Thursday 26 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: The Art of Feeling by Laura Tims

The Art of Feeling by Laura TimsReview: The Art of Feeling by Laura Tims (Bought) - Perfect for fans of Jennifer Niven’s New York Times bestseller All the Bright Places, this contemporary YA novel explores the friendship between a girl in constant pain and a boy who feels nothing at all.

Since the car accident, Samantha Herring has been in pain, not only from her leg injury, but also from her mother’s death, which has devastated her family. After pushing away her friends, Sam has receded into a fog of depression.

But then Sam meets Eliot, a reckless loner with an attitude and an amazing secret—he can’t feel any pain. At first, Sam is jealous. But then she learns more about his medical condition…and his self-destructive tendencies. In fact, Eliot doesn’t seem to care about anything at all—except maybe Sam. As they grow closer, they begin to confront Sam’s painful memories of the accident—memories that may hold a startling truth about what really happened that day.
From Goodreads.

Trigger warning: This book features sexual harassment, violence animal death, and discussion of suicide and self-harm.

The Art of Feeling by Laura Tims is another book that was recommended to me for Mental Illness in YA Month, and it was so good! It's a fantastic story about loss, grief, and the power of friendship.

Six months ago, Sam was in a car accident that killed her mum and left her disabled. Struggling to come to terms with her grief, and in constant pain, Sam has depression, and finds it difficult to feel. Her family are equally struggling with their grief in their own ways, but also don't know how to treat Sam now; her brother Rex treats her as if nothing has happened, her sister Lena is over protective and treats her like she's fragile, and, in constant worry that she'll fall into another depressive episode where she can't get out of bed, her dad hovers, but sees what he wants to see. There is also pressure on Sam to remember what happened during the accident, as no-one has been held responsible for the crash, but Sam has blocked it all out. When Sam meets Eliot, rude and sarcastic, and discovers he doesn't feel pain, Sam is jealous of his condition. What she would give to not feel this constant pain any more! But the more she learns about his condition, the more she feels for him, and as she learns Eliot's reckless behaviour - putting himself in harm's way, the way he doesn't seem to care about anything - she worries for him. A tentative friendship forms when Eliot realises that Sam actually cares, and when Eliot is able to keep Sam calm when her pain-induced anxiety hits. They slowly make a difference to each other's lives; Eliot learns not everyone will walk away, and with his help, Sam is able to face the memories of what happened that day, six months ago.

God, this book really pulls at the heart strings. First, we have Sam, who is really struggling. She absolutely does not want to remember what happened during the crash - and who can blame her, really? Who would want to relive that? She is constantly reminded of her mum, unable to escape her grief and due to her disability - the crash left her leg a few inches shorter, and instead of bending, it just twists - she is in constant pain, also a reminder of all she's lost. The only thing she feels she was good at was lacrosse, and now she can no longer play. She never felt she really fit in, and the friends she had were friends with her only because they were on the team together, and so she's shut them out, rather than having to bear not fitting at all any more. She has depression and takes anti-depressants, and although she's not as bad as she was, when she couldn't get out of bed for weeks, she dissociates often, and feels barely anything.
'I try really hard to care. I'm not jaded. I want just a zap of that electricity from yesterday, a plug-in to the energy. But as my next lectures are drowned out by everyone buzzing, as my teachers flop against their desks, I keep dissociating, the whiteboard blurring and smearing across the room in a stretch of nothing.
The truth is, I'm blank most of the time. Static.
Sometimes I think I've used up all my emotions.'
It's just so heartbreaking, and you can't help but feel for Sam. Her home life isn't great either, because no-one is dealing well with the death of their mother/wife. Rex spent his days on the couch getting high before their mum died, but it's so much worse now. He is never sober, lives in a constant fog, and begs Sam for her own pain medication, which she gives him, because he's suffering and how else is she supposed to help? Lena has moved out for an internship, but she is running from her grief. The only way she can cope is to keep moving; she's decided that her family needs her to help them move on, and takes control of their home, deciding it needs to be decorated and have every sign of their mother removed, without consulting anyone. They come home to find things that held meaning to them simply gone. But it's Lena that needs the reminders gone, she's not actually doing this for anyone but herself. And their dad is just so lost. It was their mum that did most of the parenting, and now it's down to him, he just doesn't know how to deal with anyone. He doesn't know how to get his son of the couch, he doesn't know how to tell Lena to stop, and he doesn't know how to help Sam, but is desperate that she be ok. It's so overwhelming when Lena and Rex get into a fight; their dad doesn't do anything, just stares, helpless, and Sam, who used to get in between them and calm things down isn't able to do that anymore. They rip shreds out of each other, and it's just so, so hard to read. This family needs so much help, and they are seeing the therapist, but it's the worst therapist ever. Oh my god, Dr. Brown made me so mad! She simply doesn't care! She's just in it for the money, and I absolutely hated her! She is absolutely the worst advertisement for therapy. I just hope that because Sam knows she's a crap therapist, readers who may be thinking about therapy aren't put off by her; Sam knows there are better out there. I just felt so sorry for this family who are struggling so much.

