As readers of this blog will have noticed, I enjoy reading about teenagers’ experience with mental illness, and this book definitely fits that bill.
Mel Hannigan has a lot to deal with. She has bipolar disorder. She also had an older brother who she was really close to who died a few years earlier. She has a couple of friends currently, but lost three close friends the previous year because of her illness and a fight with one of them. Nobody outside her family knows about her bipolar disorder. She also works at a nursing home, which is where she feels most comfortable now. This is where she meets David, a boy her age who helps to start breaking down some of the walls she’s constructed around herself. But it’s not an easy or painless process.
The book opens with a memory that leads up to—but doesn’t include—Mel’s brother Nolan’s death (what happened to him is a mystery that isn’t revealed until the end). Then we jump three years ahead to Mel at 16. She is dealing with her bipolar disorder reasonably well, considering how severe it is. She tries to keep it under control with medication and mood charts, and keeps it secret from her friends because she doesn’t think they’d react well.
Her mood tracking is pretty interesting—she thinks of four components of herself (head, heart, health, and “host” (which corresponds with her overall mood plus the combination of others)) and tracks how each one is doing in order to understand her state of mind as well as possible. This is pretty important to her because her bipolar is fairly extreme and she regularly experiences mixed states and even dysphoric mania (which is depression mixed with very high energy, highly dangerous in terms of suicide risk).
Mel starts getting to know David at the nursing home at the same time as her old friend group has a major event that means that she might be able to refriend them. Things are shaky on all fronts, however, and when something devastating happens, Mel’s mental state worsens and everything goes wrong. You wonder how things are going to turn around and it’s both heartbreaking and satisfying to see it happen.
I think this book does an excellent job of conveying one experience of bipolar disorder. It’s not everyone’s experience of it, but seeing one could help a reader understand it better. But it’s also just a good story.