Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
This book will break your heart and then fill it back up.
I didn’t know what it was about, really, when I started reading it. A student traded me this book for one of mine last fall and kept insisting she didn’t want it back. I don’t know if she read it or not. I do know that I could not put it down once I started.
There will be spoilers in this response.
Trigger Warnings: self-harm, suicide attempts, sexual assault, substance abuse.
This book begins in a haze, and in a treatment facility. A mental health treatment facility. Some of you know a lot about my story. Some of you know glimpses. Some may even know nothing, given how many wonderful new people I have met this past year. You’ll get a few glimpses as I respond to this book, or you can pause this post and read about it here.
I recognized her haze, though mine came at home. A numbness. A silence. A separation from self. By the time I made it to my mental health treatment facility (for anorexia, not suicide or cutting), I was sharp and ready to heal, which I know now is at least half of the journey towards recovery.
Charlie had been a cutter for a while, and attempted suicide after her life on the street found her in a sex house, nearly raped. She was silent at first, part of her PTSD. We learn she had a bipolar father who killed himself and an abusive mother. She didn’t have friends, and when she finally found a best friend, that friende eventually cut herself once, too deeply, and while still living lost much cognitive function from a lack of blood oxygen. Charlie is lost in so many ways, but she loves the treatment program if only for the food and shelter it provides.
Kathleen’s letter to the reader at the beginning of the book reveals that she wrote this to herself and also to a girl she saw on a bus or a train once. I can tell from that letter and from the first section of the book, the treatment center part, that she IS qualified to write this story. If you’d like to know what my time in treatment was like, it is startlingly similar to this book. (See above link to my post about that.)
Charlie is released from the program due to a lack of money to continue her care, but sort of thankfully, her mother picks her up and then tells her a friend in Tucson, Mikey that Charlie has a crush on, has a place for her to stay. That could easily have been me; I was 18 to Charlie’s 17, so I had a job and insurance when I decided I needed treatment. I couldn’t afford it. My parents couldn’t afford it. Insurance didn’t cover the level of support my medical and mental health team believed that I needed. So I followed the professionals’ advice and quit my job, applied for and received Title 19, which DID cover inpatient treatment at one place. I cannot even imagine the thousands of dollars it cost to treat me, but I paid nothing, because of this coverage. I am alive because of state assistance. Charlie was a minor; she didn’t have the same options.
Her life in Tucson is tumultous. It’s not instant freedom. There’s this bizarre limbo when you leave treatment and suddenly have to navigate life without micro-hovering structure. Without eyes on you at literally all times, even when you go to the bathroom, and for her, even when showering. She screws up, a lot. She tries to hide. A lot. I can totally relate to that. When I was having my exit interview from my program, Frank (a social worker maybe?) told my family that ⅓ of anorexics who receive treatment like mine relapse, ⅓ die, and ⅓ recover. Those stats are pretty grim, and honestly I don’t know if they are even true. He was confident I would recover. I am confident that I have, but it wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t a solitary endeavor by any means.
Charlie undergoes a lot of heartbreak in Tucson. Things I am grateful I didn’t have to endure, because I can’t say with any measure of certainty that had my circumstances and opportunities looked differently that my journey would be that different. My treatment team didn’t think home was a safe environment for me. I don’t think I’ve fully realized their reasoning until this year, but that’s another post. I had grandparents willing to house me after treatment until I started college the following fall; I decided to GO to college, applied, and was accepted without any help navigating that process. While I often focus on the negative consequences of that (student loans for days), I am deciding to switch my focus to gratitude and pride in myself. What I did was amazing. I am powerful. And so was Charlie.
My favorite part of this book starts on page 350, 48 pages from the end. In the desert, outside of Santa Fe. This is where Charlie learns she CAN be in her recovery third. This is where wholeness is introduced, recognized, begins to be accepted. I could write more about this, but instead, you’ll see some photos below from those pages, and I encourage you to read this book and experience this for yourself!
Even after this healing place, when she returns to Tucson temporarily, there are some simple scenes of seeing gentle and pure goodness and light in others, and letting it sink into herself. I remember this part of recovery. Of drawing very simple animals for mood disorder patients and my fellow EDO patients; sometimes at their request, sometimes because they reminded me of that animal. Simple colored pencil on card stock. Of giving one another beanie babies that we won at bingo. Of the pink plastic comb from the heroin addict, probably all he had that was disposable from what he had come in with, because my smile brightened his time inpatient. This book helps me to re-hold onto these gestures. They weren’t just silly “inside” things. These are the very things that connect us. That hold us all together. Selflessness, generosity, and seeing one another – really seeing one another.
The book ends with Charlie on a plane to start a new, restorative job opportunity. The girl sitting next to her on the plane notices Charlie’s nerves and as she kindly goes to comfort her, notices Charlie’s scars. She reacts, as a person would, and then acknowledges it by connecting it to a friend she had who cut, too. This stranger then moves on, and continues comforting her. We don’t heal by ignoring our struggles or journeys. We don’t heal by refusing to give light in even the smallest ways to those around us, thinking about them with compassion instead of false self-protection of self-centering on what they “might” think. Breaking cycles is deep, painful work. But it isn’t solitary. It just might be done with a different set of people than you expected.