Amalie Greenway reviews DON’T TOUCH

Amalie GreenwayOriginally from the exact center of nowhere in Texas, Amalie Greenway has moved thirteen times in the past seven years, accompanied by OCD (acquired at age 8) and severe migraines (age 4). She has settled—for now—in the chilly Midwest, where she grumbles about the cold and works as a nanny to several wonderful little girls, while writing and revising novels in her “free time.” You can find her on Tumblr and Twitter.


Cover for DON'T TOUCHThirty minutes into reading Don’t Touch, I went to look up the author’s bio and confirm what I already suspected: like me, Rachel M. Wilson has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write well about a disability if you don’t have it. I certainly hope not; I write characters with disabilities I don’t have. But there was something in this story—some intimate, intangible Knowing—that made me believe, This author has been here. This author has walked in these shoes.

The story follows Caddie, a freshman at Birmingham Arts Academy who dreams of being an actress. Years ago, her severe OCD put her in therapy; she clings to the narrative that she’s better now, even as her parents’ failing marriage drives her deep into obsessive thought and compulsive behavior. Her primary compulsion is avoiding touch: If she doesn’t touch anyone’s skin, maybe her distant father will come back home. Caddie knows this likely isn’t logical behavior, but she can’t stop—even as it rips away at her life, damaging her rekindled friendship with former best friend Mandy, her maybe-romance with magnetic Peter, and her chance at playing the dream role of Ophelia.

Despite the many differences between my life and Caddie’s, the general pattern of her illness—early onset, temporary improvement, and teenage relapse—was eerily like mine. And as someone who has lived with active OCD for most of my life, I can say that this book’s portrayal of the illness rang incredibly true. Caddie’s obsessive fears and intense anxiety attacks are so vivid that I often had to put the book down and take a break to let my own echoes of sympathetic panic ebb away. And I loved the main character: Despite her constant, exhausting background roar of fear, Caddie is empathetic, a good listener and good friend when she isn’t in the grip of panic. Her passion for acting, even when it conflicts with her severe anxiety, permeates nearly every page. She is a complex, well-drawn character, far more than just “a girl with OCD”—but as her illness worsens, it tangles into everything she does, affecting all her decisions. My anxiety did that, left untreated. It narrowed the world and it ate at the sky until I had fewer and fewer options left.

Caddie obsesses over feeling safe, which has little to do with being objectively safe—the idea of touching another person’s skin sends her into complete panic, while certain kinds of actual physical danger might evoke no such response. She hides her compulsions from friends and family, weaving a series of lies and half-truths, building herself a quirky persona to cover the fear. She sometimes hurts the people closest to her, shoving them away when they try to help, pushing harder the closer they get. All these things were like seeing pieces of my own history, set down on a page in black and white.

I live in a world where my friends laughingly say they’re “so OCD” when they line up objects neatly on their shelves. I live in a world where popular media often presents superficial “OCD” characters who count things, worry about germs, memorize details as an almost-superpower, have “quirks” we’re all supposed to find funny, and rarely get to be real people whose minds are collapsing under the weight of crippling anxiety. Here, finally, is a book I can give to friends and family and say: “If you want a glimpse of what it’s actually like inside my head, read this.”

Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith review SAY WHAT YOU WILL

Emma CreesEmma Crees is 32 and lives in Oxfordshire, UK. A life long wheelchair user she’s passionate about all things disability and can often be found online ranting about this. If she’s not ranting about disability she’s probably talking about books or writing. All of this and more is on her blog, A Writer In A Wheelchair, or on her twitter account @FunkyFairy22. When Emma isn’t online she can often be found knitting, sailing or volunteering.

Courtney GilfillianCourtney Gilfillian lives, writes, and works in New York City. She is constantly on the hunt for a good cocktail, the best pancakes in the city, and most of all a good book. Find her on Twitter at @whitegirlbkcvrs and at her blog about diversity in YA lit.

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


Today, we’re hosting a discussion of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (titled Amy and Matthew in the UK). Our participants were Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith, who discussed the portrayal of both main characters’ disabilities–cerebral palsy and OCD–as well as several other disability-related issues that came up in the book.

