For fans of 13 Reasons Why and Girl in Pieces, this is a novel that shows the path to hope and life for a girl with mental illness.
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disorder, almost triumphed once; that was her first suicide attempt.
And so, in an old ballet-shoe box, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict his living death on her again. Before she goes, though, she starts a short bucket list. This bucket list, combined with the support of her family, new friends, and a new course of treatment, begins to ease Catherine’s sense of isolation. The problem is, her plan is already in place, and has been for so long that she might not be able to see a future beyond it.
This is a story of loss and grief and hope, and how some of the many shapes of love—maternal, romantic, and platonic—affect a young woman’s struggle with mental illness and the stigma of treatment.
An Excerpt fromThe Weight of Zero
I line the bottles up on my night table. Each amber-colored warrior bears my name and its own rank and serial number: CATHERINE PULASKI--CELEXA 40 mg, CATHERINE PULASKI--PROZAC 20 mg, CATHERINE PULASKI--ABILIFY 10 mg, PAXIL, ZOLOFT and LEXAPRO--my stockpile of old prescriptions. By day, they’re stationed in a box under my bed, camouflaged under old ballet shoes, unopened packages of tights and crumpled recital flyers. But every night, I take them out. They soothe me. My psycho-tropic soldiers give me hope. There is strength in numbers.
My mother’s bedroom door squeaks, and for the third time tonight, soft footsteps pad their way to me. There’s no lock on my door; it was gone when I came home from the hospital last year. Fighting the usual Mom-induced frustration, I move quickly, stashing the bottles.
Light from the hallway spills into my room as Mom enters. “Sorry, Cath, forgot to get your number.” She bends to kiss me. Before, she’d stroke the long hair off my face to find my forehead. Now, with most of my hair MIA, Mom pats my shorn head like she would a sick dog. “Well?” she asks.
“Um . . . six, maybe six and a half,” I lie. Our numerical mood-report system dates back to about two years ago, right around the time I turned fifteen. The truth: I’m closer to five. Maybe even four. And I’m scared. I think I can feel Zero’s black breath on my neck. Again. But I can’t tell her that now.
Mom sits on the side of my bed, pulling the white down comforter tight across my chest. “So it’s about the same, right? No change?”
“Okay. No big changes. That’s good.” Mom says this more for herself than for me. “So on Monday, I’ll pick you up right after school. I can leave work early.”
“Mom,” I say with a sigh. “That’s the eighth time you’ve told me. I got it.” Her instant smile hurts too much, so I roll to face the wall.
Mom has lassoed her hopes on Monday’s appointment for my miraculous recovery from bipolar disorder. The site of the future miracle is named, appropriately, St. Anne’s Hospital, which has just opened a shiny new adolescent outpatient facility right here in Cranbury, Connecticut. On the recommendation of my shrink du jour, I will be heading to St. Anne’s for three hours after school, five days a week, for the foreseeable future. I haven’t told him about Zero, but since I’ve skipped a few classes, he’s upped the dosage of my new med in addition to this intensive out-patient program at St. Anne’s.
“Sorry, Cath.” Mom rubs my back. Even though I’m annoyed with her, it feels wonderful, comforting, and I almost purr, my skin soaking up the contact like a parched plant takes in water. “I know we’ve gone over it already,” she continues. “I’m so tired I don’t know what I’m saying. The restaurant was packed tonight.” Even her voice sounds fried. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this. Two jobs in one day.”
We both know she’ll keep doing this Friday double to pay for my doctors, therapy, meds, donations to the shrine of St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes) and whatever else my mental defect demands.
“You should get some sleep,” I say, shifting slightly in her direction. She rises and hunches over me. Her face is in the shadows, and bony shoulders poke out of her sleeveless pajama top. She could be eighty years old.
Mom tucks in the bottom corners of the comforter too hard. My toes curl forward under the pressure. “Okay, baby. Wake me up if you need anything. I love you.” She clicks off my bedside lamp like I’m three.
I wait a safe twenty minutes even though it’s Friday night, the night Mom passes out after eight hours of typing for a bunch of loser attorneys followed by a five-hour encore waitressing at Dominic’s. I’ve got a couple of free nocturnal hours before she resumes watchdog rounds by my bedside.
