this is the first time I’ve read a story about a girl who has a lot of crushes, a girl who openly and desperately wants a boyfriend but doesn’t know the first thing about getting one…a girl like me.

I can’t speak for everyone. I can, however, speak for girls who struggle with self-esteem issues: this book tells it like it is.

When I was 17, I’d had probably just as many crushes as Molly, and I’d been too terrified to even talk to most of them. Perhaps because of my un-managed depression, but mostly because of my self-esteem, I often chose boys with whom I had absolutely no chance. It frustrated my friends to no end; they didn’t understand that it was less scary for me to pine after older guys who didn’t even know my name, than it was to actually get to know a guy I liked.

Ten years later, and Molly Peskin-Suso finally showed me that I was never alone in this. I was, after all, a different shade of normal on the teenage girl spectrum. There was never anything wrong with me, I was just afraid—and for good reason. And the great thing about Upside is that, while things turn out well for Molly in the end, falling in love doesn’t necessarily solve her problems. Getting a boyfriend doesn’t cure her socially anxious nature or magically make her not fat anymore. Getting a boyfriend doesn’t eradicate her self-esteem issues; it just shows her that maybe she can, one day. Which is how it goes in the real world.

overall recommend?

Read this book for character-driven plot, for the diverse cast, for the process of watching someone grow. Read this book if you ever felt like you would never find love—or if you still feel that way. Read this book to remember that you’re not alone if you’re still learning how to love yourself. You’re ok. You’re worthy of love. You just have to believe it.

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If you recently finished reading Upside and want to gush about it with someone, let’s talk in the comments!

(Also, how are y’all holding up with the book hangover after this one?!?!) 

If you want to see more of my reviews, friend me on Goodreads! 

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Mental Health & Other Diversity

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks. The goal: talk about diverse books! The meme features 3 diverse books—1 diverse book you read and enjoyed, 1 diverse book that you haven’t read yet, and 1 diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

DiversityThursday

Two weeks ago, I talked about a few books whose characters have depression or anxiety disorders. This week I want to talk about some books where mental health and other marginalizations intersect.

Why am I making this particular post? Because so often mental health is portrayed as something that exclusively happens to white, able-bodied, cisgender, non-queer, otherwise non-marginalized folks. While this may be the case for a lot of us, this ideology masks the reality of how mental health silently affects people of color, how it interacts with sexuality, etc.

A Diverse Book I Read & Enjoyed

Far From You by Tess Sharpe

I first read this book almost three years ago and was absolutely blown away. The main character, Sophie, is on-the-page bisexual (something that’s surprisingly hard to find unaccompanied by biphobic stereotypes). She struggles with chronic pain due to a car accident, which led to an Oxy addiction. Rather than just painting her as a total f*ck-up, though, we get to know Sophie, how hard she works to maintain her sanity despite wanting to crumple into numbness. As an added bonus, Far From You is a murder-mystery with a dual past-present narrative style that works really well, not just revealing the mystery but showing who Sophie is and why. I can’t wait to see what Tess Sharpe writes next.

A Diverse Book on My TBR

When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez

This book follows two teenage Latinas dealing with depression in different ways. One is outspoken about her depression, while the other silently struggles inside. I’m looking forward to reading this because I think too often we get trapped in looking at depression one way, rather than recognizing that it can be very different for different folks. Also I’m excited to read some depressed girls who aren’t just white—we don’t talk enough about how mental health affects POCs.

A Diverse Book that Isn’t Yet Released

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert (Releases August 8, 2017)

The main character of this book, Suzette, moves back home to help her step-brother Lionel deal with his bipolar disorder, but the book is so much more than just that. According to other reviewers, Suzette is black, Jewish, and bisexual, and the book also talks about the complications mental illness can have on one’s family and friends, something that also doesn’t get talked about a lot in mental health books. I can’t wait to read this one!

