Book Review: I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee

I wouldn’t have read this book had it not been for its intriguing title, absolutely screaming of complexity and candour. And yet, I wasn’t quite prepared for how straightforward it would be while dealing with the detrimental effects of mental health disorders. As it progresses, you feel like a permanent fly on the wall, a first-seat witness to an author who is desperately seeking solutions and validation from her psychiatrist.

Baek Sehee worked at a publishing house when she penned this memoir and, by her own admission, enjoyed her job. But feelings of constant unease and anxiety never seemed to leave her, which went on to hamper her relationships, affect her calibre at work, and, most gravely, threaten her self-esteem. 

Sehee divulges several oddities about herself and her complex state of mind during these sessions, and seems eager to turn a corner. Through transcripts of these deeply intimate sessions as well her musings, we learn that she has a complicated relationship with her family; that she wants to be alone but also hates being alone; that she is co-dependent and yet doubts the intentions of those who love her; that she is self-critical to a fault, has body image issues and wants attention but is extremely sensitive and finicky about the compliments she receives. At the end of it all, she strives to be the epitome of equanimity in public. 

The psychiatrist (gender unknown) diagnoses her with ‘dysthymia’—a persistent depressive disorder. Their conduct struck me as dispassionate, lacking warmth and empathy. For instance, when the author, clearly feeling distraught, asks, ‘will I ever grow enough self-esteem?,’ the psychiatrist responds with a curt ‘probably.’ (Not sure if this is how psychiatrists are supposed to be, having only seen this play out in the movies)

But they do offer some valuable advice. When talking about disagreements and relationships, the psychiatrist stresses on the need to differentiate the parts from the whole. ‘Just because you like one thing about a person, you don’t need to like everything about them. And just because you don’t like one thing about a person, it doesn’t mean the person as a whole isn’t worth your time.’ A good reminder to not cancel relationships on the fly. 

The book makes for a vital read, especially today where mental health conversations have gathered steam. It is useful not just for those experiencing similar mental health issues, but also for those who may be living or working in proximity to someone battling a mental illness. For instance, I was surprised to learn that the medication itself can make you feel worse than the illness does.

It prods you to see why some people behave the way they do, whether at work or social gatherings, effectively equipping you with essential empathy. You realise how punchable you are for saying ‘cheer up’ to those going through difficult periods. Instead, it suggests words such as ‘just go ahead and feel what you feel…don’t cheer up,’ offering a language that encourages emotion and offers a radically accepting space.

That the author recorded her sessions and listened to them later seemed peculiar. That her psychiatrist was on board with it, seemed odder still. But towards the end of the book, the psychiatrist expresses their concerns with it and the impact it may have had on the counselling, confessing to ‘choosing’ their words more carefully, conscious of being recorded for an audience. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the author’s disappointment at not making much headway becomes apparent. It also becomes a little frustrating to read. She rues her recurring problems and becomes impatient with the psychiatrist’s familiar advice. As a reader, you wait for a happy ending or a life-changing twist. But the end is rather unconventional and more real for it, illustrating the long and often dreary process that healing can be. Admitting to not being completely out of the woods, still learning how to love herself, Sehee wraps up her novel with a quick recipe of her favourite food and raison d’etre—tteokbokki.

Pick up I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

About the Reviewer:

Sapna Nair is a writer, editor, and writing coach. She has worked with publications such as Financial Express, Business Today, and afaqs!. Follow her escapades on Instagram.

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