When the silence is heavy and unmoving, I reach under my bed. Again, I line up the white-capped cylinders. I stare at their labels and pat their heads until my heart slows and my stomach unclenches. Zero is close by, sniffing and pawing, looking for a crack in my brain that the meds haven’t filled. It’s gotten me once before. In September of sophomore year, I turned to my brand-new bottle of lithium and took it all, with a side of a half bottle of Prozac. I failed, though, because of Mom. Somehow, some way, through some maternal telepathy, she knew, and rushed home in time to call an ambulance.
It took another nine months--when I had my first manic episode this past June--for me to get a diagnosis. Right before he retired, old Dr. A broke the news. It was the first time I’d heard the word “bipolar,” with its permanent cycling of manias and depressions. I remember Dr. A was talking more to Mom than to me, explaining the “strong genetic component” of the disorder. The need to start lithium again. I remember cutting him off, asking, “So, it’s the way I’m wired?”
“Yes.” Dr. A nodded his fat gray head.
“And people don’t outgrow bipolar disorder?” I asked. “I’ll be like this forever?”
“Yes. It’s managed like any other chronic illness, like diabetes or . . .”
In my head, the sound of the gavel crashing down drowned out the rest of Dr. A’s tired voice. Oblivious to the death sentence he had just relayed, he returned his gaze to Mom, who had frozen erect in her chair like a sphinx, fingers gouging the padded armrests. She moved only to grab hold of the cross around her neck.
It hit me then like it must’ve sucker punched Mom seconds earlier. The import of what Dr. A was telling us: Catherine Pulaski is genetically defective.
The knowledge of this permanency mutes the carousel of shrinks and their diagnoses. It makes me immune to the meds that promise to fix me, to turn me into a normal girl again. Because I know I won’t ever be normal. And it’s not the manias that get to me--those electric, almost euphoric phases of false clarity and vision and purpose. It’s mania’s flip side, the fucker I call Zero. I am petrified of him.
And now I know it’s a scientific certainty, a medical fact, that Zero will get me again. Mom’s saving my life was in vain.
Last year, when Zero dug in for the long haul, Mom kept asking me how I felt. What I felt. But there were and are no words for that particular state of hell. I couldn’t tell her that I was submerged. Numbed. Unable to feel anything. My spectrum of emotions had been obliterated. My feelings, all of them, good and bad, had gone AWOL. And someone who has never felt it can never understand what the absence of emotion feels like. It is a hopelessness of incomprehensible, unspeakable weight.
Yet I’m supposed to blindly move forward? Knowing there’s another wacko idea, disguised as reasonable, just waiting to take hold of my mind? To be followed by solitary confinement in Zero’s black tundra? Rinse and fucking repeat? For the rest of my life? That’s no future.
So, I’ve got a plan.
I arrange the bottles into a tight two-line formation with Lexapro at the front. It will be a new life for Mom. Infinitely better without Catherine sucking her dry on every level--emotional, social and financial. There’s no relief for her as long as I’m still breathing. Because the bottom line is this: my bipolar life is killing her normal one. I’m a parasite, eating her alive. Almost literally. It’s like the ten pounds I’ve put on came straight off her body. Her clothes hang on her. She’s beaten down.
It’s actually a pretty easy decision when you get right to it. And honorable, I think. I’m intrinsically damaged, so I’ll switch out my life for my mother’s.
I pick up the Lexapro bottle and gently shake it so that the four pills inside dance. I will take whatever time I have left and kill myself when Zero makes Catherine-landfall. When he’s entrenched in my head and has poisoned my world alien and gray. I will do it with the contents of this shoe box. A conscious decision to refuse to live my life this way, under these conditions.
The only question is when. And the answer is unknown because Zero’s ETA is basically a crapshoot. My new psychiatrist, Dr. McCallum, has spent a ton of time on the “You and Your Bipolar Disorder” lectures with Mom and me. So I know that while the mood cycles are inevitable and unstoppable, it’s a mystery as to when the next one will hit.
I grab my phone and open the calendar. October. My heart pumps faster. Zero’s arrival has to be imminent if it follows the same loose pattern of my first two years of high school; depression in the fall and some kind of mania in the summer. This knowledge sends twin spirals of fear and anxiety through me. I press my fingertips hard against the phone and the light illuminates them, spotlighting my bitten-down nails and tattered cuticles. But the rest of my hands are good, soft and unmarked, with long, slim fingers. A dancer’s hands. And my body, heavier now from my prescription buffet, is still in decent shape. Mom likes the added weight. She thought I was too skinny before. Putting the phone down, I raise one leg high over my head. Then the other. The flexibility’s still there. Must be the years of muscle memory from dance. I was good at it.