Please note–this discussion contains spoilers.

Cover for SAY WHAT YOU WILL

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park in this beautifully written, incredibly honest, and emotionally poignant novel. Cammie McGovern’s insightful young adult debut is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about how we can all feel lost until we find someone who loves us because of our faults, not in spite of them.

Born with cerebral palsy, Amy can’t walk without a walker, talk without a voice box, or even fully control her facial expressions. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Matthew is consumed with repeated thoughts, neurotic rituals, and crippling fear. Both in desperate need of someone to help them reach out to the world, Amy and Matthew are more alike than either ever realized.

When Amy decides to hire student aides to help her in her senior year at Coral Hills High School, these two teens are thrust into each other’s lives. As they begin to spend time with each other, what started as a blossoming friendship eventually grows into something neither expected.

Continue reading

Kody Keplinger interviews Rachel M. Wilson about DON’T TOUCH

September 2nd sees the release of Rachel M. Wilson‘s debut Don’t Touch, a contemporary YA novel from HarperTeen about a girl whose OCD is endangering her aspirations of becoming an actress. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Rachel to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed ARC of Don’t Touch! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for DON'T TOUCHKody Keplinger: First of all, can you tell us how you got the idea for Don’t Touch? How did this story come to be?

Rachel M. Wilson: Don’t Touch began as a very personal book. I experienced OCD and anxiety from age ten into high school, and even after my symptoms were under control, I was left with a lot to process. My first pages were close to my own experience, but I needed more distance to be able to craft a story.

Once I decided to focus on Caddie’s fear of touch, I was partly inspired by superheroes like X-Men’s Rogue. Caddie doesn’t have superpowers, of course, but we all have the power to affect the world around us. If we don’t trust ourselves, that can be scary. As a magical thinker, Caddie worries that her thoughts or actions might have dangerous consequences, and this freezes her up. She’s scared to act, to change or move forward, and compulsions like avoiding touch give her a temporary sense of control over those fears.

During the writing process, other bits and pieces gradually came to seem essential to my story. The scene in which Caddie and Peter visit an abandoned pool, for example, was inspired by an exploratory drive into old Irondale. That setting led me to Ophelia and to so much more of Caddie’s story.

Kody: I think a lot of people think it’s easy to write your own disability, but in my experience, it can be tricky. How was this experience for you? Were there any challenges you faced in writing about a character with OCD?

Rachel: Yes, I found it very tricky. First off, OCD can consist of many different obsessions and compulsions at once, and these are often hard for someone without OCD to understand. Media portrayals of OCD often stick to neat freaks obsessed with cleanliness or germs, but most of my own fears and compulsions were much more “creative.” For example, for years I avoided gum and blueberries like the plague for fear of blowing up like Violet in Willy Wonka.

All the different symptoms in my first draft overwhelmed my early readers and took away from a coherent story arc. My last advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Martine Leavitt, wisely encouraged me to narrow my focus, and at that point I zeroed in on touch. I considered presenting Caddie’s fear as a phobia, but that didn’t fit in with her magical thinking. Eventually, I found a balance by acknowledging that Caddie has other symptoms without spending too much time with them on the page.

The other big challenge was that obsessions are often constant. I had the phrase “don’t touch” in my novel about a zillion more times than it appears in the final draft. My editors convinced me that a little goes a long way, and we really pared it back. That was for the best because readers still comment on how constant that obsession feels to them.

I also found it hard to handle the dueling beliefs that go along with OCD. Some call OCD “the doubting disease” because OCD sufferers know our fears aren’t justified, but we doubt this knowledge. What if we’re wrong and the compulsions really do matter? We’ll do almost anything to avoid that uncomfortable worry. It’s good practice in fiction, though, to invest your characters with unshakeable drives and convictions. Some of my early readers had trouble with Caddie questioning or even ridiculing her OCD beliefs. I had to be true to that doubt, but it was challenging to make sure that it wouldn’t diminish the force of Caddie’s fear for the reader.

