Published by Delacorte Press on October 11th, 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Mental health
Seventeen-year-old Cath knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles meds, preparing to take her own life when Zero next arrives.
But Zero’s return is delayed. Unexpected relationships along with the care of a new psychiatrist start to alter Catherine's perception of her diagnosis. But will this be enough? This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati offers a sensitive take on the daily struggles of a teen living with the prospect of a chronic mental illness. Besides highlighting the impact Catherine’s bipolar disorder has on her life, such as attending intensive group therapy, and the grim expectations she has for her future, the book tackles subjects such as the burden that rests on parents of mentally ill children, the image of mental health in society, bullying, and first love.
This debut on a girl suffering from bipolar disorder had been on my radar for months. I am aware that YA fiction has a habit of misportraying mental illnesses, sacrificing psychiatric accuracy for drama effects, romantic subplots, and happy endings. Nonetheless, I was really excited to get my hands on a YA contemporary featuring such a severe mental disorder, for I feel like bipolar does not get the literary attention it deserves with, according to the World Health Organisation, roughly 60 million people being affected worldwide. The reason I wish more YA books, not just contemporaries but also fantasy and dystopian novels, would focus and/or include mental illnesses is because many of these have their onset during adolescence, therefore making it a topic of utmost relevance.
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.
From a psychiatric point of view, The Weight of Zero is well written, the amount of researched Fortunati did on bipolar disorder and its impacts being noticeable throughout the book. It becomes clear that Fortunati spent a lot of time getting acquainted with the symptoms of bipolar disorder, the different forms of therapy, and the possible medication. Besides the predominantly accurate depiction of the disorder itself (as far as I can assess as a Clinical Psychology major), the author realistically portrays Catherine’s introspection. Her fears and hopelessness in the face of a chronic illness are believable to a fault. Bipolar being characterised by episodes of mania and depression, Catherine refers to the depression as Zero, and after her last manic episode, she notices a decline in her spirits and she knows Zero is coming for her. But this time, she’ll be ready. She stockpiles meds, planning on taking her own life before Zero can turn it into hell on earth again.
I’m sick of the hiding, and I’m sick of constantly anticipating Zero. He went away for a while, but I know he’s back, circling ever closer. And now one of Zero’s four horsemen, disrupted sleep, is here. But I don’t say any of this.
“Things are okay,” I answer.
In Catherine’s growing friendship with a bulimic girl at the Intensive Outpatient Program she attends, she also experiences what it means to be friends with people who suffer from mental illnesses, experiencing an entirely different form of helplessness and cluelessness. The book sensitively shows how the burden of a mental disorder is subjective and depends a lot on the person who’s dealing with it. Catherine, who is affected by a disorder which is considered a life-long companion, often regards herself as defenceless, as a victim of a genetic defect and an event that triggered the onset of her disorder. Her daily life entails a lot of hiding away, for she feels ashamed of the burden she carries on her shoulders, afraid of how people may react to her life between two affective extremes, depression and mania.
I am so fucked. By a disease that isolates me with its stigma. That not only taints my reasoning but also limits any relationship that I could have.
I really appreciated how the mental health aspect was addressed in The Weight of Zero, and I enjoyed Catherine as a main character (and, of course, I enjoyed grandma Pitoscia). Furthermore, Fortunati writes with a lot of dark humour, a touch of teen slang, makes use of emojis in text messages (legit, right?), and introduces a pinch of Italian family dynamics. The latter I had already immensely enjoyed about Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. It is noticeable that Fortunati uses a lot of Italian last names for the people Catherine encounters in her daily life. Due to the love interest’s Italian roots, Fortunati was able to explore the dealings with an Italian grandmother in this book, and grandma Pitoscia – or, as she is referred to, Nonny – is incredibly funny and sweet. She definitely carries that Italian spirit with her, addressing issues very directly and yet manages to be uplifting. In spite of many positive things I have to say about the book, The Weight of Zero failed to captivate me as an overall work of art. The plot was slow-going at times, especially with the inclusion of history due to Catherine’s school project, and seemed to be headed nowhere sometimes. The romantic subplot didn’t convince me at all. Apart from the lack of chemistry, the whole foundation of Catherine and Michael’s romance was weird, as in came completely out of nowhere. The climax was really subtle, and I’m not sure how realistic Catherine’s final revelation was, but because everything else with regard to her mental illness was well founded, I’m willing to turn a blind eye.
All in all, I’d say this is a solid contemporary novel, one of its strengths being the accuracy of how it dealt with a mental illness. For me to pester my friends to read this, however, the book was not convincing enough as a literary work of art and a means of entertainment. It goes without saying that, should you be suffering from bipolar or having suicidal thoughts, The Weight of Zero could be triggering, though its message is one of hope and strength.
Should you be struggling in any way, be it a sadness you cannot explain or a compulsion you cannot suppress or an anxiety you cannot control, please contact a mental health care service, as help is available and you are not alone. If you’re harbouring thoughts about wanting to end your life, please call your general practicioner, seek out an emergency department, or contact someone at the websites provided below immediately.
For mental health care in the US, contact someone at the Health and Human Services department. For Canada, contact someone at the Canadian Mental Health Association. For the UK, contact someone at the National Health Services. For Australia, contact someone at the Mental Health Services. All of these websites are run and/or approved by the respective governments.