The Weight of Zero
By Karen Fortunati
Author Website: karenfortunati.com
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 manuscript was awarded the 2014 SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant in the Contemporary YA category, named a finalist in the 2015 Tassey-Walden Awards and won the Serendipity Literary Agency 2013 YA First Page/Novel Discovery Contest. (Goodreads)
What drives a teen to attempt suicide? Even though The Weight of Zero is fiction, it could very well be about a real teen plunged to the very depth of despair and depression.
Catherine was alone in the house when her beloved grandmother suffered a fatal stroke and died in Catherine’s thirteen year old arms. She began her first year of high school while struggling through grief, but couldn’t escape the darkness. She was given medication but nothing changed. Well, except that, finding out that she was on meds, her two best friends since forever began to avoid her. By the beginning of 10th grade they were gone…and Catherine finally gave up and swallowed a bottle of meds. After the resulting hospitalization, her former friends were tormentors, telling everyone she was ‘crazy’.
Nine months and a manic episode later, the true diagnosis came: Catherine had bipolar disease, and her meds were promptly changed. She believes she is genetically defective. She also learns that there may be occasional episodes of manic behavior or crushing depression that are out of her control. She has to tell her mom every day how she feels emotionally on a one to ten scale, with ten being best. Her mother, while seemingly smothering her, was so concerned for her that she didn’t know how to love her any different, and with grandma gone, it was just the two of them. Catherine usually gives her a number higher than she is really feeling. Her current meds are now kept under lock and key, yet Catherine saved the prescriptions she no longer was on and occasionally adds a dose here and there of a current med that she skipped. When ‘Zero’, the darkness so deep that she was petrified of its return, she would kill herself. Zero was its own peculiar hell, part of the ‘death sentence’ of being bipolar, and she couldn’t survive it again. There was no hope, no future for someone like Catherine, and the sooner she was dead, the sooner her mother could have a better life.
Catherine’s junior year began. Her history instructor paired up everyone in the class to work on a special project: find a Connecticut soldier from WWII who was buried at the American Cemetery in Normandy and prepare a paper on that person including the location and kind of service, and other pertinent information. Catherine was paired with Michael, who remembered seeing her in school since freshman year. As he begins to search for a really cool soldier, she begins IOP – Intensive Outpatient Therapy – five days a week after school. She lied to Michael about having an after school job where her mother works. No matter what others say or how she behaves, Michael seems to genuinely care about her. Then there was Kristal at IOP – another person wanting to be her friend. Catherine began to put together some better days, and finds a soldier she talks Michael into researching for their project and meets Michael’s family. She still seeks relief some nights by checking her cache of med bottles, but ,,, what if Zero stayed away? What if … there really was that elusive thing called hope for someone like her?
This author has a genuine gift to design characters that this reader could connect with and / or care about. Catherine, her mom, Kristal, and Michael’s Nonny are my favorites, then Michael and his older brother Anthony. Dialogue and thoughts are equally powerful; emotions are shown with the confusion of those who are no longer children yet not quite adults coupled with those in Catherine’s IOP group who bear weight of their illness that is their own private hell.
This stunning, intense debut novel about an extremely difficult topic, a teen with bipolar disorder who survived a suicide attempt before receiving the correct diagnosis is the type of book everyone should read. The author has reflected intense personal feelings and penned remarkable dialog and prose. This isn’t only for the person with mental or emotional disorders and their families, but for everyone. Teachers don’t always know when they have students whose fledgeling self-esteem could be decimated by bullies whose caustic, calculatingly cold comments. They need to respond with care to students who may be trying to live with a life-altering diagnosis and medication-change hell on top of raging hormones and bullying.
There is so much of value in this novel, especially the hope that many teens do not see through their disease! I highly recommend this to older teens and adults who are not sensitive to details of active relapse of eating disorders, teen suicide, or strong vulgarity including the overuse of f-bombs. While I would love to suggest this as required reading for high school students, the strong language and references to sensitive subjects including teen sexuality keep me from sharing it with my teenage granddaughter until she is a bit older.