The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

trick

Isn’t it fun and interesting to witness other people’s depression?*

Just kidding. The depression of others is usually not the least bit interesting and/or extremely – hm, depressing, depending on how I am doing at that moment. If I’m feeling down, then the depression of others isn’t interesting at all, because my own depression is surely more interesting, more painful and more unique, and who gives a shit anyway. And if I’m feeling wonderful, then I surely don’t need the depression of others – life is wonderful, let’s go rollerblading into the sunshine.

Lucky that there are writers like Janice Galloway, who can make the depression of a person extremely interesting, unsettling, relevant and painful – regardless of how I am doing at the moment.

I’ve been planning to read this novel for ages, purely because I thought the title’s great – all throughout these years I’ve never actually bothered to find out what it’s about. The title, however, has always fascinated me – I thought this must be a darkly ironic self-help title, you know, as if you asked someone in deep existential despair how you’re supposed to live, and the person answered: Oh, it’s easy – the trick is to keep breathing.

Turns out I haven’t been far from the truth. The grieving, neurotic, depressed heroine of the novel, not-exactly-happy Joy spends the story trying very hard to figure out (again) how to live (and why) after a couple of tragedies destroyed her life as she knew it (of course, she’s depressed – so you can imagine how enthusiastic and upbeat her attempts are).

Joy employs different methods and strategies: she takes depression pills and sleeping pills; she drinks a lot; she engages in casual relationships with men; she bakes pastries and biscuits with therapeutic intensity every Sunday; she develops bulimia because sometimes the only thing you can hope for is that you’ll have control over at least one single area of your life; she seeks supposedly professional psychiatric help; and she reads glossy magazines that helpfully advise her to embrace chaos and disorder because that will surely help.

Do I spoil the story if I say that all these tricks are useless?

And does it sound too much like Cosmopolitan if I say that the Solution (if there is one) Lies Within You Only? Oh well. Galloway does a wonderful job alternating between the different phases of Joy’s depression and her attempts to escape from it, and all this is heartbreaking and disturbing – but also funny like hell. I’ve noticed (in literature mostly, where else) that people who are sufficiently (or perhaps too) smart are able to view their own depression from the outside and even while they’re up to their necks in their misery they can still relate to it with scary, clever and also liberating black humor. And Joy’s like this, too – she’s an achingly smart, self-pitying and self-destructing, imperfect, sarcastic, helpless woman with a terrific sense of humor as her only weapon – still, she is aware even while she’s hitting rock bottom that there will be change, there must be change. Only not this week yet. Not tonight. Not yet.

And I think it would be futile to hope for more than this, to trust that things will turns out more spectacularly than this. If there’s an optimistic ending here (but what’s an optimistic ending, anyway? When I read about characters like Joy I can imagine neither that they’ll just put an end to it [they are far too curious for that] nor that they’ll ride their unicorn away into the rainbow-colored future in the end [they are way too smart to believe in rainbows and unicorns]) then it’s really only this: There will be change. Just not today.

* Obviously, I know these two are not interchangeable, but in this text I’m referring to clinical depression and the experience of feeling low somewhat interchangeably – for purely stylistic reasons.

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