Content Warnings: mentions of vomit, menstruation, dermatillomania/self-harm
A few years ago, I went to see the Everything, Everything movie in theaters. When I walked out of the theater, I turned to my date and told them the most unrealistic thing about the story was how pretty Amandla Stenberg looked when her character was sick. Laying in bed with a fever, barely able to sit up, her makeup, skin, clothes, and hair looked amazing. It’s not surprising that’s how sickness was presented. After all, Everything, Everything is a romance and everything, everything in the story is romanticized. The discussion about whether Everything, Everything is a problematic story has been dragged across the internet enough times already so I’m not here to add to that topic. What I do what to talk about is how we need to start letting illness be messy.
I am ill. I have mental illnesses and chronic physical illnesses. I am also a mess.
I am a mess when I can’t get out of bed all day even though I’m so hungry I’ve given myself a migraine. I am a mess when I have an IV full of anti-nausea medication so I don’t throw up on the floor of the ER. I am a mess when I walk past a door to a social event 12 times to avoid going inside. I am a mess when my period is so heavy that I can’t leave the house without bleeding through to my clothes. I am a mess when I don’t even realize I’ve made my scalp bleed because I’ve been picking at it all day. I am a mess when I haven’t showered in a week because of depression or pain or both. I am a mess.
Here is the truth: sometimes I don’t mind when my illnesses are romanticized. Sometimes I want someone to find my depression beautiful or my illness lovable. When I’m lying in bed, too mentally or physically ill to get up, I want to look like Amandla Stenberg. But I can’t. A team of makeup artists is not there to make my illness look beautiful and the stories that present illness that way will never be my truth.
One of my first encounters with messy teen fiction were the books of Adam Silvera. There is nothing neatly packaged about Adam’s stories. He writes characters who are dealing with long-term mental illnesses and recent losses. He writes them as messy, real, fully human people who are not neatly packaged for readers to romanticize. Since picking up More Happy Than Not for the first time, I’ve encountered other authors who make health a messy journey. Shaun David Hutchinson, A.S. King, and Akemi Dawn Bowman are also masters at showing the realities of mental illness and grief.
Sometimes these stories are hard to read. They don’t give me the happy, fluffy feelings that I get from other contemporary stories. I could never spend all my time reading books as heavy as the ones that Adam Silvera writes but I still need those stories. I need to know that when it feels like my world is falling apart, I am not alone. I need to know that there are other people who couldn’t get out of bed but still pushed onward. I need to know that someone, somewhere, understands the reality I am going through and has been where I am now.
Mental illness representation in YA has come a long way from where it used to be and it still has many places left to go. Messy fiction is not the only kind of mental health fiction we need. In fact, I think it’s also so, so important to show ill teenagers getting their swoon-worthy love stories and happily ever after’s. They deserve that. But I want to be sure that publishing keeps telling teens it’s okay if that’s not where you are. I want teens to know that mental health is a messy, hard, and painful journey, but it’s one they can come out of as a stronger person.
These stories are messy because teens with illness can be messy. These stories are important because those teens are important too.
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