I sit up now and easily bring my head down to my knees, my hamstrings offering no resistance to the stretch. It burns me, the fact that my healthy body most likely won’t see its eighteenth birthday. Sorrow starts rolling in. Over the waste of this body that didn’t just dance with strength and grace but served me well in basically every-thing. I’ve run a 10K, zip-lined and rafted down the Housatonic in the spring. Biked, swum and skated. With a fingertip, I trace the outline of my lips. I’ve kissed. One time. At Riley’s Valentine’s Day party in eighth grade.
While my brain has failed me, my body’s been good. Too good to be tied to such a diseased mind. It’s unfair, and I mourn the things this body won’t do. All the thousands of things it will never experience, from the mundane to the life altering. Dipping my toes into the Pacific Ocean, sliding behind the wheel of my first car. Unpacking dishes into the cabinets of my own place. Getting married. Job. Boyfriend. College. Roommates. Recitals. Prom. Sex.
Sex. The ultimate connection. The closest possible contact you can have with another person.
I want that. At least once before Zero returns. And I should have it. It’s wrong to deny my body that experience. It’s wasteful to die without attempting one real, tangible connection to another human. And maybe in the time it takes to physically connect, I can shed the loneliness that I wear as a second skin. Even if just for a few minutes. A temporary escape. I click to the “Notes” section on my phone. I type “Death Day” and then delete it and type: “D‑Day.” Next line: “Lose virginity.” I delete it and type: “L.V.” I study this one and only item--the sole entry on my things-to-experience-before-Zero list.
L.V. probably won’t work, though. I have no real friends anymore, girls or boys. Depression, a suicide attempt and bipolar disorder carry the same social value as leprosy, AIDS and flesh-eating bacteria. I get that. I’m not stupid or delusional. But it doesn’t make it hurt any fucking less when your closest friends jump ship.
It’s time. Flinging the comforter back, I grab the shoe box and gently lay each bottle down on the old tights that muffle any noise they may make during transit. I top them with more tights and a couple pairs of ballet shoes. While she has slowed up a bit, Mom still searches my room. So these guys are rotated, spending Monday through Friday under my bed and Friday night through Sunday night in Grandma’s room. I feel safer with them out of my room, as Mom likes to clean and organize on Saturdays before she does the early-bird dinner shift at Dominic’s.
Leaving the box on the floor, I softly open my bedroom door and listen. From Mom’s open bedroom door, the light of her muted TV flashes. I creep closer, avoiding the land mines of creaky floorboards. Most nights, Mom wakes up if I give the slightest cough. She used to bolt into my room, panicked. “What’s wrong?” she’d cry. Now that we’ve passed the one-year anniversary, she’ll just call out to me, “Baby, you okay?” But it’s Friday and Mom should be immobile for the next couple of hours.
I hear the regular pattern of her breathing. Silently, I whip back into my room, pick up the box and lightly make my way down the steps. Who knew how handy ten years of ballet would be for sneaking around? I glide like a ghost through the dark living room and into our spotless kitchen, where the butterfly night-light glows over the sink. Fresh Italian bread from the restaurant lies sealed in a ziplock bag on the counter, but I can still smell it. Grandma’s door is shut.
Her bedroom door never squeaks. I step inside. The curtains are open and the corner streetlight washes her room in light. Her twin bed is neatly made, with the yellow afghan folded at the bottom. It’s been two years and three months since she died, but framed pictures still line the dresser along with her brush, Yardley English Lavender perfume and tchotchkes on white lace doilies. Her drawers are still crammed with makeup, clothes, belts and scarves probably dating back to 1940. Mom dusts everything in here, including the extra-large crucified Jesus above Grandma’s bed that keeps watch over the vacant room.
I take a deep breath. Every so often, the scent of peppermint, her favorite candy, wafts by. It’s Grandma, I know it is. But I’m glad that’s all she can communicate from heaven. I can’t bear to hear what she thinks of me now.
Avoiding Jesus’s gaze (he might still be pissed at me), I lift the bed skirt and pull out the plastic box of Grandma’s summer clothes. It slides soundlessly on the worn carpet. Farther back, in the black hole under the bed, my hand searches and then connects with the cracked handle of the beaten plaid suitcase. Unzipping it, I wedge my shoe box alongside packets of old letters, envelopes jammed with photographs, old jewelry and Uncle Jack’s musty military jacket.