Bipolar disorder can be a crushing diagnosis at any age, but this holds especially true for teenagers. At a point in your life when you’re supposed to be figuring out your basic identity, an illness that changes your very sense of self can be earth-shattering. In her new novel, When We Collided, Emery Lord explores these themes with skill, compassion, and sensitivity.
When We Collided follows the lives of vivacious seventeen-year-old Vivi, who has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and kind, even-keeled Jonah, who struggles to hold his large family together after his father’s recent death. Vivi has just moved to Verona Cove, Jonah’s small hometown, and when the two meet, love soon blossoms. Chapters alternate points-of-view between the two, which proves valuable when Vivi’s cycling moods render her perspective unreliable.
Like Vivi, I first experienced symptoms of bipolar disorder as an adolescent. But the reality of the illness is deeply subjective and varies widely between people, so, as with any book, even readers who have lived a similar experience might have reactions very different from my own.
When we first meet Vivi, she has stopped taking her mood stabilizers and her manic symptoms are just beginning to return. At first, her symptoms are so mild that I worried the character was falling into the maddening Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope; however, as the story progresses, this illusion falls apart. Whereas the MPDG is a two-dimensional character who exists mainly to support the emotional development of a repressed love interest, both Vivi and Jonah display agency and independent emotional lives throughout.
I especially appreciate that Vivi is not defined by her illness. Many of her struggles will be relatable to teens without mental illness—rebelling against her mother, confronting her feelings of abandonment by her father, finding her place in the world. The same holds true for Jonah, who still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father and his mother’s severe depression. Even as a couple, Vivi and Jonah experience their relationship very differently, and often in ways that conflict. She desires the freedom to express herself independently, while he quietly longs for a happily-ever-after ending together.
Lord never glorifies Vivi’s symptoms in the way fiction and popular culture often do, depicting bipolar disorder as romantic, even sexy. But while Jonah (along with his family and seemingly every person in Verona Cove) is initially taken with Vivi’s quirky charm, we soon see cracks begin to form in Vivi’s vivacious exterior. Her mother grows worried by Vivi’s impulsiveness and asks if she is taking her meds. Jonah understandably becomes annoyed by Vivi’s self-centeredness. For example, when he needs to talk about his family’s difficulties, she can only focus on her latest artistic endeavor. As a reader, I even found myself annoyed at her thoughtlessness, despite my deep sympathy for the character.
Although well-written and sensitive, the book’s portrayal of bipolar disorder wasn’t wholly satisfying to me. Above all, I would’ve liked to have learned more about Vivi’s core personality—what she’s like during euthymic periods (neither manic nor depressed). Even in the first chapter, we see subtle signs of mania, including a decreased need for sleep, unusual gregariousness, and a petty act of vandalism—all factors that individually don’t necessarily indicate mental illness, but together become strongly suggestive. As the story unfolds, we see glimpses of her life before arriving in Verona Cove, but most of these pieces involve the behavior that led to her initial diagnosis—an impulsive tattoo, reckless spending, a fallout with long-time friends. Unfortunately, we never see what she was like before these symptoms developed.
This left me wondering—who is our main character, when she’s not ill? Vivi herself may not have a lot of insight into the question (self-awareness is notoriously difficult during manic episodes). Jonah clearly doesn’t have much perspective as he only meets her at the start of the book. But having more information about her past would have given readers a clearer picture of Vivi as a whole person. Here’s why this is important: from what we do see, her personality comes off as almost stereotypically bipolar—vibrant, energetic, creative, outgoing, free-spirited. Many people with bipolar disorder share some of these traits when they’re not manic, but few of us fit this cookie-cutter description perfectly. (Personally, I’m an introvert who hates crowds and being awake before noon.) Does Vivi have hidden depths? Quite possibly, but without a better picture of her during euthymic periods, we have no way of knowing.
Lord acknowledges the importance of this question near the story’s end, when Vivi tells Jonah, “I want you to know that I wouldn’t have done anything differently this summer. Well, that’s not true, obviously… But there still would have been picnics and writing plays and making scavenger hunts. I would have loved you the same.” This passage is important and profound, but as a reader, I can’t viscerally believe it without a greater understanding of who Vivi is.
My other related concern surrounds the portrayal of Vivi’s sexuality, a contentious issue in young adult literature generally as readers have differing opinions on how vague or specific sex in YA lit should be, and whether it should be included at all. When it comes to bipolar disorder, the stakes are even higher. Hypersexuality (an increased desire for sex and/or increased sexual behavior) is a common symptom of the illness, and possibly the most stigmatized. Frankly, slut-shaming is often par for the course for women and girls with the disorder.
Lord’s presentation of Vivi’s sexual experiences feels authentic and relatable. Before she moved to Verona Cove, Vivi’s mania caused her to engage in risky sexual behavior that led to shaming and social isolation when her friends found out. In the course of the novel, her interest in sex feels fairly normal for a teenager, but she definitely displays an unusual lack of inhibition. Jonah, who has no idea what’s going on, initially appreciates her interest, but as she grows more unrestrained in public he begins to react with annoyance. At times, he comes off as somewhat judgmental, especially when he’s upset by behaviors that seem fairly typical of a teenager. This reaction feels true to his character, and becomes a major source of conflict between him and Vivi.
The primary stumbling block for me as a reader is that Jonah often serves as the book’s sole reliable narrator due to Vivi’s altered thinking, and as such, his character’s judgment of Vivi sometimes feels like the way the author would have the reader judge Vivi as well. I don’t think this was intended, but it remains problematic. The situation is worsened by the fact that since we don’t know what is baseline for Vivi, we have no way of knowing how much of her behavior is uncharacteristic. (It’s pretty clear that some of her actions are due to mania.) I worry this will lead some readers to write off Vivi’s normal feelings and actions as merely symptoms of her illness. To me, this is a form of erasure, an assumption that because of her bipolar disorder, she isn’t entitled to the same exploration of her sexuality—mistakes and all—as other teenagers. Again, I don’t believe this was Lord’s intention, and the issue is a subtle one. But this type of erasure is a very real problem in the day-to-day lives of people with bipolar disorder, not just in regards to sexuality, and I feel it’s important to point out when it occurs.
Despite these concerns, I very much enjoyed When We Collided. I fell in love with the characters. I rooted for them to get their lives together so they could live happily ever after, and cried at the bittersweet ending. Vivi’s struggle with bipolar disorder was portrayed accurately and compassionately, and I would highly recommend the book for readers who want to understand the illness better, as well as for those just looking for a good read.