Title: Freaks Like Us
Author: Susan Vaught
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication date: January 19, 2012
When Jason Milwaukee’s best friend Sunshine vanishes, Jason knows that something is terribly wrong, but solving her disappearance will require pushing through all the voices in his head and then getting the world to listen to him. His schizophrenia is stopping him from remembering the events leading up to her disappearance, and often he discounts his own memories, and his own impressions. But his deep knowledge that he would never hurt his friend, plus the faith of his parents and a few others in the town bring him to the point of solving the mystery. In the end, it’s Sunshine’s own love for Jason (Freak) that persuades him of his own strength and goodness. By turns brilliantly witty and searingly honest, Susan Vaught’s newest novel is a laugh-out-loud, tear-jerking, coming-of-age story.
Freaks Like Us deals with three very distinct mental disorders. Jason, aka Freak, is schizophrenic; Derrick, aka Drip, has ADHD; and Sunshine is selectively mute. Sunshine disappears after school one day and the entire story revolves around Jason and Drip trying to find her. Since Jason is schizophrenic, this proves to be even more difficult for him to handle as he has to deal with constant voices inside his head telling him conflicting messages about himself. I think we all have that inner critic in ourselves, but the voices Freak hears take this to a totally different level. You can’t help but feel so bad for him yet amazed at the same time that he’s able to deal with such a horrible disease with as much grace and self-awareness as he does.
I think one of the most powerful aspects of the story is the friendship between Freak, Drip, and Sunshine. You couldn’t find three people more different from each other, yet their illnesses, or “alphabets,” bring them together to form an unbreakable bond. No one else can understand what alphabets go through except for other alphabets, even the parents, and it’s both sad and heartwarming to see this bond between the three friends.
I really enjoy books that deal with mental disorders for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think there is a major stigma with mental illness and society is quick to label people “crazy” or “retarded” or some other inappropriate and hurtful name when they talk about these diseases. Books about these illnesses help defy that way of thinking and bring the issues to the forefront. We never, ever say anything hurtful about people battling cancer or heart disease, but a person with a mental illness must “have a screw loose” or “they must come from a crazy, unstable family.” Why is this? Why do we treat mental illness so differently than physical illnesses?
Perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive to this as I’ve experienced mental disease in personal ways. My stepmom was a foster parent before she married my dad, and I learned about autism and bi-polar disorder from kids she was fostering while she and my dad were dating. They ended up adopting the bi-polar child, who is now my half-brother and continues to battle the disorder. I’ve also had family members and friends battle depression, social anxiety disorder, and generalized panic disorder. It’s hurtful to hear people speak negatively about these illnesses because people truly can’t control it – it’s not something people choose to have or want to have. And yet, there is still this idea that these people are just “weird” and “crazy.” It’s honestly something I think about quite often and still wonder why mental illness is portrayed the way it is.
Freaks Like Us is a very quick yet powerful read that will leave you asking yourself important questions about how you perceive mental illness and what you can do to help eliminate the stigma.
*Big thanks to Allison at Good Books & Good Wine for reviewing this book and making me want to read it! If any of you have recommendations for other books about mental illness, either young adult or adult, please leave me a comment and let me know.