Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disorder, almost triumphed once; that was her first suicide attempt.
And so, in an old ballet-shoe box, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict his living death on her again. Before she goes, though, she starts a short bucket list. This bucket list, combined with the support of her family, new friends, and a new course of treatment, begins to ease Catherine’s sense of isolation. The problem is, her plan is already in place, and has been for so long that she might not be able to see a future beyond it.
This is a story of loss and grief and hope, and how some of the many shapes of love—maternal, romantic, and platonic—affect a young woman’s struggle with mental illness and the stigma of treatment.
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I line the bottles up on my night table. Each amber-colored warrior bears my name and its own rank and serial number: 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. My psycho-tropic soldiers give me hope. There is strength in numbers.
My mother’s bedroom door squeaks, and for the third time tonight, soft footsteps pad their way to me. There’s no lock on my door; it was gone when I came home from the hospital last year. Fighting the usual Mom-induced frustration, I move quickly, stashing the bottles.
Light from the hallway spills into my room as Mom enters. “Sorry, Cath, forgot to get your number.” She bends to kiss me. Before, she’d stroke the long hair off my face to find my forehead. Now, with most of my hair MIA, Mom pats my shorn head like she would a sick dog. “Well?” she asks.
“Um . . . six, maybe six and a half,” I lie. Our numerical mood-report system dates back to about two years ago, right around the time I turned fifteen. The truth: I’m closer to five. Maybe even four. And I’m scared. I think I can feel Zero’s black breath on my neck. Again. But I can’t tell her that now.
Mom sits on the side of my bed, pulling the white down comforter tight across my chest. “So it’s about the same, right? No change?”
“Okay. No big changes. That’s good.” Mom says this more for herself than for me. “So on Monday, I’ll pick you up right after school. I can leave work early.”
“Mom,” I say with a sigh. “That’s the eighth time you’ve told me. I got it.” Her instant smile hurts too much, so I roll to face the wall.
Mom has lassoed her hopes on Monday’s appointment for my miraculous recovery from bipolar disorder. The site of the future miracle is named, appropriately, St. Anne’s Hospital, which has just opened a shiny new adolescent outpatient facility right here in Cranbury, Connecticut. On the recommendation of my shrink du jour, I will be heading to St. Anne’s for three hours after school, five days a week, for the foreseeable future. I haven’t told him about Zero, but since I’ve skipped a few classes, he’s upped the dosage of my new med in addition to this intensive out-patient program at St. Anne’s.
“Sorry, Cath.” Mom rubs my back. Even though I’m annoyed with her, it feels wonderful, comforting, and I almost purr, my skin soaking up the contact like a parched plant takes in water. “I know we’ve gone over it already,” she continues. “I’m so tired I don’t know what I’m saying. The restaurant was packed tonight.” Even her voice sounds fried. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this. Two jobs in one day.”
We both know she’ll keep doing this Friday double to pay for my doctors, therapy, meds, donations to the shrine of St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes) and whatever else my mental defect demands.
“You should get some sleep,” I say, shifting slightly in her direction. She rises and hunches over me. Her face is in the shadows, and bony shoulders poke out of her sleeveless pajama top. She could be eighty years old.
Mom tucks in the bottom corners of the comforter too hard. My toes curl forward under the pressure. “Okay, baby. Wake me up if you need anything. I love you.” She clicks off my bedside lamp like I’m three.
I wait a safe twenty minutes even though it’s Friday night, the night Mom passes out after eight hours of typing for a bunch of loser attorneys followed by a five-hour encore waitressing at Dominic’s. I’ve got a couple of free nocturnal hours before she resumes watchdog rounds by my bedside.
When the silence is heavy and unmoving, I reach under my bed. Again, I line up the white-capped cylinders. I stare at their labels and pat their heads until my heart slows and my stomach unclenches. Zero is close by, sniffing and pawing, looking for a crack in my brain that the meds haven’t filled. It’s gotten me once before. In September of sophomore year, I turned to my brand-new bottle of lithium and took it all, with a side of a half bottle of Prozac. I failed, though, because of Mom. Somehow, some way, through some maternal telepathy, she knew, and rushed home in time to call an ambulance.
