Mental Black Holes: An Excerpt from Victoria Schwab

Posted by Goodreads on October 5, 2018
"I didn't get help for my own mental health until I was 30, but I struggled with it my entire life," says Kelly Jensen, the editor of (Don't) Call Me Crazy. Featuring many notable contributors, including Adam Silvera, Libba Bray, and S. Jae-Jones, this inspiring essay collection not only starts a conversation about mental health, but also deconstructs the stigma around it.

"We live in a culture where talking about mental health is getting better," says Jensen. "I want to help young readers have more confidence in their ability to think about and talk about their mental health, whether or not they experience challenges with it."

The following excerpt is from the acclaimed author of the Shades of Magic series, Victoria "V.E." Schwab. Here she shares how her struggles with mental black holes can feel like sinking into a quagmire. But even though there are hard days, she still manages to find a silver lining through her creativity.

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Black Hole

I sat down to write about the intersection of creativity and mental health.

I sat down to draw a flowchart of circuitous thinking.

I sat down to examine impostor syndrome, anxiety, perfectionism—

I could have done any of those things.

Instead, I'm writing about black holes.

One of my characters from This Savage Song, August Flynn, gets stuck inside his own head. His thoughts loop and tangle until, if left unchecked, they eventually spiral out of control. It seems like a minor character detail, considering that he's also a soul-eating monster, but for me, it was the trait that mattered most. It's the kernel of truth at the core of his design.

I have always gotten stuck.

A thought kicks off inside my head, and goes around and around until it has its own mass and gravity, a force strong enough that I can't seem to pull free. I started to think of this dangerous mental landscape as quicksand, but in truth, it's the opposite—because you have to pull yourself free. The less you fight against it—or the less you know how to fight against it—the deeper you sink.

Will this be the time you can't break free?

Will this be the time you lose yourself inside your own head?

Will this be the time gravity wins over hope, over desperation, over everything?

It's a mental loop. Not the kind that marks obsessive-compulsive disorder—there is no series or sequence of actions I need to fulfill, no obvious way to break the cycle. But it is, without question, obsessive.

I obsess over anything out of my control. I take a potential—and potentially innocuous—event, conversation, action, and obsess over its size, scope, every way in which it can go right or wrong depending on my actions and reactions. It's a game of chess played out with me on one side and the world on the other.

Nine times out of ten, the catalyst is something out of my direct control, but adjacent to it, close enough to the line to make the boundary feel porous. Close enough that I can convince myself of my ability, through meticulous action and sheer vigilance, to control it. The direction of a conversation, for instance, or the way others perceive me. You cannot, of course, dictate the thoughts and opinions of other people—that is a territory within their minds, not yours—but you can sure as hell obsess over it.

But my obsession wasn't always so broad or encompassing.

In the beginning, it was painfully specific.

It began with death.

Not a specific death—it wasn't formed by the sudden and jarring loss of a loved one—but rather the possibility of it.

Death is an inevitable condition, an event that no one can avoid indefinitely. And yet. And yet. And yet. It is a perfectly feasible focus for obsession, because it's possible to convince yourself that with enough vigilance, you can postpone it. With enough vigilance, you can steer those you love out of its path.

It wasn't my own death I leveled my energy on avoiding—I never held much fear in that respect—but that of my parents.

"Be careful."

Two words that drove—and continue to drive—my mother mad. Every time she would step off the curb. Every time she would chop vegetables. Every time she would round a corner in the car, or stumble on a stair, or cough on a bite of food.

"Be careful."

My mother wasn't ill.

But my father was.

My father was—and is—a type I diabetic; the disease forces him to straddle the precarious line between wellness and catastrophe. Things are better now, medically speaking, thanks to advances in insulin technology and monitoring, but when I was growing up, his health was a brittle thing. Every day, it was in jeopardy.

Having grown up in a world where he was not expected to grow old, my father, for his part, was incredibly fatalistic. He had come to an equanimity with death that I still do not possess. But if he would not take up the helm, I would.

By the age of eight, I had memorized the microexpressions that served as clues to his varying blood sugars (from 30 to over 300). By the age of ten, I could tell him his sugar with such frightening accuracy that he called me his personal glucose meter.

I was beginning to feel a dangerous level of control. Dangerous, because I knew it was a fallacy, knew that every victory was not a guarantee of those to come. And so vigilance became hypervigilance. Attention became obsession.

Once lodged in my mind, "Be careful" became Be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful be careful

I don't know when the scale tipped. I only know that by twelve, I stopped sleeping. An obsession with my parents' health had evolved into a terror of losing them. Which, I reasoned, could only result from my failure to keep them alive.

The thoughts came for me at night.

I could fight them back during the day, when my parents were in front of me, alive and well, but the moment the lights went out, I fell under siege. While other kids my age stayed up with a flashlight and a book under the covers, I was lying in the dark, thinking about death until the thoughts became a weight and the weight became crushing.

