About a year ago, I was in the hospital.
I remember hoping I’d be out by the 4th of July so my family could celebrate the holiday at home, instead of staying in some cramped hotel room near the psych ward so they could visit me. Through group therapy and visits with the ward’s psychiatrist, I was on best behavior. (I was, in fact, out by the 4th.) I remember the overwhelming guilt and shame I felt at ending up in the hospital in the first place. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed help. If I’d been strong, I could have made the horrible thoughts of hurting myself, and hurting others, go away. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed the medications that the nurses handed me with little Dixie cups full of water twice daily. If I’d been strong.
My bipolar I disorder, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder: before my fateful two-hour drive to the emergency room in the closest big city with a psych ward, I believed these things were weaknesses to be eliminated by sheer force of will. Pills were for pussies, I told myself. Which was why, prior to the hospital stay, I had slowly been reducing my dose of Risperdal, the primary medication that managed my terrifying manic highs, without telling anyone, until I was hardly taking anything at all. The two or three months I managed to get by on the reduced dose were enough to convince me: My psychiatrist is lying. I don’t need medication. I’m fine. I can beat this. Until, of course, I couldn’t.
It’s taken me months to get my medications stabilized, but it’s happened, and I’m happier and healthier now than I’ve been since I was fifteen years old. But, looking back, I can’t help but wish that I’d been able to come to terms with the “weakness” of taking the medication I need to be well sooner. And it’s hard not to lay some of the blame for my attitudes at the feet of the books I love.
Minor spoilers for Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, and Silver Linings Playbook to follow.
Though there are countless others, two of my favorite YA novels, in particular—Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves—are unfortunately guilty of the same mental illness trope: that someone is “just not themselves” on medication, that they feel like they’re swimming through syrup, or that they are somehow buying into the “system.” In both cases, the protagonists—one severely depressed and one schizophrenic, respectively—end up tossing out their pills as part of their character arc, liberating themselves from the negative effects of their mental illness in the process.
Contrast this with the movie Silver Linings Playbook, in which Pat, the bipolar protagonist, initially makes similar arguments—that he’s bloated and dull on medication—but by the end of the movie, reaches health and happiness by taking medication and making life changes. Why can’t we see more of this in YA?
It’s frustrating to see mental illness treated as just one more way to stick it to the establishment, instead of as the very real spectrum of disorders that it is. Attitudes can’t change until writers with mental illness make their voices heard, and write their own stories. When we do, it will change lives.