Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

To all the books that saved my life

Dannie Ong
Melbourne, Australia


Ellison H. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. New York: Pyramid Publications; 1977.

On the way to therapy, I am reading The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. I try not to think about the irony of it all – no job, no degree, not even a life, depending on who you asked – and there I am, filling pages with notes on morning routines and the productive gains of engaging the services of call centers in Bangalore. No, I absolutely will not think about it, but if I did, I would tell myself this: that all that I am doing is for when I get better.

And I will get better, because I go to therapy now – twice a week, an hour’s flight away, where I drag myself up at six even though the meds make my head feel stuffed full of cotton. There is an implicit promise I cannot look away from – the promise of a finish line, a final stop to this living nightmare – when my therapist sat me down in the very first session and handed me a bunch of papers about how to label my feelings. This, she said kindly, is the start of your recovery journey. Every journey has an ending, and then you reach the promised land. Everybody knows that.

In any case, it has been a relief to finally be doing something again, after that one night eight months ago when I went to bed and decided I was too tired to get up the next day, indefinitely. The formal concept, I have heard, is called momentum, and the truism being that things get easier once you start. It does. It gets easier to come back for the next session once we are through with the introductions. Of course, that does not mean that I enjoy it. This. Recovery. I must have missed the memo on Ithaka;1 or maybe it is Cavafy who never thought to factor in depression. It is a dark, strange, and so very hard place to inhabit, even harder yet to explain. The closest I have come to finding words enough to describe what I have been feeling is from a title I came across in a used bookstore once – I have no mouth, and I must scream.

I spend lots of time in bookstores lately. One, because there are always two at the airport, and a huge one close to where I stay when I go for therapy. Two, because being at the bookstore means that I am not on my laptop, awake for three consecutive nights to level up my pixelated toon in the game I was hooked on the first half of the year. My life has always been marked by obsessions; it was just easier to ignore how they affected me when I could still reach out and wave that report card and say, hey, but I’m still getting those grades you wanted, Ma. But this is not a subject that I can read up on; fill my brains with wordy jargon like “psychomotor retardation” and “glucocorticoids” and any other word scattered across the medical literature on depression, and then hope to ace some test. For me, there is only this: that I want for so, so much and so intensely, yet feel nothing most of the time; that my meds – fluoxetine, 40mg – help, but I do not always take them; that there is no joy at all in reading about depression, or worse yet, recovery, because the stories never end up anywhere.

So, I throw out Didion and Plath, and an extremely intriguing title that reads The Noonday Demon, even though I have pored over everything else written by Andrew Solomon as if each word were the safety instructions on how to use a fire extinguisher and my house is on fire. There is no gratifying sense of schadenfreude to be had reading about life spiraling out of control when every step along the way, I might point at the protagonist and a voice in my head says: me, me, me, me, me.

Pain and its accompanying struggles have never been easy spaces to occupy. I would that I could read in these books – or anywhere else, really – any kind of reassurance to tell me that everything will eventually be fine. Some days, everything I do feels like some final desperation. Reading itself is no vice, but neither is eating apples, until they were all I was eating and, curiously, delightedly, I watched as I withered away unseen. Navigating an illness that has taken root in your mind is weird like this, where every action and thought that filters through your head screams for justification: am I crazy? Is this normal? This – reading – feels like any other obsession, but healthier, and so I suppose that makes it fine?

I choked on a fishbone once. I was still a kid, six or seven, and after every mouthful of food I would throw myself out of the chair and do a ridiculous twirl around the dinner table. I was a walking disaster waiting to happen. The bone, when it did, lodged itself in the far back of my throat and I writhed against the foreign sensation, contorting my neck while gulping down balls of rice and lukewarm soup. Nothing helped. Panic rose in me as a tidal wave, looming higher and higher, until my mom declared – hospital, now. At once, the raw edges of my helplessness had fallen away, even as the discomfort remained. Even then, I intuitively understood the comfort of having a defined plan. I would be okay, so long as I got to the hospital, never mind that my goal would then immediately shift to getting a number at the emergency ward; then, seeing the doctor and getting the bone fished out; and afterward, never eating another piece of fish ever again. No, hearing those words, I might already have been fine. The best outcomes had always come about in this manner: slow and steady, one step at a time.

So, this is the story which everyone else, myself included, gets to hear most of the time: that all the effort I have been making is towards a concrete and well-defined goal. I cannot say what exactly this goal is but I will know it when I’m there. It is not so different from what anyone else in this world might be wishing for. In all the books I have ever read, people talk so often of happiness, but not about it. It is hard to say what I should be looking for, but I know that it is out there, somewhere.

This is so much easier than having to think about what recovery ought to mean. It is different for every patient, my therapist told me once, in that infuriatingly vague manner that really said nothing at all. What do you think recovery means, Dannie?

It means…

It means…

That I am weight restored, I guess? That nobody would know, looking at me, that I used to be anorexic or – infinitely worse yet – that I used to binge, and still do, on occasion, when I am stressed or upset. It probably means that I no longer hate myself all the time and that looking in the mirror does not always feel like torture; also, that I would no longer be living this twilight existence of vacillating between pretending I don’t exist and wishing I were dead.

That can’t be right though, because that is all true now, but I am still not well. I am not recovered. The last binge I had was two weeks ago and I was squatting on the floor, sweating heavily, breathing heavily, everything weighing down on me as I shoveled food into my mouth with the frenzy of a rabid animal. Some days, I wake up and then shut my eyes again immediately, and imagine another life where I am a better person, a nicer person, a much happier person. I cannot possibly be recovered and still be like this, can I?

I don’t know. I try not to think about it. That has only ever gotten me into more trouble. In the meantime, let me live a thousand lifetimes between these pages that have never deserted me the entire time.


End Notes

  1. As you set out for Ithaka
    hope your road is a long one

    Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
    But don’t hurry the journey at all.


Reference List

  1. Cavafy C. Poems By C.P. Cavafy. London: Chatto & Windus; 1971.



DANNIE ONG is a recent Commerce graduate from Melbourne, Australia who reads avidly, and with particular interest, about psychology and science. She strives to be an advocate on the struggles and uncertainties that mire recovery from depression.


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

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