This book is part memoir and part journalistic investigation, with a fair amount of acknowledged subjectivity based on the author’s experiences with depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and various treatments. In trying to explain the contents of this book I couldn’t go past this quote:
It’s an uncomfortably personal exploration of a sickeningly common illness no one likes talking about, one that remains under-treated and poorly treated and grossly inequitably treated in part because of our own squeamishness in confronting it or our own denial of its existence as an illness and the destruction it wreaks when left to its own devices.
I found myself cycling between wondering how wise it was to be describing the methods used in so much detail because it could potentially be read as instructions in the wrong/right hands and admonishing myself for wanting to control the narrative because people who live with suicidal ideation are already silenced in so many ways.
It’s difficult to sit and think about depression and suicide for any extended period of time and I did find my mood changing as I read, especially the early sections where the author recounts her “entry point into a labyrinthine psychiatric care system via the trapdoor of botched self-obliteration”. I think I’d be more concerned if reading a book like this didn’t have any impact on me, though. I was able to binge watch some TV to effectively switch the channels in my brain for a while for some respite. I am keenly aware that this is a luxury someone experiencing chronic depression and/or suicidal ideation do not have.
While some of the information contained in this book is specific to Canada and/or America, overall there’s something for pretty much everyone. Given the prevalence of depression, it’s likely to have touched your life in some way, either personally or through someone you love.
- Demystifies suicide – no, asking someone if they are considering suicide does not cause someone who isn’t suicidal to suddenly become so
- Offers some protective measures – loved ones, curiosity, procrastination
- Discusses various treatment options – “pharmacological treatment of mental disorders has all the precision of surgery conducted with a chainsaw”
- Outlines some studies and research
- Highlights the additional barriers to getting treatment if you’re not white or you’re poor or from a remote community or a child or Indigenous or from a culture that shames seeking mental health treatment or, heaven forbid, any combination of these – “We fail the most marginalized at every level, then wonder why they worsen”; and
- Provides insights into depression and suicide through stories of people who’ve experienced them up close and personal.
I found some of the language used in this book referencing mental illness iffy at best: “nuts”, “crazy”, “nutbars”. While I’m never going to be okay with those words myself, I don’t have the right to tell someone who’s describing their experience what words they’re allowed to use to do so.
Subsumed by such an agency-stealing disease, we need all the empowering we can get.
While it covered a lot of information I already knew (I’ve read a lot previously in this area), I learned about some studies and potential future treatments I wasn’t aware of and the details of the author’s experiences in hospital opened my eyes.
I appreciated the author’s honesty and her down to earth approach, which made difficult topics more accessible for me. The amount of interviews with various health professionals, researchers and others who are consistently dealing with mental illness provided a well rounded exploration, with a variety of points of view.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone whose work involves interaction with people who experience mental illness as it holds valuable insights into what it’s like to have to live with an illness that people silence, shame and shy away from.
Content warnings include suicidal ideation, mental health and descriptions of suicide attempts, mention of sexual assault, self harm, domestic violence and bullying.
Thank you so much to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for the opportunity to read this book.
Once Upon a Blurb
In her early twenties, while outwardly thriving in her dream job and enjoying warm familial support and a strong social network, award-winning journalist Anna Mehler Paperny found herself trapped by feelings of failure and despair. Her first suicide attempt – ingesting a deadly mix of sleeping pills and antifreeze – landed her in the ICU, followed by weeks of enforced detention that ran the gamut of horrifying, boring, hilarious, and absurd. This was Anna’s entry into the labyrinthine psychiatric care system responsible for providing care to millions of Canadians.
As she struggled to survive the psych ward and as an outpatient- enduring the “survivor’s” shame of facing concerned family, friends, and co-workers; finding (or not) the right therapist, the right meds; staying healthy, insured, and employed – Anna could not help but turn her demanding journalist’s eye on her condition and on the system in which she found herself. She set off on a quest to “know her enemy,” interviewing leading practitioners in the field across Canada and the US – from psychiatrists to neurological experts, brain-mapping pioneers to heroic family practitioners, and others dabbling in novel hypotheses.
She reveals in courageously frank detail her own experiences with the pharmacological pitfalls and side effects of long-term treatment, and offers moving case studies of conversations with others, opening wide a window into how we treat (and fail to treat) the disease that accounts for more years swallowed up by disability than any other in the world.