I’ve struggled my entire adult life with depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. There have been spans of time where I would have done anything to help cope with the pain accompanying mental illness, but I can say I never considered drilling a hole in my head. Maybe I would have if there was any solid evidence it worked for such illnesses.
Amy M. Vaughn’s book, Skull Nuggets, exists in a universe where nanoscopic organisms called neurophages (colloquial referred to as “brain mites”) have recently been discovered. It is theorized that undergoing trepanation, or having part of your skull surgically removed, can help relieve mental illnesses like anxiety and depression by decreasing the pressure on the brain and allowing for more blood to circulate through it. Vaughn combines the idea of trepanation (which actually exists, and the history has been well researched and documented in this book) with the fictional Forato House testing hallucinogens injected directly into the frontal lobe in order to eradicate the brain mites. In doing so, they believe they can help patients reach a state close to nirvana, and sometimes even beyond that.
Robert, our protagonist, lives in a small apartment subsisting on social security due to his depression. While researching neurophages and trepanation, he comes across Project Skylight, an experiment taking place at the nearby Forato House. He meets a woman named Bet at the corner store, and learns that she is in town looking for her father, who she believes is a resident at the Forato House. The two of them hatch a plan for Robert to apply to be a subject in their experiment, and Bet to apply for a housekeeping position in order to “save” her father, who had borrowed money from her for rehab, and then lost communication.
The characters in Skull Nuggets were all likable. Robert seems like someone who has a lot of potential, and seems quite bright, but he’s been overcome by his mental illnesses. Bet is audacious, sweet, and compassionate with the heart of an activist and fiercely loyal to those she loves. Those working at and running the Forato House seem to truly believe in their vision for a brighter future, and the patients there only did what they thought would relieve their mental maladies.
This is a story of grief, depression, sickness, desperation, and hope, above all else. The moral I gleaned was that what we’ve been through and how we’ve responded to it is what makes us who we are as people; that is, if it wasn’t enough to break you, and at that point, maybe a hole in the head would solve all of your problems?
I loved this book, and it made me feel like I’d be all right.