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Within American society lurks a silent, invisible killer; it afflicts one fourth of the global population, causes eight million deaths annually, and its deadliness is often underestimated due to a lack of physical trademarks. Although mental illness may not cause direct physical harm, the torment that these sufferers endure on a daily basis is not to be taken lightly. Victims display a low self esteem and have a negative outlook on the world. If their intrusive thoughts are left untreated, victims may even take their own life. Furthermore, the voices in their heads tell them that they are undeserving of positive experiences, love, and even food. Lia, the protagonist of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, is one of many unfortunate teenagers who developed a deadly eating disorder due to her chronic depression and desire to be perfect. After a lifetime struggle with mental illness, Lia was beginning to recover from the self deprecating thoughts, and even became close friends with a quirky girl named Cassie. After several years, their friendship became tense, and they grew apart. Lia thought nothing of it until she received a disturbing midnight phone call from Cassie, which she dismissed. It turns out that was the last phone call Cassie would ever make, because the next morning, her childhood friend was found dead in a motel room from mysterious circumstances. Subsequently, Lia is weighed down with guilt over her inability to prevent her friend’s death, leading to a relapse in her caloric restriction and suicidal ideation. Lia’s near death experience, caused by depression after her friend’s death in the novel Wintergirls, accentuates the importance of supportive friendships in facilitating recovery from a deadly mental illness.
Lia’s rapidly declining health is sparked by grief over her best friend’s death, emphasizing her complex relationship with mental illness. Lia has suffered from a variety of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and anorexia. She was almost fully recovered after her second hospitalization even though a few intrusive thoughts still remained. When she learned of Cassie’s death, her mental state began to deteriorate rapidly and her mental illness fully regained control over her life. Lia’s ever increasing curiosity about the specifics of Cassie’s death is emphasized as she narrates, “What was [Cassie] doing there? What was she thinking? Did it hurt? There’s no point in asking why, even though everybody will. I know why… I can’t believe she ran out of answers before I did. I need to run, to fly, beating my wings so hard I can’t hear anything over the pounding of my heart. Rain, rain, rain, drowning me. Was it easy?” (Anderson 14). Clearly, Lia is haunted by the fact that she isolated herself from her friend in her final months, even refusing to answer her friend’s phone calls on the night of her death. Although she insists to family and friends that she no longer cares about Cassie, her mind is haunted by her role in Cassie’s death and a perplexing desire to mend her friendship. Her conflicting thoughts are intensified by her mental illnesses. Lia becomes depressed and even hallucinates at her friend’s funeral, where inside the coffin, “[Cassie] blinks— once, twice—opens her eyes wide, and looks straight at me. She reaches up and touches her hair… Cassie sits up slowly… and laughs, a low, dirty sound that only came out at two or three o’clock in the morning… I blink. She has disappeared from the coffin” (Anderson 88). Her friend’s ghost exiting the coffin was incredibly vivid to Lia, whether it was real or not, and had a profound impact on her mental health. She used to be able to block out the guilt of her friend’s death through unhealthy coping mechanisms like self harm and starvation, but now that her friend was “haunting her” she has no choice but to face the ghosts of her past and sets out to appease Cassie’s spirit. As she spends more time with Cassie’s ghost, not only does her anorexia and depression worsen, but she also pushes away the friends and family who are her only remaining ties to the real world. Literary critic Hsin-Chun Tsai emphasizes how Lia became so preoccupied with her illness that she ignored all her problems and refused all the positive parts of her life, becoming more trapped in a cycle of self starvation, “When it all comes down to one thing and one thing only–the size and the number–these girls become self-preoccupied and isolated. As Russell shrewdly observes, ‘[t]heir life constricts to the number of calories in an orange, the number on a scale… Lia becomes the casualty in her battle with herself’ ” (Tsai). Despite being so close to recovery, the tragedy of Cassie’s death triggered Lia into relapse, reducing her physical and mental function so greatly that she only had the energy to talk to her friend’s hallucination. Little did Lia know, the isolation she endured would cause her to become what she sought to avoid: a “wintergirl.”
