THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER: Being the Hero's Heartbreak

trigger warning: depression, mental illness, suicide, suicidal thoughts

possible spoiler warnings for THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, by Emily X.R. Pan

Chapter 2. The book starts with a series of scratched-out suicide note attempts. So simple, such a small thing, and I am immediately wrecked. Fingers trembling, aching to turn the pages and move on, eyes fixed to the words, I’m already crying.

I get it. I’ve been there. How do you encompass a lifetime’s suffering into a note? How do explain that you love them so much, so much that you have to go? How do you convey your sorrow and apology when they won’t get it?

I want you to remember: I do, too. Remember me. The good times, not this pain. Raise your children with my picture on the mantel. Don’t forget me. Just because I have to go doesn’t mean I want to erase my existence entirely.

The day before I began reading Emily X.R. Pan’s stunning debut THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, I sat down and, for I think the first time in my life, began typing out a suicide note.

Books, tables, plants, oh my!

Books, tables, plants, oh my!

I didn’t get far. Just the act of typing out the words “I’m sorry” sent me reeling because it made it so real. So much more real than ever before. I’d had previous attempts, but they’d always been impulsive, the kind that happened because I was overcome with emotion and couldn’t see past the pain of the moment, and never had I come even close to my life being in danger. I’d never had the time to sit down and write a note. 

This time was different. This time started with me speaking to myself in a rational tone of voice. Making a promise. And slowly, as the days passed, growing ever surer in my promise. I had motive. I had a plan. I had determination. If such-and-such didn’t happen…I would kill myself.

THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER is about coping with a mother’s suicide. It’s contemporary but fantastical, the story of Leigh, a biracial girl who, after losing her mother, travels to Taiwan to visit the grandparents whom she’s never met, in search of the bird she believes her mother has become. It is exquisitely written and heart-squeezingly devastating at times. As I read, I kept stopping to take notes, to write down a chapter number and a line or two that specifically affected me.

Chapter 6. One of the first books I ever tried to write was a dual-perspective novel, following a girl after her best friend killed herself as the left-behind finds she can hardly cope. I had tried to kill myself a few months before, wound up in the hospital, and was trying to put myself in my friends’ shoes and imagine their life after me.

The biggest struggle was I just couldn’t fathom that they would be devastated.

Leigh says: “The mother-shaped hole became a cutout of the blackest black. Something I could only see around.” (19).

Am I wrong for wishing they might be sucked into the black hole?

The day before I began reading THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER was the day such-and-such was supposed to happen, or not. And as the hours dragged on, I became surer that it wouldn’t happen. That I would have to die. I was a mess. I cried. My hands shook. I scrolled through my phone’s contacts, trying to find someone I could tell. I started my note. I shuddered and couldn’t finish. 

In the end, I didn’t do it. I lived another day, to open up Pan’s novel, and find myself…completely shaken.

Chapter 19. Leigh wants to know whose fault it is. Did she not love her mom enough? Did her father fail in some way? Did her mom’s friends drop the ball?

I wanted to yell that no, of course not. The ball is too fucking heavy for them to carry. It’s too heavy for me to ask my mom, my best friend, the boy I have a crush on, to carry. It’s definitely too heavy for me, but I’m trying. I’m lugging it behind me and brushing the sweaty hair from my forehead and wishing I were stronger.

“If I had only— ” (77). 

No, baby, there was nothing you could do. 

I wish I could blame someone for this. Say they didn’t love me enough. But the truth is my brain is a cannibal and it’s eating me alive and no one’s sacrifice will ever be enough. Ever. Not even mine.

What do you when you find yourself relating not to the book’s protagonist, Leigh, but to her dead mother? When every description of the mother who killed herself rockets through your body and lights you up from the inside, eating you alive with recognition? 

Everything about Leigh’s mother could have been written about me. From the memories where she shines, joy sparkling from her eyes to her fingertips to the way she moves about the room. There are moments in which I feel this about myself. Moments when I am joy incarnate, when I imagine a third-person narrator saying of me, She walked with a spring in her step, emanating a joie de vivre that infected everyone around her. She may as well have been in a musical on a beautiful spring day, waltzing through a quaint, charming town while wearing a fluffy, pink sundress. 

