Saturday, 28 July 2018

Mental Illness in YA Month Review: Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes? by Holly Bourne

Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes? by Holly BourneAre We All Lemmings & Snowflakes? by Holly Bourne (proof) - Welcome to Camp Reset, a summer camp with a difference. A place offering a shot at "normality" for Olive, a girl on the edge, and for the new friends she never expected to make – who each have their own reasons for being there. Luckily Olive has a plan to solve all their problems. But how do you fix the world when you can’t fix yourself? From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features suicide ideation, and discussion of sexual child abuse and selfharm.

Having loved The Spinster Club Trilogy, and how well she dealt with Evie's OCD in Am I Normal Yet?, when I heard Holly Bourne was writing another novel dealing with mental illness, Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes?, I was dying to read it. And oh my god, this book is absolutely incredible.

Olive isn't ok. After a depressive episode leads her to standing on the edge of a cliff, hanging onto a tree, trying to convince herself not to jump, on the advice of her GP, Olive is attending Camp Reset, a camp for those with mental illness, to help get them back on track. With the things she learns and the conversations she has, she comes up with a brain wave. The world would be a much better place if only people were kinder. With the help of her new friends, she plans on making a difference to the world on a epic scale and spreading kindness. Olive is now bursting with energy and enthusiasm, convinced she's onto a winner that will save the world and make her better. After all, isn't she feeling just incredible right now? What Olive doesn't realise is she's starting to spiral out of control. How long can she keep things going when she's not looking after herself?

The book opens up with Olive having a really hard time. Again. For the third time. She is in her room, with pillows and duvets, cocooning herself away under her desk, trying to escape all noise, which makes her anxious, to the point of panic. But, as her mum points out, it's her dad's birthday, and they're having a barbecue, and people are coming round. Can't Olive just try? Can't she just pull herself together this once and try? But a barbecue, with all the people and all the noise, is Olive's worst nightmare. And she has to escape. Not just the noise, but herself, because she's realised she's not ok.
'"Anyway, then I was there [in the greenhouse] and the storm was there and I realized just how not normal it was that I'd run out into the garden. And my head felt like it was burning and screaming and full of insects that were exploding one by one behind my eyes..." Another tear bubbles up and jumps down my cheek. "And I realized that I'm not very well again," I gasp, needing more air. "And I'm not sure I can go through that again."' (p17)*
So when she sees her GP to get some help, and she suggests Olive takes part in the pilot scheme of a programme called Camp Reset, where a group of teenagers with mental illness go for intense therapy, to get better, and to give them the tools to deal with the world, Olive is all for it. A chance to get better. To be normal again. To not have a mental illness. Because Olive has got the wrong end of the stick, and thinks that Camp Reset is going to cure her of her mental illness, and she'll be normal again.
