Blog-Exclusive Review: The Morbids

In this blog-exclusive review, we talk about our views on Ewa Ramsey’s 2020 novel, The Morbids. For this blog, we’re joined by a special guest, Bree from Feelz Podcast, who gives her unique and comedic spin on this book.

Please note that this blog post contains spoilers!

Mental health issues covered:  Death anxiety, post-traumatic stress, insomnia, depression, general anxiety, panic attacks, psychological treatment and peer support groups 

Additional content warnings for the book itself: car crash, self-sabotaging behaviours, drinking as a coping mechanism, suicide

About the Book

Caitlin is convinced she’s going to die. 

Two years ago she was a normal twenty-something with a blossoming career and a plan to go travelling with her best friend, until a car accident left her with a deep, unshakable understanding that she’s only alive by mistake. 

Caitlin deals with these thoughts by throwing herself into work, self-medicating with alcohol, and attending a support group for people with death-related anxiety, informally known as the Morbids. 

But when her best friend announces she’s getting married in Bali, and she meets a handsome doctor named Tom, Caitlin must overcome her fear of death and learn to start living again. 

About the Author

Ewa Ramsey is an emerging writer and arts administrator based in Newcastle, NSW. She has presented short fiction at the National Young Writers Festival, won a commendation in the Newcastle Short Story Award, and been a finalist in the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. She has also written for PC&Tech Authority, and worked as an editorial assistant and pop-culture writer and reviewer for Atomic Magazine. She is currently Operations Manager for the Newcastle Writers Festival and on the board of the National Young Writers Festival. 

Ewa has spoken about her experiences with anxiety in The Guardian.

About Our Guest

Bree was raised in New Zealand and is now residing in Australia. She went into mental health work through lived experience of her own recovery. She enjoys helping people and sharing a laugh.

You can find Bree over at Feelz Podcast. Feelz Podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts. Definitely check it out!

Review

Meet Caitlin

Our protagonist is Caitlin, aged 28. A year or two ago, Caitlin was involved in a car accident. Since then, she experiences symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The novel follows Caitlin after she receives a postcard from her best friend Lina, announcing Lina’s upcoming wedding in Bali. But Caitlin is still struggling to manage her anxiety around death and dying.

What is death anxiety?

Death anxiety is not a formal diagnosis, but sometimes known as thanatophobia. It can occur in the context of a lot of different experiences and mental health issues – e.g. as a component of PTSD, or in relation to generalised anxiety disorder. Death anxiety varies a lot – at the core, it is an anxiety reaction with intrusive thoughts/worries about death, and associated fight/flight (physical) symptoms. 

Peer support can be great, but…

It’s possible to overcome death anxiety: Treatments may include CBT techniques (e.g. exploring maladaptive beliefs), exposure therapy (e.g. writing your own eulogy, walking through a cemetery, watching a movie about death), and working to create meaning around death.  

Peer support is another way that people may manage mental health issues, including anxiety. In the book, Caitlin regularly attends a support group for people with death anxiety, nicknamed The Morbids. Officially, this group is ‘a unique first-step program for treatment of anxiety, specifically as related to death and dying, led by a team of qualified mental health professionals’.

But… we worry about what messages readers might get about peer support, based on the depiction in this book. Peer support is a very real way to get help, and can be extremely helpful and validating. After all, lived experience is powerful. But the group seems to lack some basic resources: over the years, facilitators were ‘downgraded’ from psychiatrists to psychologists to counsellors, then to a series of nurses ‘most of whom started off with dreams of fixing [the attendees] but left within months, defeated and disappointed’. The discussions are often very triggering for Caitlin, and leave other members even more anxious about the prospect of death. These issues aren’t directly addressed in the text. In real life, many peer support groups exist with a range of helpful facilitators with different backgrounds, clearer guidelines about safe versus unsafe discussions, and can involve more targeted discussions.

Surviving, not thriving (yet)

Caitlin spends much of the novel on auto-pilot, unhappy but functioning. But things get worse for Caitlin before they get better. After the climax of the novel – a mental health crisis – Caitlin eventually starts making some positive changes. She moves in with Lina and her fiancé; she starts traveling more, including travelling in a car again;  she talks to her parents about how she’s doing; she starts therapy with a counsellor, Georgia. In therapy, they talk about Caitlin’s interpretations of traumatic events and her survivor guilt, and how much her experiences have actually affected her. 