And then there's Eliot. God, I loved Eliot. He can be rude and has a bit of an attitude, but really, it's like a self-defence mechanism. He has cognitive insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA), which means he can't feel pain, nor does his body really recognise a change in temperature, so he doesn't sweat when he's hot, and he doesn't shiver when he's cold. It's so very easy for him to hurt himself or fall ill quite badly, because he doesn't really feel any symptoms. And this has been hard for his family to deal with, so they've pretty much checked out. He doesn't see his parents anymore, and he technically lives with his brother, but his brother is always away on business trips. Everyone he's loved has left him, so he figures it's best not to get close to anyone else. But he's clever and quirky and funny, and I just really liked him, even when he was being kind of rude. When Sam finds him being beaten up by the school drug dealer, she steps in for him and makes it stop, and continues to try to do so when she realises his reckless behaviour leads him not to care. When he tells her about his condition, and the danger he's actually putting himself in, she steps up when the dealer believes he grassed on him to the police and makes his life hell. And Eliot realises maybe Sam actually does care? But everyone leaves at some point, right? So best not to get his hopes up. God, I just really felt for him.

But it was so, so beautiful watching their friendship blossom. I think most books - and maybe people in general - take friendship for granted. The friends are there, and their fun, but it's not often than friendship and the importance of friendship is really explored. Not the case in The Art of Feeling. Sam and Eliot's friendship is integral to their lives getting better. Eliot's friendship doesn't magically cure Sam of her depression, or stop her from being disabled, and Sam's friendship doesn't stop Eliot from having CIPA. They don't fix each other's problems, but they bring light to each other's lives. They both have someone who cares, someone who listens, someone who wants things to get better for them, and it makes all the difference. Theirs is probably the best friendship I've ever read. There is the hint that, latter down the line, they may become a couple, but it's the friendship that is important to this story. Also, just need to add, I'm pretty certain Eliot is asexual:
'I close my eyes. He trails his fingers down my neck and strokes my shoulder. "You are a person," he whispers. "A whole person."
"Are you going to kiss me?" I whisper back, terrified.
He takes his hand away, and for a while, he's just quiet in the dark. "I don't... I'm not... I've never felt... like other guys do, Sam. I've never been... interested in the end result of kissing."
"That's okay! Eliot, that's fine." I like him for his brain. "But just so you know, kissing doesn't have an end result. Doing it doesn't mean you're signing a contract to have sex or something. And liking kissing doesn't mean you have to like sex."
Another silence. "Then maybe I'll try it. Eventually. As a experiment."
"But not right now," I finish for him.
"But not right now."'
I just died. I could be wrong, as I'm not asexual, but from an outsider's view, I absolutely loved how Sam responds to Eliot. She doesn't bat an eye lid! It's absolutely no problem! God, I just loved her so much in this moment! And Eliot... Eliot never struggles with words. He shows vulnerability like this a few times in the book, and I just want to give this boy a hug. He is a sweetheart.