And then there are descriptions of her as she is depressed. Slumped, physically bowed down by the weight in her mind, in her heart, unable to even recognize that it’s time to celebrate someone else: a prisoner to her illness.

That’s me so much of the time. It feels like there are weights tied to my fingers and my toes and my nose and they’re all pulling me downward, pressing me into the ground. I get in the car and my hands barely hold onto the wheel, my foot presses the gas gauge too far…I have to pull over, take a deep breath, straighten my back and demand strength from my limbs that isn’t there.

Chapter 24. Leigh finds her mom passed out on the kitchen floor.

I used to pray I could pass out. Hell, I still do. I am overcome with emotion and it hurts like hell and I want it to go away, at least for a moment.

When I cut; when I walk crying down the street; when I post on Twitter; I’m screaming. I’m screaming for you to help me. What do I have to do to get your attention? Pass out? Collapse? Bleed?

Die?

Help me. 

Chapter 29. They thought she was better.

But it was always going to come back.

THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER is a story of grief. Intense, brilliant grief. Every instant where Leigh grieves her mother hit me in the gut, not because I’ve felt that grief, but because I’ve almost been the cause of that grief.

I haven’t lost a loved one to suicide. I’ve been the loved one who was almost lost to suicide.

Chapter 30. Leigh asks herself what makes someone decide to kill herself. Especially when this person is loved.

I flash back to mid-July, 2017. I wish I remembered details of the day other than that it was a Sunday, but that’s all I’ve got. It was a Sunday. I was on the middle or top balcony in Hammerstein Ballroom, at the Manhattan Center. I was out of control. I was surrounded by friends, people who didn’t just profess to love me, but who acted out their love, showing it to me in everything they did.

“You have so many people who love you,” someone mentioned, and the guilt knifed its way through my gut. I knew it was the truth.

It’s not often that I know I am loved. Most of the time I hope I am loved, but fully disbelieve it regardless. This time, though, I knew it.

And it still wasn’t enough. 

Chapter 33. Leigh thinks maybe a place to exercise her religion would have saved her mother. 

I have a place. I call it home. I call it church. I call it family. It’s a megachurch that meets in a theater in midtown Manhattan and the line stretches halfway down an avenue most Sundays. The worship music is loud and exciting and when I sing out so strongly that my throat gets raw, I feel like it will be okay.

If I could just stay in that cocoon all the time. If I could wrap myself in that comfort, familiarity, home, for the other six days of the week…

It still wouldn’t be enough. 

I don’t know what will be enough. I don’t know if anything can be enough. I have it all. I have friends and love and God and worship and home and dreams and safety and it is still not, never, enough. Because I still wander through the middle of most days wondering when it’s going to happen.

When I’m going to kill myself.

And I don’t know what the grief would look like for the people I love, who profess to love me. Honestly, sometimes I don’t believe that they would grieve. I doubt it would wreck anyone the way it wrecked Leigh. 

But maybe it would. Maybe, just maybe, my friends would find themselves shaken, at a loss, sick to their stomachs, knowing I was gone. Maybe they would attend my funeral and have no words for their sorrow. Maybe they would fling their lives away, travel to foreign lands in search of me, in search of a reason, in search of an answer.

Maybe.

I doubt it. But maybe that doubt is the depression speaking.

Regardless: what do you do when you read a book and know you’re not the hero: you’re her heartbreak?

Chapter 52. Leigh’s mom can’t hold herself upright. Her body droops, sags, drapes along the floor and the shoulders of those who carry her. 

There have been moments, usually when I’m behind the wheel of a car, when my body becomes weighted down. My shoulders sag, my head lolls forward. My eyes close for a blink and it takes a second, two, six, for them to snap open again.

We like to call depression a mental illness, relegate it to the kingdom of the mind and pretend it has no physical effects. But there are moments when my body is just as sick as my mind. When the strength seeps out of my muscles and my bones may or may not be made of silly putty and I think it would be easy, so easy, to simply disintegrate.

