How It Feels To Fly explores the complex illness of anorexia and its relationship to anxiety, body image and identity. The novel also explores the effect of parental expectations and peer pressure on teens struggling with anxiety issues. The story focuses on one girl who is part of a group of elite athletes and artists as they struggle to work through their issues over a period of two weeks.
Sixteen year old Samantha Wagner, is an aspiring ballet dancer who has been sent to a counselling camp, Perform at Your Peak in North Carolina, for elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues. Samantha's mother was a aspiring dancer whose career was ended by a broken ankle.
The camp director, Dr. Debra Lancaster, is helped by two peer counsellors, Andrew, a former football player and college student majoring in pyschology and Yasmin a vocalist and sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville who suffered from stage fright. Both Andrew and Yasmin are graduates of Dr. Lancaster's therapy.
In the past months, Sam has gained fourteen pounds as her body changes. The weight, gain coupled with pressure from ballet teachers and adjudicators and her mother, has resulted in Sam developing an eating disorder and serious anxiety issues. Then came the panic attack that was witnessed by her ballet instructor, Miss Elise. Backstage before her performance in Paquita, Sam put on Lauren's smaller tutu and freaked out. Concerned about her well-being, Miss Elise spoke with Sam's mother and she was sent to this therapy camp.
Sam is supposed to be attending ballet intensive in two weeks but her participation has been delayed so that she can participate in the therapy camp. However because the camp runs a week into the only ballet intensive that she was accepted into, Sam has been put on the wait list with the expectation that there will be no problems obtaining a spot in the a week late.
At Perform at Your Peak, the other campers include Jenna who is a figure skater, Zoe who plays tennis, Katie an elite gymnast, Dominic an outstanding quarterback and Omar who is an actor. Dr. Lancaster tells the campers that there will be a group therapy session every day but that they will also spend time in private counselling sessions with her.
After orientation Andrew tells Sam that the camp will help her "to learn how to take good mental care" of herself no matter what career she's in but Sam takes this to mean that Andrew believes she can't become a professional ballet dancer. At the first group therapy session, Andrew and Yasmin tell their stories; how Yasmin found Perform at Your Peak helped her to overcome stage fright and how Andrew discovered that he was playing football to please his father and in the end decided to quit after his freshman season. Dr. Lancaster asks the group to share a time when they each performed at their absolute best. After each shares a specific performance, Sam talks about her performance as the Dewdrop Fairy in the Nutcracker, this past December. Sam states she was told it was the best she had ever danced and that she felt "light and sparkling" and very pretty. Zoe mocks Sam for feeling this way but Dr. Lancaster tells the group that they will be working to get back that feeling of affirmation and well being that they experienced during these good performances.
As part of the therapy, Sam is partnered with Andrew for an exercise where they must be blindfolded and led around by the other person. Sam has Andrew go first and she leads him over to the gazebo while admiring how attractive he is. She learns that Andrew is a college junior, four years older than herself. But when it's her turn and she stumbles into a hole, Sam has a panic attack, blaming Andrew for risking her future career. Andrew is stunned and confronts Sam questioning her about what happened. Trusting Andrew, she admits to the attack and tells him that she was afraid the stumble would cause an injury and destroy her ballet career. Sam convinces Andrew not to tell Dr. Lancaster about the panic attack but to let her do it.
At lunch it becomes apparent that Sam is unable to eat, at least not in front of others. When she tries to hide, she is caught by Dr. Lancaster who makes up a plate of spaghetti for her. Zoe who calls Sam, "Ballerina Barbie", and who is bothering everyone, accuses Sam of having an eating disorder. In her next private session Dr. Lancaster questions Sam about her panic attacks, leading Sam to reveal that she had a panic attack while she was with Andrew. She tells Dr. Lancaster that while blindfolded she felt extremely anxious because she couldn't tell if she was being judged by Andrew and that she doesn't like being looked at. She refuses to elaborate much further than that.
