2010 • 256 pages • Riverhead Books
While I’ve cooled on all but one, my love for advice columns once led me to subscribe to three at once—Dear Sugar, Ask Polly, and Captain Awkward. These days, Dear Sugar has evolved into a podcast (which I don’t have room for on my current podcast rotation, sadly), Ask Polly has moved from the Hairpin to the Cut, and Captain Awkward is still chugging away. I now only subscribe to the good Captain, but I’ll occasionally drop by the Cut to see what Ask Polly author Heather Havrilesky is up to. Like when I dropped by a few weeks ago, and discovered this gorgeous gem that summed up a lot of my interpersonal issues:
What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits.
It’s this kind of writing that really resonated with me, especially given my issues regarding control and agency. So, inevitably, that led me to add Havrilesky’s memoir to my reading list. Disaster Preparedness focuses on key incidents in the young Havrilesky’s life, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, that highlight the dysfunction of her family. As she grows up and starts to learn that other people don’t operate the same way that her family does, she finds herself running into obstacles between herself and her ability to connect with other people.
Havrilesky writes Disaster Preparedness with the same clear-eyed wit and wisdom as she writes her column. Mostly, she marvels at the ways in which her family have pushed aside the world to cling together as a unit, in ways that damage them personally and publicly. She writes of her family life at a distance of both years and knowledge.
It’s all very well done. Nonetheless, I am left with one question: how do I review a book that pushed me into a dissociative funk for a weekend?
I’m an anxious creature. I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything—although the intrusive thoughts are a big tip-off, thanks!—and I manage it on my own. I work out regularly and loathe my rest day, because that’s when my anxiety is the strongest during the week. I try to get enough sleep, although I often fail. I keep to a strict schedule that occasionally feels like I’m railroading myself, but that’s vastly preferable to the paranoid inertia I suffered through in my adolescence and early twenties. It’s a lot of work, is what I’m saying, but it’s worth it, so I do my best to make sure I’m not a burden to others.
The only reason I’m mentioning this in anything but self-deprecating passing, which is usually the only way I am comfortable talking about it, is because reading Disaster Preparedness made me feel broken. I want to stress that this is not Havrilesky’s fault in the slightest. An author cannot be held accountable for irresponsible consumption of her work. I’m normally pretty good about this stuff, avoiding the elements and themes that will personally trigger me into anything worse than a passing mood. For instance, I can’t handle Hamilton. I respect it deeply as a marvelous and important work of art, but exposing myself to it brings up so many bad memories related to my experiences as a theater kid that it isn’t worth it. That doesn’t make it worth any less.
But Havrilesky’s idea of the ideal interpersonal universe deals heavily in burden and obligation, in the idea that taking any measures to protect oneself from heartbreak and abandonment is foolish, and it’s deeply important to carry around the child you were with you. The last one, I think, really hit me the wrong way, because a lot of my childhood and adolescence is colored by not only not being able to deal with my anxiety, but having no clue what was wrong with me. It’s very rare that I encounter something that implies that my coping mechanisms and the measures I take to deal with my anxiety are wrong and bad.
Again, this isn’t Havrilesky’s fault. Her memoir is her truth. It’s hers to share and it’s obviously been very helpful to lots of other people. This is just reminding me to be a more responsible consumer. I’m responsible for the media I consume, so I often go out of my way to ensure that it doesn’t include stuff that will cause me disproportionate anguish. I’m not sure how I could have found out about this, but it’s a really good reminder.
I rented this book from the public library.