By Your Side ~ #JNGReads

“I knew it was the extreme amount of stress I’d been under lately. Something had to give. I needed an outlet.

Under no circumstances should it have taken me almost a week to read a 350 page young adult book. But, I had an unexpectedly rough week, which is fitting for this reading experience in so many ways.

By Your Side by Kasie West is a novel about a teenage girl, Autumn, who gets stuck in a library over a long weekend with a misunderstood guy from her school, Dax. A common criticism of this novel that I’ve come across is that the setting of the library seems totally inconsequential, as neither of the characters actually read when they’re trapped in there, and that the portion of the novel when Autumn and Dax are trapped in the library is too short. These two things are true. However, they did not affect my rating of this novel whatsoever, and I will explain why.

“Just talking about rules right now was relaxing me. Structure sometimes helped me feel safe.”

By Your Side was unlike anything I expected from reading the synopsis, and yet, in so many ways, it surpassed my expectations. This is all down to the fact that Autumn suffers from anxiety.

I had an anxiety attack this morning. There’s a long story behind it, related to the long week I had, but to make that story short, I found myself crying in bed this morning as I thought about all the obligations (mostly social) ahead of me this weekend. I eventually calmed myself down (I’ve been told that anxiety attacks are not supposed to last for more than 20-minutes, even though they often seem to go on for an eternity), and when I did, I was able to get back into reading By Your Side right at a spot in the book when Autumn is also coming to terms with her anxiety. Autumn becomes easily overwhelmed when in certain social situations with her friends, and she slowly learns, through the course of the novel and with the help of her new friend/love interest Dax, that saying No is okay and important, particularly when she is being pushed beyond her limits.

“‘Have you ever felt trapped?’

I gave a single laugh. ‘Yes. I have anxiety.’”

Saying No is something I wish I was better at…but I’m working on it. I have felt exactly what Autumn has, that urge to give into people, to always say Yes to them even if you feel yourself starting to break. What I appreciated about West’s treatment of anxiety was that she focused on the sense of responsibility some people with anxiety feel, this burden of not wanting to disappoint other people or let them down. West focuses much of her portrayal of anxiety on Autumn’s family members and Dax reminding her that she has to keep herself healthy, that it is okay for her to admit her limitations, step back, and take some time alone to focus on her mental well-being. I don’t think this sort of thing is talked about enough in society, even with the current move toward focusing on anxiety disorders and mental illness. I believe that many people who don’t suffer from anxiety would find it hard to wrap their mind around why a person may feel uncomfortable about going to a particular social engagement, or why the thought of doing a certain social thing would bring them to tears. But, I have been there, most recently this morning, and I can say with conviction that for individuals who suffer from certain types of anxiety, there is no rhyme or reason; all we know is that some things, on some days, by no logic or rule, are simply beyond our power.

“‘Thanks for letting me stay home this week.’

‘Of course. You need to take care of yourself.’

‘I know. That’s why I’m staying home from the basketball game tonight too. Just the thought of it makes me cringe.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’”

Autumn eventually gets to the point where she can say No to her friends, based on how she is feeling and by gaging her own mental health, and she is lucky in the sense that her friends are supportive of her and open to learning about her anxiety disorder. Believe me, not everyone in the world is that understanding. Having said that, I personally appreciated that West emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself, of doing what is right for you. Anxiety is just as real as any physical illness, and I agree with West that it has to be treated as such: sometimes, a person with anxiety simply isn’t feeling well enough to do something, and that feeling should be viewed as just as valid as if someone couldn’t make it out because of a stomach flu or throat infection. We all have our boundaries and barriers, and not every day is going to be an anxiety-filled one…but the ones that are need to be taken slow and easy, and Autumn is conscious of that towards the end of her story.

Is By Your Side the best young adult novel I’ve ever read? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, it would make an adorable, light-hearted move and I really liked Autumn and Dax and their cute banter. That, I would only give 3 stars for though…for West’s portrayal of anxiety, however, I’ll up my rating a touch.

I would encourage any teenager who suffers from anxiety to pick up this book, because not only is it enjoyable, it will also remind you that what you’re feeling is perfectly valid and should be respected.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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Don’t Touch ~ #JNGReads

I got Don’t Touch at Chapters 3 days ago, on sale for $1.50. That is both a travesty and a blessing.

It is a travesty because Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson is an excellent young-adult novel and it is worth much more than $1.50. So much more.

It is a blessing because if the book wasn’t on sale for $1.50, I never would’ve spotted it and decided to pick it up. And, I am lucky to have had the chance to read it.