Lia’s interactions with the mythical “wintergirl”, a bleak manifestation of Cassie’s spirit that is neither alive nor dead, cause Lia to resent her mental illness and desire recovery at a greater scale. During the exposition of the novel, the wintergirl is described by Lia and Cassie as a seemingly tantalizing, desirable future with a secretly grim outcome, “We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers. We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone” (Anderson 99). The wintergirl has clear connotations to anorexia, where the patient is constantly dancing with death, the figurative “witches and monsters,” to achieve an unhealthily skinny frame. Those with anorexia believe that they are in control, until they realize that they cannot return to a normal eating schedule and are afraid to gain weight. Instead of achieving happiness through her weight loss, Cassie achieved an untimely demise and Lia would be soon to follow if she did not change her ways. Literary critic Hsin-Chun Tsai explains, “In the end, it is she who is consumed. She becomes the “wintergirl” who is caught between the worlds of the living and the dead, an in-between existence that prompts her best friend’s spirit to call her ‘a ghost with a beating heart’ who will soon cross the border to meet now-dead Cassie” (Tsai). Lia realizes that she is near to death, but does not know how to recover because she is “afraid to be alone.” Her anorexic habits are the only coping mechanisms she has ever known. Lia’s life is so void of happiness that she feels she has no purpose but to wait for death. Her mental illnesses have physically and mentally drained her of all hope. Lia initially even resents her friend for dying, and “finding a way out” of the pain of daily life before Lia herself. However, the more Lia dissociates from the real world and interacts with her ghost of a friend, the more she realizes that she does not desire death; she wants to be normal, happy, and healthy. Not wanting to end up like her friend, Lia yearns for recovery, but to her it still seems like an unachievable goal for her malnourished and exhausted self. The turning point in Lia’s existence which would ultimately push her into recovery is a near death experience, tempting her at her most vulnerable state.
After a near death experience, Lia finally realizes the urgency of prioritizing her own health and is able to channel the grief of her friends death into motivation to recover. As a result of learning that Cassie died of bulimia, her parents threatened to have her hospitalized for her own eating disorder. Feeling frustrated and cornered, Lia runs away from home, refusing to eat anything for days. Her fragile, malnourished frame begins to undergo organ failure, coincidentally in the same motel room where Cassie died of an esophageal rupture. As Lia was fading away, Cassie’s ghost detailed the destruction her self induced starvation left on her body, “Your kidneys failed a couple hours ago. Starvation plus dehydration plus exhaustion topped off with an almost-overdose?… Your lungs are filling. Just a few more minutes… My heart flops once. I try to breathe. My lungs don’t expand. For a moment, one glass-coffin moment, I want to give in. Freeze” (Anderson 270). Immediately, Lia’s will to live skyrockets and she no longer desires to be a victim of her illness, proclaiming, “but I don’t want to” (Anderson 270), when asked to cross over into the afterlife. In a final act of bravery, Lia triumphs against her mental illness and appeases her best friend’s spirit by apologizing to her for not being there in her worst times, “ ‘Oh, this is awesome, Lia. I never thought of trying this, of taking the best parts with me.’ I open the door. ‘Do you feel better?’ She’s transparent. ‘Best.’…‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘Sorry I didn’t answer.’ Her eyes glitter like stars. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner’ ” (Anderson 273). Although this scene may be no more than a hallucination to the reader, it symbolizes a turning point in Lia’s life with her renewed friendship giving her a purpose to continue living. Furthermore, Cassie may not have survived her battle with mental illness, but her legacy lives on through Lia. Overall, by letting go of her past mistakes and finally mending her friendship, Lia is ready to fight her inner demons, recover, and reclaim her life.
In the end, Lia succeeds in finding the strength to recover from her psychological ailments by channeling her renewed friendship with Cassie into motivation for her recovery. After Cassie loses her own battle against mental illness, Lia’s life becomes consumed by depression and her eating disorder, and she possesses seemingly no desire to reclaim her health. Once the symptoms become overwhelming and she begins to suffer from psychedelic hallucinations of her friend’s ghost, she realizes the value of her own existence. Furthermore, her will to survive is bolstered by a near death experience, where she not only saves her own life, but also fulfills Cassie’s legacy. Overall, Wintergirls provides an intimate and accurate portrayal of mental illness, a prolific issue throughout our nation that should not be taken lightly. Although Lia may have reached rock bottom before finally seeking treatment, it is never too soon for a victim of a psychological disorder to seek help. Having a support system of friends, and family in conjunction with medical supervision is scientifically proven to facilitate the path to recovery, bringing the world one step closer to the eradication of these fearsome diseases.
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