Friday, 20 July 2018

Mental Illness in YA Month Discussion: On Looking For Representation in YA Novels Featuring Mental Illness

Mental Illness in YA Month

This is the second post which was inspired by young adult podcast YA Oughta's Mental Health episode, which featured Lydia Ruffles and Tom Pollock in conversation with Chloe Seager and Katherine Dunn, in which they talked about writing about mental illness, representation, and many other things. This time, I want to discuss readers looking for representation of their mental illness in YA novels.

We've heard complaints of rep in general, of any marginalisation, that the author "got it wrong"; the representation the author wrote doesn't tally up with the reader complaining experience. But, whether it's mental illness rep or rep of any other marginalisation, no two people are going to have the exact same experience of their marginalisation. So even with an #OwnVoices novel, a reader may not necessarily see themselves in the experiences of a character's experience of bipolar, for example. Our experiences are so nuanced, complex and subjective, it would be a bit much to expect an author to write the ins and outs of our own individual experiences. How can they, when they are so different?

Does that mean we can't expect representation in the books we read? Not at all. It was suggested on the YA Oughta Mental Health episode that we don't look for representation of our experiences to the letter, but aspects of our experience.

I have never read a book that shows my experience of anxiety. Mostly because my anxiety doesn't completely present itself how you would expect. I don't get the spiralling thoughts all that often; my anxiety mostly seems to come out of nowhere - and through CBT, I've discovered that I tend be bothered by things on a more subconscious level. So I could be walking down the street thinking about what I'll have for dinner that evening, and then all of a sudden there will be a tightness in my chest, and I'll find it difficult to breath. I've never seen that in a book, a panic attack out of nowhere. I have only seen the dissociation I've experienced during a panic attack once. Nor do my panic attacks take the form of me desperately gasping for breath and hyperventilating - to be honest, someone looking at me probably wouldn't even know I was having a panic attack. They may think I was daydreaming or had zoned out, because I have to really focus to keep myself from being overwhelmed by my panic and becoming a complete mess. So, in those moments, I'm unable to engage in conversation or concentrate on much else. I'm busy trying to keep myself as calm as possible as I ride through it. So I have never read my whole experience of my anxiety in any book at all.

But I have definitely felt represented in books that feature anxiety and/or panic in some way, even if it's OCD or PTSD. I've felt represented in how authors describe the feeling of panic, and the fear of not being able to breathe. This is a major problem for me. I would be fine if my brain didn't try to convince me that I cannot breathe. I have to tell myself I can breathe, this is me breathing, in and out, slow and steady, but my brain is all "I can't breathe! I! CAN! NOT! BREATHE!" And I have to talk myself down and reassure myself that I'm ok. Without my brain trying to convince me I can't breathe, panic attacks would suck, but I'd be ok. But that fear, I've read that. How overwhelming the fear and worry can be in the moment, I've also read that, even if the fears and worries are different. The feeling I have, the fear of feeling like I'm trapped in my body, in my mind, and there's no escape, I've read that.

So I've found representation even if I've never found a character who's experiences are a mirror-image of my own. But this links to Hannah of Sprinkled with Wordsguest post yesterday, about repetitive symptoms of mental illness, because maybe we would see a little more of our own experiences of our mental illnesses if writers didn't stick to the ones we see most often. But then again, if those writers are writing their own experience, we can't tell them their symptoms aren't valid because they're cliché.

Representation matters, yes, but it doesn't have to be exact. You can find bits and pieces of your experience in various novels, and, for me at least, it's a great relief to see something like I've felt or thought or feared, to know I'm not alone. It doesn't need to reflect my whole experience for me to feel understood and seen. And I think maybe we should all consider that a little more before we criticise books - especially #OwnVoices novels - for not being accurate.

What are your thoughts on representation of your own mental illness in YA?

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