On a less technical note, writing about Caddie’s anxiety often brought up anxiety for me, but experiencing an emotion while writing doesn’t guarantee that your reader will feel it. I needed to make sure that those feelings came through on the page and not just in my head. The only way to do that is by getting distance from your character and reading with fresh eyes—or by soliciting feedback from honest readers. For me, getting distance came not only from taking time away between revisions but from giving Caddie experiences that weren’t as personal to me. Yes, I love theater, but I’ve never played Ophelia. I understand separation and loss from other experiences, but my parents are nothing like Caddie’s and they’re still happily married. The ways in which Caddie is not like me were as important as the ways in which she is for me to be able to write fearlessly.

Kody: Every disability has its tropes. Were there any specific OCD stereotypes you tried to steer clear of in writing DON’T TOUCH?

Rachel WilsonRachel: Yes. For one, OCD is often portrayed as quirky or cute. I don’t mind a comedic point of view on OCD as long as it’s balanced with the reality of how awful it can be. I addressed the quirky trope head-on by having Caddie attempt to pass off her symptoms as “artistic quirks.” She’d like people to think she’s a whimsical oddball if the alternative is being perceived as crazy, but she’s hiding the pain. In reality, this kind of anxiety can be completely debilitating, even life-threatening. It isn’t cute, and I don’t think anyone who reads the book will perceive it that way. Even Caddie’s friends, who want to support her, find her OCD frustrating. That’s true to life—it can be hard to empathize and be patient with someone who’s highly anxious. Caddie’s friends connect to her because of how she works to be open with them—not because her OCD is some adorable quirk.

I’ve also been put off by stories that treat OCD (or any mental illness) as a character flaw or weakness of will. When the movie As Good As It Gets came out, I was excited because I’d never seen a movie or read a book about someone with OCD, but I was disappointed that Melvin’s OCD seemed conflated with his misanthropy and general nastiness. When he said he wanted to “be a better man,” it felt like he was saying that OCD made him a bad person and that he’d suddenly chosen to “fix” himself. It’s tricky because of course one can be nasty and have OCD; one might even become nasty in response to illness. But something about how that narrative mashed up out-of-control compulsion with willful bad behavior left me feeling icky.

I don’t think of Caddie as perfect by any means, but she’s trying to be a good friend and handle her anxiety as best she can. There’s strength in that, and I hope that comes through even when she’s struggling.

Kody: How similar is Caddie’s experience with OCD to your own? 

Rachel: Caddie’s younger history of handwashing and magical thinking is close to my own. My biggest symptom from fourth to eighth grade was handwashing—the bit about Caddie having raw and bleeding hands that her parents suspect might be caused by allergies comes from experience. At another point, a teacher thought I might have diabetes because I asked to go to the bathroom so often—for handwashing, of course. I never wore gloves, though I might have liked to. Instead, I kept my hands tucked under my arms and used my elbows to open doors and turn on faucets. I wore socks at all times and used my toes to change TV channels. I lined my school bag with paper everyday so it wouldn’t be contaminated by my social studies book, which had been contaminated by a copy of Watership Down that I checked out from the library. Random things like that were always turning menacing to me. Something about the intelligent rabbits—their glossary and the violence of the first few pages had really disturbed me. So all year, the social studies book had to be lined with paper and kept in its own cubbie hole—until one day, I accidentally let it touch my vocabulary book, and then there were two books in the cubbie hole. My own fears around touch had more to do with contamination, while Caddie’s are tied up with magical thinking—if she touches another person’s skin, her parents’ separation will be permanent. I had a lot of magical thinking games, but not specifically around touch. Some of mine involved clicking my teeth or blinking while looking at a particular color, focusing on “good” words or images to cancel out “bad” or scary ones, and repeating prayers over and over in my head. I chose to focus on touch with Caddie because it’s such a clear metaphor for what her anxiety does—it keeps her from connecting with other people.

Kody: What have you learned from your experience writing DON’T TOUCH? Do you have any advice for writers trying to negotiate that balance of writing characters with their own disabilities?

Rachel: Well, one danger of writing about your own issues is that you do have ownership. You may feel a sense of entitlement to write what feels true to you, but it’s important to remember that you’re still representing a group of people who are often underrepresented. There’s a need to step back and make sure your story doesn’t have implications you didn’t intend . . . But once you’re conscious of that, at a certain point, I think it’s important to let go of the fear of getting it wrong.