Chapter 52, but later. Leigh sees a happy family picture and wonders how a picture can lie about so much brokenness.

It me, the selfie queen

It me, the selfie queen

I am the queen of selfies. It’s partly because I have no shame in public, partly because I don’t like the way I look from any other angle. And I smile. Liberally. I laugh, loudly. I tell jokes and I spiral upwards and if you looked at me and didn’t know, you just might think I was okay. Better than okay: amazing.

It’s always the broken ones who laugh the hardest.

I don’t know how to cope with being a hero’s heartbreak. I honestly don’t. For me, I read to understand. To put myself in Leigh’s shoes and my friends in mine, to seek to understand what it’s like to lose someone to suicide, to envision my loved ones going through that…to swear to never put them through it.

There’s this thought I have often when I’m depressed: that I know this is a terminal disease. Not because it’s going to be with me until I die, but because it’s going to be the reason I die. Because it’s going to be my hand which takes my life in the end. 

An old counselor of mine used to say that even then, it wouldn’t be depression’s fault. Because it’s my hand which yanks the blade, scoops up the pills, etc, etc. 

I believe her but mostly I don’t. And I read THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER and I cry because I understand the mother and why she did what she did even though no one else does and it breaks me into infinitesimally small pieces. In every instance, I relate: not to Leigh but to her dead mother.

Chapter 63. It is the image of a cicada molting. How many times have I wished I could claw my skin off my back. How many times has the pain in my mind sent me reeling, cursing, clawing.

How many times have I wished for a new self, a new skin, a new mind. How many times.

Chapter 65. In which Leigh’s aunt, in a memory, reflects upon her sister, Leigh’s mother. The mother who killed herself. The mother who was depressed, yet had a spirit bursting with creativity and ambition.

I think I am Leigh’s mother.

Chapter 83. I have never seen my pain represented so clearly on the page, so fully and starkly. We kaleidoscope through suicidal moment after suicidal moment while Leigh’s mother — while Dory — contemplates death. A bottle of pills. A knife. The one that hits the hardest: freezing in the snow.

I didn’t know I was suicidal until I was in high school. It was a boarding school, in the Black Forest, in the mountains of Germany. I lived with a woman who abused my emotions. 

There is a moment, crystallized in the amber of my memories: I walked out of her apartment on the second floor of the centuries-old farmhouse. I stepped into the next room and looked out the window, took in the hills soaring into the sky, transforming into snow-topped mountains.

I would leave. I would walk, then run, then traipse and stumble through the chill, through the snow, until I could no longer move. I would rest. And eventually, my rest would turn to ice. My blood would stop moving in my veins. My heartbeats would slow down until eventually they stopped. I might not even notice when it happened. But one minute, I would be, and the next...I wouldn’t.

I didn’t know I wasn’t alone in dreaming of snow taking over.

I didn’t know, and I read the words, and I broke.

The last thing I want is to make the people who love me suffer. Grieve. Cry. Wonder. I don’t want to turn into a bird. I just want to turn into someone who can survive life.

I Will Fail My Goodreads Reading Challenge, But Survive the Year

At the beginning of this year, I set an ambitious Goodreads reading goal: I was going to consume 65 books in 2017. Somehow, despite the fact that I epically failed to read even 50 in 2016, I was convinced I would make it work. Around the time I was getting ready to leave New York, I edited that goal, downsizing to 50.

Well...as of today, I'm...at least seven books behind that revised goal. And there's a very low chance that I'll meet even that.

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For an assiduously competitive person, this might seem like a travesty of the highest degree. In fact, for a while, it was. On top of all my other failures this year, I can't even manage to read enough? Good grief. What kind of writer, book blogger, fan am I that I can only read 43 books in a year? The worst!

Or so I thought. Until I realized, you know what? So I've only read 43 books this year. So stinking what? I've had success this year, too!

That success has looked nothing like I would have hoped in January. Back then, my goals included being promoted at the pizzeria, querying and getting an agent (and mayhaps even a book deal) for Saving Grace, probably finding a boyfriend, going back to grad school and being a part of the #resistance. I anticipated a smooth year, as much as it could be given the political topsy-turviness of everything, in my own personal life.

