Friday, March 20, 2015

The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed, translated by Sarah Death

The Ravens
Source: Goodreads
Tomas Bannerhed
Translated by Sarah Death (from Swedish)
2014 by Clerkenwell Press, I read Kindle edition
416 pages, tragedy, mental illness, coming of age

Trigger warning for discussion of mental illness, anxiety, depression, self harm, and suicide. 

A poor farming family in Sweden tries to cope with the father's rapidly increasing mental illness, especially his anxieties about losing their crops and animals. Meanwhile, his young teenage son Klas feels stifled by the expectation that he will take over the farm when he's old enough. Klas is very intelligent and would like to do anything other than farming, but he is wracked with guilt over his dislike for the family occupation. He finds solace in reading about and experiencing the natural world, especially in birdwatching. But as his father sinks deeper into depression, will Klas be able to adequately cope with the familial pressures and guilt that he encounters?

The Ravens is an incredibly realistic exploration of mental illness. In fact, it was so close to what I have experienced while dealing with my own mental illness that it was difficult for me to finish. The following review discusses both my own experiences and those described in the novel.

My experience with mental illness

First, my story. In early May, 2014 I spent a terrifying night in the Emergency Room with "suicidal ideations." I was studying at the University of Chicago in an intense one-year Master's program, I was dating my current husband long distance (he was in India doing fieldwork at the time), I was isolated and living in a city that I didn't like where it had been freezing for months and I had to walk 11 blocks to campus because the public transit system was not good. I had been crying everyday and unable to get out of bed unless absolutely necessary to go to class. All of these factors, together with earlier life experiences (bullying, being the black sheep of my family, perfectionism) made me snap, leading to thoughts of suicide as the only way to escape from the intolerable situation I was in. I fought as hard as I could, but on that night in May I was forced to flee to the safety of the hospital, paralyzed by the thought that I might harm myself if left alone.

I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which means I had been living in a constant state of extreme anxiety for more than 6 months. I was anxious about everything in my life, and was unable to absorb any kind of reassurance or comfort. This was accompanied by depression since I thought that all my fears were justified, nothing I ever did was good enough, and that I was a bad person who was hurting the people around me. I felt like a burden and could not comprehend why people (especially Tintin) actually loved me and wanted to be with me.

I was good at hiding it. My grades were fine. I wasn't cutting or drinking or otherwise doing self-harm.  But everyday after class I would curl up in a ball and cry in bed, unable to do anything but read random articles on the internet and look at facebook. It was a bit better when Tintin was awake (he was at a 12 hour time difference), but because of my low self esteem and anxiety I kept picking fights for him with no reason, hoping that he would finally see that I was a bad person and break up with me to save himself. It was the most terrifying time of my life, and I lived with it for months before finally getting help.

As of March 2015, I've been taking medicine and going to therapy regularly for about a year. In addition to some major life changes (moving to India! getting married! starting this blog!), these treatments have helped me to come to a much better place. Now when I look back at pictures from that time I'm surprised by how much tension shows in my face.

Look at how stressed I was even while holding my friend's baby. June 2014.
Doing much better now! February 2015. 
What a difference a year can make! With proper treatment and the willingness to make changes.

The Ravens is set in the 1970s, when modern methods of treatment had not been developed yet. It describes the experience of having intense anxiety without adequate treatment. The absolute despair that it depicts is what it actually feels like to have untreated mental illness. In this book, Bannerhed has given humanity a gift: a compelling but compassionate description of real mental illness. But it is important to remember that these issues CAN be treated, and I encourage anyone who is suffering to seek help from a professional. The sooner you have your first appointment, the less time you will have to live like this.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact your closest suicide prevention center. In the US, you can find resources here

Now that I've described my own experiences, in the next two sections I discuss the manifestations of mental illness exhibited by the two main characters in the book (Father and Klas). Note: possible minor spoilers.

Father's anxiety and delusions

The father in The Ravens has severe mental illness, primarily anxiety and depression but with obsessive-compulsive behaviors as well. He continuously worries about whether the crops will grow, if they will be able to harvest everything appropriately, if a biblical swarm of locusts will appear and bring the farm to ruin. He is unable to relax, even turning down the opportunity to go swimming with his family after the work is done. He cannot sleep. He fights with his wife and ignores his children because his anxieties do not let him focus on anything else.

Everything bad that happens - no matter how insignificant - is seen as a major crisis, one that he is just not prepared to deal with. When my anxiety was at its worst, I felt the same: every other day there was a new crisis in my life, from getting a cold to having to write a paper to having an argument with Tintin. It is not only terrifying, but also absolutely exhausting, especially when you are unable to sleep or relax because of the overriding anxiety that is filling your brain.

