I’m lying awake in bed for the fourth, or maybe fifth, night in a row, heart pounding, mind scattering in a billion different directions. One moment I’m thinking about the stars, the next about how people fill pastries, the next about that history paper I have due soon, soon soon soon, is it tomorrow? Is it the next day? I would get up to check the syllabus but I might start spinning all over the room, and then I’d float through the ceiling. The days are starting to blur together in a coloured fever, the Christmas lights I hung up to decorate my otherwise stark dorm room after people started commenting on it are burning out one by one because I leave them on all the time, I’ve stacked books and papers hyperobsessively, neatly.
My friend Kenneth says I must maintain a secret real dorm room, and this is just the one I show to the public. Then I start wondering if everyone has a secret real dorm room, if maybe everyone around me is an android, fake, if I could peel their faces back and find out what’s inside them, I lie awake in bed at night thinking about androids and social experiments, wondering if it’s possible that this whole thing is a setup, everything, the maple trees changing colour and the counselor I see once a week and lie to politely about how I’m doing and falling asleep in my astronomy class because it’s dark and cool and for just a minute my brain stops running.
This goes on for days, weeks, months, maybe years, I can’t really tell, as I relentlessly and flawlessly front to the world around me, everything is fine, everything is okay, and then suddenly I’m flying home and no one has noticed, astounding, and I’m soaring high above the earth and even after the plane lands, I’m still soaring. I stay up all night working on things that I don’t show anyone and I walk to the beach and play in the waves and make up intricate names for everything around me, inventing my own language, and then I am supposed to fly back to college, and that is when everything starts to fall apart, when I sit shuddering on the aircraft wondering what I am doing and then three days later I am home again, a failure.
I was 16, and I was crazy.
In Hilary T. Smith’s Wild Awake 17-year-old Kiri Byrd has been left alone for the summer by her parents. She’s the nice, reliable, calm, focused child, the talented pianist getting ready for a major showcase who can be counted upon to water the azaleas and collect the mail while her parents go on a cruise and her brother conducts research. But everything upends for her when she gets a mysterious phone call about her dead sister which sends her careening along a quest for the truth, and an adventure of self-discovery.
(Note: this review discusses the ending of the novel.)
I see a lot of people writing and talking about Wild Awake in terms of a love story; as a narrative of love and loss and coming together. And there is a love story wound within the text, that of Kiri and Skunk, the kindly guy she encounters while staggering around in the street reeling from a series of emotional and horrific discoveries about her sister. They forge a connection that runs deep and complex, but this isn’t, to my eye, a love story.
This is a story about what it’s like to go crazy, and it is brilliantly, masterfully crafted. Because the thing about going crazy, or, as Skunk and later Kiri put it, having a Thing, is that it doesn’t happen all at once. There’s not a crazy switch that gets activated. It’s a slow downward slide that you often don’t notice as the person experiencing it, especially since you’re often a teenager. So much is happening around you as you and the culture around you is changing, as your body is changing, as you’re growing out of and into things.
So when everything starts seeming brighter and sharper, you don’t really see the problem with that; it makes things more fun, more tactile, more real somehow. And when you sleep less, and gradually not at all, that just leaves more time for more important things. And when your brain is spinning with ideas and it won’t stop, you don’t think for a moment that maybe it’s a carousel that’s about to fly off the central axle and scatter parts all over the circus.
As a portrayal of the onset of mental illness, Wild Awake takes us into the feelings not of friends, family, and other outside observers, as these narratives so often do, but into the world of the person experiencing it. And it’s written in a very real, immediate, gripping way, one so visceral that I almost felt the need to reflexively count my meds as I was reading—did I take yesterday’s dose? I feel a little spinny right now.