Instead?

I quit the pizzeria, have put Saving Grace on the back burner, found exactly zero boyfriends, left New York City and, with it, my dreams of grad school, and after participating in the Women's March in January, mostly fell silent about political issues.

There's a very good reason that sums up why pretty much all of those things happened: my mental health took a deep dive to the bottom of the proverbial ocean. 

In early April, I contemplated killing myself at work (and then again at home, and then again on the subway), which directly led to quitting a few weeks later.

At the same time, I was rejected from two writing contests and decided to temporarily shelve Saving Grace; it wasn't working, and I couldn't figure out why.

In late June, after a few months of a peaceful mental state, my depression flared up again, and I was hospitalized in early July, after spending a fraught 4th of July on top of a building — not the safest of places for someone in my mental state!

In September, things got so bad that I quit my job, moved away from New York City, and then in October came to Italy to rest for a few months.

In the meantime? In the meantime I broke into two new publications which I love, Ravishly and LitReactor, which have been great homes for my writing on various topics. I finished drafting and editing a new novel, Allie Mae Doesn't Get the Guy in This One. It's the book of my heart. I developed relationships with various publicists and have been receiving ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of highly anticipated books, interviewing authors I'm obsessed with, and seeing those interviews published. I began a vlog which then turned into a YouTube channel where I have a mental health series and one about books. I began Bookstagramming (see my #selfieswithbooks below) and became Twitter "friends" with some of the aforementioned authors I'm obsessed with.

And also, I went on two dates. No big whoop, right, except they were the first two dates of my life and therefore are majorly monumental. I made amazing friends at both my jobs, with men and women whom I will forever treasure in my heart. I had hard conversations with people who loved me and still feel like they love me and I love them. I got to see my best friend in another play. I met some amazing kids all over the world and now they're rooted in my heart. I fell in and out of love countless times.

In short? This year, I accomplished a Whole Heck of a Lot. It might not seem like it, if you look at the things I set out to accomplish, but I'm choosing not to look at it that way and instead think about the ways in which I crushed 2017

But I also need to think about the ways 2017 crushed me, and how I survived it.

  1. I was hospitalized. I keep coming back to that as a big deal, because it is. I don't take going to the hospital lightly. The two previous times I only went because health professionals recommended it. This time, it was because I was convulsing on the floor at church, unable to keep the unending stream of negative thoughts from consuming me. Things were Bad. 
  2. Things got so bad I had to leave New York. This is also not something to be underestimated. I was never going to leave New York. It just wasn't in the cards. It's a real sign of how negative my mental health was that I actually did leave. But it's worth noting that I left on my own two feet, not in a body bag. I got out while I still could. I chose to leave. That empowers me.
  3. I quit the pizzeria. Yeah, like, what, why is this making the list? Guys, I loved the pizzeria with a passion. I loved my coworkers, my customers, the work itself. I still cry when I think about the fact that I quit. But that's how bad my mental health was, that I couldn't handle the fast pace and high stress of it. 
  4. I stopped participating in the #resistance. By this I mean, I didn't call my Senators or Representatives during the entire health care debate. I desperately wanted to, because I have both a mental illness and a pre-existing condition and I believed the health bill would have been destructive to me, but my fingers felt like lead and I couldn't move them to take the phone. Phone anxiety is very real, and very Me. I hate myself for not engaging as I should have. But I have sent emails about net neutrality, the tax bill, and more...and I'm planning to do more in 2018.

That's just a few examples of how this year was a hard year. There are ways in which it gutted me, destroyed me, trampled me, consumed me...and yet.

And yet I'm still here. 

So in the end, did 2017 vanquish me, or did I vanquish 2017?

Yes. Absolutely. 100%. 

I know my posts have been hard lately, especially my latest, on the Mental Health tab, and it's true, I am going through a hard time. Still. My mind is dark, and I'm not sure how to move forward. I think, though, that looking back at how I've already survived? Is a good plan.

How did 2017 hurt you, and how are you defeating it? Leave a note in the comments!