It took another nine months--when I had my first manic episode this past June--for me to get a diagnosis. Right before he retired, old Dr. A broke the news. It was the first time I’d heard the word “bipolar,” with its permanent cycling of manias and depressions. I remember Dr. A was talking more to Mom than to me, explaining the “strong genetic component” of the disorder. The need to start lithium again. I remember cutting him off, asking, “So, it’s the way I’m wired?”
“Yes.” Dr. A nodded his fat gray head.
“And people don’t outgrow bipolar disorder?” I asked. “I’ll be like this forever?”
“Yes. It’s managed like any other chronic illness, like diabetes or . . .”
In my head, the sound of the gavel crashing down drowned out the rest of Dr. A’s tired voice. Oblivious to the death sentence he had just relayed, he returned his gaze to Mom, who had frozen erect in her chair like a sphinx, fingers gouging the padded armrests. She moved only to grab hold of the cross around her neck.
It hit me then like it must’ve sucker punched Mom seconds earlier. The import of what Dr. A was telling us: Catherine Pulaski is genetically defective.
The knowledge of this permanency mutes the carousel of shrinks and their diagnoses. It makes me immune to the meds that promise to fix me, to turn me into a normal girl again. Because I know I won’t ever be normal. And it’s not the manias that get to me--those electric, almost euphoric phases of false clarity and vision and purpose. It’s mania’s flip side, the fucker I call Zero. I am petrified of him.
And now I know it’s a scientific certainty, a medical fact, that Zero will get me again. Mom’s saving my life was in vain.
Last year, when Zero dug in for the long haul, Mom kept asking me how I felt. What I felt. But there were and are no words for that particular state of hell. I couldn’t tell her that I was submerged. Numbed. Unable to feel anything. My spectrum of emotions had been obliterated. My feelings, all of them, good and bad, had gone AWOL. And someone who has never felt it can never understand what the absence of emotion feels like. It is a hopelessness of incomprehensible, unspeakable weight.
Yet I’m supposed to blindly move forward? Knowing there’s another wacko idea, disguised as reasonable, just waiting to take hold of my mind? To be followed by solitary confinement in Zero’s black tundra? Rinse and fucking repeat? For the rest of my life? That’s no future.
So, I’ve got a plan.
I arrange the bottles into a tight two-line formation with Lexapro at the front. It will be a new life for Mom. Infinitely better without Catherine sucking her dry on every level--emotional, social and financial. There’s no relief for her as long as I’m still breathing. Because the bottom line is this: my bipolar life is killing her normal one. I’m a parasite, eating her alive. Almost literally. It’s like the ten pounds I’ve put on came straight off her body. Her clothes hang on her. She’s beaten down.
It’s actually a pretty easy decision when you get right to it. And honorable, I think. I’m intrinsically damaged, so I’ll switch out my life for my mother’s.
I pick up the Lexapro bottle and gently shake it so that the four pills inside dance. I will take whatever time I have left and kill myself when Zero makes Catherine-landfall. When he’s entrenched in my head and has poisoned my world alien and gray. I will do it with the contents of this shoe box. A conscious decision to refuse to live my life this way, under these conditions.
The only question is when. And the answer is unknown because Zero’s ETA is basically a crapshoot. My new psychiatrist, Dr. McCallum, has spent a ton of time on the “You and Your Bipolar Disorder” lectures with Mom and me. So I know that while the mood cycles are inevitable and unstoppable, it’s a mystery as to when the next one will hit.
