Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

“Time is not a healer. I have lost the ease of being inside my own skin.”

I bought The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway two years ago and have been afraid to read it. Somewhere I read - and I have no idea where - that it is such a depressing book that you have to watch your own sanity when you are reading it. In addition, there are certain books that I can't read at certain times because of plot elements. Besides the seasonal trends in my reading, I have rules. For example, I cannot read a book about someone whose boyfriend/fiance/husband dies while my own husband is away, or getting ready to go away. I'm superstitious like that. And that is exactly what happens in this book.

When the miscarriage occurred, I felt lost...where do I turn? Of course, to me, that question usually implies "What book can I read now to make myself feel better?" Feel better doesn't necessarily mean happy - as the choice of this book at this point should illustrate - but rather something to help you get through. I wasn't ready yet for Kerouac...he will come later. I immediately reached for what is probably the book that I anticipate to the most depressing on my shelf...and that would be Galloway's.

The actual events of The Trick is to Keep Breathing are fairly simple. Joy Stone, a 27-year-old drama teacher in Scotland goes on a vacation with Michael, her live-in boyfriend (who is separated from his wife Norah), where he drowns in a pool. This part of the story is only given in brief flashbacks. What actually goes on in the course of the novel is Joy struggling with coming to terms with his death, and going through a deep depression in the mean time, during which she is hospitalized briefly.

Make no mistake: this novel is bleak. What Joy is going through is real and raw. But it is the most accurate depiction of what really happens in depression that I recall coming across in a novel.

The text is fragmented, and becomes more so as Joy becomes more fragmented herself. Just how fragmented, you may ask? One morning, I thought that I would read a little before I went to work. I picked it up, opened it to the spot where the bookmark had been and started reading. After about 10 minutes, it was time to leave. I looked at what page number that I was on and realized that I couldn't have just read 30+ pages from where I had stopped the night before. It wasn't until then that I realized that I had put the bookmark in the wrong place...about 20 pages ahead of where I actually was in the novel. But that isn't a testiment to the novel itself, but Joy's state of mind: what does it matter if B happened before A, or if A happened first? Time is passing, but it doesn't matter in what order. It's all fractured and thoughts flow from one to the next without connection:

[writing letter] “The photograph you asked for is enclosed. I’m sorry it looks so terrible: polaroids never show me at my best.”

I write HAHA so she knows it’s a joke to be on the safe side then look at the photo near the edge of the table. I took it facing the mirror because I couldn’t work the self-timer. The camera bludgeons off half my face and the flash whites out the rest. My arms are looped over my head to reach the shutter and hold the thing in place. It looks like a spider devouring a light bulb. The only visible eye is shut from the glare. It doesn’t look like anybody. It doesn’t look like

Outside there is scaffolding and a strip of moon. Pockmarks of rain on the glass. Alter the focus and you see eyes. They blink when I do but it proves nothing. There’s no of telling if it’s really

Last Sunday night…

But that's the way things are when you're in this place - nothing is connected. Trivial things become the focus, because what else is there? When the trivial things aren't the center, you realize nothing is in the center:
What will I do while I’m lasting, Marianne? What will I do?

The day Marianne left, I found a note pinned to the kitchen wall. It was there when I came back from the station without her along with some books of poems, addresses, a foreign phone number, money and a bottle of gin. The gin and the money went long since. The note is still there.

Listen to the radio
Watch TV
Have a bath
Listen to records
Write letters or visit
Go for a walk
Go out for a meal
Phone someone nice

I hear every radio programme at least twice. I can recite the news by the time I go to bed. Besides I have to move around while I’m listening. This is not an occupation on its own.

TV is tricky: the news is depressing and the programmes sometimes worse. I hate adverts. They are full of thin women doing exercises and smiling all the time. They make me guilty.

The water takes ages for a bath. I hate waiting.

It’s asking for trouble to listen to music alone.

I already read everything. I read poems and plays and novels and newspapers and comic books and magazines. I read tins in supermarkets and leaflets that come through the door, unsolicited mail. None of it lasts long and it doesn’t give me answers. Reading too fast is not soothing.

Writing is problematic. I cover paper with words as fast as painting. Sometimes it’s indecipherable and I throw it away.

Visiting is awkward. The place I live is an annexe of nowhere and besides, I don’t like to wish myself on anyone.

Walking is awful. I do that when I want to feel worse. I always run.

Sewing and going for a meal. Tricky juxtaposition.

I’m getting worried though. Some of the things I do worry me. I want things I can’t have, trivial things. I want cards. I want cartoon characters and trite verses wishing me well. I see Michael in buses and cars and walks past the road outside the window. Visiting times are terrible. I can’t get the hang of not wondering what to knit him for Christmas.

The difference is minding. I mind the resultant moral dilemma of having no answers. I never forget the f*&%$*g questions. They’re always there, accusing me of having no answers yet. If there are no answers there is no point: a terror of absurdity.
This is exactly what depression is. You can't escape from inside your own head - something that is repeated again and again in the novel. In the end, Joy realizes (in the midst of a potential suicide attempt), that though she doesn't particularly want to live, she also doesn't want to die. So, what can you do? You have to figure out how to live, and that usually starts with the simple things: Listen to the radio, Watch TV, Have a bath, listen to records, etc. Somewhere, after a serach of the internet for anything written about this book, I came across someone who reviewed it on their blog and wondered what it is that makes Joy bother to get up in the morning at all. In the text, Joy states at one time: "No matter how often I think I can't stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don't fall, I don't foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It's the same for all of us. You can't get out of the inside of your own head. Soemthing keeps you going. Something always does." I've been there, at that point, many times in my life. More and more burdens, more and more shitty things happening, and I think: I'm at the end of my rope. I can't take anything more. And then, more comes and you take it. You don't particularly want to live, but you don't want the alternative either.

As I mentioned, I haven't been able to find many articles or reviews of this book...not in the NY Times, the London Times Literary Supplement, etc. Most of what comes up from a search has to do with the Garbage song of the same name. This is surprising because it won some awards in Scotland (Galloway's homeland) and was shortlisted for some more internationally known awards. It's also a damn good book about a woman's experience with depression and is just as relevant, insteresting, distressing, whatnot as Girl, Interupted, which obviously deals with a similar (though true) experience. I have often returned to Girl, Interupted when I find myself in a hole...I've read it at least three or four times. When you're down in it, it's best to have someone with you - and not someone who is going to tell you "oh I've been there, it'll get better" or "just get over it," or whatever else people might say. With books, you are able to find your own thoughts in a text...which is good because often depression takes away your thoughts, or your ability to articulate them, even in your own head. All you have is an emotion without words.

Personally, I didn't find the book overly depressing, but then again I read Holocaust literature for "fun" so my opinion might be skewed. Others with more cheerful dispositions might have a completely different experience. But it was definately exactly what I needed. The trick is to keep breathing. Everything else will come when it's time.

P.S. NOTE FOR ROBBY V: There is a lot of gin drinking in this book. I, however, did not join in as I don't care for gin. :-)

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