On Tuesday, I’ll be sharing my review of The Last Time We Say Goodbye, by Cynthia Hand. For the most part, it was a book I really liked. But I had one MAJOR issue with it: the main character’s attitude toward taking medicine to help with the panic attacks and depression she’s feeling in the wake of her brother’s suicide.
After Alexis, the main character, tells her therapist about her panic attacks, he says, “There’s a medication we can get you for that.” He goes on to tell her about SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), and she refers to as him “waxing poetically about drugs.” Alexis goes on to explain Brave New World to him, telling him about soma, the drug that’s supposed to make everyone happy in the book. She says, “That futuristic society where everybody is drugged to be happy, all the time, no matter what happens–it’s horrible–monstrous, even–it’s like the end of humanity. Because we are supposed to feel things, Dave. My brother died, and I’m supposed to feel it.” She also reveals that her brother, Ty, had taken antidepressants for two years and “a fat lot of good it did him.” Alexis calls Dave a “drug pusher.” So, giving up on this train of thought, Dave instead prescribes her to write in a diary. This attitude of being anti-medicine, of medicine not letting you “feel” whatever it is you are supposed to feel remains consistent through the whole book.
Here’s my issue: I like medicine. I believe in medicine. It’s what’s kept me a mostly functioning human being for 19 years. I have generalized anxiety disorder. If I didn’t take the host of pills in my cabinet every day, I would probably do nothing but obsessively ruminate my way through worrying about every single issue that has ever and may ever occur in the history and future of humanity. I would not be able to get anything done because I’d be too busy listening to my brain obliterate every good thought or idea I have. I would be busy listening to the lies that my unmedicated brain loves to make up–everything is actually awful, nothing good will ever happen, everything good is actually bad, etc. I would not be able to drive my car, because of my terror of being trapped in a moving metal box and my distrust of everyone navigating their little metal boxes (a fear that existed long before my dad was killed in a car accident two years ago). I would not be able to parent my kid because I’d be too busy crying and panicking and falling apart. I would not be able to sleep because nighttime is anxiety’s favorite time to eat my brain. The list goes on forever. The bottom line is that I would not be able to. Just to. To anything.
At the library, I spent a fair amount of my day hearing from my teen friends about their own mental health struggles. Being readily approachable and being a mandated reporter, I’d listen to them, give them a book either reflecting their experience or distracting them from it, and then turning around, filing a report, and worrying about them. The common theme in all of their stories: they didn’t want to be put on a medication. What I always, always, ALWAYS did was tell them that I have taken medication forever for my anxiety. That some days are terrible and I take three different medications just to be able to function. That going on medicine was hands down the best choice I made for myself in my entire life. I don’t walk around feeling terrible. I sleep. I breathe. I don’t usually have panic attacks. The kraken that is mental illness can’t reach its nasty tentacles quite as far into my brain because of medication.
I know my teenage attitude was also, “Oh, I would never want to be on medication. It just makes you a zombie.” Apparently my teenage self thought being a complete basket case was preferable. It’s not. Medicine isn’t your enemy. Untreated mental illness is your enemy. Therapy is fantastic, but therapy combined with the right medicine–that’s your ticket. Getting help, in all forms, is good. Being open to help, in all forms, is good. It is good, it is necessary, and it is OKAY. If your medicine makes you feel funky, keep trying other medicines. Something will help.
I so deeply dislike and worry about the message in this book: Ty took meds and he still killed himself, so they don’t work. Alexis claims to generally not feel anything at all. “I don’t need drugs to numb the pain.” She has panic attacks and suffers terrible dreams for weeks after her brother dies. When her mother offers her a Valium, Alexis barks at her, “What is it with people trying to force-feed me drugs?” The only time she even in passing considers medication is when she’s having a panic attack at school and thinks “maybe this drug thing Dave suggested isn’t a bad idea after all.” Alexis is an extremely smart girl. She excels in math and science and will be attending MIT, but she has a fundamental misunderstanding about mental health medicines.
An author’s note at the end explains that Hand’s brother committed suicide when they were teens. What I really wanted at the end was also some kind of list of helpful resources (helplines etc) or acknowledgement that while Alexis chose not to take any medications, they can greatly help people suffering from a variety of mental health issues. Do I think all books need to be instructional? Of course not. But I don’t like seeing a very common notion about medication perpetuated in a book like this. The best thing we can do to help not just teenagers but everyone suffering from mental illnesses is to be open and honest, to remove the stigma (of the illnesses and the various treatments), and offer hope. For many teens, the only places they might find these conversations may be in books. Let’s not let them walk away thinking, See? I told you. Nothing can help.
There is help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project hotline 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline 1-877-565-8860
As always, we welcome your thoughts. Talk to us in the comments or you can find me on Twitter–I’m @CiteSomething.