Anna Mehler Paperny is the kind of person who knows exactly what Anne Sexton meant when, in her poem “Wanting to Die,” she described the “almost unnameable lust” of suicide. Paperny’s memoir begins with her first suicide attempt – or, rather, it begins with the blackout where the memory of drinking antifreeze should be, somewhere between downing a bunch of sleeping pills and waking up in the ICU several days later.
This and the diagnosis of major depression Paperny received during her` subsequent hospitalization baffled most of the people who knew her. She was 24 years old, a successful journalist with a good job and a loving family. There was nothing outwardly wrong with her life. But still, she wanted to die. That desire didn’t waver even after surviving her attempt at taking her life, or after spending several weeks in a psychiatric ward, or after she was released and finally able to return to work.
Over the next few years, Paperny would go on to make another half-dozen suicide attempts but somehow managed to keep working and stay out of the hospital. It wasn’t until she took a massive overdose of antidepressants that she found herself back on an involuntary hold in the long-term psychiatric ward. Following this hospitalization, she began to approach her illness the same way she approached her job as a reporter: with curiosity. The approach wasn’t intended to be a solution, exactly, but more of a coping mechanism. Out of that curiosity, the idea for Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me was born.
Using her own experience as a jumping-off point, Paperny explores the world of psychiatric care from as many angles as she can. She reviews current treatments (both standard and experimental), visits a lab full of pickled brains, and describes in brutal detail the suicide crisis that Indigenous communities in Canada are grappling with. She interviews doctors, researchers, and activists, as well as many of the people who have been through the psychiatric care system as patients.
Her skill as a journalist is evident both in the seamless ease with which she moves from one topic to another and in her ability to break down complex ideas into accessible and engaging prose. There are moments when readers might be left wanting more (a deeper look at the history of psychiatry would add valuable perspective), and occasionally Paperny’s clever asides do more to detract from the reporting than add to it. But overall, Paperny’s study is a very compassionate, thorough, and fascinating one.
It’s hard to imagine any group of people who wouldn’t benefit in some way from reading this book. Those who have been through the system will have a chance to feel less alone in their experiences, and those who haven’t will gain necessary insight into what it’s like. Paperny ends not with the story of a triumphant recovery or a miraculous cure, but a call to arms: let’s fix this broken system. Her work will go a long way toward helping readers understand just how vital that need is.