There's something about a story of mental illness that draws me, though I'm often left frustrated and disappointed. Such memoirs often feel congratulatory (about the illness, not the recovery), and indulgent. I suppose it's easy for me to say, because I've comparatively not suffered much from bad brain chemistry, but I'm often left with the feeling that the illness is held up as the redeeming feature of the author's personality. The illness makes them "special," the illness is why we should pay attention, or the illness is why they're an artist in the first place. And maybe all of that's true, but it's also annoying. Not everyone with a mental illness is an artist (though I suppose there's the argument that many artists are mentally ill). Some people with mental illness are just as dull as anyone else. That's another reason I really like Emma Forrest. This book is about a particularly dark time in her life, but it's always extremely self-aware. Forrest is smart, talented, and funny first. It's a neat trick, too, because the book really is about her relationship to mental illness: her cutting, bulimia, mania, and depression. These traits, however, don't define Emma; her bipolar status is simply another part of her, not the sum total of her. This is a hopeful and important message, I think, to anyone struggling through diagnosis and treatment: your illness is not the entirety of you. Other memoirs might fail in this, making the illness the star, and the writer simply the host organism. (To be fair, I'm sure that in the middle of any mental illness it feels—more, probably is—all-consuming.)
Your Voice in My Head has gotten a lot of attention, because Forrest goes into great detail about her relationship with Colin Farrell (whom she does not name, but the world knows). I don't need to say much on that score, other than this is just one more thing that makes Forrest's experience very relateable: we haven't all dated movie stars, but a lot of us dated That Guy†. That Guy comes on very strong, feels every emotion full-force, and then one day it's just done. And as all this is happening, Forrest's much treasured therapist, Dr. R, unexpectedly dies.
In a Turkish museum, Forrest has an hallucinogenic/imaginary conversation with the deceased Dr R, about his death, and the death of her relationship. "Losing you both was only the practice pain, wasn't it? For my mum and dad..." Her mind's Dr. R agrees. It's from this conversation the book takes its title. It's appropriate, as it's the most poignant moment, in a memoir full of honesty, intelligence, big emotion, and all-encompassing humour (which never feels out of place, even in the depths of emotional despair).
'When it happens,' he asks me, 'what will get you through?'
'Friends who love me.'
'And if your friends weren't there?'
'Music through headphones.'
'And if the music stopped?'
'A sermon by Rabbi Wolpe.'
'If there was no religion?'
'The mountains and the sky.'
'If you leave California?'
'Numbered streets to keep me walking.'
'If New York falls into the ocean?'
Your voice in my head.
*The Canadian edition has Ophelia on the cover. Other editions don't seem to. Shame. It's a great image, and an important one to the author, that is not only the topic of the introduction, but a totem that Forrest carries through her life and references several times.
**While I haven't mentioned it, this post is tagged "Jewish" because her religion is an important part of Emma Forrest's life, and she does talk about it in Your Voice in My Head. If you've got any inclination in that direction, the description of Rabbi Wolpe's sermon that comprises the entirety of Chapter 36 is a lovely and moving moment.
†Or, I suppose, That Girl. Though given cultural norms, a dude who will feel is supposed to be compelling, while a girl that feels is needy, and to be avoided. YMMV, as always.