I grab my phone and open the calendar. October. My heart pumps faster. Zero’s arrival has to be imminent if it follows the same loose pattern of my first two years of high school; depression in the fall and some kind of mania in the summer. This knowledge sends twin spirals of fear and anxiety through me. I press my fingertips hard against the phone and the light illuminates them, spotlighting my bitten-down nails and tattered cuticles. But the rest of my hands are good, soft and unmarked, with long, slim fingers. A dancer’s hands. And my body, heavier now from my prescription buffet, is still in decent shape. Mom likes the added weight. She thought I was too skinny before. Putting the phone down, I raise one leg high over my head. Then the other. The flexibility’s still there. Must be the years of muscle memory from dance. I was good at it.
I sit up now and easily bring my head down to my knees, my hamstrings offering no resistance to the stretch. It burns me, the fact that my healthy body most likely won’t see its eighteenth birthday. Sorrow starts rolling in. Over the waste of this body that didn’t just dance with strength and grace but served me well in basically every-thing. I’ve run a 10K, zip-lined and rafted down the Housatonic in the spring. Biked, swum and skated. With a fingertip, I trace the outline of my lips. I’ve kissed. One time. At Riley’s Valentine’s Day party in eighth grade.
While my brain has failed me, my body’s been good. Too good to be tied to such a diseased mind. It’s unfair, and I mourn the things this body won’t do. All the thousands of things it will never experience, from the mundane to the life altering. Dipping my toes into the Pacific Ocean, sliding behind the wheel of my first car. Unpacking dishes into the cabinets of my own place. Getting married. Job. Boyfriend. College. Roommates. Recitals. Prom. Sex.
Sex. The ultimate connection. The closest possible contact you can have with another person.
I want that. At least once before Zero returns. And I should have it. It’s wrong to deny my body that experience. It’s wasteful to die without attempting one real, tangible connection to another human. And maybe in the time it takes to physically connect, I can shed the loneliness that I wear as a second skin. Even if just for a few minutes. A temporary escape. I click to the “Notes” section on my phone. I type “Death Day” and then delete it and type: “D‑Day.” Next line: “Lose virginity.” I delete it and type: “L.V.” I study this one and only item--the sole entry on my things-to-experience-before-Zero list.
L.V. probably won’t work, though. I have no real friends anymore, girls or boys. Depression, a suicide attempt and bipolar disorder carry the same social value as leprosy, AIDS and flesh-eating bacteria. I get that. I’m not stupid or delusional. But it doesn’t make it hurt any fucking less when your closest friends jump ship.
It’s time. Flinging the comforter back, I grab the shoe box and gently lay each bottle down on the old tights that muffle any noise they may make during transit. I top them with more tights and a couple pairs of ballet shoes. While she has slowed up a bit, Mom still searches my room. So these guys are rotated, spending Monday through Friday under my bed and Friday night through Sunday night in Grandma’s room. I feel safer with them out of my room, as Mom likes to clean and organize on Saturdays before she does the early-bird dinner shift at Dominic’s.
Leaving the box on the floor, I softly open my bedroom door and listen. From Mom’s open bedroom door, the light of her muted TV flashes. I creep closer, avoiding the land mines of creaky floorboards. Most nights, Mom wakes up if I give the slightest cough. She used to bolt into my room, panicked. “What’s wrong?” she’d cry. Now that we’ve passed the one-year anniversary, she’ll just call out to me, “Baby, you okay?” But it’s Friday and Mom should be immobile for the next couple of hours.
I hear the regular pattern of her breathing. Silently, I whip back into my room, pick up the box and lightly make my way down the steps. Who knew how handy ten years of ballet would be for sneaking around? I glide like a ghost through the dark living room and into our spotless kitchen, where the butterfly night-light glows over the sink. Fresh Italian bread from the restaurant lies sealed in a ziplock bag on the counter, but I can still smell it. Grandma’s door is shut.
Her bedroom door never squeaks. I step inside. The curtains are open and the corner streetlight washes her room in light. Her twin bed is neatly made, with the yellow afghan folded at the bottom. It’s been two years and three months since she died, but framed pictures still line the dresser along with her brush, Yardley English Lavender perfume and tchotchkes on white lace doilies. Her drawers are still crammed with makeup, clothes, belts and scarves probably dating back to 1940. Mom dusts everything in here, including the extra-large crucified Jesus above Grandma’s bed that keeps watch over the vacant room.