Don’t Touch is a complex, intricate and deeply moving story about a high school student and aspiring actress, Caddie, who suffers from severe anxiety and OCD. Caddie’s anxiety is so all-consuming that she has convinced herself, after her parents’ separation, that she cannot touch anyone without dire consequences. Caddie purchases gloves, she wears long sleeves and pants even in the oppressive heat of summer, and when she develops a crush on her classmate Peter and is cast as Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet opposite Peter in the title role, she does everything within her power to avoid getting close to him. Caddie is the narrator of Don’t Touch, and so the reader is able to develop a very intimate relationship with her, hearing her innermost fears and turmoil at wanting to engage with Peter and her other friends, but not feeling as though she is able to.

There were moments in Don’t Touch that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t suffer from severe OCD, but I have friends who do, and I myself suffer from anxiety. I am learning recently that my struggle with anxiety (which began at the start of high school) is so much less severe and difficult than what so many of my peers have to endure on a daily basis, but I do believe that mental health is all relative, and my anxiety sometimes feels like the most horrible thing in the world, at least to me. I luckily have never been in Caddie’s position where I fear touching others, but I do understand the frustration that comes from having this one fear playing over and over in your brain, no matter how hard to try to get it to stop or how logical you try to be. Anxiety isn’t really logical at all, or at least it isn’t in my experience, and I was deeply touched by Caddie’s narration of her inability to calm herself down even when she knows her anxieties are nonsensical, silly and impossible.

Rachel M. Wilson writes about anxiety well, with heart and respect. She mentions in her Author’s Note that she herself suffers from OCD, and that is clear in her careful treatment of mental health struggles that she is familiar with them. I only wish her book got more hype because I believe it is the exact sort of text that teenagers need to read. If I had read something like this book in high school, it may have helped me comprehend my anxieties and understand that they are not as uncommon or embarrassing as I originally thought. I don’t mean to say that a book like Don’t Touch would’ve cured me, but it would’ve made me feel a bit more “normal”…whatever that even means.

Caddie is a strong character, despite her anxieties, and what is most profound is the message that ailments like anxiety or OCD do NOT make a person weak, but rather they can make them impressively strong. Caddie goes through a lot and she doesn’t always come out on top of her anxiety, but in the end, she has developed methods to cope with it and she is able to touch people and enjoy this proximity. She comes a long way, but what is most special and poignant about her progress is that she seeks help, from her mother, from her friends, and from a trained professional. She eventually realizes that power comes from talking about her anxieties, from taking the power away from them, and she becomes vocal and unselfconscious in her discussion of what is plaguing her. This was beautiful to see and an incredible message for anyone who suffers from anxiety or OCD to be left with: that speaking about it, owning up to it and in a way embracing it, is the first step toward wellness.

“Talking about fear takes its power away.”

I would highly recommend Don’t Touch to anyone and everyone because it truly blew me away. I wasn’t expecting to find it so sharp and touching, but it was, and I think it is worthy of a lot more attention. Spend $1.50 on it, spend $15.00, spend $50.00…but whatever you do, pick up this book!

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

My Victorian Condition ~ A Life Talk

I could never be a Victorian.

Isn’t that ironic? How many times have I mentioned here (and in my life in general) that I would love to have lived in the Victorian era? I mean, for god sake, my bio on the side of this very blog’s homepage professes…

~ I would trade this life for a Victorian life in a heartbeat. ~

But, it has come to my attention recently that there is no way I would survive a Victorian life…and it has everything to do with one tiny thing I have been carrying around for my entire life. My anxiety. Now, I know there’s a stigma about mental health issues, which is definitely going away slowly, but is still pretty prevalent in society. Not many people feel comfortable about discussing their mental health struggles, and honestly, I’ve always sort of been one of those people. I talk very openly about my anxiety with my close friends, my immediate family and my fiancé, but it’s not something I’m exactly eager to shout from the rooftops. I’d like for the people I work with not to have any clues about it. I never revealed it to any of my classmates or my professors. I just always felt that it was the sort of thing that needed to be kept silent, or at least not have attention drawn to.

I’m very lucky because my anxiety is not debilitating and, to be honest, I’ve never had it diagnosed. But believe me when I say that I know I suffer from anxiety because I have read enough about it and seen enough examples of it in my life to know what it looks like. Although it is most certainly a different experience for each and every person, I have witnessed enough different forms of anxiety to know that my nerves and worries are more severe than most other peoples’. And perhaps I should feel shy about writing this post (even know, as I write it, I wonder if I will ever actually post it on my blog), but part of me just wants to write about my personal experiences, not only to get them out there for others who may be struggling, but also to help sort through them myself. Writing has always been a cathartic and therapeutic pastime for me, and so it seems like the best method to unravel my anxieties and get to the root of them.

