Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski is struggling mightily with mental illness. She has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her troubles began after the death of her beloved grandma when she was thirteen and just before the start of high school. After her grandma's death, Catherine's best friends, Olivia and Riley came to visit her daily. But as she sank into depression in her freshman year and was prescribed medication by Dr. A, her friends began to slowly abandon her.  By her sophomore year Catherine had little contact with Olivia and Riley.

In September of her sophomore year, Dr. A prescribed lithium for the mania but a week after starting the drug, Catherine attempted suicide by swallowing the entire bottle. According to Catherine, on that first Saturday of September, "Zero sucked me dry. When Zero bore down, I chose lithium, whose element-y name alone screamed its alpha position..." This was followed by a manic episode this past June in which she cut off all her hair, cleaned the garage and attic and charged a thousand dollars worth of vacation clothes to her emergency credit card.

Her disorder follows the pattern of depression in the fall and mania in the summer. Just before he retired, Dr. A diagnosed Catherine with bi-polar disorder which he stressed was likely genetic and chronic. This diagnosis has crushed Catherine because she's very afraid of the depressions which she labels Zero. Catherine decides the next time "Zero" strikes she will end her life. To that end she has been collecting a stash of leftover medications in a shoebox which she hides under her grandma's empty bed. "I will take whatever time I have left and kill myself when Zero makes Catherine landfall." Before doing this however, Catherine decides that she wants "one real, tangible connection to another human" and decides the way to accomplish this is to lose her virginity. She makes a first/last connection list on her phone and the first entry is L.V. for losing virginity.

In June she began seeing Dr. McCallum, who by Catherine's admission is smarter and more savvy to what's going on with her. He has prescribed Lamictal for her depression and he tells Catherine and her mother that it will take about six to eight weeks for it to have a noticeable effect but that it will help her. It's now October and in AP History class, Catherine's teacher, Mr. Oleck assigns them the task of exploring "an aspect of D-day that you'll never get from your textbooks or online." Mr. Oleck assigns Michael Pitoscia to be Catherine's project partner. Michael asks for Catherine's number so he can text her the results of his research that night. Although Catherine is uncertain about Michael's motives, he seems sincere so she agrees.

After school Catherine is driven by her mother to St. Anne's Outpatient Hospital where she goes through intake before beginning a new intensive outpatient program (IOP) on the recommendation of Dr. McCallum. who suggested the therapy after she cut school. He suggested the IOP with once a month medication checks. The IOP at St. Anne's is run by Sandy and includes Thomas Reardon aka Lil'Tommy, a boy Catherine knew from middle school, a Hispanic boy named John and blond-haired Garrett, both of whom attend Cranbury High and two girls from Immaculate Conception named Alexis and Amy. At their first session the IOP group discusses the bullying Lil'Tommy is experiencing because of his OCD. Catherine learns that John who wears Red Sox gear has an eating disorder as does Kristal who has bulimia while Garret is struggling with a drug addiction.Both Amy and Alexis also suffering from eating disorders.

As Catherine's relationship with Michael progresses she struggles with revealing her mental health issues, fearing he will leave her just like Olivia and Riley. When Michael wants to meet after school for their project Catherine lies, telling him she has a job at her mother's law firm. She meets his loud but friendly Italian family including his grandmother Nonny. Michael's kind and gentle nature makes Catherine decide that he will be the one she has her last tangible connection with. Michael is open and accommodating to Catherine when she wants to switch their soldier they are studying for their project to First Class Private Jane Talmadge who served with the 6888th Central Postal Division in France. In the IOP Catherine begins to connect with Kristal who invites her to the museum in New Haven where her mother works. However, she refuses to talk much about her own problems and won't confide in Kristal. But as her list of happy milestones grows on her phone Catherine finds looking at the list more calming than her shoe box of drugs. Is her future as bleak as Catherine believes it to be? And will Catherine ever be able to honestly and openly talk about her bipolar disorder?


Author Karen Fortunati has crafted a moving and gritty novel whose main message for young people suffering from bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues is one of hope and recovery. The story is told from the point of view of  seventeen year old Catherine Pulaski who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Told her mental illness is both strongly genetic and chronic leaves Catherine afraid. The reader follows Catherine as she journeys through her recovery, from anxiety and a plan to end her life to acceptance and a desire to embrace life.

