Literature, no matter the genre or market, more often than not lifts us…and causes us to think. I never felt this more viscerally than when I read ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven. In my review I think I even mentioned that it’s a wonderful book that could serve to open a much needed dialogue on mental illness and how it pertains to teens.
But I didn’t myself begin that dialogue. That was a bit of a fail on my part.
I’m not one to come at things intellectually, so I won’t do an info dump with lots of percentages and facts. I wander through life heart-first. I can address how All The Bright Places made me feel, and how I related to it. Although the circumstances which brought me there are different, I suppose, than those of Finch’s, I too rode the edge of dying/not dying as a teenager. I too woke up every morning and asked myself, “Is today a good day to die?” This is the first line in the book ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. And it is literally what I used to think to myself every day. I knew I had to read on. Jennifer Niven captured the ache and turmoil of my youth in that opening line. Verbatim.
Like Finch, the first of the two main character POVs in the book, I struggled. I was actually diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder at one point. But I now believe that diagnosis to be inaccurate. Sometimes we run off the rails because of outside circumstances, not chemical imbalances in the brain. And chemical imbalances come about as a result of the depression we sink into because of these outward negative experiences in our lives. So, though the Bi-Polar diagnosis has never been overturned…it is not something I relate to or accept as my personal truth. When I finally disclosed my childhood trauma and began to work on the PTSD that it caused in me, I realized that it was at the root of everything else. The steps a survivor of childhood sexual abuse takes in order to survive are cataclysmic and scatological at best. They are bad choices made in a fitful panic in order to step forward through the game of life to the next tile. We don’t think long-term. There is no long term. We don’t plan the future, because we cannot imagine one. We just work our way through the maze. One step at a time. We wake up every day and we ask ourselves that important question, “Is today a good day to die?”
We try not to look in the mirror when we brush our teeth and we say, “Is today the day? And if not today–when?”
Finch’s story had me riveted from word one. Niven had somehow captured the life of a teenage boy in turmoil so succinctly that I began to think she might, in some otherworldly way unbeknownst to me, be my biographer. I mean, that’s how creeped out I became while reading this story. I kept thinking, “Oh my god. I’m Finch.” (and it got even worse when friends asked me if I had read the book and THEY said, YOU’RE FINCH!) I knew instinctively that Niven had personally experienced a loss of a teenage boy in turmoil in her past. I was not at all surprised to learn later, after having read the book, that this was indeed the case…that Finch’s character was an homage to a lost boy. She captured it too impeccably not to have first experienced it in real life.
In the end, my story turned out differently than Finch’s. I muddled through somehow. Every time I answered that morning question with, “No, not today,” I lived to see another morning. And on the mornings when I woke up and asked myself that question and responded to myself in the affirmative something always happened to either prevent me from taking my life that day or saving me from the attempt to take it. When you’re living in the trenches, you don’t realize that making it through another day is a good thing. You regret not leaving. Every day, you grow more angry with having to ask yourself that stupid question again… “Is today a good day to die?” Because you’re bitter for not having had the courage to have responded in the affirmative the morning before and actually ended your suffering already. The pain is too much. The segregation from the rest of the world is too much. The hell that you are locked in is a never-ending purgatory of fear and self-loathing.
I picked up ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES to read again because of the Muskoka Novel Marathon I’ll be doing in two weeks. I want to write a book with that much visceral emotion in it. I want to learn more as a writer by reading it one last time before I go in to the belly of the beast for the writing marathon.
But in reading it, I’m realizing it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, this book would be great to open the dialogue for a mental illness struggles in teens discussion.” We should actually discuss it. Every single day, teens are dragging themselves out of bed with that question in their heads and on their tongues. Every day. Everywhere. They might not have had a ghastly childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or physical abuse. They might be dealing with a bully, or bullies, or sexuality issues or gender confusion, or weight issues, or acne, or self-righteous indignation…does it matter? Whatever issue they are dealing with, it is real to them. It is weighing them down and making them feel LESS THAN.
If you have a teen in your life, ask them. Be on point and just ask them how they are feeling. In the middle of the storm of depression, it is extremely hard to hear outside noise. The screams in your mind are enough to block out most other things. What occasionally turns those screams off, or at least adjusts the volume to a liveable level, is concern. Let them know you care. And don’t just do it once. Be insistent and persistent. Love doesn’t always win. But sometimes it does.
Teens are dying. It really is time to open up a dialogue of prevention. One suicide is one too many. When I think of the amount of times I almost didn’t make it, it’s sobering and staggering. So much of the things that now cause extreme joy in my life would have been missed. IT GETS BETTER is a tangible phrase that brings with it a punch. Because if you allow yourself to struggle through the darkness, it well and truly does get better. It’s when we wake up and ask ourselves, “Is today a good day to die?” and there is nobody there to say, “NO!” that we all fail.
Know the signs:
Signs and symptoms of depression in teens can include the following:
- A sense of hopelessness or sadness
- Fidgety agitation and restless discomfort
- Short fuse with anger, irritability
- Loss of interest in things they were once passionate about
- A change to the way they eat and/or sleep
- Change in the way they interact with friends and family members
- Loss of concentration–which can present as slipping grades
- Signs that they’ve been crying or appear tearful
- Showing a general self-worthlessness attitude or extreme unexplainable guilt
- Lack of joie de vivre—no enthusiasm, motivation, drive
- Showing signs of unexplained exhaustion…lack of energy. ennui.
- THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE OR DEATH…ideation around these concepts, possibly even to the point of obsession.
I’m writing this for all the Finch teens out there now. And I’m writing this for the Finch I once was. And I’m writing this for all the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends and grandparents and friends of Finch. Don’t let the world take away your Finch. We are all bright lights and we are all bright places. We need to know this. Talk to your loved ones. Don’t allow them to lose sight of their own bright places. Life is beautiful.
“In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”
This post really struck me today. My 15yr old cousin just killed herself Tuesday morning. There was no indication that she was suffering at all. She comes from a good, well-off family with parents who doted on her, has traveled the world with them, goes to the best school in the area, and she was always smiling and seemed happy. I think sometimes we assume that those who are suffering are obvious, the misunderstood kid who dresses different or has negligent parents, but sometimes there is darkness and sadness hiding behind even the biggest, brightest smiles.
So sorry for your loss. And you’re absolutely right. As a teen, it was one of our most unlikely to do so friends who took his life. It hit me really hard… He was one of my best friends and he hid his struggle perfectly. My condolences to your family.