Things eventually start improving. Caitlin makes it through the flight to Bali, but has a panic attack after the plane lands, and it takes a long time and Lina’s support before she’s calm. But she made it. And that’s something.

“My heart was pounding and the blood was rushing through my veins but I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t safe. I was completely and undeniably and impossibly alive.”

Caitlin, The Morbids

Final thoughts and star rating

Elise: Overall, I had pretty mixed feelings about the book. It was a pretty hard read. Though the story had some good moments, ultimately, I just… couldn’t really get into it. Highlights include the story being very raw and not shying away from the difficult parts of anxiety and depression (it’s definitely not romanticised!) and the challenges of recovery. A low (of sorts) is that I feel the depiction of Caitlin’s trauma response could have been a little more nuanced – I feel like Caitlin was experiencing PTSD with death anxiety being one of many symptoms. I would have liked to have seen this relationship drawn out more explicitly, and peer support dynamics to be portrayed more positively.

In terms of the overall plot, I found the love interest, Tom, to be a bit blah. But I appreciate the ending, particularly that a) Caitlin stayed in her hospitality job rather than going back to the more ‘fancy’ marketing role; this is very validating for people in customer service roles that are often undervalued, and b) Caitlin’s mental health issues hadn’t miraculously disappeared.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Priscilla: I found this book really difficult to get through, largely because Caitlin’s headspace is very hard to live in. I appreciate this because it is a good representation of what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety. But as a reader there were not a lot of enjoyable moments that might serve as a breather. I also wish the narrative acknowledged both that Caitlin’s behaviours towards the people in her life, particularly Tom and Lina, could be explained by her mental health issues, but also that she treated them terribly. If I was in Tom’s shoes, I would see some of Caitlin’s behaviours as red flags (e.g. saying she doesn’t want a relationship, then inviting him to a destination wedding).

That said, I really like the mental health representation, and how Caitlin’s difficulties weren’t entirely resolved by the end of the book despite the progress she’s made. Mental health recovery is never linear, and Caitlin still has a lot of work to do.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bree: Strengths first fam!

Ka Pai (well done) Ewa Ramsey, huge props to you for bringing death anxiety to the bookshelves of Australasia. Ramsey did a pretty outstanding job of plonking the very raw and real symptoms of PTSD related anxiety onto paper. Her description of Caitlin’s experience was so on point that at times I formed reader anxiety, due to viscerally experiencing the internal world of Caitlin’s post traumatic stress.

Unfortunately for me as a reader, that’s where my golf clap ends. Whilst the author’s portrayal of symptoms was descriptive and colourful, every single character was a total nong. Caitlin seemed self-focused and lacked empathy for any surrounding characters (yes, people experiencing anxiety can be selfless, compassionate people). The love interest doctor had the personality of a foot; and the best friend? Beige
curtains. The characters are three basic bitches I struggled to spend time with, for this reason The Morbids felt a bit like a slow laborious poo.

Finally, as with Elise, I struggled around the portrayal of peer support groups. A misinformed professional hierarchy was portrayed, fuelling a real issue in the mental health sector. Psychologists are the “superior” practitioners through the lens of consumers, a narrative the industry is actively trying to shift. Australia is home to some of the world’s best social workers, nurses and counsellors, alongside our psychology gurus. Thus, the so called downgrading to the crusty old counsellors and nurses within the book was a blow. Fingers crossed as it’s a work of fiction, readers are not misinformed about the lovely ol’ benefits of a well facilitated peer support group.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Recommended Readings

Relevant mental health resources:

  • The Guardian interviewed psychologists talking about death anxiety and various strategies to overcome it.
  • Australian Psychological Society has an article about death anxiety. The article is written for an audience of mental health professionals, but it can still be worth reading if you aren’t one!

Voices from Lived Experience

  • Marina Deller reviewed this book for In Daily: “I have experienced death anxiety after traumatic loss, and I, too, watched the world turn when I felt it should be stone-still. The narrative acknowledges this strange space – jumps back and forth in time, mirrors Caitlin’s fragmented self.”
  • The Morbids’ author, Ewa Ramsey, wrote an article for The Guardian about living with anxiety during the pandemic: “But sometimes the sheer scale of this thing we’re all dealing with makes me feel something completely different. I’ve spent so much time anticipating the worst, and yet when it came I’d completely missed it. Part of my brain wants to double down on anxiety, to be even more prepared – but another part is realising that no matter how hard I look I’ll never be ready for everything. I can’t be.”

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