The novel's title "The Weight of Zero" is a reference to the use of a numeric scale from zero to ten her mother and Dr. McCallum use for rating how her mood is, with ten being very happy but zero meaning deep depression. Zero is likened to an animal or beast "sniffing and pawing, looking for a crack in my brain that the meds haven't filled."  Zero circles Catherine, just waiting to strike when she least expects it. To counter Zero, Catherine, unknown to her mother and doctor,  has collected a shoebox full of medications including Celexa, Prozac, Abilify, Paxil, Zoloft and Lexapro which she will take to end her life.She often refers to her stash of drugs as her "troops" or "soldiers" who will fight off Zero by ending her life.  "My psychotropic soldiers give me hope." The stockpile of drugs is comforting: "Everything will be okay, my soldiers tell me. We're here." When Catherine becomes anxious about her next depression, lining her troops up at night calms her.  However as the reader discovers, Catherine's view of this plan for her life and her "troops" changes.

The Weight of Zero explores Catherine's life both inside and outside of therapy. In each the reader sees Catherine's progress even if she is not fully aware of it herself. In therapy she meets Kristal, a black girl who struggles with bulimia, and who befriends Catherine. At the same time outside of therapy, Catherine is partnered for a project at school with Michael a boy who it is later revealed has been crushing on her since freshman year. As Kristal and Michael both invite Catherine deeper into their lives, Catherine cannot reciprocate. This is because she believes if she tells both Kristal and Michael that she has bi-polar disorder they will abandon her like Olivia and Riley did. In therapy Catherine never reveals to the group why she is in therapy. She doesn't confide in Kristal even as their friendship deepens. "Can I ever tell her that I was hospitalized? Can I ever tell her the reason?" Likewise with Michael, she doesn't tell him about her condition either, even when he seems to sense something is not right and even when Michael opens up to Catherine about his brother Anthony's drinking problem.

Despite her not being able to be honest with her new friends, Catherine's perspective begins to change. As she adds to her list of good things that are happening to her, a first kiss with Michael and going with new friend Kristal to her mother's museum, Catherine notes, "...actually staring at the two newest entries, calms me. Maybe even more than my shoe box. Because it's proof, tangible proof that I might be able to experience some really good things before Zero moves up the Catherine coastline." After spending Halloween with Michael, going to a high school party and arranging a sleep-over with Kristal, Catherine notes that her list has turned into something different. "True, my one-item to-do list has morphed into a record of all the things, all the great things, that I'm experiencing. It's so beyond what I thought was possible..." But at this point her she still "needs the reassurance these bottles (of medications) give me..." Despite still needing the comfort of her "troops" Catherine acknowledges to herself that she is having days that she rates as a "nine". At Halloween she states, "And under all those layers of gray, I feel the colorful confetti of happy bubbling up out of me. How could I have forgotten this feeling? I am a...what? I can say it. It's only to myself. I am a nine."

Part of Catherine's difficulty in being honest with others about her illness is that she believes her pain is worse than others. When Michael reveals his brother's alcoholism to her Catherine's internal first response is to want to tell Michael that being bi-polar is worse than alcoholism. But she wonders, " being bipolar really worse than being an alcoholic? To be honest, they seem pretty balanced on the shit scale."

Catherine's biggest step in therapy begins when starts to understand that she doesn't have the corner on suffering. John recounts a serious accident during wrestling practice where he caused the injury to another player and he mentions the horrible sound the injured boy made. In a rare moment of openness, Catherine tells him she understands because she experienced the same when her grandmother had a stroke and died in her arms. She remembers "My beautiful grandmother reduced in seconds to a tormented creature dying on the bedroom floor, and I knew that sound was the last I'd ever hear her make." Having her peers in the IOP group acknowledge her pain, the first time she's ever spoken about it helps Cat. "I feel a little lighter. I realize now the enormity, the weight of that secret memory, is part of what keeps Zero tethered to me."  During this session, Sandy states that she wants them not only to be honest with themselves but to be honest with others. "I want you to think about the safest ways for you to deal with pain....Whether pain comes from anxiety or loneliness or a traumatic event or a condition, it doesn't matter. Pain is pain."

It is Kristal who calls Catherine out on how she views other people's suffering.  After a particularly difficult IOP Kristal tells Catherine, "Sometimes I get the feeling you think your shit is like, the worst and no matter what any of us go through, it will never compare to yours..."  Catherine recognizes the truth of what Kristal is telling, that she's "some kind of mental-health illness elitist."  Earlier in the novel Catherine ranted against Riley Swenson's mother whom she accused of being a comfortable Catholic who helps people with her "charity-at-a-distance" but who shuns Catherine and her mother. In her own way Catherine realizes she has been doing this with the people in her therapy group - minimizing their pain while believing her suffering is greater. "How could I have never acknowledged their pain, when pain is the one thing I understand?"

