Hello I want to die please fix me is the kind of book I like to read. It is sad, it is personal, it is discursive, but it’s also informative.
Anna Mehler Paperny is a Canadian journalist who has lived, long term, with very serious depression. This book is an exploration not only of her own struggles and experiences within the Canadian healthcare system and the myriad treatment options she has encountered and tried, but also the system as a whole. Paperny writes openly (and in detail) about her suicide attempts, but what I found starkest is her transparency about knowingly misleading others about her intentions to commit suicide. The book writes about suicidal ideation and damaging depression in a (for me) recognisable and believable manner, though to be dickheadedly honest, the opening few chapters of this book aren’t revelatory: Paperny describes the same kinda middle class depression that reams of books (and blogs like this one!) have described before. There’s no real questioning of Paperny’s clearly quite high levels of privilege (lots of asides about savings, mentions of a brother in law school, she REPEATEDLY writes about “work” being something that gives life purpose, rather than as a bleak financial necessity) and she sometimes presumes the reader is in the same circumstances which, maybe, many are, but I’m not I’m not I’m not. I mean, geographically I am: if I lean out of my window (like a dog in a car) I can see the hospital where much of the memoir sections of this book took place, but financially and professionally I am not not not doing quite so well.
Had Hello I want to die please help me been 300 pages of this, I would’ve got very tired of it, but the book opens up into something far more valuable once it skips away from memoir and becomes impressive journalistic reportage.
An acquaintance who read this book described it as “getting boring”, which I thought was quite the opposite: they can’t have read many middle class depression memoirs/blogs (as I have!) if they think the best bits of this book are the opening chapters. They’re not, but they locate the rest of the book in a felt reality and justify Paperny’s in-depth investigation. They’re an important part of the book.
Paperny has a reason to care about depression and suicide, she has a massive reason to explore and interrogate the treatments and social attitudes towards this illness, and the honesty and personal touch of the opening remains throughout: Paperny has a deeply involved need to find answers, which is a much more (to me) sympathetic narratorial voice than a person who feels bad for missing work because they love their job. Everything I do for money, I hate. I don’t miss work when I’m sad because I don’t have a secure enough job to get sick pay.
I am depressed.
I am feeling quite suicidal at the moment, tbh, and I’ve been writing about it a lot (not on this blog) and reading this book in the days after – I think – only the second sober birthday of my adult life – didn’t make me happier.
I am pretty much without hope atm. I don’t believe things will get better, I spend hours of most days staring at nothing, I am two thoughts away from tears 24/7 and I am, daily, pleased with myself when I get to bedtime without having self harmed in a way I feel ashamed by. I- I- I- I- I-
Depression is an illness of I. This book, for all its heavily detailed research and exploration of how depression is treated in Canada and the US, how systems fail, which treatments succeed (and how very few clinicians understand the reason for most successful psychiatric treatments), didn’t tell me what it is to not be depressed.
What the fuck it is we are all taking the meds and following the rules with the hopes of feeling? What is not-depression? How will it manifest? How will it feel?
I fucking exercise all the time now, I hate it I hate it I hate it but it’s meant to be good for me; I’ve dramatically cut down my drinking and I hate that, too: what’s the fucking point in being alive if I’m not doing something fun (beautiful intoxication) and instead I am doing something (exercise) that is actively fucking painful AND puts me in proximity to exactly the kinda people I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid (exercise is socially conservative, but so too is obesity, right?))
What is “normal”? What is “healthy”?
It is something other people are and we are not.
It is something no one I know well is: literally almost everyone I know is (or has been at some point) on antidepressants: this is part of the problem, like, mass psychopharmacological prescriptions. Everyone’s popping pills, no one’s popping wheelies, or Pringles or off. I don’t know what popping off means.
My life isn’t terrible (it’s certainly better in significant ways than it was before), but I haven’t yet found a way to receive a regular income in a way that isn’t profoundly demeaning and often humiliating. I do not have an appropriate job for myself, I do not have a job that matches my skills, talents or personality. I hate many aspects of my day to day life: they are not why I’m depressed and anxious, but I am so depressed and anxious that I am 31 years old with two degrees, some unexpected but not negligible literary success, experience managing a business with a 2 million gbp turnover, and I still make rent most months by being obsequious to the affluent.
I am not happy. I need some stronger meds. I need a stronger life.
I don’t matter here. I don’t exist. I do shitty demeaning migrant labour with other demeaned migrants (as well as several Canadians who tell you within three sentences that they’re actors). I am replaceable.
I’m typing this sentence at 3am on my way home from working a shit job while I wait for a bus to take me home where I will sleep for two hours before waking up and doing another shit job for three hours, then having a nap for two hours, then walking Cubby for like 20 minutes before going and working another shit job for seven hours. I might squeeze a blog out en route to that afternoon/evening job, but I won’t get to cook, I won’t get to write or read poetry, I won’t get to hold my lover, I won’t get to apply for better jobs and I won’t – because I don’t want to talk to anyone who might ask me how my life is going – talk to anyone at all with any sincerity.
When you suffer from depression, as Paperny writes, there is no definitive reason, but there is eternal eternal eternal reaction. We feel and believe the worst, always: we can try and we can work hard and we can be reliable or good friends or good family members or lovers or teachers or journalists or poets or whatever: we can be outwardly upbeat but riven by the urge to hang ourselves: we can be ‘highly commended’, alongside former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, by the UK’s premier poetry award, but still spend most of the day that it’s announced thinking about how best to break the bones of my fingers so I feel a different kind of agony to the one I am due to feel anyway.
I weep I weep I weep all the fucking time. But I read and I blog, too, and I acknowledge life could be worse.
This is a good book, an engaging book, and it taught me a lot. Not a lot, though, that’s going to help me, but a lot that reminded me that I’m not the only person who stares at the front of trains with a physical hunger.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so critical above. Maybe, hey, I should have.
Scott Manley Hadley was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019.