My anxiety manifests itself as a preoccupation with things that are unlikely and illogical, but terrifying. I become fixated on one idea, one fear or source of nervousness, and I find it hard to stop my fixation and rumination on this notion until another one slips in to replace it. Don’t get me wrong, I have good periods when I’m not that consciously anxious about anything in particular, but at any given moment, if I sit down and think long enough, I will be able to pinpoint one or two things to be nervous about. As I said, these things are often totally outlandish and ridiculous, and yet I latch onto that slim chance that it may happen and sometimes make myself sick at the thought. I am getting better at realizing that my anxieties have no actual basis in reality, but that doesn’t mean that I’m able to overcome them entirely. I may never be able to do that, and I am strangely okay with that…I know that anxiety will be a part of who I am forever, and I also know that it will be one of the biggest things in my life that makes me strong and resilient. I try as much as I can to use my anxiety to my advantage, to try to become a stronger person because of it, as hard as that may often be. It has made me resourceful and driven to persevere and not let it stop me.

My anxiety is also always worse in times when I am incandescently and extremely happy. For whatever reason, it seems like, whenever I am most content and confident, my anxiety kicks in and reminds me that everything can disappear in a flash. It’s the ultimate manifestation of the “glass half empty” mentality…my anxiety is constantly there to encourage me to be prepared to lose everyone and everything, to make me believe that happiness is fleeting and fragile. These are the points when my anxiety is most exhausting, because I am most frustrated with myself. These are also the times, though, when I feel most compelled to work on my anxiety, to try to combat it by being even more joyous and ignoring the tiny voice inside me that warns me to be pessimistic. It is at these moments that I get fed up with myself and my overactive brain and try to live fearlessly and boldly!

Recently, however, it came to my attention that 3 of my biggest most all-encompassing anxieties would absolutely prevent me from living the life I have always professed to want. Ever since I was young, but definitely more so now that I have moved out to my own home, I have been predominantly anxious about 3 things: fire, lice and bed bugs. I think that most people would be afraid of these 3 things and the inconveniences they cause, but my anxiety will go to the point of exhaustion, where I am checking my hair every night, or pulling my bed apart to get at my mattress, or feeling terrible nerves whenever I am out even though I checked that the oven was off 3 times before leaving. It does tire me out, no question, to have these 3 worries constantly at the back of my mind, and I have actually gotten to the point in this fatigued state where I have almost broken down in tears after seeing a firetruck randomly drive in the vague direction of my home. Again, I think most, if not all, people would be terrified by the thought of enduring a fire or the inconvenience of having lice or bed bugs, but my anxiety causes me to take that fear to the extreme.

Which brings me to why I could never be a Victorian… It is a pretty widely known fact that the 3 most prevalent issues in Victorian society were fire, lice and bed bugs. As coincidental as this may seem, I wonder if maybe my anxieties stemmed from reading and watching so many Victorian stories when I was growing up. In any case, it’s no shock to anyone to learn that a large part of London burnt down in 1666…although that was centuries before the Victorian era, fires were still a huge occurrence in Victorian England. And don’t even get me started on lice and bed bugs…it seems that almost every Victorian household had them, and I once read an article somewhere that suggested that at any given moment in Victorian society, 85% of children had head lice. I have to be frank, I didn’t want to do any research for this post as I wanted to speak of my own personal ideas more than anything else, so those statistics may be off. But there is no doubt that the things I fear on a regular basis were spreading rapidly during the Victorian era.

When my best friend, CV, mentioned to me that I could never live in the Victorian era because all of my greatest fears were a viable risk, I was immediately disappointed. Time machines don’t exist (just yet), so it wasn’t like I was exactly missing out on a trip to Victorian England…but at the same time, it felt like my anxiety was actively preventing me from doing something I had always wanted to do. Generally, I don’t let my anxiety get in my way, but here was an example of a limitation, a society I couldn’t have lived in comfortably no matter how much I love it and wish I could visit it. It was shocking, to say the least, to think that this lifestyle I put on such a pedestal was also one that would have terrified me on a daily basis…and it was eye opening. Anxiety should never ever prevent you from doing anything, and that is something that is not always easy to wrap your mind around when you’re having an anxiety attack or fixating on something. For me, it was helpful to have this reminder, to have a moment of clarity where I realized that these things I fear are things that other people have gone through and survived, and are things that don’t happen all that often in a time I am very fortunate to live in. It was an interesting source of perspective for me, a little extra jolt to try to force down my anxieties about these issues, to try to talk myself out of them and work through them.

I am and always will be a Victorianist, and it seems that my own particular Victorian condition is to be wary of the very same things that my Victorian counterparts and idols would have been concerned about. Whatever that says about my anxiety, it does remind me that there are certain things I will never be able to dodge or control, no matter what time I live in, and that it would not necessarily be simpler to live in what many people perceive as a simpler time. At the very least, I am reminded now, on a daily basis, that the people of the past had many more reasons to be afraid (by my standards, anyway), and yet they lived, they didn’t fear, they somehow managed to go up against greater risks than I face currently. So if Queen Victoria can be strong, surrounded by all her candles and gas lamps, why can’t I? I think I can, because I do, after all, have all those Victorian inclinations, both good and bad, way deep down inside me.

Janille N G

Girl with a Green Heart