While my parents slept, I lay perfectly still and studied their breathing through the walls of our house. My mother had a persistent cough that grew worse at night, and every sound was like gunfire, sudden and startling. My father was perpetually fragile, one wrong dose of insulin away from a rage or a coma, a bad blood sugar or death.

I now know the situation was not that clear-cut.

But a child's mind draws in black and white.

I grew up, and waited to outgrow this part of myself.

I waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited, and I am now thirty and my parents are still alive. While I have learned to keep the "be careful's" inside my head, I still think them. I still cringe when my mother coughs. I still panic when my father doesn't answer his phone. I am always one foot away from the black hole inside my head.

I still get stuck.

No matter how vigilant I try to be, how wary of my mental footing, I can't seem to avoid that inevitable wayward step. It's only a matter of time before I slip, one leg plunging into the dark.

I have given up on avoiding that first misstep. The ground beneath my feet is full of pitfalls. I focus instead on stopping the descent, preventing myself from falling farther. I dedicate my attention to slowly, meticulously, hauling myself back onto solid ground.

And I do it by writing.

This is my lurid secret: I do not write because I love it. Certainly, the love is there, folded in somewhere alongside the discovery, the order, the completion of the act. It does not always parade as love—more often it is more a thrill of excitement, a wave of satisfaction—but it is there, and I have always seen it as a pleasant side effect rather than the purpose.

There is a black hole at the center of my mind.

It is always there.

But it is not all there is.

Want to read the rest of Victoria Schwab's essay? (Don't) Call Me Crazy is now available. Make sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews, and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Noura (new)

Noura Khalid (theperksofbeingnoura) Thank you Victoria for sharing this <3

message 2: by Angieviera1 (new)

Angieviera1 Needed to read. Perfect timing in my life! Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable side no one speak on.

message 3: by Stína (new)

Stína Thank you so much for sharing! It was just what I needed...

message 4: by Janis (new)

Janis Wow. What a way to grow up and spend your life. But I have been in fear of losing my mother because it meant that I would never have another person in the whole world who understood me like she does. These irrational fears are so all consuming. Those who don't have to deal with them have no clue what it is like.

Thanks for sharing this Victoria!

message 5: by Nicky (new)

Nicky Wow. Thanks for sharing your story. You are one of my favourite authors, and love all of your books that I have had the pleasure of reading. I will now read your stories with a different level of understanding and appreciation.

message 6: by Kate (new)

Kate This is why we read. To discover we are understood and we are not alone. Thank you for being brave and writing about your inner most fears. ❤

message 7: by Prachi (new)

Prachi Pati This is a beautiful article, and I can relate to the mental black hole and obsessing over thoughts a lot. That's the biggest battle and challenge in my life- me and my all encompassing thoughts.

Sabrina Sellers Thanks so much for sharing. We are not alone, and we are NOT crazy. We are caring, creative, funny, artistic beings who have a few issues. I can relate to the black holes. Thank you for this.

message 9: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Sackier This essay was wonderfully captivating. There is so much mental and physical motion within these words--a great deal of fear, anxiety, and stress, but also resilience.

Victoria Schwab has penned a beautiful piece of eagerness to understand, intention to overcome, and determination to find strength. It was moving, and it was worthy. Cheers

message 10: by Ann (new)

Ann E I also have a black hole. A black hole of depression. Different but the same. And I wasn't diagnosed until my 30s. I'm now 70. I must read this book.

message 11: by J.T. (new)

J.T. SHEA Many thanks for your candor and sharing! John Green describes similar thought spirals, but calls them OCD, which is not strictly accurate. I'm going to buy and read this book and hope many others will too.

message 12: by Hannah (new)

Hannah Such a poignant and relatable story for me....I became terrified of death (and life, honestly) and consumed with control when I was 11, and my friend, who was 13, suddenly died in a tragic accident. It was a shock, and I have never been the same. Suddenly the realisation that all the people I loved would die, and that awful things would happen, was too great for my 11 year old mind to bear...I remember the nights awake, like Victoria describes...with the weight crushing me, so heavy I felt I couldn’t have moved, even if I tried. Thank you for sharing are not alone.💙

message 13: by Rohini (new)

Rohini Didar I cannot thank Victoria enough.

I always feel no one understands what I am going through, how sad I am, how scared I am. I can not blame my friends for not understanding me.
Being the only child, I had to take the responsibility of taking care of my parents. I was always in fear of losing them.I also use to stand in front of the bed of my parents to check if they are breathing.
My mother was a chronic patient of Arthritis. As time went by this auto-immune disease effected her lungs. I remember she also use to cough all night long. We could not save her, after battling with her health she died last year. It frustrates me. Death frustrates me. It is such a painful subject for me and I know people around me will never understand.

After reading this I now know there are people like me out there and its not abnormal.

I am suddenly feeling brave.

Thank you Victoria.

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