Sunday, September 30, 2012

Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern

Teenager Anna Bloom has just arrived at a mental hospital, where she immediately starts writing letters to her best friend Tracy in pencil as a way to make sense of her situation (“I don’t like pencils, I told them. They smudge. I once kept a journal all in pencil, and when I went back to read all of the depressing stuff that I wrote, it was gone. Smudged away”). She’s been checked in by her parents and left for an unexplained amount of time, to, presumably, “get better.” Her depression stems from her high school experience, her time at home with her family, and her day-to-day life, or, as Anna more succinctly explains, “Life sucks. I’m fat. Nothing interesting ever happens to me. I don’t want to deal with that shit anymore.”

She soon learns the ropes at the mental hospital, slowly figuring out what the days look like as the reader experiences them with her. She meets Matt O., who has been in there for six months; Justin, the guy that she crushes on; Luther, who believes he’s Satan; and her roommate Sandy, who takes care of a plastic baby doll. She is introduced to new daytime events, including the Sunday night movie, Appreciations, Community, and Relaxation. After she’s there long enough, Anna notes, “My teachers at real school finally sent my homework, and – oh joy! – I get to read The Crucible. How sad that someone could write a play about witchcraft and make it so boring.”

Anna’s letters to Tracy reflect on what life looked like before her entrance into the mental hospital. Her anxiety, panic attacks, and depression are traced backwards, to connect the reasons why she is where she is. But Anna finds that the longer she’s at the hospital, the more normal, and better, she feels. She stops crying. She starts losing weight. She makes friends. Her panic attacks stop. And she starts dreading the day she has to leave.

One thing that makes the mental hospital bearable is Justin, a boy Anna’s age who wears beat-up Converse shoes just like she does. There is a no touching rule at the hospital, and, at the beginning, Anna and Justin rely on talking at mealtimes and in the Day Room, and Anna crushes on him and hopes he likes her back. She starts thinking about what could happen if they went out together outside of the hospital, her anxiety coming back in a hilarious way:

Oh god. I cannot imagine ever ever ever being naked with another human being in my whole life. Is it ever going to happen? Do I want it to happen? Will I know what to do if it does? Maybe I should keep an eye on Callie and Troy for some pointers. Would that make me a Phil-level perv? Hey – I know! I’ll get a boyfriend who can show me how to do everything! Yeah! That sounds so easy, why didn’t I think of it sooner? Oh wait – I did. Like, every single second of my life. I am getting very desperate here.

Author Julie Halpern makes her characters so believable, that they never once lose their sense of teenagerness, even when removed from the typical environments – school and home – that usually define teenage experience. She makes Anna a character trying to come to terms with her depression and anxiety, while retaining a light, humorous personality that hints at her potential once she makes it back out into the world again. Anna’s growth in the hospital is only hindered by her fear that she will return to who she was before once she leaves it. Halpern mixes Anna’s depression with humor, which come together in carefully written paragraphs like these:

Who the hell is running this freak stand? Today our afternoon movie was the “classic” ‘80s flick The Boy Who Could Fly. Do you know this movie? You should, since they rerun it on UPN just about every Sunday. If not, here’s a refresher: A mentally challenged boy (played by some guy named Jay Underwood, but whom I prefer to call Jay Underwear) lives next door to this boring girl. The boring girl has a brother and a mother, but no father because he killed himself when he found out he had cancer. The mentally challenged boy next door is always on the roof pretending he can fly. He actually believes he can, but no one else does. Until one day he and the boring girl are forced to jump off of a roof together and wheeeeee! They can fly! And, eeew, there was this totally gross kiss at the end between the boring girl and the mentally challenged flying boy. This movie was, like, directly out of the handbook on what not to show at a mental hospital. First of all, way to go, Dad! Not only did you just give up, but you killed yourself! And mentally challenged flying boy? What kind of lesson is this supposed to teach us exactly? I hardly think it wise to put the idea of flying into the heads of impressionable teenagers who are already battling the challenges of lunacy.

I have only recently discovered Julie Halpern, but I wanted to highlight the title since Banned Books Week starts today and Get Well Soon routinely makes the list. But now that I’ve read this book, I’m excited to look for other titles by Halpern with characters as real and believable as Anna Bloom. 

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