Paperweight by Meg Haston
Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: ED Rep | My Rating:
This dark, honest book is the story of Stevie, a 17-year-old struggling with an eating disorder and convinced that the only way she can atone for past mistakes is by killing herself on the anniversary of her brother’s death. When her dad checks her into a treatment center, the anniversary is 27 days away, so Stevie knows she won’t make it through the full treatment. In fact, in the beginning, she refuses to believe that she needs help—in her mind, the only solution to the pain she’s shoved away inside is for her to die.
Needless to say, Paperweight is not a light-hearted contemporary. It is not a book to be picked up lightly. And yet, it’s the most realistic portrayal of not only anorexia/bulimia, but of pure, self-hating, suicidal depression that I’ve ever encountered. By immersing the reader inside Stevie’s perspective, alternating the present day treatment center narrative with memories of what led her down this road in the first place, Meg Haston shows how eating disorders are about so much more than food, and adds a mystery element that builds suspense throughout. This is also one of those rare books where not a single sentence is wasted, where the gorgeous language itself is enough to keep you reading.
I’m not usually a fan of the hospital narrative in mental illness books. I know, that seems odd; aren’t hospitals a staple of the category? Not necessarily, and I also feel that they often become a way of dramaticizing or even romanticizing mental illness. Not everyone who’s struggling with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc. winds up in a treatment facility. Some folks struggle along on their own—some folks die in that struggle—and other folks don’t have the luxury of a nice facility like the one Stevie has in Paperweight. And yet, two things really made this work for me: the balancing of the present/past narration and the portrayal of the individuals both in therapy and the professionals at Stevie’s treatment center.
*Mild spoilers ahead*
the past/present narrative. As the story progresses, Stevie recalls various moments in her life that led her not only to her eating disorder but to her desire to kill herself. We learn that less than two years ago, her mother abandoned the family to move to Paris and start a new life. Stevie blames herself for this loss, believing that if she had just been skinnier, had more self-control over food, her mother wouldn’t have left. We also learn that Stevie believes herself responsible for her brother’s death, which is a big reason she wants to kill herself on the anniversary. We learn that Stevie hasn’t ever really connected with other girls for reasons she struggles to explain, and that Eden, an older, glamorous girl, was the only one who reached out to Stevie. We learn about Stevie’s binge drinking, which led to binge eating and purging—and we learn that her brother, Josh, was the only one who noticed Stevie losing weight.
All of this not only adds suspense to an otherwise emotionally-driven novel, but it also reveals clues about Stevie’s illness. Controlling food and losing weight are the ways she seeks control and power over her situation, and her brother’s death (which, by the way, is actually an accident and not her fault at all) acts as the catalyst to some serious depression and suicidal thoughts. Stevie literally wants to starve herself—she wants to disappear, to cease to exist, but she also desperately wants to take up less space, because this is tied in with her mother’s abandonment. Like many of us with depression, Stevie believes herself to be unworthy of good things, unworthy of life itself. This is self-hatred at its most dangerous, particularly when tied in with her eating disorder.
treatment center realism. In the beginning, Stevie resists her therapist, whom she calls Shrink, but ultimately the two develop a beautiful patient-therapist relationship, which is something I can’t recall seeing before in this kind of narrative. Rather than crafting the stereotypical overbearing, misunderstanding shrink who spouts cliches, Haston complicates this presentation. “Shrink” aka Anna has a personality of her own, and while she does spout cliches, she ultimately is able to really help Stevie. Even the other girls in treatment with Stevie have unique characters: they all ended up here for different reasons, from one girl who’s older brother abused her in childhood to another girl who doesn’t even have a big reason that she has an eating disorder. Despite Stevie’s unwillingness to participate in treatment at all, we slowly see her coming around, both through her therapy sessions with Anna, and through her friendship with her roommate, Ashley.
A big reason this is 5 stars for me is the honesty with which Haston portrays the recovery process. It’s so easy to write a story about someone who goes from totally suicidal to totally “fixed” by the end of the story—but be warned, Paperweight is not that story. Rather, Haston writes the honest truth about recovery: it’s a long, brutal road, filled with temptations, because eating disorders (and depression) are not something that can be “cured” like the flu. While this might sound horribly depressing, it’s honestly refreshing to someone who’s struggled with depression for the better part of 10 years—because it’s true. You get better slowly, and sometimes you end up getting worse again and having to start all over, but it’s better than nothing because you’re alive. Books like this go a long way toward destigmatizing what it’s really like to live with a mental illness, not just “suffer” from one and then get better.
full disclosure: I recommend Paperweight to anyone who’s ever struggled with depression (as long as you’re not currently suicidal). Mostly, I recommend this book to folks who’ve never struggled with depression or eating disorders. Read this with an open mind, allow yourself to feel what Stevie feels, and you’ll be a lot closer to understanding what these disorders really do to a person.
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