'The thing is, it sounds good. It sounds like it could work. I mean, a month. A whole month. Of intensive treatment. I could improve. I could learn how to not feel like this again. This could be it. This could be the silver bullet. The magic pill. The miracle cure. The thing that actually does it. And just that thought - the thought this could all go away. The thought that I'd finally be able to feel normally, as opposed to EVERYTHING or NOTHING... The thought is more than enough to make me smile.' (p27-28)*
So she goes to Camp Reset, and that's where the story really starts. I was really intrigued by Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes? when I first heard about it, because very little is given away. I was told that Olive doesn't want to know her diagnosis, that she doesn't want a label, and that's a huge part of the book and probably one of the reasons why there's nothing mentioned about it. This all intrigued me even more, because it just seemed so alien to me. I was baffled. I couldn't understand why Olive wouldn't want to know what mental illness she had. Looking back on my own experience, although it was scary, I couldn't imagine not knowing that I had anxiety. I wanted to know what was "wrong" with me, what that meant, and how I could get better. So I went into Lemmings & Snowflakes really interested in reading about Olive's views. And while Olive is all for getting better, she doesn't want that label, a label that may end up defining her.
'Hannah give me a strange look. "Is it true? You haven't been diagnosed?"
I feel my face blush.
"Umm, I assume I have," I bluster. "But I don't know what it is."
Jamie grins and talks with his mouth full of egg. "You've got something weird and new that they haven't figured out yet?"
I shake my head. "I doubt it. But I wouldn't know. I don't want to know."
Lewis - the wispy boy - talks to me properly for the first time. "Why not?" he asks. [...] I look back at him and shrug. Then shrug towards the whole table." "I just don't."
Jamie nudges me in the side with his elbow. "Ooo, mystery girl." I roll my eyes again. "Hardly. It's just my choice. I mean, obviously I have issues. Because I'm here and all. But I don't want a label on me in case I use it as an excuse for not trying to get better, or for just being a dick or..." Everyone really is staring. Oh God, have I offended them? "I mean...it's just not for me." I try to smile. "But, whatever works for everyone else is great."
(p88-89)*
Because of this, I feel it's kind of more respectful to Olive not to discuss what she is dealing with. Saying that, knowing a bit more about mental illnesses through the reading I've done, I did have a theory about what she might have, which was partly confirmed. More on that later. Even though she doesn't want to know exactly what it is she has, she definitely has some thoughts about it. During a Core Beliefs class, the teens are given a sheet of paper listed with negative core beliefs, and they are asked to circle two they feel applies to them. The idea is that they then reword it to say "I would prefer it if I was not..." and rework it into something more positive. This was actually really interesting, and something I think everybody could do with thinking about - whether you have a mental illness or not, we all, at times, suffer from self-doubt, low self-esteem, or negative thoughts about ourselves, and I found it really interesting. Anyway, Olive is looking through the list, after circling one, trying to decide on another, because there are several that she thinks.
'Then, without really thinking, I circle a second one.

