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Last Spring a colleague of mine finished her 8-hour shift at a Minneapolis group home, drove to a nearby bridge and jumped. It took days to find her car, parked by the riverbank with a neatly typed suicide note lying on the dashboard. "Had she typed it at work?" There was talk of a kidnapper or a homicidal husband...or did she have a boyfriend? No one really knew for sure. She kept to herself a lot but she always smiled and said she was "fine."
But who really goes around work being how they really feel? Answer truthfully to: "How are you?" and get labeled social sinkhole faster than the woman who walks around work all day with her skirt hem caught up in the waistband of her tights.
Originally published by Polygon in Scotland, Janice Galloway's novel, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, is the story of Joy Stone, a 27-year-old drama teacher who is trying to seem "normal" and go on with her life following the accidental drowning death of her married boyfriend.
First day back this term I wore a dress. I was neat. I handed in his music room keys and scored his name off the staff list with a single black line. I was discreet.... The smiling could only be accomplished by grinding my teeth.
Galloway has Joy narrate her own story, describing in lyric detail all the things she must do to seem "fine" and letting us in on how she really is anything but. Throughout the novel, Galloway uses different fonts and type sizes, indented paragraphs and scrunched jumbles of words that flow into the margins and sometimes off the page as if even the words have lost their way.
Writing in a style that often seems more akin to poetry than prose, Galloway has been compared with writer Sylvia Plath. "I clean the kitchen till my hands are swollen from cold water, red as ham." And, after a long day of pretend smiling at work: "I wait while it gets dark, trying to get out of my own skin and reach the corner of the room."
Stylistic Galloway/Plath comparisons seem warranted. And the two have also written about women dealing with severe depression. But it seems to me that Galloway's, Joy Stone, conveys a sense of hope - even as she starves herself to bones and runs about collecting her falling-out hair and rotten teeth - that Plath's characters do not. Plath's depression always seemed unrelenting and bottomless. Joy's depression is situational, even though she has endured many situations prior to her boyfriend's death. Like Galloway's own mother, Joy's mother tried to kill herself by walking into the sea. "She didn't die right away. At the funeral, the man I lived with shook my hand. I left him."
Joy wonders what allows other people to lead normal lives. She makes decisions to try and stay alive. She sees the doctors. She checks into Foresthouse, the psychiatric hospital, where she is given pink pajamas and red and yellow pills. The doctors are bored and then defensive when Joy asks about treatment. She calls them by number instead of name: "Dr. Two tells me he has been talking to his colleagues. They were agreed about one thing. I am definitely depressed...."
The patients not only have names, they have hairstyles and friendships and inpatient love affairs. They become more than diagnoses and that's hard in this atmosphere of "get 'em in, get 'em out" health care. (At one point in the book a doctor books a "double appointment," that's 20 minutes, because Joy seems so distraught.)
Galloway's novel tells us in raw and honest language what anyone, who has ever felt like giving up already knows. Sometimes the only thing to do is to just keep breathing.
Janice Galloway, author of The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (first published in 1989), is currently working on a novel based on the nineteenth-century musician Clara Schumann. Her novel Foreign Parts (1994) won the Mc Vitie's Prize. She has also published several collections of short stories.
Meleah Maynard recently left the mental health field to pursue her first love, writing short stories and book reviews. For the past seven years she has worked as a day treatment counselor in Minneapolis, teaching people living with schizophrenia how to write creatively, cook a well-balanced meal and scrutinize the next bunch of candidates who hope to be our next President.
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