Amy Reed’s books regularly draw on her own experiences with mental illness, and the authenticity exhibited in Crazy appears to have been no exception. Crazy tells the story of an emotionally embattled artist, Izzy, whose teenage angst is discovered to be the early and intense throes of bipolar disorder. The story is told primarily through her email correspondence with Connor, a young man she met during a gig they shared as summer camp counselors, and who gradually becomes infatuated with her. Both the portrayals of Connor and Izzy are important additions to the depiction of mental illness in YA. I would recommend it not only to young adults who need the representation, but to their parents who might be too quick to dismiss warning signs as common teenage issues.
I was impressed with Crazy’s solid job of meshing said issues with the ways these stressors exacerbate mental health diagnoses. Things like alienation from parents during teenage years may seem like a rite of passage in YA literature, but they can feed intense and sometimes dangerous feelings of isolation in teenagers with depression. In this case, the strained marriage of Izzy’s parents extends into a strained relationship with Izzy herself. Similarly, either impulsivity—a symptom of bipolar disorders—or typical teenage rebellion could reasonably be the catalyst for Izzy’s relationship with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, Trevor.
If the reader is unfamiliar with bipolar disorder or depression, it is tempting to attribute Izzy’s early mood swings as being products of her environment. As someone whose bipolar disorder also onset in my teenage years, I can appreciate that this nuance may have been Reed’s intention. Bipolar disorders and depression often go undiagnosed in children and teenagers until something—or a string of somethings—severe.
Izzy is a whirlwind of brooding, offbeat, and untamed perspectives that stirs Connor’s comparative bland discontent with his own life. The madness that so endears him to her, is the same madness with the potential to destroy her. These elements fall easily into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and “tortured genius artist” tropes. The escalation of Izzy’s symptoms even centers around destroying her mother’s work documents (the purported root of her family’s ills) as an artistic statement. There is a trend in pop culture to associate the eccentricities or brilliance of artistic persons with mental illness and addiction. In real life, symptoms of mental illness are sometimes disguised as artistic quirks, but I feel Izzy’s character could have been just as effective written as an aspiring nurse or engineer and eliminated some of these familiar, trope-y elements.
Throughout most of the book, Connor hounds Izzy with texts and emails when she goes a day or so without responding to his messages. She’ll eventually offer an explanation when she resurfaces, but Connor is ready to counter her complaints with his own. This changes, of course, when her behavior escalates into alarming territory, and he is able to care for her once a diagnosis provides context for her behavior. Reed credits her references regarding Connor’s reactions to Izzy to the book Living with Someone Who’s Living with Bipolar Disorder by Chelsea Lowe and Bruce M. Cohen, MD, PhD (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Her research resulted in Connor being such a convincing character that I didn’t like him much in the beginning. I found his affinity for Izzy a little intense and creepy.
People often assume that undiagnosed persons with bipolar disorders and depression are simply self-obsessed, dramatic about their experiences, and inconsiderate of anyone else’s. Before Izzy began presenting with severe symptoms, Connor took her perceived aloofness as a personal affront, even going so far as to tell her: “I think I like it better when you’re depressed.” When Izzy runs away, he leaves her messages asking if she’s happy she made people cry. While his commentary is callous, this is realistic in representing the way people with bipolar disorder are sometimes handled before a diagnosis enters the equation. Because Izzy is the identified patient of the story, there is little outright emphasis on how disturbing Connor’s behavior is, but it is unhealthy. He said all sorts of terrible things because he loves her and she hurt him, but telling a loved one they are more likeable when depressed is emotionally manipulative. While his actions are not outright condoned, it feels like Connor’s affections for Izzy are ultimately used to excuse his behavior.
I was concerned about the email correspondence formatting in the beginning, but Reed manages here to wrangle it in a way that effectively reveals the characters’ personalities. The email medium felt modern and aided the book, primarily in creating the suspense. The struggle of caring for someone with a self-destructive illness from a distance, and the anxiety of waiting for Izzy’s replies felt real. Episodes of mania and hypomania are presented in a sort of stream-of-consciousness writing, while Izzy’s depressive spells are depicted via short, disengaged messages.
Crazy is ultimately a novel about it being possible to love and be loved by someone with a mental illness. The novel’s ending is nowhere near the end of Izzy’s struggles with bipolar disorder, but her illness having a name allows Connor and her family to be the support system she needs.