This is also a depiction of mental illness in the beforetime, before it’s diagnosed, before it’s treated, before you understand what is happening when the world is turning topsy-turvey around you. Kiri is living in a world of kaleidescope vision and she hasn’t figured out yet that there’s a kaleidescope there, but she needs to figure it out before it shatters, and as a reader in the aftertime; diagnosed, treated, managed, I shuddered for her, and I shuddered remembering, too.
Unlike Kiri, I wasn’t surrounded by observant people who got her into treatment quickly, and instead I experienced what she did for years.
But Smith also shows us the aftertime in the form of Skunk, who had a Thing (later revealed to be a psychotic break) before the events depicted in in Wild Awake. He talks about thinking that the members of the band were broadcasting his thoughts over the speakers, his steady decline into paranoia and confusion, and, ultimately, the break that caused him to attack a bandmate on stage. The subsequent hospitalisation and treatment, followed by release into the care of his uncle and aunt with a long list of confusions, become a part of the narrative as we learn who Skunk is and why he’s so secretive.
Smith doesn’t take the easy way out, though, presenting us with a perfect contrast of stable, medicated boy and unstable, riotous girl. Skunk has chosen to stop taking his meds, disliking what they turn him into and struggling with the management of his mental illness. As Kiri slips deeper into a manic episode, he’s steadily dragged closer to the brink of psychosis, and the two start firing off each other in a way that’s potentially highly explosive, even as they cling to each other and the deep link they’ve forged.
In the end, we saw the start of a glimmer of hope for both Kiri and Skunk as he got on track with his treatment and she was surrounded by people prepared to help her—and as she realised that something had gone beyond her control and she needs that help. But this wasn’t presented as a final, crisp, happy ending where everything would be okay now and return to normal. Instead, Kiri recognised that she lived in a new normal, one from which she could not return, not just because she knew the truth about her sister and the world she inhabited before her death, but because she knew the truth about herself, too.
It’s rare to find depictions of mental illness in YA, and rarer still to find good depictions. Mentally ill protagonists in particular are highly unusual. More commonly, I see mental illness, and my experiences as a mentally ill person, used as a plot device, and usually written by authors who clearly don’t understand mental illness. Mentally ill authors, however they identify, can experience stigma when it comes to writing and getting published, making the fact that Smith discloses and talks openly about her mental illness important here. All too often, it feels like we are not considered valid authorities on our own experiences, making reclamation of this nature critically important.
It’s frustrating to see mental illness continually used as a cheap character device; she’s ‘crazy’ and not worthy of attention, he’s ‘psychotic’ and evil, she’s ‘depressed’ and lies around whinging all the time. When authors actually do their research, or, better yet, write from their own experience and have that honoured and respected, the results can be amazing, and Wild Awake is such an example. It’s just one story about two people and the world around them, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a punch in the face against stereotypes, it’s a visceral depiction of the experience of the onset of mental illness, it’s a narrative that challenges cultural assumptions about what it’s like to experience mental illness.
Texts like this are an important part of our lexicon in general to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, but especially when it comes to YA. Because the most common age of manifestation is young—teens and people in their early 20s, like Hilary, like me, are those most likely to experience the onset of mental illness. And that means that we in particular crave, and need, these kinds of books, to see ourselves represented in fiction, to process our experiences, to help us understand ourselves.
And, perhaps, to help us when it comes to identifying that something is wrong and reaching for help. While Smith didn’t set out to write an Issue Book (thankfully) and Wild Awake doesn’t read as such, it still has the potential to make a profound impact on readers, and not just those of us who are mentally ill. I would hope that it also forces a change in perspective for other readers, and creates a deeper sense of understanding among them; that, for example, when you’re feeling spun out and out of control, you’re not necessarily aware of it. That you can’t always control paranoia, and that your thoughts feel totally rational and logical to you even if they make no sense to those around you.
That sometimes, you watch yourself fucking up and you can’t figure out why, and the only logical solution you see is fucking up more, because it seems like that’s all there’s left to do. This is a book for all the people who’ve had Thingies of their own out there, and it’s got something to say for those who love us, too.