I am out of balance.

Because even though I won't let them tell me the official label for it, I know this is the truth. I know it is not *normal* to swing from euphoria to suicidal in one earthly rotation. The enormity of that presses down on my skull, travels down my spine, sends tingles of dread firing out through my frail, human body. I shake my head violently, trying to dislodge it. Because I am here to fix this. I am here to balance myself out. Here to heal. Here to get rid of this. It's ruined me three times, but not any more. Not again. I will get rid of this poison inside me.' (p111)*
Again, showing how she thinks Camp Reset will get rid of her mental illness altogether.

Olive is aware that she has anxiety, but that's more a symptom rather than the overall mental illness. And she does have some absolutely wonderful things to say about how you can't apply logic to anxiety - or any mental illness.
'I hardly slept. My body just knew it wasn't where it normally sleeps (in a homemade bunker under my desk). I sweated and twisted in my sheets and kept thinking I heard noise and taking out my earplugs just to check.
"Why do you need to check?" the CBT therapist once asked me. "If you can't hear the noise with your earplugs in, then why does it matter that it's there?"
"Because it matters," was all I could say. Because trying to use logic to explain anxiety is like using a banana to open a locked safe.'
(p86)*
And when Sophie - one of the friends Olive makes at Camp Reset - has a panic attack because everyone turned to look at her when she was speaking, and feels ridiculous for it, every other person tells her about their own "crazy" things their mental illnesses make them do, and how they get it, understand, and do not judge her at all. And then this:
'Sophie sniffs. "I thought I would be okay because I've been doing so much better, but, like you all turned and looked at me at exactly the same time and it... I sound crazy." She lets out a crack of laughter but none of us laugh back. Because it doesn't sound crazy. Or illogical. Or weird. Or any other words she's worried we're feeling. Because all of us here, in this little stable, holding pitchforks and mucking out alpacas, we all know it doesn't have to be logical, know that logic has nothing to do with it.' (p260-261)*
And during a conversation with Lewis - a maths genius who is helping out with her idea to save the world - she uses a maths metaphor to explain how people with mental illness are seen and treated:
'"Maybe people like you and me are just prime numbers," I tell him."We don't neatly divide into a world that demands order. And they keep trying to find out why, and what makes us the way we are, but they can't."
"They keep trying to divide us into two," he adds, his voice heavy with sleep.
"Yep, and call us crazy when we don't. And give us therapy and meds and freaking alpacas until we can be moulded into something at can at least pretend it divides nicely into the world."'
(p223-224)*
But there comes a point when things really don't go very well. Her psychologist, Dr. Jones is worried about her and thinks there needs to be a change in her meds, she has Dr. Bowers, a psychiatrist, to sit in on their one-on-one therapy session, to discuss alternative medication, and he completely puts his foot in it.
'"I obviously have not been the person to diagnose you and I know your diagnosis is still uncertain..." And before I can stop him, before I can shout out "NO" before I can wave my arms in the air and scream "DON'T DO THIS" he says, "but in my professional opinion, you may have [redacted] and..."
And I zone out because I'm screaming inside and my fists are clenched and tears are in my eyes and I can't I can't I can't undo this. I can't unhear what I've just heard. It's like hearing a spoiler for your favourite TV show but so so so so much worse. Dr Jones has noticed me screaming, even though I'm very quiet, and she's clocked on.
"Albert!" she interrupts quickly. "Olive doesn't want to know her diagnosis."
His face falls. "Oh no, Olive, I'm sorry."
"IT'S IN MY NOTES!" I scream. I actually do scream. "YOU'RE MONITORING MY FUCKING HEART RATE AND YET YOU DON'T READ MY NOTES." And I'm up and the chair has been kicked across the room and I'm quite sure that I did it because they're calmly telling me to calm down and I totally zone out for a moment or two. I only remember blackness and crying and the words.

[Redacted]. [Redacted]. [Redacted].
A label. A diagnosis. Who I am boiled down to a catchy title that will probably be called something else in fifty years time because eventually, with time, all titles get politically incorrect. They pick up the chair and sit me on it and keep saying, "Sorry, sorry" but it's not like saying sorry undoes anything.' (p210-211)*
She is in pieces, and really struggles to deal with discovering this possible diagnosis... but she's also really annoyed that it's only a possible diagnosis, and not a definite one, that they're still uncertain what she's dealing with.
'"The thing that really gets me," I half interrupt. [...] "Is that they're NOT SURE. I always kind of trusted that they knew what was going on, you know?" My arms flail around so much around the bed I almost knock him off. "Do you not find that strange? That there's no, like, test for these things? It's not like diabetes where they can count the insulin in your blood, or a tumour where they can shove you in an MRI scan and bulgy bits all light up. How do they even decide on this stuff? I mean the whole idea of [redacted] was decided by what? A bunch of men in a room wearing white coats, VOTING on what symptoms make it a condition?"' (p220-221)*
I find that last part really interesting, especially after reading the quote in Challenger Deep, where Caden says, 'There is no such thing as a "correct" diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catchphrases for various collections of symptoms. [...]
The labels mean nothing, because no two cases are ever exactly alike. Everyone presents differently, and responds to meds differently, and no prognosis can truly be predicted.'
(p299) And if you think about it like that, then it almost kind of makes sense that 1) They've not yet worked out exactly what Olive has, although they are thinking it's more one particular mental illness over others, and that 2) Olive doesn't want to know her diagnosis, because it doesn't necessarily mean anything anyway.

