My Heart and Other Black Holes
Jasmine Warga, author of My Heart and Other Black Holes, on the taboo of talking about depression and mental health.
I often get asked why I chose to take on the subject matter of teenage suicide, and the most honest answer is: I didn’t choose it, but it chose me. I know that sounds rather arty, but it’s the truth. The creative process is a mysterious and magical thing—one morning, I woke up with Aysel’s voice in my head, and her voice led me to her character, which in turn led me to Roman and this story. I’m sure the fact I was myself in a period of grief at the time Aysel’s voice came into my head, combined with my own memories and experiences, contributed to her voice arriving at the time it did, but nevertheless, I was chasing a story, as opposed to making a purposeful choice to take on a pretty taboo topic. Sometimes I find that people mistakenly believe that authors sit down to write manifestos about what the author knows or has observed, and while that may be true for some authors, for me, it is actually the opposite. I write to explore, to ask questions. When Aysel’s voice popped into my head, she was asking tough questions about family history, depression, the intractability of grief, the suffocating nature of isolation, and I decided to follow her voice and ask those questions with her, to explore this fictional landscape through her eyes.
With all that said, it is undeniable that the book addresses the topic of teenage suicide, but if it is a book about any particular issue, I believe it is a book that is more about teenage depression than it is about teenage suicide. Sadly, suicide and depression are often linked, as severe depression is frequently listed as one of the causes of suicide. I know that it seems like the biggest taboo so to speak surrounds suicide, but I would argue that our society has made depression equally taboo, which has led to stigmatizing and misunderstanding of this disease. Too many people, especially young people, suffer in silence because they are afraid if they open up and are honest about what is really going on inside their heads, they will be judged and shamed. One of the questions Aysel is preoccupied with is whether she is irrevocably broken, doomed to always feel the weight of the darkness, and while I’m not sure the book gives any perfectly concrete answers, I do believe Aysel begins to understand that depression is a very real and serious disease, but it does not have to be a terminal one.
The great irony in the book is the only person Aysel feels comfortable confiding in is Roman because she knows that he is also suffering from similar feelings. And from opening up to him, she begins to feel a bit of lightness slip into her life. One of the most maddening things about depression is that the disease can make it feel nearly impossible to explain what is going on inside your head, and because of the stigma society has placed on those suffering from mental illness, opening up is often that more difficult. And this is where I always like to argue that while the book covers the topic of teenage depression and suicidal ideation, it is really about empathy, love, and understanding. It is empathy, love, and understanding that make all the difference, and right now as a global society, we often fail those suffering from mental illness in that regard.
I hardly did any outside research while writing this novel. Instead, I wrote from my heart, gut, and my own memories. It is not meant to be a clinical and exhaustive study of depression, but rather a story about two teenagers who are both suffering from depression and suicidal ideation. My editor, though, did have the manuscript reviewed by a psychiatrist before the book went to print, and we were thrilled when he reported that he found the novel to be an authentic, realistic, and responsible portrayal of teenage suicidal ideation and depression.
It is my greatest hope that readers who follow Aysel on her journey will be encouraged to join in the movement to reframe the cultural conversation surrounding suicide and depression. When 1 in every 5 teenagers has experienced some form of suicidal ideation, we shouldn’t be burying that fact under the rug—instead, we should have an open discussion about the reality and validity of those feelings, and encourage treatment and therapy. I truly believe that if as a society, we begin to show the same type of care and sensitivity to those suffering from mental illness as we do to those suffering from other illnesses that present in a more physical way, those who suffer from depression will start to feel more comfortable reaching out and asking for help; hopefully some day more people will not view accepting treatment or talking with a therapist as something to be embarrassed about, but rather as a brave choice.
I’m always a bit surprised when people refer to my book as 'edgy' or 'controversial'. I understand why they say this, but I believe at the heart of the novel there is a call for empathy and understanding, and I very much hope that isn’t taboo.