I take a deep breath. Every so often, the scent of peppermint, her favorite candy, wafts by. It’s Grandma, I know it is. But I’m glad that’s all she can communicate from heaven. I can’t bear to hear what she thinks of me now.
Avoiding Jesus’s gaze (he might still be pissed at me), I lift the bed skirt and pull out the plastic box of Grandma’s summer clothes. It slides soundlessly on the worn carpet. Farther back, in the black hole under the bed, my hand searches and then connects with the cracked handle of the beaten plaid suitcase. Unzipping it, I wedge my shoe box alongside packets of old letters, envelopes jammed with photographs, old jewelry and Uncle Jack’s musty military jacket.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fortunato has written a beautifully detailed book about a girl suffering with bipolar disorder. The loss of her friends when she shared her diagnosis has convinced her that she is in this on her own. So even though she has made a new friend in her treatment group and has acquired a boyfriend as part of her bucket list, she still intends to kill herself the next time Zero (depression) comes around. Her characters are richly detailed and for such heavy subject matter, the book is still hopeful.
I couldn’t put it down. I can relate to so much of this book, and I am going to tell everyone I know to read it.
“The Weight of Zero” is an accurate portrayal of what life with mental illness is like for teenagers. Catherine, the main character, has bipolar disorder. Her struggle to accept it and find a way to live with it is the driving plot of the book. There are no miracle cures and romance won’t “cure” her. It is easily one of the most accurate portrayals of mental illness in YA literature that I have ever read. It’s also a very easy read in spite of the grit. I recommend “The Weight of Zero” for anyone looking for a realistic portrayal of mental illness. It would be a good discussion starter between parents and their children, as well. This unbiased review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.
This is a beautiful book. I think it's very difficult to write about depression in a way that's both realistic and fresh, but Karen Fortunati has done it with THE WEIGHT OF ZERO. Cath is such a compelling narrator, and her voice is pitch-perfect. She's trying to live her life, but she knows Zero--her depression-- is coming for her, and she has to find a way to deal with that, even if it means ending her life. When Zero doesn't show up when she expects, she has to find a new way to live, and decide if she wants to keep waiting. I loved the cast of characters here; they seemed completely real. This is a book that will give hope and help to a lot of readers, I'm sure of it.
Check out the full review here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BKOypoZgfVS/?taken-by=thebooksbuzz **I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher. This has not affected my review in any way.** This is definitely one of the best books encompassing mental health I've read all year, if not the best. What sets itself apart from other similar books on the market is simply the perspective of mental health in which the author has decided to write about. Catherine Pulaski is a 17-year-old girl who suffers from bipolar disorder. She spends her days living in fear that one day Zero will return for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine's bipolar disorder, which almost triumphed through her first suicide attempt. She knows Zero will come back for her, and she will take whatever time she has left before she ultimately decides to end her life when Zero makes its imminent arrival. But before that... she's got a bucket list of things to do. Fortunati really emphasizes the longevity of Catherine's mental illness, something that is often neglected in most of the mental health-related books I've read. I feel like some books portray a character's mental illness as this hurdle to be knocked down or conquered and that once it's treated, it's gone forever. I believe quite the opposite actually. Mental illness is something that stays apart of a person forever and all one can do is not 'treat it' or 'extinguish it', but just to learn how to live with it. Even embrace it, in some cases. Catherine may be one of the most compelling characters I've ever read about. Her perspective on her own life is so morose and grim. In the beginning of the book, she's literally just waiting for Zero to come so she can take her own life. She believes herself to be such an inconvenience to her teachers, her (ex) friends and to even her mom. These parts of the book were often most painful to read about, as I can imagine so many other teenager girls and boys feeling this way. There was also some dark humor, which was pretty obvious through Fortunati's word choices. It gave the story this light-hearted sense and quelled the fact that, yes indeed, we're talking about mental illness and depression. I found myself marking the pages with the phrase '#relatable' on more than one occasion. As someone who has experienced mental illness, I found everything that Catherine felt to be true to my personal experience. Even the little things like how her throat would tighten to the bigger things such as how alienated she felt from the world. My ability to empathize with the main character made my reading of her all the more enjoyable. The side characters played as big a role as the main protagonist did. This isn't a story about just Catherine's struggle, but the struggle of so many others she has touched and met along the way. For example, we learn a lot about her mother's hardship between juggling 2 jobs and worrying about if and when her daughter might try another attempt on her life. She's a single mom who is obligated to pay for all of Catherine's medical bills and put food on the table. I loved Catherine's mom so much! She was such a trooper and through all the sacrifices she made for Cath, I wanted to pat her on the back for being such a supporter. We also meet Kristal, who is a fellow patient at the St. Anne's support group. Kristal is a recovering patient of an eating disorder. Rarely do I read books where the side characters play just a
Karen Fortunati’s debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, was totally impressive. The voice of the main character, Cath, who has bipolar disorder, is captivating and true. The topic of depression is handled skillfully without ever sounding preachy. I loved the relationships the character has with her female friends. I’m really glad that the world will get to read this! I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this YA novel in exchange for an honest review.