As I said earlier on, while at Camp Reset, Olive comes up with this huge plan to spread kindness. This is the moment it starts to come together for Olive, but it's slowly been brewing away in her mind for a while. It's something she's focusing all her time and energy on, meaning Olive stops taking part in other areas of Camp Reset, like group therapy. It's also an example where we can see how her mental illness is affecting her; even though she thinks she's fine, we can see her starting to unspool.
'And maybe, just maybe, none of us would be here if life had been easier or fairer or righter or happier or less scary. And maybe it's not about how to mend us now we've all gone mad, but figure out why we've gone fucking mad in the first place. And then MAYBE society should ensure that sort of thing doesn't happen again. Because it's all very fair training psychologists to sit us down and get us to talk about our awful upbringings, but why aren't we trying to stop awful upbringings? I mean, I guess society TRIES to stop bad things happen, but they're doing SUCH A BAD JOB AT IT, JUST LISTEN TO WHAT'S HAPPENED TO GABRIELLA. And...and...
Oh God, I can feel this thought blooming. Like on those nature programmes when they shove a camera onto a flower seed and show footage of it growing really really fast. I feel the roots go into the earth and I feel the stem start to grow and I feel the leaves unfurling and the petals turning pink one by one.'
(p240-241)*
With this new brain wave, she goes to Lewis, who she's already been working with, and explains her idea of spreading kindness. If it's going to work on a big scale like they want, they need more people involved than just them. When trying to get the group on board on spreading kindness, and explaining that if the world was a better place, they might not be mentally ill, Jamie - a guy with cannabis psychosis blows up.
'"I didn't need your research anyway. I know what got me here already. SUBSTANCE ABUSE."
Gabriella, unbothered by his anger, steps closer to him. "But WHY did you start abusing substances, Jamie?"
That's when the top blows off his volcano. "BECAUSE I'M IN A BAND!" he shouts and Sophie squeals. "I'm not traumatised or poor or abused, okay? I just smoked a shit ton of weed because I'm in a band and that's what people in bands do. I'm just a selfish idiot addict. How are you going to save the world from selfish idiots? Because I'll tell you what..." his voice lowers to almost a growl. "I don't think absolving myself of all responsibility for the bad decisions I've made in my life is going to make the world a better place. In fact I think it's going to make it a worse one. Yeah shit happens, yadda yadda. But
I'm the reason I'm here. I'm the reason I'm like this. And I'm the reason the moment I'm out of here I'll probably go straight to my dealer and buy an ounce, smoke it and probably start tripping out again. Letting people off is not the answer."' (p254-255)*
This is something that Olive really needs to hear. Although she is convinced that spreading kindness is the way to go - will make the world better, and therefore her better - she has trouble with taking responsibility for what she does. She has, in the past, and on occasion in this book, not been the nicest of people. She's done some awful things. She thinks she's a horrible person because of what's happened which, as you read, you discover is kind of down to her mental illness, but not completely. She thinks so, too, in a way, and it's almost like "I can't help being horrible, this is who I am," and she keeps screwing up, and she feels bad, but also that there is no way for her to stop this. There is a great conversation between her and Lewis at the end of the book, where he really lays into her, where he tells her she says she's not into labels, but she's given herself the label of horrible person, and so she's unkind to herself, and not great to other people, because that's who she is, rather than grasping that she keeps screwing up because of the decisions she makes.

But going back to her idea to spread kindness... it sounds kind of ridiculous and a bit soppy saying it like that, but when you hear her explain what she means, and how she really thinks they can make a difference, it's actually really interesting and inspiring. Even if she is starting to spiral out of control and lose it a bit. In her "madness", she makes some sense - and then she gets it into her head that she needs to be like this in order for her plan to work, because if she's "sane", then she's not going to be able to give the plan all she can. But even with all that, it's so fascinating! And it's actually grounded in science and maths, what with Lewis working out formula for it all. That may make it sound like it would be difficult to understand, but as Lewis has to explain things to Olive, we as readers understand everything, too. But it's so clever! Bourne must have had to do a ton of research into all this maths~mental illness and maths~kindness stuff, because it's complicated (but understandable)! It's just really awesome, and I loved it!

With Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes?, Bourne has shown us again just what a fantastic author she is, and what wonderful stories she has to tell. It's an incredible novel, another powerful and important one, and one that's really thought provoking. I highly recommend you all get pre-ordering, because book is amazing.

*I have not yet been able to check these quotes against a finished copy, so they may not be accurate.

Thank you to Usborne for the proof.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 9th August 2018
Publisher: Usborne
Holly Bourne's Website

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