When her relationships with both Michael and Kristal experience crises, several things push Catherine towards finally being open and honest with herself and them. The first is that Dr. McCallum acknowledges her fear about the quality of life she can have with being bipolar and he makes it clear that she is managing her illness and that there are specific options for managing another serious depressive episode. The second is that Catherine comes to realize the significance of what Dr. McCallum told her earlier about her disorder having a genetic component. This allows her to give up the guilt she feels for being damaged and to realize that she is innocent - she's not responsible for her disorder. This realization is triggered by a letter Jane Talmadge wrote her mother during the war in which Catherine realizes the discrimination Jane experienced was due to her skin colour, something she cannot change about herself. "But I understand now what Dr. McCAllum was saying, and I can finally put the guilt for that malfunctioning aside. I am a victim of genetic roulette. It's not my fault."

Catherine finally finds the courage to tell Kristal the real reason she's in therapy and then realizes that Michael knows about her illness. Although she feels upset at the possibility of losing her two friends, Catherine also recognizes that her world has not collapsed and that she wants to live. She begins to understand that bad things might happen, not because she is bipolar but possibly because of other reasons. Catherine's friendships with Olivia and Riley might have been waning anyways before high school as Dr. McCallum tried to tell her. Kristal might have left not because Catherine's bi-polar but because she wasn't honest with her about her illness. Michael might be pulling away not because he discovered she has a mental illness but because he wanted her to confide in him. "I keep blaming the illness for constraining me, but maybe I'm the one who's been limiting myself. Out of fear. " Catherine believes maybe she has to survive on "small acts of kindness that I never fully savored before, like Sabita's thoughtfulness, Alexis's compassion, John's concern..." All of these little revelations move Catherine towards acceptance, healing and understanding.

My only criticism of this novel is the brief anti-Catholic rant that Catherine gives in Chapter 16. Catherine relates attending Sunday Mass at Our Blessed Shepherd (the correct name according to convention is either Blessed Sacrament or Good Shepherd) where a "fat Father John" "intones" the prayers and gives a homily "with his mind-numbing abilities, the man rivals a high dose of NyQuil." According to Catherine, Catholics are hypocrites "who'll feed the homeless but only while wearing gloves. The ones who'll read the Gospels on Sunday and write nasty notes on Monday. And unlike Jesus, these are the ones who shun Cranbury High's lepers. Like me." Cat is being bullied by classmate Riley Swenson whose rich parents sit in pews, "Their names are engraved on small, gold plagues that line the pews, raining hosanna in the highest on them and their wallets." The Swensons are "another good Catholic more comfortable with a handpicked charity-at-a-distance, the type where you do your good deed quickly and get out. Scheduled at your own convenience. No pesky emotional commitment."

I understand that the author is attempting to create an analogy between people who themselves as special in certain ways and Catherine who felt she had the dibs on pain. However, it's unfortunate Fortunati has her character rant in this way because it does a huge disservice to those young teens who are struggling with bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues and who have found comfort in their Catholic faith and/or have received helpful counselling and support from their parish priest and their parish community. In what is a reasonably accurate portrayal of a serious mental illness, this anti-Catholic bigotry mars this novel and is an affront to readers of faith.

There are plenty of themes to explore in The Weight of Zero. Karen Fortunati has created an excellent platform for sharing information about mental illness and provides and encouraging portrait of how professional counselling and family and friend support can improve the quality of life for people with mental health issues. The novel deals with the stigma, fear and anxiety that surrounds mental illness in a realistic and honest manner that is refreshing and will help young readers understand. Catherine Pulaski is a cleverly crafted character who brings out all this in the novel as readers share her struggles and her journey. Michael and his family mirror the kind of support we all need in tough times. The Weight of Zero is above all a story of hope and healing.

Fortunati was inspired to write this novel as a result of her experience as an attorney working with children and teens. She witnessed "impact of depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide" and wants her young readers to "know that they are not alone in navigating the shame, stigma, and anxiety that often complicate the management of this chronic condition." She has succeeded.

Book Details:

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
New York: Delacorte Press     2016
385 pp.

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