We talk a lot (but never enough) about why representation matters in books. It’s important, if not crucial, essential, and life-saving, to see ourselves reflected in literature.
We need to see characters who look like us, move like us, think like us, feel like us, struggle like us because books are doors. They allow us to walk in a fictional character’s shoes in a safe way that gives us tools to navigate our own lives.
We also need to see characters who do not look like us, who do not move like us, who do not think like us, who do not feel like us, who do not struggle like us because books are doors. They allow us to step into another person’s experience and walk in a character’s shadow, gaining empathy along the way.
I’ve blogged here and talked on Twitter about my own recovery from an eating disorder and my own struggle with anxiety and depression. I think it’s important to talk about these things. And there is not a lack of eating disorder/mental health associated literature in Young Adult literature. I’d like to see a variety of mental health issues tackled more in New Adult and Romance but they exist in the literature.
What’s rarer, in all categories and genres, is seeing characters in recovery and simply living with mental health issues. We so frequently see characters who are at the crisis point of their mental health issues: characters who are suicidal with depression, characters unable to enter crowded places because of anxiety or agoraphobia, characters who are so thin or so ill from their eating disorder they need an intervention.
Books that tackle these are important! Don’t get me wrong. Those books were crucial to me seeing myself with a little distance when I was ill.
But there are very few books where we see a character for any sustained period of time in recovery or finding balance. And we need those books. We. NEED. These. Books.
Depression sucks. But sometimes the worst part is how everyone thinks you are All Better because you don’t want to die anymore. You aren’t all better. You still have to go to work, class, talk to your boy/girl/friend, maintain friendships. And some days are better than others. (Interested in this? Google “Spoon Theory” or “Spoonie Theory” and read about it. Spoons are real, folks. Some days you have a dozen. And some days you have one.)
Eating disorders suck. When you’re recovering, people say, “you look so healthy!” and even though you know you’re doing the right thing, all you hear is “You look fat” when someone says “healthy.” (Very few of us have any delusion that what we looked like was ‘healthy’. We weren’t aiming for ‘healthy’. That was not the goal.) When you’re recovered, it’s bizarre because you know on this side of the fence that life is way way better. But one thing goes wrong and the first thing your brain does is say, “If you lost a little weight, this would probably be better.” or “You fucked up at work today. Do you really deserve that cupcake?” and for a moment, you slip. You forget that cupcakes aren’t earned or lost. They’re just delicious. And you should have one.
No. Really. Go get a cupcake. I’ll be here when you get back. <3
Anxiety sucks. Some days, you’re completely anxiety free! Everything is awesome. You are awesome. You get everything done that you need to get done! That was amazing. Awesome. And the another day, you can’t get out of the house. And no, you don’t need a hospital. You’re not in crisis. It’s a bad day. You have to use all of the tricks in the book to get yourself into the shower, to only check the lock on the door twice instead of your multiples of five, and you negotiate yourself to work. (In this case, fuck yes you get a cupcake. THIS deserves a cupcake. I mean, you are a rockstar. I am all about the cupcakes.)
One In Four American Adults Experiences Mental Illness In A Given Year. One In Five American Teens Experience Severe Mental Illness. (statistic from NAMI, will open in a new window)
ONE IN FOUR. ONE IN FIVE.
TWENTY FIVE PERCENT. TWENTY PERCENT.
That means a lot of us are living with mental illness on a daily basis. We are not in hospitals, we’re not contemplating death, we’re not hiding under our beds even if we want to, and we’re not so rail thin that we attract strangers’ glances on the train platforms. We’re among you. We are you. We’re going to work and school, we’re going on dates, we’re raising kids, we’re making friends, we’re running clubs, we’re winning sports games, we’re fighting wars.
And we are not in crisis. Our lives might be a little different than yours. Our thought patterns and our management strategies are probably very different than yours. And we are not in books. We aren’t. All we see in books are crises and not only can these be super triggering, but our crises are blips. For most of us, crises with our mental health are outlying events to our daily experiences.
So let’s see more characters who have depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, are recovering from an eating disorder or OCD, are on medication or not on medication, are in therapy or previously went to therapy. Let’s see a SPECTRUM of mental illnesses, and mental health experiences.
We need this not just because it’s reality, but in writing these books, you are giving hope to those who are in crisis.
When you’re in crisis, you don’t believe there’s a way out. You don’t think you’re ever going to be okay. You don’t think there’s a way that your depression is going to be manageable or less deep. You don’t think you can conquer your anxiety. You cannot even contemplate eating three meals a day, much less snacks, and you’ve forgotten what the word hunger even means. You can’t get out of the house without counting so how does someone expect you to go on a date? You think no one will ever love you, you think no one will ever befriend you, you think you will never do what you want to do in the world.
Books that show characters with mental illness not in crisis tell people in crisis that there is a life after crisis. That it’s possible for you to fall in love, get a job, go to college, make new friends, win the big sports game, climb the mountain, or do whatever you want to do. Even if you’re not Perfect. Even if you’re still struggling some days, or more days than not. Even if sometimes, you fuck up. Even if some days, you really hate that you rely on a little blue pill and a therapist to keep you alive.
These books are needed. We need to start writing them.