I definitely worried about getting things wrong in fictionalizing OCD, but ultimately I gave myself permission to tell a story. I learned that—for me—it was more important to capture the feeling of OCD and anxiety than to write the experience literally, moment-to-moment. Had I written a stream-of-consciousness account of my own OCD, it would have been distancing, chaotic, and frustrating to read. Some of that might serve my story, but a little goes a long way. I also found it important to be conscious that every element of a story doubles as metaphor. The idea of thinking about OCD as a metaphor made me uncomfortable, but I needed to consider how it worked as metaphor to know what story I was telling. There’s a delicate balance to that—the balance between medicine and metaphor—and I can’t promise I’ve handled it perfectly, but I think it’s more important to attempt the balance than to avoid sharing our stories altogether out of fear of getting it wrong.


Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–ARC of Don’t Touch to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to US and CA addresses.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Discussion #6: If We Could Tell an Author One Thing …

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

If you could tell an author writing a character with your disability one thing–besides “do your research”–what would it be? For example: a piece of advice, a warning about a common inaccuracy or iffy plotline, etc.

Our contributors share the following:


Kody Keplinger:
I’d remind authors that blindness, like all things, is on a spectrum. Most characters depicted in fiction are completely blind – they see nothing. In reality, only 10% or so of blind individuals are completely blind. The other 90% fall on a spectrum. Depending on the disorder or trauma that caused the blindness, a person could see in a thousand different ways. So many people don’t realize this, though. I actually get accused of faking my blindness because I can read large print text on my phone. I often wonder if this is because the media only portrays complete blindness as “blind” and rarely acknowledges the other 90% who have some vision.


s.e. smith:
Something that’s really been bugging me a great deal lately is media and pop culture depictions of OCD. OCD is not about being ‘obsessively’ neat or fussy about personal appearance — it’s a very complex mental health condition that has serious ramifications and manifests totally differently in different people. I’m especially tired of the stereotype that people with OCD are super-clean (although I do keep a very tidy house).

It might help to break down what OCD is actually about — obsessive thoughts, and compulsive actions. OCD involves intrusive, traumatic, aggressive thoughts that don’t go away, and compulsive rituals that people use to manage them. Maybe for some people that’s checking the stove four times before leaving the house, or having to double and triple-check locks. But it can also involve hair pulling, or needing to reorder jars on the shelf, or being completely disrupted by environmental change. Avoid cheap shortcuts when depicting OCD, and make it a condition with actual consequences instead of the figure of fun or something quirky.


Corinne Duyvis:
I’ve spoken a lot about autism, but less so about AD(H)D. I’d love to see more accurate and varied portrayals: It’s not all about distractibility, impulsiveness and hyperactivity! Those traits may be common, but I’d like to see, for example, characters struggling with making decisions, or experiencing hyperfocus.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann:
I’d ask authors to avoid arranging scenes and entire plot lines around characters with Asperger’s who take everything literally, particularly if the author intends to use it for laughs. It feels as if you’re laughing at us and not with us. Besides, most tweens and teens with Asperger’s have learned what an idiom is and know the difference between literal and figurative meanings, even if the literal meaning conjures amusing images in our minds.


Marieke Nijkamp:
I’d love to see more spectrums, especially when it comes to daily life with a disability. For example, when it comes to my arthritis, it means I am in pain almost every day. It does not mean I’m in the exact same amount of pain every day, that the pain itself is exactly the same, or even that the pain is the worst of it.

Some days, I can barely hold a hairbrush. Other days, it’s more like an annoying ache in my bones. Some days, my painkillers are heavenly (and anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to come talk to me about how medication is poison can get out and check their privilege), other days I barely notice them. Some days, I can ignore the pain, and other days, it chips away at the very core of me because it’s so very invasive. It’s a spectrum, and no day is quite like the other.


