A powerful memoir that risks becoming gospel.
i want to die but i want to eat tteokbokki is marketed as “part memoir, part self-help book.” Its format is unusual: recorded conversations between the author and her psychiatrist constitute the bulk of the text, before an epilogue serves as a personal reflection. In this epilogue, Baek Sehee discusses her experience of finding books which are like medicine for her. It is implied that these are self-help books.
As instances of mental ill-health skyrocket among young people, substituting the advice self-help books convey for professional support has, for many of us, become a frustratingly necessary pursuit, especially as the availability of affordable treatment further deteriorates. But while some people claim to be comforted by self-help books — cured, even — others end up regarding the author’s perspective as an all-encompassing gospel, stupefied by a relationship that will always remain parasocial.
It is more difficult to succumb to such tendencies with Baek Sehee’s book, because of its format. What she discloses in her conversations cannot be rewritten, so the work feels authentic, more akin to documentation than to prose. Equally fascinating is the role the psychiatrist plays, with the reader being afforded a rare insight into the course of treatment they administer to their client. Compare this to self-help books authored by health professionals themselves. While writing them, they operate as an author sitting at their desk, not as an expert seeing their patient in the surgery. The opposite is the case here.
Initially, the format seemed dubious, appearing antithetical to the nature of counselling itself. Baek Sehee talks extensively in her sessions about the pernicious effects of her own self-surveillance, yet listening to her own recordings and writing them down in a book seems like an extreme manifestation of this very behaviour. Nonetheless, there is, refreshingly, an interjection from the psychiatrist themself. They outline their concerns about being knowingly recorded, and the effect this has on the psychiatry they provide to their patients.
Parts of Baek Sehee’s testimony made me feel completely and utterly understood, and this seemed like the wrong response at first. I was deriving validation from her, giving my insecurities legitimacy because of their presence in another individual, not because they were legitimate in and of themselves. This felt like a propagation of the very comparison culture which contributed to some of her problems.
Upon reflection, though, the work is best handled in acquiescence of the conceptual uncertainties generated by its format. The psychiatrist themself often mentions the inevitability and validity of contradictions and imperfections in daily life, observing that there is always a way to make things worse, or find new ways to worry. So while I could discard the methodology of this book as fundamentally flawed, to do that would be to neglect the profound impact of Baek Sehee’s highly personal admissions. Whether that be what her psychiatrist refers to as her “black and white extremism” (manifesting in her thinking: “if I’m not liked, I immediately become a charmless, ugly person”); her contrariety (“I like being alone, but I also hate being alone”); or her self-loathing (“I always think of myself as weak, and that everyone will find out how weak I am”). This brave, daring and unique work excels because of the raw honesty it grants the reader access to, chronicling the messy reality of the conversations we have with ourselves straight from the source. Compare that with the cold, detached case studies used in many self-help manifestos, which appear too insignificant, too uncomplicated.
There remains the potential for readers to resonate with the author’s experiences so strongly that, lacking professional support, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Amidst the loneliness of a culture of self-diagnosis via google searches and supposed mental health influencers, will readers who ‘see’ themselves in the author go on to misdiagnose themselves with the specific personality disorder attributed to Sehee by the psychiatrist? Perhaps they will, but perhaps the precariousness of Gen-Z’s relationship with mental health makes Baek Sehee’s contribution even more timely. This is a book that every individual can have a highly personal relationship with, minus the curation that goes into a TikTok video (and the dangers of scrolling past actively harmful and unregulated content beneath it). While this book still should not substitute the personal relationship you have with a professional, it can healthily exist alongside one, or in anticipation of one.
Whether the piece of work can be regarded as self-help at all is a fascinating question, but perhaps this isn’t relevant to its success. It made me feel something overpowering, something I’ve never experienced after reading any book before.