When it comes to Sam's and Eliot's mental illnesses - it's never stated, but CIPA can lead to mental illness, and Eliot also sees a therapist, and through conversations Sam and Eliot have, I am inclined to think he also has depression - I think Tims handled them so, so well. I don't have depression, and nor have I dissociated in the same way as Sam, so I could be wrong, but it felt so true. I live with people who have depression, so as a family member from the outside looking in, and as a reader from the outside looking in, it felt to me like Tims got it spot on - but again, I could be wrong.
'The blankness is always at it's worst during family therapy. It transforms reality into a crackly TV screen with the volume low, and I'm perfectly content with it, because when depressing things happen on TV, it means they're not happening to me.' (p124)
'The couch is gone. Like Mom, like lacrosse, like my old friends and my old life, and I have to accept it because I don't get another option. I'm tired of things I love being gone forever. I didn't think there was room in me for any more holes, but that's all I am now, a collection of empty spaces where things were ripped away.' (p144)
'"Do you remember when you told me you took pills because you couldn't feel?" I say. " was there, too. But not feeling anything is a feeling, I think. It's feeling everything at once, but in the background. Like how white is all the colors. Most of the time depression is really something specific, or a lot of specific things... but that's god--it means it's not actually nothingness; it's stuff you can work on."' (p294)
Sam also experiences pain-induced anxiety. She may not remember the crash itself, but she remembers the pain, and when her leg gets particularly bad, it triggers her anxiety, fearing that she's about to die. She knows she isn't, she's not doing anything that could lead to her death, most of the time she's just walking, but that doesn't stop the anxiety that overwhelms her. And the anxiety was dealt with really well, speaking from my own experience. Though I cannot imagine how awful it must be having to deal with such terrible pain at the same time as dealing with anxiety. Reading it just felt so overwhelming.

And it's not the only time I felt overwhelmed while reading The Art of Feeling. As I mentioned, it was overwhelming when Rex and Lena were having am argument, too, but there was also one particular scene that was just so much it triggered my own anxiety. This isn't a bad thing, it was me being so emotionally involved, and putting myself in Sam's position where she felt so completely helpless. It's during a fight between Eliot and the drug dealer, Anthony; people are crowding around watching, and knowing Sam would want to stop it, Eliot (yes, Eliot!), paid someone to stop her from getting involved. Someone has literally taken hold of her crutches, so she can't go anywhere - which in and of itself is so bloody terrible! She has been prevented from walking, she is trapped and stranded without the use of her crutches, and oh my god, it just felt to me such an awful thing to do to Sam, and this wasn't really addressed - and Anthony is really laying in to Eliot. In a big way. And Eliot isn't doing anything to protect himself. The fact that nothing Anthony is doing seems to be affecting Eliot just makes him angrier, which makes him worse. People are goading and encouraging, Eliot is provoking Anthony, and there is such violence. And we know that this is so dangerous, and who knows what kind of damage Anthony is doing to Eliot without him realising, and Sam can't do a damn thing about it! And my anxiety hit. I was just so desperate for someone to do something. I guess it just shows how brilliant a writer Tims is, because I was so emotionally involved, I cared so much about a character's welfare that it triggered my anxiety.

The only other negative - other than stopping Sam from being able to walk - isn't exactly a negative. Although I don't give star ratings on my blog, I do on Goodreads, and there was a moment when I was going to give The Art of Feeling four stars instead of five. The reason? I didn't like a decision Sam makes at the end. My reaction was, "What?! Why would you do that?!" Though I have to say I completely understood why Sam made the decision she did, and it was the right decision for her - it just absolutely is not the decision I would have made. Her decision didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book, and as I said, Sam made the decision that was right for her, and her life, so it's not like it didn't make any sense. And I can't really justify dropping a star because I have a difference of opinion with the main character. Though I am really disappointed there was no conversation with Sam really having a go at Eliot for stopping her from walking to stop her from intervening. That was just completely not ok, and it should have been addressed.

But overall, The Art of Feeling is an incredible book; a really moving and beautiful story! Oh, it's just so gorgeous! I absolutely loved it, and I highly recommend reading it!

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 15th August 2017
Publisher: HarperTeen
Laura Tims' Website

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  1. I am always screaming about this book, so I love reading all your positive thoughts. The friendship between Sam and Eliot still brings a smile to my face (I swear, I am grinning from ear to ear right now)

    1. It's such a good story! I absolutely loved it, and I loved their friendship!