Sam begins to get up early both so that the other campers can't see her get dressed and also to spend time with Andrew. In their next group session, Zoe continues to refuse to participate and laughs when Dr. Lancaster assigns the group to create a collage representing a situation that makes each person anxious. Sam's collage has a small figure surrounded by eyes. After discussing the collages, Dr. Lancaster encourages the six teens to reach out to one another telling them, "Your fellow campers can empathize. They can make you feel less alone...They can brainstorm with you. Support you." However, Sam's inner voice tells her that no one can help her. As the days pass, Sam finds herself falling for Andrew, interpreting his touches, the extra time he spends with her and his compliments as a sign that he feels the same. But Sam's crush on Andrew leads to catastrophe for both of them and creates a crisis that changes the course of Sam's life.
For the most part, How It Feels To Fly offers a realistic portrayal of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder and anxiety. Sam's problems surfaced when, as she puts it, her body betrayed her. Sam arrives at Perform at Your Peak viewing her body as an enemy to her dreams of becoming a dancer. She gained fourteen pounds between November and May and this affected her dancing, throwing her balance off and making her pirouettes shaky. The change was so gradual that at first, Sam believed she was just having off days. "Then I noticed soft curves where there used to be straight lines. Roundness and fullness. A hint of an hourglass." She tries to cut calories and exercise more, but the weight gain continued. To hide her imperfect body, she wrapped herself in loose clothing. However, soon other people noticed, her mother, her teachers and adjudicators and they made remarks. Negative comments began, some direct, some insinuating. "...Tabitha saw me holding a sandwich after ballet class and asked, all fake concern, 'Are you sure you need to eat that?' That's when I stopped eating in front of other dancers..."
Along with the dieting and exercising, Sam's thinking changed and she saw herself in very negative terms. She arrives at the therapy camp with these thoughts overwhelming her. "Everything about you is wrong. Nothing can make it better. Nothing except --" and "Ugh you're disgusting." She is also in denial about her problems and her need for help. In their first morning group session she thinks to herself "I don't need therapy. I was doing fine on my own." She's trained herself to be good at not talking about her problems, "good at nodding, and changing the subject, and pretending I don't hear things. And smiling, always smiling." Her inner voice is strong, constant and derogatory. "Even transparent, you're fat. Look at you. You're disgusting..."
However Dr. Lancaster notices Sam's eating issues and Sam experiences a panic attack almost immediately, proof that she is not coping well. Although Sam is reluctant to talk to Dr. Lancaster she does do the assigned exercises: the art therapy and the journaling. All of this is well portrayed in the novel and the interactions between the various characters and their dialogue with one another is realistic and sometimes humorous, creating welcome comic relief.
A key factor in Sam's seemingly fast recovery is her relationship with Andrew, a well meaning peer counselor who inadvertently stirs Sam's infatuation for him by helping Sam see herself differently. He tells her she is beautiful and that she is not fat. Although Andrew's advice is good for Sam, he doesn't recognize her growing attachment. And Sam reads far more into Andrews actions than she should. "As we walk back to the Perform at Your Peak house, Andrew stays beside me. I wish we were holding hands. I wish he had his arm around my waist. Once I start thinking about his hands, his arms, I get this picture in my head of us dancing together. I bet he'd be a great dance partner. Strong, attentive, gentle."
Andrew is unaware of Sam's infatuation and he oversteps his bounds by encouraging Sam to sneak out at night to teach him to how partner her. This only makes things worse. "The next morning, I can't stop thinking about Andrew. His eyes catching the moonlight. His bright smile turned intimate, like it was designed especially for me...Did he feel the sparks I felt? Is he thinking about me the way I'm thinking about him?" But when Sam takes matters into her own hands and tries to kiss him, Andrew realizes too late his mistake. Their improper relationship leads to Andrew getting fired and Sam relapsing. It is this crisis and the loss of her spot at the ballet intensive that motivates her to try one last time to get into the ballet intensive. This gutsy action ultimately provides Sam with a new opportunity to rethink her place in the world of dance and take the "leap across the gulf" that Dr. Lancaster spoke to her about. It also leads to her finally confronting her mother about how she is hurting Sam.
