Life Is But a Dream
by Brian James
Feiwel and Friends
Available March 27th
Sabrina, an artist, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her parents check her into the Wellness Center. There she meets Alec, who is convinced it's the world that's crazy, not the two of them. They are meant to be together; they are special. But when Alec starts to convince Sabrina that her treatment will wipe out everything that makes her creative, she worries that she'll lose hold of her dreams and herself. Should she listen to her doctor? her decision may have fatal consequences.
Brian James calls Life is But a Dream "the most intense book I've written. Bringing this unique character to life and seeing the world through her eyes, with all its beauty and confusion, was an immense challenge that I hope is just as rewarding to read as it was to write." Intense--yes. Unforgettable--definitely.
Sabrina is young, 15, and I thought that was too young for schizophrenia, but I was informed by my 15 yr old that they just studied it in Health and that it isn't too young. So my tax dollars at work, he learned something! But I do think it's unusual. Still it happens to Sabrina and though she's delusional she's strong in some ways. She was taken advantage of and her mind just built a different, though pretty world around the ugly things kids did to her. In fact, she escaped from reality all the time and by escape, she got totally engrossed in her fantasy so that she lost track of time, days, what was going on around her. Her delusions are beautiful, fairies and painting the sky, she's searching for heaven. No, she's not suicidal.
I have no way of judging if Brian James did a good job of portraying what it's like to have "acute schizophrenia." I have nothing to compare it to and the only research I saw that he did was pick up a hitchhiker who shared with him what it was like to have schizophrenia.* But this isn't a "Guide for Schizophrenics." It's just a fictional account of a girl falling into her delusional life, believing the boy she meets in therapy that says the drugs are just going to make her a robot person. Alec. Alec the angry boy who falls for the delusional girl that paints pretty pictures for him that calm him down. But he doesn't realize how serious she is. And she doesn't realize he doesn't believe in her dream. That they will walk into the sun in the ocean, hand in hand and the world will fall to dust all around them and they will be in heaven. What he sees as metaphor she sees as reality.
I think Alec is so busy being angry at the world, at his parents, at his doctors, that he doesn't really take the time to really hear her. He listens and Sabrina believes he's the only one that's ever understood her, but the things he tells her only feeds her paranoia and just when she's getting better, he undoes everything. He tells her they are the only normal ones. And tells her how to fake taking her medicine. And that if she takes her medicine, she'll become one of them. Sabrina has been noticing her escaping has not been working and now she realizes it's the medicine. They are changing her. And her paranoia sets in deep. Unknowingly, Alec makes her much, much worse because they never tell each other what their diseases are,they just describe what the doctors say is wrong with them. The word schizophrenia never comes up.
I think Mr. James tells a great story about a girl coming undone and no one really hearing her. A story about a young girl who knows she's not right, she's special but she doesn't quite understand why it's wrong to be this kind of special. And she's not sure why she should let go of this specialness since it is who she is. Mr. James definitely got that right. As a person that has to take many psychiatric drugs on a daily basis, I fight with that too. And I understand not wanting to change who you are. As soon as Sabrina starts being more lucid, she starts missing her dreams, her escapes from reality. Facing reality is scary and dreaming is much more preferable. So when she feels her escape being taken away, she feels like she's changing, losing herself. I totally identify with her. It's kind of like when you're drinking and you're uninhibited so that you're more social. You'd like to be that way all the time, right? But you can't drink all the time, there are rules. For Sabrina, they are taking away those feelings that she uses to cope as she gets better. It's a good thing, but it's hard to lose when you've always had it.
The story is really beautifully written as Sabrina's delusions are descriptive and original. She's artistic so her delusions are as well. Mr. James isn't flowery in his descriptions yet they are poetic and painted all the same. After the fateful meeting with Alec, I could feel the ball rolling down the hill as Sabrina's mind gained momentum toward her explosive rock bottom, until no one could be trusted, even her own reflection. It's very intense, almost like waiting for a thunderstorm. When they separate her from Alec, she wants to leave the hospital immediately. No one realizes the true effect he's had on her, not even Alec.
I enjoyed reading this story so much. It was told from Sabrina's point of view and it was so mesmerizing reading her thought process. She was lucid at times, remembering to pretend to act normal and other times, completely lost. So foreign to any mental illness I've ever known. And so frightening. And the story was completely different in a good way. Told from the point of view of the person with the mental illness, the victim of the disease, it never vilified her as something evil or soul sucking or a potential murderer. She was the victim of a disease, a "chemical imbalance". I was almost giddy to see it described like that. Why, oh, because that's what many mental illnesses are. And the medicines bring balance back and make a person stable.
I don't know much about schizophrenia. The little I do know is that I'm glad it isn't the disorder I have. But I have been told by mental health professionals that people with the disease can lead very productive lives. So there's hope. And that's kind of where I was left at the end of this book, with some hope. And I applaud Mr. James for his writing, for the inventiveness of Sabrina's delusions and dreams and for writing from the sick person's point of view. Thank you for not making her someone to be hated or pitied. Yes, this is personal for me.
*Brian James, the author, reached out to me on Goodreads to let me know it he did a lot of research on schizophrenia and that his mention of the hitch hiker was merely a shout out for all his valuable and brave sharing of what his daily life is like living with the illness.
Thank you to MacMillian and Feiwel and Friends for allowing me to read an ARC of this via NetGalley.
This in no way influenced my review of this novel.