“You never would have guessed what I had been through; where I had been. I didn’t look “crazy”-I never had. I looked like any other teenage girl. I went to classes with everyone else. I talked to other kids. I attended school events. I would have the [sic] seen your dance team, had I gone to Waunakee High School. And you would never have known. In fact, the next time you perform, I want you to look at the kids in the audience. About 1 in 10 children under the age of eighteen have a mental illness; 1 in 5 have a serious mental illness (SMI) like the ones you mock. ONE IN FIVE.
How many kids are watching you perform? How many are in your school? How about in your district? Your town?” ~ Erika, age 14
I remember reading It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini, the YA novel which has recently gone on to movie fame. I was at first uncomfortable with how funny I found it — because Mental Illness Is Not Funny… but I reread it, and found myself relieved. It is real. It has poignancy and bright/dark moments which are so very normal to how life goes, to the way I feel. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is most important to me because it highlights the decision to live, and get help when faced with what a friend and I call Those Intrusive Thoughts that make hanging one’s toes off the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge at 3 a.m. seem like a really good idea.
Most of us have personal experience with those Intrusive Thoughts. Most of us have the dear friend/family/personal connection with mental illness. I know I do.
Mental health issues are the biggest elephant in the room, EVER. They are hugely awkward in our society. When the “American dream” is to, by our own effort, rule our particular little worlds, a loss of control through mental challenges has a massive stigma to the American — heck, to the WORLD public. No one wants to be associated with the stereotypical “crazy person” who has to miss days of work and school, staying home and struggling. No one wants to be “that guy,” the one who has to take medication, who sometimes emotes too much – the girl who cries or laughs too easily, who has blackout panic attacks in a crowded hallway, or who falls apart at the drop of a grade.
It is something we all fear. Therefore, it’s really easy… to make fun of it.
Which is what happened, inadvertently, a few weeks ago at a Wisconsin high school. The pep rally routine featured cheerleaders with black makeup smeared on their faces, snarled hair, scary expressions, and the words “Psych Ward” on their straitjacket-looking uniforms as they danced through a “fun and catchy” song to get school spirit up and going. “We Get Crazy” is the title of their routine.
All right. The finger-pointing and shouty bits of the dialogue can go on without our input, can’t they? We can agree that the routine was insensitive and surreal without all of the screeching, and we can also probably agree that it was a misjudgment by the head coach, who isn’t an Evil Person and didn’t intend to humiliate or shame, just create a dance to a “catchy and amusing” hip-hop song.
Conversely, some of us might even agree with the NBC sportswriter who claimed that it’s a political thing and wrong to teach kids to back down under pressure, and that the cheerleaders should go on if they feel okay about things, and everyone is oversensitive and too PC these days, and should shut up. Yeah, someone can probably agree to parts of all of that.
I was able to pass the news story without public comment until I ran across a letter of response. Erika, guest blogs her story without adding a last name (for obvious reasons), writes with frustration and passion to the head coach of Waunakee Wisconsin High School. She tells a story that is familiar to far too many.
I blink when I think about the statistics that Erika quotes. One in ten young adults below eighteen have a mental illness, one in five have a serious one. One in five is a REALLY big number. Does YA fiction reflect this? Or is this invisible to YA authors, too?
Other than Ned Vizzini’s book, what was the last book I read wherein someone had a serious mental challenge? Okay, there are some classics: the Sonya Sones book, Stop Pretending; Patricia McCormick’s Cut. There was an old book I remember reading called Lisa, Bright & Dark about a girl with severe mood swings. Deb Caletti’s Wild Roses comes to mind, as does When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer (boy, that’s an old one.) More recently, Dia Calhoun wrote The Phoenix Dance, a fantasy retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses — cleverly paralleling their dance mania with bipolar disorder. The intensely arresting Tallulah Falls by Christine Fletcher is about a drop-everything kind of friendship, and a very impulsive friend.
There are more novels, there must be — can you think of them? Have you read anything that struck you as extraordinary? I’m thinking of making a list to post — fiction which depicts people with wonky brain chemistry leading lives with meaning and humor and balance, in spite of school and work and life’s crap. Let me know if you find something which needs to be included.
My point, if I have one, is to let Erika know that I, as a writer, hear her, that this is bouncing around the echo chamber in my head, and that I’m still listening. And, that I know how easy it is to make fun of what we fear, but this isn’t funny, and smart people aren’t laughing.
(Mostly)cross-posted @ wonderland