Tuesday 10 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer YuFour Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu (Bought) - They're more than their problems

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she's okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn't want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future.
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features a suicide attempt - though not on page - and discussions of suicide. It also features the use of ableist language, and stigma surrounding mental illness - but this comes from a character whose own mental illness makes him think/say these things.

I was recommended Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu when I was looking for books featuring guys with eating disorders, and it sounded so good! A book about a therapeutic wilderness camp, in which five people with mental illnesses attend? What could be more perfect for Mental Illness in YA Month? However, although I enjoyed the story on the whole, I finished with mixed feelings.

Four Weeks, Five People has it's moments, but on the whole it felt like a nice, Summery read to me. It did feel kind of light on the whole - even though there are some really big, terrible moments - and I think that was down to the fact that there are five narrators. We don't get very much time with any of them before the book is over. Sure we get to know the characters from the other narrations, too, when they're hanging out, or doing group therapy together, or sneaking out at night, but I never felt I got to know the characters all that well. I definitely cared about them; it wasn't so bad that I felt so distanced that I wasn't affected by the things that happened. But it was a really quick read, too, and as well as not having much time with them, the four weeks went by really quickly - there were definitely days that we just didn't see, nor were we told anything that happened on those days. Sure, not every day is going to be interesting, but I do feel we didn't really see a huge amount overall. But I did enjoy what we did see, and getting to know the characters and what they experienced as much as I did.

Andrew has anorexia, and he's really struggling. He's not quite as bad as he was when the Incident happened, but he's still throwing his food away and panics whenever he has to be weighed. He's in a band, and feels he must look a certain way for the band to be successful; if he weighs over a certain amount, the band will fail, and it will be his fault, and his band mates will hate him. In group therapy, the way he feels is discussed, and it was so brilliant seeing the other campers - mainly Clarissa and Stella - talk to him about cognitive dissonance, where his thoughts are telling him something that isn't true. That was one moment that was really powerful; Andrew being so honest with everyone about what he's experiencing, and some of the other campers really trying to help, trying to get him to believe that what he thinks isn't true, and knowing this because they had experienced it themselves. Although the campers never really get to know each other hugely well, most of them do care about each other, and want each other to get better.

Ben experiences dissociation, and has bipolar. Or, rather, I assume he has bipolar, because when he's not dissociating, he is overwhelmingly emotional in one direction or the other; everything is beautiful and so wonderful, and there's so much joy, to the point where he could cry, or nothing could be worse. Stella says he has "manic depression" at one point, and Ben mentions mania, but it's otherwise never expressly said by him or the therapists that he has bipolar. Mainly, he talks about all the emotions he feels, and dissociation - and how dissociation is described is brilliant, in comparing it to watching a movie.
'The point is, you care about them as if they're real humans. But at the same time, you know, in your mind, that they're not actually real humans. You know that in half an hour, or an hour, or two hours, or  way too many hours (Michael Bay effect again here), the lights are going to come back on and the universe you've just been lost in for however long is going to disappear, and all of the people you just rooted for or cheered against or lusted after are going to vaporize, too. And so, while you care, there's always a part of you that's holding back. And sometimes, that part of you is strong enough to drown out everything else you're feeling in a sea of indifference.
That's what moments like this feel like. People always say that dissociation is when things don't feel "real," and I used to say that, too. But then I realized--that's not true. I know that I'm standing outside in the middle of a state park in upstate New York, and that I'm with four other people, and that we're all furiously avoiding eye contact with each other while waiting for the adults to start talking and tell us what to do, and that I would do
anything to disappear and be somewhere else right now. Life doesn't get any realer than that.
What it
does feel like is that, at any moment, the lights will come on and the credits will play, and I'll be put out of my troubled, awkward, unavoidably real misery. Sure, I'm so panicked that I can barely breathe right now, but just wait until the act-two turn! And yeah, I'm positive that everyone can already tell how terrified and pathetic I am, but I'm sure it'll all get sorted out in the closing pages of act three. Whatever mortifying thing I'm about to do or say, however much I feel like I'd rather be alone in a hole in the ground than have to talk to everyone standing here and make a total idiot of myself, even if it's so bad that I feel like I can never justify getting out of bed again--none of it matters, not really. That girl glowering in the grass will exist to the left [sic]; the boy to my right will disappear offscreen. It'll all be okay. Because that's just how movies are.' (p33-34)
And every time Ben dissociates, his narration is written like a movie script, whereas when he's not dissociating, his narration is written as prose. I thought this was such a clever device, because we automatically know whether he's dissociating or not, but we're also reminded of what that feels like for him. When he's experiencing his overwhelming joyous moments, when he talks, grammar goes out the window, and he talks in exceptionally long run-on sentences. This is probably realistic (though I couldn't say for sure), but these really long run-on sentences, where if you were to read out loud you'd barely get a chance to take a breath, you know, despite how happy he is, he is not ok right now. Sometimes even to the point of possibly being a danger to himself, because of the illogical thoughts he has where he feels like he could do anything. I really feel Ben's character was written so well.