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Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Check out my diverse books shelf on Goodreads, and talk to me in the comments below!

Trope Tuesday: Unlikeable Characters

Trope Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by A.J. @ Lacy Literacy. The goal is to discuss a trope you are indifferent to, love, hate, or think is problematic.

TropeTuesday

This week, I’m going to be discussing the oft-cited trope of the “unlikable” main character.

First off, I think it’s important to get an idea of what qualifies a character as “unlikeable.” What traits do these characters have in common? Is it their voice on the page, or their actions and behaviors?

I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to this. Obviously, different readers are annoyed by different things—one of the reasons Trope Tuesday is so much fun. I’ve notice some common themes in reviewers’ descriptions of characters as unlikeable: the reader engages in behaviors or attitudes deemed inappropriate; the character is standoffish, anti-social, or blunt; the character makes bad choices. While opinions vary, it seems to come down to how a reader judges the character’s behavior—and whether or not it seems justified.

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the “slut”

Sexual morals are a gray area for a lot of people, particularly when it comes to teenagers. I’m sure there are plenty of adults who read YA and believe that teenagers don’t (or shouldn’t) have sex. The fact is, kids do have sex, but they’re often only armed with misinformation, and they’re highly vulnerable to problematic ideologies.

In This Lullaby (Sarah Dessen, 2004), protagonist Remy has a reputation for having sex, and a calculated method of ending relationships before they get emotionally serious. While the book isn’t perfect, by any means, it’s worth noting the nuanced discussion of the emotional meaning of sex and how it can change from person to person, from relationship to relationship.

In Firsts (Laurie Elizabeth Flynn), Mercedes sleeps with virgin boys to teach them how to give their girlfriends an amazing. Obviously the morals are incredibly gray here: I don’t think anyone would say you should sleep with other girls’ boyfriends. Still, I think it’s important that we have books actively addressing slut-shaming as it functions in high schools, and this book also does a good job addressing the emotional consequences of having casual sex. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have sex without emotions, but sex is always complex, especially when you’re young.

the “bitch”

I’ve also seen a lot of Goodreads reviewers who berate protagonists for their blunt, antisocial behavior, which often leads other characters to label the MC a bitch. Two recent examples in my reading life include Julia, the main character of You’re Welcome, Universe (Whitney Gardner, 2017), and Parker, the main character in Not If I See You First (Eric Lindstrom, 2015).

Both Julia and Parker have good reason for being mistrustful of their peers: Julia is Deaf and Parker is blind, and both have been taken advantage of in the past. A big part of Julia’s journey is dealing with her mistrust of “Hearies” and opening up to a new friend in spite of communication difficulties. In Parker’s case, her tendency to bluntly speak her mind leads people to view her as a bitch. A big part of her character growth is recognizing the ways that she’s been self-centered, but some readers might find her bitter narration reason to label her “unlikeable.”

the screw-up

Anyone who’s been a teenager can attest that it’s all about figuring yourself out, making some mistakes along the way. Often, though, the line between character growth and bad decisions gets blurred.

A great example of this is Molly, the protagonist of 99 Days by Katie Cotugno. The reviews on Goodreads show that this is very much a love it or hate it book. The book follows Molly’s last summer in town, infamous as the girl who slept with her boyfriend’s brother. Everyone in town pretty much hates her now, so she spends most of the book waiting to escape while reflecting on her past behavior. Cheating isn’t a gray area to me, but I also recognize that teenagers make mistakes. As much as we all hate the love triangle trope, it exists for a reason, and 99 Days is a great depiction of Molly’s struggle to figure out what she wants and whom she loves.

In Don’t Ever Change, main character Eva spends her last summer before college making plenty of mistakes. She hopes to be a great writer someday, yet she doesn’t really observe the world around her very well. She ends up with the wrong guys multiple times in search of a great story, only to discover that the right one was there all along, unappreciated and unrecognized. Although it’s frustrating to read, particularly when you recognize the value of the “right guy” all along, I found this book very realistic to my experiences both as a young woman and as a writer.

