In the last several years, three novels have focused on a specific kind of teenage pain: that of having a parent who struggles with mental illness. This Is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky, A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler, and White Lines by Jennifer Banash all give us teen protagonists trying to understand the destructive and dangerous behaviors of volatile, creative mothers who may be kind or cruel, depending on forces invisible even to them. These are powerful stories of daughters who have all been left to find their own way through the fits and starts of madness that fill their lives. They love their mothers as they believe they should, and they strive, as best they can, to protect them, either by covering up their behavior or keeping secrets about just how bad it has become. All three of these books explore the guilt and despair that result from a teenager’s long overdue act of self-preservation, the personal fallout from the moment when the protagonist finally decides that her fate is separate from that of her mother’s.
This Is How I Find Her opens when high school junior Sophie saves her mother’s life after a prescription drug overdose. As the doctors take over and her mother faces weeks of inpatient treatment, Sophie turns to her long estranged aunt and uncle for safe harbor, but there is trouble there as well. Sophie and her cousin Leila were once close, but when Sophie’s mother impetuously endangered their lives while behind the wheel of a car, Leila’s mother cut off all contact. Sophie’s aunt chose to guard herself and her family and, in doing so, left her niece behind to deal with the chaos.
Messy family relations are laid bare, revealing how wild and unpredictable a home can become while still remaining within the limits of the law. Sophie’s mother, an accomplished artist, can control her mood swings with medication, but taking the pills mitigates the manic states she has come to rely upon as an artist. Her subsequent wild behavior and risk-taking drives everyone away. Sophie however, has nowhere to go and is left to act as caregiver. She sticks it out until the day her mother nearly dies and her inability to hold everything together can no longer be ignored.
Fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose is in a similar situation in Holly Schindler’s A Blue So Dark. Her mother suffers from schizophrenia, and Aura has been holding their lives together since her father moved out a couple of years ago. In one heartbreaking passage, Aura recalls a panicked phone call she made at age 12 from a soccer field, as her mother’s delusions suddenly consumed her and she became convinced she was about to die:
But Dad didn’t say, all worried, like I still expected him to, “I’ll be right there.” He just sighed, long and exasperated, right in my ear. Sighed so hard I could practically feel his breath, hot, coming through the phone. “Aura, I can’t.”
“You — you —” I stuttered.
“I’m not even working in town today, Aura. I’m all the way over in Billings. And I can’t just keep running off at a moment’s … Look, you’re going to have to handle it, okay?”
My whole body was thudding and was so scared, so scared, suddenly I was the one who was drowning. I can’t. I can’t. You’re not really going to do this are you? Why are you going to let everything fall on my shoulders, heavy as every brick building in the whole world?
Aura’s thoughts sum up the horrifying realization that any teen with a mentally ill parent must face. Her parents break up, and Aura handles it because she has no choice. She keeps things under control until her mother slips into a near catatonic state. That’s when she reaches out to her long absent grandmother who comes to the rescue, while her father, now in another relationship, also steps up to provide some guidance. Schindler makes clear that while these adults knew Aura was given a burden much too great to bear, they chose to ignore what was happening. They didn’t do anything until it was almost too late and, even then, only because the teenager was falling to pieces.
Jennifer Banash’s White Lines focuses on a teen who thinks she has escaped a mother with a combination of borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, but finds herself still very much in the emotional grip of a parent she cannot let go.
Seventeen-year old Cat seems to be handling things just fine; she is out of her mother’s house and her wealthy remarried father has set her up in her own apartment. With New York City at her fingertips and no rules to follow, she holds an enviable position in her social crowd as a “club kid.” She and her friends have a job of sorts; they are paid by a local promoter to bring in a teen cliental to various clubs. Her group is comprised of overlooked, ignored, or desperate kids who nominally attend high school, engage in all manner of drug-fueled activity, link up with sexual partners on a whim, and basically have what appears to be a full-time good time. They are also the kind of kids who kill themselves or get killed while no one notices.
Smart and self-aware, Cat knows her lifestyle cannot last forever but she also doesn’t know what to do instead, and she’s terrified of what will happen if she stops acting like she has it all together. For her, the problem is learning how to care about anyone again after the years of unpredictable violent abuse at the hands of her predatory mother. Consider this thought:
Sometimes I think that’s what life really is — the passing of small hurts on to one another, those circular moments of daily abuse. You hurt me, I hurt you. Rinse and repeat.
For Cat, it is the near death of a friend that finally prompts her to realize how close to the precipice she has come. This is the moment when she makes the phone call to her father, when she acknowledges not only that she’s not okay, but that no one with so much psychological damage can be okay. Thankfully, after passively watching on the sidelines for years, her father steps up, and Cat is on her way to discovering what a safe and happy home can be.
Statistics on children living in homes with mental illness are difficult to come by, although a 2007 issue of Social Work reported that five million children in the US have a parent with serious mental illness. In Canada, a 2009 national health survey found 12 percent of children under the age of 12 living in that country shared a home with a parent suffering from at least one mood, anxiety, or substance abuse disorder. Children must also deal with the secrecy that surrounds many mental disorders, and fear of what might happen to a family often prevents honest and open discussion of the issue. As the teenage protagonists of these three novels come to learn, however, staying in the sphere of the mentally ill means ceding control of nearly every aspect of their lives. That moment of realization — when the teen asserts that the life she’s been living is not okay — makes for a triumphant reading experience. These books represent gritty teen drama at its finest; they are powerful stories that teach readers what it truly means to be a young adult.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.
Colleen Mondor also reviews for Booklist and covers aviation for Alaska Dispatch News. She is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska and co-founder of the small press Shorefast Editions.