One of the most poignant images in this book is the father curling into a fetal position and whimpering, completely overwhelmed, after his younger son accidentally hits him in the head with a potato while they were harvesting. This happens after he returns from the psychiatric hospital, when he is beginning to heal. After I began treatment, I often felt the same thing. If anything went wrong - anything at all! - I would curl up in bed or in Tintin's lap feeling completely unable to deal with life. (Once Tintin told me to watch where I was walking and I got so upset about the suggestion that I wasn't watching where I was walking that I went home and cried. The brick pavement where we were walking was falling apart.) Anxiety takes away your self-confidence and leaves you feeling like you are incapable of handling anything that might happen.

A similar scrap pile at my family's farm. 
Father's obsessive-compulsive actions are a (non-productive) way to cope with his anxieties. In what is surely a symbolic description as well as an example of a real behavior, he spends much of his time arranging bits of rusty metal scrap. He collects these pieces from the abandoned scrap piles on the farm, cuts them into small pieces, and arranges them in an order that only makes sense to himself. These actions cut him off from his family, especially because much of this activity takes place in the middle of the night, and are physically self-destructive: his hands are cut and torn by the rusty pieces of metal, but he doesn't seem to notice or care.

Like most people, this family doesn't know how to cope with the father's mental illness. The mother tries to coax him into doing things that would lessen his anxiety, such as going swimming. He refuses to listen (anxiety makes you feel unable to do anything except worry). When he gets to a bad enough state, including having hallucinations of ravens, they take him to get professional care. If you are in a similar situation, this is the best thing to do. The stress of dealing with a loved one who is being tormented by such terrible anxiety can lead the caregiver(s) to also develop mental health problems. A large part of Klas's anxieties are a result of dealing with his father's illness.

Klas's anxiety and guilt

Like me, Klas is the black sheep of his family and he feels very guilty about it. The family's assumption is that Klas will take over the farm for the next generation, but he has no interest in doing so. He is very intelligent and wants to do something else. In fact, farm work is somewhat repulsive to him. So he avoids helping out. and tries to focus on his studies and his interest in wildlife, especially birds. At the same time, he believes that his family is right: he should be helping on the farm, he should want to take over from his father.  He feels flawed and helpless because he does not have any interest in doing so. And even when he reluctantly helps out, he feels inadequate because he does not do more.

He is also extremely socially isolated. The "friends" that he has are mean to him, and don't understand him at all. They don't even try to understand him. When Veronika, a new girl, comes into town he is excited because she may be interested in birdwatching with him. While this is channeled into an infatuation, the main thing that attracts him is that she presents an opportunity to not be alone. It turns out that she doesn't have any interest in wildlife, leaving Klas disappointed.

So where does Klas channel his energies? When I was in a similar situation in elementary school, I buried myself in science fiction and fantasy novels as a coping mechanism. Similarly, Klas is obsessed with studying and observing birds. It seems that he uses this interest to avoid situations that would cause anxiety: rather than hanging out with the bullies from school, he spends his time in the woods alone. If his parents are arguing, he can try to focus all of his attention on the book in front of him. While this is a productive coping mechanism, it serves to isolate him even more.

Klas finds it difficult to deal with his father's mental illness. The stigma in the community makes it harder than ever to be social with others, and spending time with his family just causes him more anxiety. In addition, Klas feels pressured to take over the workings of the farm at a very young age. That prospect has always loomed in the distant future, but his father's illness makes it more urgent. Since this is completely opposite of his personality, he feels a terrible amount of stress about the possibility. (There are indications that his father felt the same way, which, if true, is a possible source of his mental illness.)

As the father's condition worsens, Klas begins to exhibit some self-destructive tendencies as a coping mechanism. Once he runs away from home to live in the woods in a tent. It is unclear how long he stayed there, as he purposely eats a poisonous mushroom to see what would happen and ends up violently ill. Self harm like this is an indication that the pressures were causing him to develop greater anxiety issues, and at the end of the book he probably needs therapy.

One of the things I want to stress is that children should be allowed to explore their own interests, needs, wants, and identities. Criticizing, making fun, or otherwise belittling what they naturally want to do (or even forcing them to do something they're not interested in) is counterproductive and can cause extreme anxiety for children that can follow them into their adult lives. 

As a novel

Finally, I want to make a few comments about this book as a novel. The writing is sharply focused, describing the minute details that indicate the state of mind of the characters. The natural settings are well described, if a bit tedious at times. Since Klas is the narrator, I understood the long natural descriptions as an indication of his interests and his attempt to distract himself from things that would provoke his anxieties. So even though I found myself skipping paragraphs describing flocks of birds a bit more often than I would have liked, it seemed to be in character and therefore more forgivable. 

As I said in the introduction, this was a difficult book for me to read since it described deeply troubling experiences similar to ones that I have faced. This is both good and bad. I have found that my own mental state is much improved, since I was able to finish the book and it is not bothering me as much as I expected. No nightmares! Also, if anyone wants to learn what it feels like to have one of these anxiety disorders this is the book to read. 

I am happy that I was able to read this book as part of the IFFP 2015 Shadow Panel

You can buy The Ravens from Amazon here: 
The Ravens

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