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why do these characters get a bad rap?

Although these three different tropes seem pretty different, there’s a connection. What’s interesting about each of these girls is that they’re each engaging in some kind of behavior that’s deemed unacceptable by society at large, whether it’s having casual sex, speaking her mind regardless of the feelings of others, refusing to participate in social life, or making out with the wrong guys. A reader doesn’t have to be actively slut-shaming to feel uncomfortable reading about a girl who has sex without emotions. A reader doesn’t have to be sweet as candy to everyone to recognize a character’s behavior as “bitchy.” Why? Because ideologies of how girls should behave are ingrained in our culture.

This is why I, personally, love reading snarky, bitchy, sex-loving, mistake-making characters. Not just because they’re going against the patriarchy in their own small ways, but because I was an unlikeable teenage girl. I spent most of my teen years being extremely bitter, depressed, socially awkward, irritable—and I kept making teenage-like mistakes into my early twenties. I like reading these girls because it makes me feel that my experience wasn’t an anomaly. They make me smile and laugh with their mistakes because they remind me of my own journey and just how far I’ve come.

For girls currently struggling to figure themselves out, it’s so important for them to see these representations and realize that it’s okay to not have everything figured out. You can fuck up without being a fuck-up. It’s important for girls to read about other girls making mistakes, because maybe they’ll learn from those mistakes—it’s certainly how I learned a lot of things. Maybe they’ll learn something about themselves. Maybe they’ll gain a more nuanced perspective on sex, socializing, and making mistakes.

The older I get, the more I come to believe that reading isn’t supposed to be a comfortable experience. Sure, sometimes you just want to curl up with a cute romance and escape from your own head for a while. But the most important part of reading for me is encountering characters who make me question my perceptions, who show me experiences I haven’t had, who remind me that different is beautiful. This is the big reason I’m working to read more diverse books this year, but it’s also the reason I want more angsty, snarky, “unlikeable” narrators: because we all need to challenge our perceptions of what it means to be human.

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What do you think makes a character unlikeable? Do you have any snarky lady characters you think I should read? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Under Rose-Tainted Skies

28101540Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for: Mental Health Diverse Reads 2017 challenge

In this heart-wrenching story, Norah struggles with a trifecta of mental health issues: agoraphobia, OCD, and depression. She has hardly left her house in four years and experiences debilitating panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, and  general feelings of hopelessness. Her only human interaction comes from her mother and her therapist—until Luke moves next door. Cute, charming, and just slightly awkward, Luke is the first person who’s made an effort to befriend Norah since she stopped leaving her house. At first, she doesn’t trust him at all, but she slowly comes around, opening up in ways that terrify her, and learning that it’s possible for someone to care for her, despite all the ways she feels broken.

a couple disclaimers.

I have never been diagnosed with an anxiety-spectrum disorder (although I occasionally experience mild symptoms, like racing thoughts and difficulty concentrating). I do not have intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, or issues with self-harm. I am fortunate that I was able to read this book without being triggered.

Full list of potential triggers: generalized anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, phobias, self-harm.

amazing anxiety rep.

That being said, this book has amazing anxiety rep. Don’t just take it from me: other reviewers, including people with similar issues to Norah’s, have said this book is a great look at what it’s like to live with anxiety. Because the book is told from Norah’s perspective in present tense, reading the book means immersing yourself in her thoughts. Even the sentence structure reveals the extent of Norah’s anxiety, in that the text reads like her racing thoughts.

It’s really refreshing as someone with depression to read a story that isn’t about “the cure.” So often, we hear accounts of “I got diagnosed, went to therapy, and then I got better,” but this is not the case. Norah identifies her mental illnesses, but this is only the beginning of her journey—and recovery is hard work. At various points, Norah describes her depression and anxiety as if they are external forces infiltrating her brain, personifying them in ways that really struck a chord with me. Personifying the disease is something I do a lot in my journaling because it allows me to separate Me from My Illness, rather than letting it define me. Norah feels like her brain is sabotaging her at various points, showing the very real (but often misunderstood) reality that you can intellectually know what’s happening to you inside your head but feel absolutely powerless to stop it.

