Review: Disaster Preparedness


Disaster Preparedness


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.

5 thoughts on “Review: Disaster Preparedness

  1. You are dear and you are loved. Be sure you know that. I hesitate to poke around on your blog because I wouldn’t like it if my old aunt had access to my most inner thoughts — so I visit very rarely. Let me say first that nothing you feel or write about could ever be alien or unsettling to me. I so admire your honesty and ability to self reflect. My grandson Toryn has anxiety and it occurs to me that it would help you if you found a way to get involved with youngsters who are destined to walk your road. Not only could you help them understand the journey but talking about it would help you as well. I have had a few brief periods of anxiety in my life and people don’t understand when I say anxiety is physically painful – horrible really. I am sad that this battle for you is on-going.

    The reason I came to your blog today was to ask for some help. (I have no other contact info for you. )I’ll get to that in a minute. I suppose your mom told you that you are living the life I once wanted for myself — living and working in New York. If you are still at Scholastic (I hope I’m correct about that), I got called back there for a second interview. I so wanted that job! Some day I’ll tell you how I blew it! I am proud of you! Now here’s question: I have let my WordPress blog go for a long time but now want to get back to it because I’m running for school board. I need some technical help. Have you ever hired anyone to solve a problem with your blog? If so, please send me the contact info.

    Your aunt Kathy

  2. Your final paragraph really resonates with me. I’ve (finally) come to terms with the fact that I can’t cope with disturbing stuff like other people can, so there are some books, films, etc. that are simply not an option for me. I admire your ability to say that it isn’t something wrong with the book, it’s just that it’s not a healthy book for you. Nicely done.

  3. Yeah, I hear you. There are some things that I try to avoid for this reason. I’ve been an anxious-and-depressed person throughout my adulthood, and I’ve managed it in a variety of ways — cognitive behavioral therapy mostly, medication eventually, good sleep regime always — but sometimes a book just gets me in the wrong place.

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