Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Simon Pulse, 2017) is a nuanced portrayal of the harm anxiety can wreck on a person’s life. Kiko’s difficulties happen side by side with toxic family relations, friendships full of love and understanding, and a budding romance. Kiko’s art is her release and her story centres around her search for an art college where she can nurture her talent and escape her past.

“I live my life in the small space between uncomfortable and awkward.”

Starfish has very thorough (own voices) descriptions of social anxiety. Seeing Kiko’s experiences and her reactions to anxiety-inducing situations helps readers who suffer from anxiety. Whether this is the social anxiety of Kiko, generalized anxiety that impacts all aspects life, or any other diagnosed anxiety disorder. Many readers have found themselves echoed in Kiko’s thoughts.

“Normal people don’t need to prepare for social interactions. Normal people don’t panic at the sight of strangers. Normal people don’t want to cry because the plan they’ve processed in their head is suddenly not the plan that’s going to happen.”

Including this heartfelt response to Kiko’s anxiety from a GR friend. We had a convo in the comments about our thoughts on Starfish. If you don’t have an IRL book group, online is always there, especially if you have anxiety issues.

Of course I have qualms, because don’t I always? A shy person has a lot of worry going into a social situation. They may decide not to go, go and be unable to talk to anyone, or go and leave soon after due to worry. They’re unlikely to have a panic attack. Kiko has panic attacks in social situations. A doctor would use a host of indicators for diagnosis including: intrusive thoughts, being unable to speak in social situations, etc. Any doctor would diagnose her with an anxiety disorder, but unfortunately there’s no medical intervention in sight for Kiko.

“I’m too busy trying not to make eye contact with people while giving off the illusion that I am.”

An anxiety disorder doesn’t go away by itself, although it can be managed over time. Anxiety disorders like selective mutism can seem to be “grown out of.” It’s more that the child learns to cope better with triggers and manage their anxiety. Talking to a therapist and parental/carer involvement are imperative. eg. I regress in my ability to talk when my depression is at its worst, but never to the extent I was as a child. People with a good social network (family/friends) helping them could manage anxiety without medical intervention. Part of that is the support of their network and talking. Kiko mentions this but her toxic home life cancels out the possibility. While reading I kept wondering why her Dad and step family weren’t an option. Hello, mini Brady Bunch over here. Hiroshi and his family do become important for Kiko, but in reality severe anxiety needs more than this.

“The painting isn’t about the starfish. It’s about the girl who wants to venture out into the ocean, away from the starfish, so she can feel like she matters.”

Talking to a therapist, cognitive bahavioural therapy, and exposure therapy are some methods used to combat anxiety disorders. And medication. There are people who are anti psychiatric meds. I’m not sure there’s ever been a person with Type 1 Diabetes who thinks insulin won’t help them. I can’t fathom why mental illness is different. Akane casually mentions her depression to Kiko and talks about medication.

So why aren’t there therapeutic interations in Starfish? Love curing mental illness? Dreamy Jamie is all over that. Here’s hoping that trope gets squashed at the same wall Kiko thinks her lust has flattened her against. Nope.

There’s no indication Kiko has received therapy in the past or any kind of treatment for her anxiety. I doubt she could have the insight that many of her descriptions require. Perhaps if she had access to this book… Her use of the term “normal people” in the second quote isn’t helpful. And she has a whole lot of unhelpful thoughts. A person receiving therapy could still think of herself as “not normal” while hoping to improve her reactions in anxiety-inducing situations. It’s a work in progress. Over time she could work toward dropping the normal/not normal dichotomy. Michael Warner expresses the harm in using the term normal:

“It does not seem possible to think of oneself as normal without thinking that some other kind of person is pathological.” – The Trouble with Nomal (1999)

Kiko is only pathological in the sense a person with Diabetes is pathological. Both conditions can be managed with treatment.

“I draw a girl shrinking into the grass until she’s hidden by a bed of flowers that are all so much prettier than she is.”

A person in Kiko’s situation who is suffocated by her home life and wants to escape, but feels she has no option, often ends up homeless. Good thing dreamy Jamie drops back into Kiko’s life. Being able to fit back into their friendship is realistic for a person with anxiety. Symptons can lessen dramatically around people you feel comfortable with. I’m glad there was no sleeping rough for Kiko, but I kept hoping we’d find out Jamie has a boyfriend/girlfriend back home.

“I’ve never been around someone who” – he pauses – “reacts the way you do. You didn’t used to be like this.”

This is a good point, showing how an anxiety disorder changes a person. But his reactions to her fears are too mature. The views of someone who knows a lot about psychology and anxiety, has received their own therapy, etc. Kiko’s friend Emery has similar knowledge. This is more believable because Kiko and Emery have been good friends while she’s had anxiety. They’ve spent time together when Kiko experiences anxiety and over time Emery has learnt helpful ways to react. Jamie hasn’t had that length of experience with Kiko, only when they were younger and she didn’t have anxiety. Unless he’s experienced the anxiety of someone else in his life? Nope.

Starfish

But I didn’t write this story for the people who need to be convinced.

I wrote it for the people who needed to see their own experiences brought to life. I wrote it to give them a voice — a mirror. I wrote it for the people who already know.

Akemi Dawn Bowman wrote the above about Starfish. I’ve known so much anxiety, panic attacks, agorophobia and I can see parts of myself in Kiko. But for all the people I’ve met during stays in psychiatric hospitals, who were never cured by love, this book is not for you. As one of those people, despite my love for the beauty in Starfish, I’m not convinced.

For really good anxiety rep and therapeutic interactions have a look at Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian (Text, 2017) with bonus LoveOzYA!