Perhaps the one misleading aspect of this novel is that it presents an overly optimistic view of the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders. Although Kathryn Holmes in an interview with EpicReads has stated that "Sam does not have a full blown eating disorder" the constant voice in her head telling her body is ugly, the rituals and behaviours around food, and the restriction of food are all evidence of anorexia. Sam also admits later in the book to having made herself vomit months earlier and attempts to do so again but for the intervention of a fellow camper. She also has body dysmorphia as evidenced by her struggle to find body parts that she actually likes.
Teens struggling with eating disorders and the usual accompanying
anxiety issues generally do not show the significant improvement over
such a short period of therapy as Sam did.Therapy takes time to change negative thinking patterns because they often have their roots in other issues that must be dealt with. The rituals like counting food, eating alone, rearranging food on the plate and eating exactly what someone else eats are all coping strategies to try to hide the illness and stop the pressure being placed on the anorexic to eat. These also do not disappear within a two week time frame. Similarly with anxiety issues, patients must learn coping strategies to help them. These also take time. It also takes time to build a rapport with a therapist, even meeting daily for a week. Sam seems to do this quickly, perhaps as Dr. Lancaster states because she is removed from the environment that is the cause of her stress and anxiety.
Holmes does a good job of demonstrating how dancers in particular are susceptible to developing body dysmorphia and anorexia. There is not only the change in her body, but the pressure from Sam's mother and the attitude of teachers and coaches in dance and athletics towards those who don't fit the desired body type. For example, Sam's mother is determined that her daughter will become a professional ballet dancer and have the career she never had. Although she doesn't directly criticize Sam, she implies that eating foods like meatballs and fajitas is not healthy. She tells Sam, "I know I can count on you to make good choices." When her mother admonishes her for eating a fajita, Sam feels guilt for not asking for a salad. Instead of affirming Sam's choice to eat healthy, her mother launches into a lecture about learning to adapt, leaving Sam in tears.And when Sam loses her spot in the ballet intensive, her mother doesn't really take the time to assess how Sam is feeling and what she is thinking. She doesn't even stop to think that perhaps this might be a sign that Sam needs to find another form of dance more suitable to her body type instead of trying to mould Sam's body into that of a classical dancer. She launches into a plan that will focus on Sam training even harder, leading Sam to more extreme actions. Holmes also points out how unforgiving the dance world is towards those whose body type is not considered suitable. For example, Sam remembers when she had to provide her current weight on an audition form and there was a caveat that mentioned overweight or underweight dancers would be on probation. This led Sam to wonder "...how heavy was too heavy? What was the exact right number?"
One of the main strengths of How It Feels To Fly is the realistic characters and their developing relationships with each other. For example, Sam manages to help Katie overcome her fear of the balance beam, providing a source of support for her. And Jenna, whom Sam spends time doing ballet with at the camp, steps up to help Sam when she is in crisis, revealing her own struggles with cutting. The characters feel genuine and their problems real.
Holmes' message in her novel is to make young readers aware they are not alone and that others can be a source of support. Fighting body dismorphia and anxiety does not have to be done alone and is often successful if the person has patient, affirming support. She also highlights the belief that eating disorders are generally the result of a need for control by having Sam come to this realization at the end of the novel. "My epic realization that maybe everything -- my anxiety, my body image issues, all of it -- comes from wanting to feel in control." Later on, a wiser Sam states
"I'm not good at letting go and moving forward. Not yet.
I'm still so attached to Before. So anxious about After.
But I'm working on changing. I'm trying to focus on
Someone in the room might be staring at me. Might be judging me.
That I can't control."
Author Kathryn Holmes majored in Dance and English Literature at Goucher College in Maryland. She's a contemporary dancer who has performed with many New York City based choreographers.
How It Feels To Fly is a really good novel. Although the timeline for Sam's recovery is a bit swift, the process and the things she learns about her illness are well presented and accurate. Those who enjoy realistic fiction and who are interested in exploring one of the most common mental health challenges teens experience will want to read this novel.
How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes
New York: HarperTeen 2016