Books

Anna Mehler Paperny has depression and has attempted suicide. So she wrote a book to help understand why

The Toronto journalist shares how she wrote Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me, which is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is a memoir by Anna Mehler Paperny. (Random House Canada)

There is no irony in the title of Anna Mehler Paperny's first book, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix MeIt is as straightforward and candid as the entire book, which chronicles the Toronto journalist's many attempts at suicide and the treatment she received in the aftermath.

Mehler Paperny often takes breaks from her story to reveal her comprehensive research on depression and discovers how little progress science and society has made in treating those with mental illness.

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is a finalist for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 5, 2019.

Mehler Paperny spoke to CBC Books about why she wrote Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me.

Writing to help herself, and others

"I was in the throes of depression and overcome with despair on a regular basis. To cope with that, I would sometimes write down what I was going through, what I was feeling. I was already using writing as an outlet. It occurred to me that, given the commonality of the illness, the prevalence of it, what I was going through might be useful to other people as well.

"At the same time, I realized I had a lot of questions about the illness: how it worked, how the treatments worked, how good or bad we are at intervening at certain times. Those were things I wanted to find out and I thought other people might also have those questions.

I was surprised how little we know about depression.- Anna Mehler Paperny

"I also felt that there was something missing in the discourse. We had this polarization between redemptive narratives and anti-psychiatry screeds and academic dissertations. But we didn't have anything that straddled those different genres — something that took a blunt approach and tried to explode misconceptions around this."

Searching for answers

"I was surprised how little we know about depression. I was also surprised by how bad we are at applying what we do know. We fumble along and make the same mistakes and the results of that can be fatal. We don't know how depression works. We don't know where it comes from. We don't know really what's going on in the brain. 

"You want someone to tell you, 'This is what we know. This is how it works. We're quite certain of this. These are the answers.' I didn't get that. It made me feel frustrated, but also a little bit validated at the same time. That was comforting in a sick way. Nobody knows anything. Everybody's clueless. I'm not the only one fumbling around in the dark here.

In Canada, we don't cover psychologists, we don't cover psychotherapists and, for the most part, we don't cover drugs. Those are the main ways that we treat depression and mental illness.- Anna Mehler Paperny

"What we do know is that early, comprehensive intervention makes a big difference. Intervention both with pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy is, for most people, the most effective option. Yet, we don't do that. We make people wait, sometimes months or years, before getting effective treatment. In Canada, we don't cover psychologists, we don't cover psychotherapists and, for the most part, we don't cover drugs. Those are the main ways that we treat depression and mental illness. If you don't have private insurance, you're often out of luck when it comes to getting care.

"I was lucky in that when I was first in the hospital I was assigned a psychiatrist who stuck with me after I was discharged and kept seeing me for years. That made a huge difference that basically kept me alive. A lot of people don't get that. The transition from inpatient to outpatient care is incredibly precarious. If you don't get hooked up with a psychiatrist, as many people don't, you're often lost to care."

Anna Mehler Paperny first tried to kill herself when she was 24 years old, just as she was finding success as a journalist. In her new memoir, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person, she talks unflinchingly about her experience with depression and tries to better understand the illness. 20:11

Challenges of writing

"Editing [was a challenge] because we had to probe and deconstruct all this personal stuff that I'd written. It was surprisingly painful. It was cathartic to write it. It felt like a relief to get it down on paper. But having to go back and ask questions of it, like, 'Why is this here? What am I trying to say? Is this consistent with what I've said elsewhere?' Asking those questions about this personal information was incredibly difficult. The reporting was a challenge. It was a challenge trying to find people who could address the questions that I had.

There's more we can do. It's not hopeless.- Anna Mehler Paperny

"I pace a lot. Building in time to put down what you're doing and take a breather, I think is important. You can't always power through and do nothing but work. There are times when you need to sort of take a second, go for a walk and take a deep breath. Building in those periods was helpful."

Takeaways

"There were things that I added because it felt necessary to cover them. Talking about children and depression and suicide, talking about Indigenous communities and suicide — those were issues I discovered and realized I needed to address. It became less about me as it went along, which I think is good because I'm not that interesting. The most urgent issues are not personal, they're systemic issues. They are issues around systemic discrimination and systemic inequities. I'm glad I got a chance to address those, even a little bit.

The most urgent issues are not personal, they're systemic issues.- Anna Mehler Paperny

"I hope people take away how common and debilitating this is. How the suffering is mitigatable, but we fail to mitigate it. There's more we can do. It's not hopeless. It's not hopeless on an individual level, but it's also not hopeless on a societal level either. The challenges are there and they're huge, but we can address them and the need to address them is urgent."

Anna Mehler Paperny's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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