A+ support system.

Another great aspect of this book is the characterization of Norah’s mother and her therapist. I love seeing good representation of therapy, both in how difficult is is (and how much you want to resist it) and how important the role of the therapist is in often pointing out aspects of the disease that you’re not aware of (or don’t want to acknowledge). Our culture has some deep mistrust of psychotherapy that goes back decades, and books that show how therapy really functions go a long way to debunking that stigma that prevents so many people from even seeking help in the first place.

Norah’s mother plays a big role in her recovery as well. Dealing with any mental illness is impossible to do alone, no matter how much the person might want to isolate themselves, whether from shame or from something bigger like agoraphobia. Throughout this novel, Norah’s mother encourages her, reminds her to breathe, reacts quickly to Norah’s symptoms, and supports her process. There are many people out there whose parents aren’t so supportive, but it was refreshing to read a loving and supportive parent.

the romance: yes, but also no.

While reading this book, I struggled to decide how I feel about the romance element. On the one hand, romance is often used as the “cure-all” in books about mental illness, something that’s incredibly problematic. Having lived with depression and having read dozens of teen romances as a kid, I grew up with the misconception that all I had to do was fall in love and everything would get better.

Despite my personal feelings, the romance in Under Rose-Tainted Skies doesn’t fall into that category. I think it’s important to note that having agoraphobia or social anxiety doesn’t negate a person’s ability to be lonely. This comes across in Norah’s constant checking of social media, her sadness in viewing other girls’ photos and knowing she can’t have what they do, and her back-and-forth interest and fear of Luke, her neighbor. As much as she’s terrified of having feelings for him and letting him into her life, she conquers that fear because she’s been so lonely for four years. This seems realistic to me.

While this is a romance, falling in love with Luke isn’t the magical cure for Norah’s mental health. Luke encourages her to challenge her fears, yes, and by the end of the novel Norah has made progress, absolutely. His continued feelings for her, in spite of her illness, convinces Norah that she is lovable, which is no doubt important. I don’t want to understate the importance of young girls like Norah seeing that it’s possible to find love.

At the same time, I wasn’t really invested in the relationship between Luke and Norah. I never really felt like I got to know him, which is perhaps partly because I was stuck inside Norah’s head for the entire book, and she’s pretty self-absorbed, understandably. As much as I wanted to believe in the romance, Luke felt more like a plot device to me, stuck in there as a catalyst to Norah’s mental growth as well as wish-fulfillment.

When I was 17, just being diagnosed with depression, starting medication and therapy, I was years away from being able to have a health relationship with a romantic partner. I went through several unhealthy, toxic relationships before I found my current partner, whom I love and who supports and loves me despite my continued depression. The fact is that, at 17, there are very few guys (or girls) who would behave the way Luke does: teenagers who aren’t personally aware of what mental illness is like just aren’t selfless enough to get involved with someone who’s struggling with mental illness. Yes, people are very often compassionate. But people—especially young people—are very easily frustrated and are often much more hurtful than Luke.

overall recommend:

This is undoubtably my personal opinion, which is why this book is still 5 stars for me on the mental health rep alone. I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to know what it’s like to live with severe anxiety disorders and struggle against the tide of depression that accompanies it. I also recommend this one for anyone who’s ever wondered if love is possible when you’re dealing with mental illness—because it is, even if it takes years to find what Norah finds in Luke.

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Have you read Under Rose-Tainted Skies? If so, what do you think? If you have recommendations of other mental health YA novels, or you just want to chat, hit up the comments. I love hearing from you!

For more of my reviews, check out my goodreads profile.