Girl on the Line
by Faith Gardner
HarperTeen Publishing, 2021
352 pp. Hardcover
Girl on the Line by Faith Gardner is a non-linear story about a seventeen-year-old girl’s experiences before, during, and after her attempted suicide. Gardner, a musician as well as an author, has published numerous short stories and two books prior to the one reviewed. Girl on the Line is an emotionally charged exploration of young Journey’s mental struggles and inner turmoil as she is diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. Characterized by the ecstasy of hypomania and despairing depression, the narrator’s reality shifts with her intense emotions. Journey’s “big emotions,” as she calls them, have always been written off as dramatic behavior, needing attention or having a big personality. Her moods worsen when her parents get divorced, her academics predict that she will not be attending college with her friends, and as she processes the trauma of a recent car accident.
Her mother takes her to a psychiatrist, a medication prescription doctor, where a series of “One through ten how like you is ____?” statements leave her with a Bipolar diagnosis and a lingering feeling of being dismissed and without agency over her mental health. While already struggling to maintain her grades in school, her new medication leaves her spacy and disinterested in her education. She feels directionless and fears that her best friend will quickly forget her once she goes to college, and Journey is left at home doing nothing of note. After breaking up with her boyfriend, when Journey does admit that she is suicidal, she attempts to take her life. Journey regrets her actions, feels immense shame, and notes that the people in her life read every emotional conflict as a sign of another attempt.
Journey misses a decent amount of school but tells the administration that it was mono. The academic counselor, worried about her academically and emotionally, calls her in and suggests that she go to middle-college, a program that lets someone take college classes for both high school and college credits. He states that she is not challenged, which is one reason why she offers such little effort in her work. She does go, and she reconnects with an attractive woman she had run into briefly when training to be a crisis-hotline volunteer. Etta, an openly queer woman, is the first person Journey really connects to after her attempt. Journey is attracted to Etta and knows that she is bisexual, but her “big feelings” and the shame of her mental disorder convinces Journey that she would be more of a burden than a partner.
The narrator’s experiences and inner dialogue are exemplary of a young person with Bipolar II disorder. In addition, Journey’s struggle to be heard and understood both as a teenager and a person with serious mental health struggles reflects common occurrences. Oftentimes people feel misdiagnosed as a psychiatrist appointment deals more clinically with a disorder rather than emotionally, like with a psychologist (therapist). Like many people who take medication to manage their disorder, but especially true for people who are Bipolar, it is easy to believe that one is “better” and no longer must take medication that often has side effects. It is beneficial for those conversations to happen, as medical professionals know that their patients are “better” because medications normalizes their moods; yet Gardner demonstrates that this information is not shared until after it becomes a problem, and her medical characters explain it in a dismissive “this should be obvious” manner.
Journey’s story is messy; she is traumatized by several events that have left her feeling worthless and simultaneously “too much.” She struggles with intrusive thoughts, a voice that is her own that pushes her to hate herself but learns from therapy that she can speak back to that voice and develop realistic coping mechanisms. Journey refuses to “let” herself go down the same path that led to her attempt, but the internalized shame from past actions does strain many of her relationships with friends and family.
In many ways, Journey is very self-absorbed. She has internalized so much shame, feels misunderstood by neurotypical characters, and is still in a state of recovery/adolescent development that limits her ability to read other people accurately. She pushes Etta away convinced that she is the problematic “crazy” girl. Etta stumbles upon Journey at a busy intersection, revealing that she suffers from severe anxiety. This revelation connects the two, and Journey lets herself show someone else her emotions.
Gardner does not wrap up the story neatly, but this reflects how mental health works. Journey does find professionals who listen to her concerns and provide explanations for the treatments they suggest. She is not sure that she is Bipolar, but she does accept that her brain works differently, and she can consult other people to help her live a stable life. At times, this novel is hard to read. Journey does have a lot of feelings that are hard to process, both for herself as a character and the reader as the observer. Those who experience suicidal ideation and/or intrusive thoughts will empathize with the young narrator, but it could stir uncomfortable feelings and memories. Gardner does not include detailed intrusive thoughts or actions, allowing the reader to understand Journey’s mind without vicariously experiencing it.
- Jacklyn Heslop
Indiana University of Pennsylvania