Karen Fortunati’s The Weight of Zero is perfection. I know that is a bold promise, but it is true. Perfection. Every line, every word. The story and tension unfold in a way that is at once beautiful and tragic and heartwrenching and hopeful—and Fortunati’s brilliant writing style and compassion keep the reader in capable hands throughout this debut. I am wholly aware as I write this review that my words will not do this book justice. But I will try because I believe this is a book that every teen should read. Anyone who has struggled with mental illness, or loved someone with mental illness should read this book. The reader meets Fortunati’s main character, Catherine, as she struggles with a recent bipolar diagnosis. For Catherine, this is a death sentence. How can she live her life if Zero—manic depression—is always breathing on her neck, waiting for his darkness to envelop her? Cath’s story unfolds effortlessly on the page. Fortunati is a master at voice and character development and she invites us in to witness Cath’s inner demons, as well as all of Cath’s strategies for appearing “normal” on the outside. Catherine is witty and bold and whip smart. Fortunati made me love Cath with my whole heart. Catherine has started taking a new medication to manage her bipolar disorder and is enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient Program after attempting suicide prior to the book’s opening. In this center, we witness Cath interacting other teens who struggle with a variety of mental health issues. These teens are beautiful and inspiring and so well-formed that each of them feels like a real person. That’s the thing about Fortunati’s writing: it’s brutally real and beautifully real. Her characters are the farthest thing from one-dimensional. You will fall in love with Cath. Her honesty and her vulnerability. And you will fall in love with the people who surround her: a mother who never gives up, new friends, a boy, a 90-year-old Italian woman who is just vibrant and eccentric enough to help Cath keep everything in perspective. There is so much to love about this book that I could go on for ages. I will, in fact. I will tell everyone I know about this book because this book is not one to be missed. This story is so profoundly moving that it deserves all the readers. Fortunati did her research and writes from a compassionate place. Fortunati shows us the devastating effects of Zero in her book and doesn’t make things easy for her character. In other words, she handles this particular representation of bipolar and its effects on one teen girl with respect and authenticity. As someone who works closely with teens struggling with bipolar and depression and anxiety, I respected this honest and thought-provoking portrayal immensely. The review I write here will soon be lost in a sea of reviews saying the same thing about this debut: Read the Weight of Zero. It is an important book, a refreshing book. It is also funny and raw. There is so much to learn in this book, and it never comes across as depressing—no easy feat considering the subject matter. Fortunati manages to weave so much hope into her character’s life that the book is thoroughly uplifting. It is zero surprise that Fortunati’s debut was chosen as an Indies Introduce title by the American Booksellers Association in 2016, or that her manuscript won the 2013 YA Discovery Contest and a was a finalist in the 2015 Tassey Walden Awards and allowed Fortunati to receive a SCBWI grant to help suppor