Sometimes it feels like the only people who understand all the complicated happenings in our lives are the characters from our favorite YA books. When we opened the pages of Saving Red we knew that it was one of those gems.
As part of our Mental Health Matters ongoing blog series, we invited the author of Saving Red, Sonya Sones, to shed light on the subject of bipolar disorder. In this post you will find the heartbreaking story of why Sonya Sones was inspired to write Saving Red along with the painful ways which mental illness has affected her and her family. In a society where mental health is overlooked and swept under the rug, Sonya Sones has given us the courage to make space at the table for a conversation about it.
My Sister’s Christmas Eve Breakdown
One day she was my big sister, so normal and well-behaved. The next she was a stranger, rushing out the door to midnight mass, a wild-eyed Jewish girl wearing only a nightgown.
It seemed to happen in a blink, on that terrible Christmas Eve so many years ago. My older sister, whom I’d always looked up to and admired, had a nervous breakdown. I was almost thirteen at the time, and my sister was nineteen. She’d just arrived home for winter break from her first year at college, where as far as any of us knew, things had been going fine.
“I watched in horror as my father, usually a calm, quiet man, was transformed into a stranger as well, dragging my big sister away from the door, up the stairs, screaming so loud that my ears stung.”
I watched in horror as my father, usually a calm, quiet man, was transformed into a stranger as well, dragging my big sister away from the door, up the stairs, screaming so loud that my ears stung. Terrified by the violence of the scene that was unfolding before me, I sank into the wall, wondering what these two strangers were doing in my house. Something was very wrong with my sister. I sat with her while she talked and talked, deep into the night. In fact, she seemed unable to stop talking.
The next morning, as I watched my parents drive off with my sister weeping in the backseat of the car, I was filled with dread. Later that day, when they returned without her, they told me that they’d committed my sister to a mental hospital. It was hard for me to believe that this was happening. There seemed to be no apparent reason for the sudden onset of her mental illness, and this made it all the more bewildering.
It didn’t take the doctors long to diagnose my sister as manic-depressive, which would be called bipolar today—a chemical imbalance that causes people to experience extreme highs and extreme lows. But it took the doctors what seemed like forever to figure out the right combination of medications for her.
“I was grief-stricken over the loss of the sister that I’d known and loved, freaked-out by her crazy behavior, angry with her for not recognizing me, and guilty for being angry with her.”
Whenever I visited her in the hospital, I’d return home with a cyclone of feelings raging inside of me. I was grief-stricken over the loss of the sister that I’d known and loved, freaked-out by her crazy behavior, angry with her for not recognizing me, and guilty for being angry with her. These jumbled emotions made me feel frighteningly close to madness myself. What if I was going crazy, too?
There wasn’t anybody I could talk to about these worries. My parents were so consumed by what was happening to my sister that they had little energy left for me. And I was too embarrassed to tell my friends about what was going on because of the stigma attached to mental illness. But fortunately, I found that writing in my journal about the enormous confusion I felt, gave me much needed relief. Pouring out my feelings onto those clean white pages every night helped me to survive.
Eventually, my sister’s condition began to improve. After a few months, she was released from the hospital. Although she’s had to be hospitalized several times since then, none of her subsequent breakdowns have been as severe as the first. With the aid of medication and electroshock therapy she’s been able to lead a productive and satisfying life. She married, earned a masters degree in library science, and worked as a librarian for over twenty years.
As for myself, I still look up to and admire my big sister, and I’m proud of all that she’s accomplished. I’ve continued writing in journals ever since that difficult time. In 1995, my interest in writing led me to enroll in a poetry class at UCLA, taught by Myra Cohn Livingston. She was sensitive, brilliant, and supportive—the teacher of my dreams. It was Myra who set me on the path to writing my first novel in verse, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. It was based on that very tough time when my sister had her first breakdown.
When I told my sister I had written the book and that it was going to be published, I offered to use a pen name. But she saw no need for that. She was eager for me to share her story. She said, “This book could be used to open up discussions about mental illness in schools!”
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying that she’ll have another breakdown someday”
My sister is doing fine these days. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying that she’ll have another breakdown someday and wander off into the huge city where she lives, never to be found again. And I think it’s this nagging fear that inspired me to write my latest novel, Saving Red.
Saving Red is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Molly, who reluctantly volunteers to participate in Santa Monica’s annual homeless count, just to get her school’s community service requirement out of the way. But when she ends up meeting Red, a homeless girl with mental illness, only a few years older than she is, Molly makes it her mission to reunite her with her family in time for Christmas. This turns out to be extremely difficult—because Red refuses to talk about her past. There are things Molly won’t talk about either. Like the awful thing that happened last winter. She may never be ready to talk about that. Not to Red, or to Cristo, the soulful boy she meets while riding the Ferris wheel one afternoon. Molly soon finds out that it’s hard to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
When writing Saving Red, my goal was to create a likeable, relatable, charismatic character with mental illness. And when she goes missing, instead of being swallowed up by the city and disappearing forever, she meets someone who tries to help her get the care she needs. Which, of course, is what I would wish for my own sister, if the same thing ever happened to her.
“…there is still a cruel and unfair stigma against people with mental illness.”
Unfortunately, even now, so many years after my sister’s first breakdown, there is still a cruel and unfair stigma against people with mental illness. There are horrifying stories in the news almost every week about police gunning them down. And so often the media makes fun of people with mental illness, or portrays them as dangerous maniacs. Halloween is a particularly tough time of year for this, when people create haunted houses modeled after insane asylums.
My hope is that those who read Saving Red and Stop Pretending will walk away from the experience with more compassion, understanding and empathy for people who are afflicted with these diseases, and for their loved ones, as well. An author couldn’t hope for more than that.
SAVING RED is a heartwarming story about two vastly different teens coping with mental illness in their day to day lives and how their unlikely friendship keeps them safe.
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