Mason has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and he is the one character I had a real hard time with, because he is just a complete dick. I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't his fault, he has a disorder, but even then, I really, really struggled. Because he simply isn't a nice guy. He thinks everyone around him is literally so goddamn stupid, and so illogical, and always making stupid decisions or saying stupid things. He can't stand being around all these "insane" people, people who are so unintelligent, when there's absolutely nothing wrong with him. And he simply doesn't care about anyone. Really. He finds group therapy hell because he has to listen to these people while about their little problems, and he basically thinks they should just grow up and stop being so pathetic. When people are having really bad moments with their mental illness, he is annoyed at the inconvenience it causes him, and what he now has to deal with. He is just so rude, and doesn't give a damn about anybody else. And I really, really struggled with him, and I feel terrible for it, because he's ill, you know? But I hated reading his chapters and his thoughts. There were so many arguments between him and Stella, because Stella simply wouldn't take his crap, and while I felt good that someone would stand up to him, at the same time I would think, "Is this fair? He's ill. This isn't really his fault." I didn't like him, but there were moments when he tried, where he would try to act like he cared, even when he thought everything was stupid. He would try to do the right thing, even though it cost him, even though he didn't believe it, or feel it. And you've got to give him his due for trying, right? But god, I had such a hard time with him.

Clarissa has OCD, and it mostly manifests in numbers; certain numbers are safe, certain numbers aren't. She becomes overwhelmed when walking in the forest because she feels she has to count the trees, but she can't count the trees because there are so many, and what if there isn't a safe number, something bad will happen, and... you can see her panic and her thought-spirals, and it was done so well. But at the same time, out of the five, she seemed to be doing the most ok. She does talk about how she thinks the Zoloft she's recently been prescribed and the camp itself start to help, but most of the time it didn't really seem like she had much of a problem. Which is good, as it mean she's getting better. It's just her OCD isn't as prevalent as other characters' OCD in other books. Clarissa is also East Asian-American, which we only know from Ben referring to her as the Asian Girl before he knows her name, and the fact that there's an East Asian girl on the cover. Clarissa never mentions her ethnicity herself, though. Yu is herself East Asian-American, so Clarissa is possibly an #OwnVoices character.

Stella has depression, and this is the second time she's been to the camp. Stella's depression manifests in a way that I haven't seen before: anger. Had I not known already that she has depression, I would never have known. She has conversations about times when she felt like she can't get out of bed, and how she has attempted suicide, but there's nothing that happens or that she thinks during her narration that would have made me think she has depression, were it not already mentioned. I should point out here that I don't have nor have had depression, what I know about depression comes from conversations with and seeing loved ones with depression struggle with it, and from other books I've read where main characters/narrators have depression. Stella's depression doesn't "look like" how I expect depression to look. Had I not known, I would have said she was angry a lot of the time, but otherwise fine. We know that mental illness doesn't affect everyone in the same way, and Yu has had anxiety and depression herself, making this novel #OwnVoices, so she knows what she's talking about. I've just never seen depression that takes the form of anger before, and it was so interesting to see Stella's depression take this form.

Romances and friendships are formed over the course of the story, and it's not just being at the camp that has an effect on the characters, but the people they're at camp with. When it comes to the relationships made, and how most try to help each other, Four People, Five Weeks is a really lovely, moving story. And I've got to give a shout out to Josh, one of the camp counsellors, a hippie who's a little out there, but who does say some really profound things, that, while the characters were rolling their eyes, I found to be helpful for me. It was really quite beautiful watching as the characters discovered there was something to learn from Josh, and that he could actually help them. I loved him.

Four Weeks, Five People is a sweet story that I was moved by, with characters I mostly grew to really like. I do feel there should have been either fewer narrators, or the book should have been longer, for us to get to know them better, but still, a really good story I'd recommend.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 2nd May 2017
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
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