09 March 2015

My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

When I was fifteen years old I had a pretty severe depressive episode. I missed a month of school because I couldn't make myself get out of the house. I spent most of those days holed up in my room reading fantasy novels (admittedly, of the product-placement genre...I was really into Magic: The Gathering at the time and devoured all the tie-in novels).

I never really felt like there were any books out there that addressed what it was like to be me, but then again, I didn't necessarily want to be reminded of what it was like to be me, anyway. I didn't have the resources (or the wherewithal) to find books that might have spoken to my experience. I'd never even heard of Sylvia Plath at that age.

I've only recently started finding books that tackle the subject of depression (or other mental illnesses) in a meaningful, compassionate way. FANGIRL and I WAS HERE both examined the issue from an observer's perspective, and did it well. But MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is the first book I've read that gave the narrator a mental illness.

I wish this book had been around for me when I was a kid.

In MY HEART, sixteen-year-old Aysel struggles with a case of depression so severe that she is consciously preparing to commit suicide. She's too afraid to do it on her own, though, so she seeks out a partner on an internet suicide support group. The kind that supports suicide, to be clear. There, she meets FrozenRobot, aka Roman, who becomes her suicide partner.

A grim setup, to be sure, but MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is anything but. It's tender and sad, brutal and honest, but not grim. Things are what they are. Aysel knows something is wrong with her but can't fight it. She makes frequent reference to the black slug living inside her, eating her feelings. It's a perfect metaphor: you know it's there inside you, you can feel it messing up your mind, but you are powerless against it.

And yet, as Aysel and Roman grow closer, they bring out parts of the other that seemed long gone. The ability to hope, to see yourself as better than you are. That's at the very...ahem...heart of the story.

My own experience dealing with other people struggling with depression has, unfortunately, never been so positive. I generally have one of two reactions: either we both get more depressed, or I turn into an asshole to the other person, as if I can fight off depression by being mean to them.

It was nice, beautiful even, to see Aysel and Roman have the opposite effect on each other. Which brings me to my other point. There is a pretty big difference between situational depression and chronic depression. Not in how it's treated, necessarily, or in how it affects one's life, but in the hope for management versus recovery. When it's chronic, well, you manage it, but it's always there, always clouding over the back of your mind, no matter how sunny you're feeling. With situational depression, it's more acute: something terrible happened (as in Roman's case), but there were no problems there before.

I don't know that it matters, much, which kind Roman and Aysel were suffering from. But part of me wanted to see that addressed.

I suppose I've managed to talk about everything but the story. What can I say? I kept bookmarking passages that spoke to me, little bits of truth that Aysel revealed about herself and about what life was like for me back then. The connection was intense.

All I can say is, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is one of my favorite books this year.