Kayla Whaley:
In terms of my own disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), I’d like authors to consider the physicality of it beyond not being able to walk. Realize that neuromuscular diseases don’t affect ONLY one’s legs. My entire body is weaker than most and that affects my physicality–the way I look and move. I tend to sit leaning forward and to the right because it takes less strength for me than sitting upright. If I’m reaching for something on a table, I have to use my free arm to brace the other. When I’m moving my body (gesturing while talking, adjusting my sitting position, dancing, anything), I don’t tend to be the most graceful because it requires a decent amount of effort to do so.

I think because the only wheelchair-using characters we’re used to seeing are athletic people who have been paralyzed (not that those portrayals are necessarily accurate either), it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the walking issue while ignoring the rest. (And keep in mind that this is a very, very incomplete list and focuses purely on visible physical differences between me and those who are able-bodied.)


Cece Bell:
I agree with what several of the other contributors have said: disabilities are on a spectrum. That is definitely true with deafness—there’s such a big range, and so many different ways that each deaf individual might deal with their own level of deafness. I rarely see deaf people in fiction (probably because I don’t read nearly enough), but I often see them in movies or on TV as minor characters who exist for no other reason than for comic relief. You know, the stock deaf person who shouts all the time because he can’t hear what he’s saying. That joke’s so old even my dog won’t eat it. I guess this advice is more for movie directors than authors, but there you go!


What about you, commenters? Any advice to offer?

Tara Kelly: The Problem with Normal

Tara KellyTara Kelly adores variety in her life. She’s a YA author, one-girl-band, web/graphic designer, editor, and she’s back in school getting her M.Ed in School Counseling. She lives in Portland with her ten guitars, supercool bf, and a fluffy cat named Maestro.


If you’ve read my book HARMONIC FEEDBACK, you probably know I’ve got a problem with the word ‘normal’. Sure, it has its purpose. Like–your blood tests came back normal. Yay! I just don’t think it’s a good way to describe who we are or how we think.

Perhaps ‘normal’ behavior is best described as a ‘normative spectrum’ (Hey, autism has a spectrum—why not?) For example, how do YOU think most people would react if a stranger called them ugly? They might get angry, insult the person back, cry, walk away, etc. These are fairly predictable reactions, right? What if they laughed? What if they responded by giving the person a hug or asking them where they got their shoes? Your first thought might be something like…wow, that was weird. But is it wrong? They’re not really hurting anyone by reacting that way.

Let’s add culture to the mix. What we consider ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ here in the U.S. might be a crime in another part of the world. Where we grow up and how we grow up (good ole nurture) has a huge impact on who we are and how we behave. I believe our genetics give us the foundation and our environment turns that foundation into a whole person. We wouldn’t be who we are if we were born with the same genes but different parents in a different part of the world.

So, to me, there is no such thing as normal behavior. There is just behavior that is considered acceptable where you live.

Here’s my other issue with ‘normal’. We can tell some people are different as soon as we look at them or hear them speak. Someone on the severe end of the autism spectrum, like the Rain Man, does not pass as ‘normal’ in our society. So, people are able to rationalize their behavior. Well, he doesn’t want to hug me because he’s autistic. That doesn’t make him a bad person.

But those of us who appear ‘normal’ (and those are some serious italics around appear) are expected to ACT normal. If we don’t, it’s generally assumed that we have defective personalities. An example:

Crowds make me very uncomfortable. The voices coming from every direction. People pushing up against me, breathing down my neck. I get dizzy. My heart races. I feel like I’m literally going to jump out of my skin. Sometimes I can swallow back my discomfort and just go with it. Other times… I can’t. When I can’t, people get angry with me. I’ve been called selfish (because I’m ruining other people’s fun), a drama queen (because obviously I’m just doing it for attention), and insane (because doesn’t everyone love being crushed up against a blockcade at a concert?) When I was younger, I lost friendships over this kind of thing. And, at the time, I would’ve given anything to be like everyone else—to just get lost in the moment and be able to filter out unnecessary noise.

But that’s the thing about me. I go into sensory overload very easily—sometimes I even get it in grocery stores. My brain has a lot of trouble focusing on ONE thing when there are a million noises and things going on around me.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, and what my neurologist described as one of the worst cases of anxiety he’d ever seen. These disorders (as they like to call them) are nothing but labels to me. Labels that make other people feel more comfortable about me being different than they are. They don’t define who I am. They don’t make being different any easier. Just like everyone else, I have to go out into this world, work a job, pay my bills, and function. There are many situations, like at work or large social gatherings, where I have to mask my ‘differences’. And I have quite a few…

Sensory overload is a big one for me. Whenever I’m in a situation where I have to converse with a group of people, I leave with a mother of a headache. I have to concentrate really hard on the following:

  • Focusing on the person speaking to me, rather than everyone else who is talking
  • Figuring out how to insert myself into the conversation without interrupting anyone
  • Trying to avoid saying something random or irrelevant—because my brain is often hopping from one thought to the next
  • Ignoring the need to run out of the place because I feel trapped
  • Smiling through it all and acting like nothing is wrong

I’m MUCH more comfortable socializing with people in smaller groups and in quiet places. In fact, I rather enjoy that. So, when I can, I often invite friends over to my house or for a hike. I’ve also discovered that ear plugs help me immensely with crowds. This obviously works best at a concert or when I don’t have to carry on conversations. But just dulling the noise around me works wonders.

I’m afraid of germs (this is where my OCD comes in). I cringe inside when I have to shake someone’s hand or touch a doorknob. The best ‘coping’ mechanism I’ve found  is to always carry hand sanitizer with me. I know it doesn’t kill everything, but it’s enough for me to function normally.

My OCD is actually the most disruptive when it comes to food. I hate going out to eat at restaurants because I don’t know what the ingredients are or who touched it. I generally don’t like to eat any food that I or someone who knows me and my quirks (less than a handful of people) didn’t make. I check expiration dates obsessively. I give everything a sniff test before I eat it. I will no longer eat anything that has ingredients I can’t pronounce. My coping mechanism for this is simple: I eat at home 99 percent of the time. But you can imagine how difficult it is when someone invites me over for dinner or out to eat. I either say no and hurt their feelings or explain myself and risk them thinking I’m nuts.

The thing is…I don’t think I’m crazy. In my mind, I’m trying to protect myself from getting sick and I’m, um, very thorough. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that washing your hands in a public bathroom is pointless if you touch the doorknob when leaving. Hey, medical doctors will back me up on this one—look it up!

Sometimes I wonder…is there really something wrong with me? Or is my caution level just much higher than most people? I guess it doesn’t really matter since these ‘quirks’ of mine do affect my daily life and my ability to have relationships with other people. Believe me, there are so many days I wish I didn’t have these ‘disorders’. And I really hate that they are called disorders—because we are really just saying that these people think differently.

On the other hand, I like being different. I like that my brain can just wander and gather up all these bizarre and wonderful ideas. Melodies just come to me. I can pick up almost any instrument and start playing it—no joke. I can often see perspectives others can’t. I don’t think I’d be the writer or the musician I am if my brain worked differently.

The best I can do is take the good with the bad and cherish the people in my life who love me and accept me for who I am.


Cover for HARMONIC FEEDBACKSixteen-year-old music and sound design obsessed Drea doesn’t have friends. She has, as she’s often reminded, issues. Drea’s mom and a rotating band of psychiatrists have settled on “a touch of Asperger’s.”

Having just moved to the latest in a string of new towns, Drea meets two other outsiders. And Naomi and Justin seem to actually like Drea. The three of them form a trip-hop band after an impromptu jam session. Justin swiftly challenges not only Drea’s preference for Poe over Black Lab but also her perceived inability to connect with another person.

It’s obvious that Drea can’t hide behind her sound equipment anymore. But just when she’s found not one but two true friends, can she stand to lose one of them?

Maggie Tiede: Popping Pills: Mental Illness Medications in YA and Why They Matter

Maggie Desmond-O'BrienMaggie Tiede is a teenaged writer and book blogger out to change the world, one word at a time. She was diagnosed with bipolar I and obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was seventeen. She lives in northern Minnesota, United States, North America, Planet Earth, where she is currently at work on a novel; and probably would like to be your friend.

She’s previously written about mental illness in YA here.


Minor spoilers for Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, and Silver Linings Playbook.

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.

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.