Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival
When: Feb. 8-13
Where: Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and other Lower Mainland venues
Tickets and info:jewishbookfestival.ca
Journalist Anna Mehler Paperny’s debilitating depression has led her to numerous attempts at suicide.
Her first attempt to take her life was close to a decade ago when she was in her early 20s. After that attempt her grandmother Myra Paperny, also a writer, suggested her granddaughter learn all she could about depression and suicidal ideation and share her story — there are actually many stories — and what she discovered with others.
“She recognized that I should not only do this for myself, but for the people around me I needed to put this into words,” said Mehler Paperny over the phone from her home in Toronto recently. “To really wrestle with it properly.”
And successfully wrestle with it she did, as in 2019 she released the book Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person, a fascinating, sometimes funny but most importantly informative book that strikes a perfect balance between memoir and reportage.
Mehler Paperny will be reading from Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me and answering questions Feb. 9, 6 p.m. at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver as part of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival.
The 35th annual festival will welcoming writers from all over Canada, the United Stated, Israel and South Africa.
Once Mehler Paperny followed her grandmother’s advice and began to look at her illness closely, she discovered she had a lot of questions and not many answers. She felt for her own good, and the good of others who were also suffering, more exploration on the topic was and is needed.
“By not exploring it (depression), we make it seem like it is not as big a deal or not as big as problem as it is. We make it easy to ignore,” said Mehler Paperny, who has been working for Reuters news service for the past two and half years.
“In reality it destroys lives.”
While the topic is in itself depressing, Mehler Paperny’s book is not even close to a slog through such a heavy subject. Her style is quick and sharp with just the right amount of self-deprecation. You will learn things from this book. But don’t expect a happy, the protagonist wins the day and becomes the poster child for unfettered joy, ending.
No, just getting out of bed in the morning is a win for Mehler Paperny. Currently she is just wrapping up her second go round of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Staying alive is hard.
“THIS IS NOT a triumphant book. No one finds herself; no one is saved, although some remarkable people do incredible things. There is no happy ending,” Mehler Paperny writes.
But what there is, she hopes, are changes to treatments to discussions surrounding the illness.
“There are pathways to compassionate, equitable, informed care for an illness that pummels too many for too long without respite. But we need to act like this is something we care about,” Mahler Paperny writes.
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As a veteran reporter who has worked for Canadian news outlets including MacLean’s Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and Global News, Mehler Paperny chuckles when asked what it was like to suddenly be the subject.
“It was weird,” said Mehler Paperny. “It was very much ignoring what would customarily be the guardrail of journalistic practice because I was very much the subject of my own exploration, and that was very strange, for sure.”
Adding to that unease is being a reporter interviewed by another reporter and being asked about your own depression and suicide attempts.
“It’s still weird, but not as weird as it used to be,” said Mehler Paperny.
“I have got a little bit better at talking about it ,and you called for the purpose of talking about it, so it sort of normalizes it a little bit, but it is still strange. I think it scares people. It is a scary concept to be so dead set on your own demise that you’ll kind of do anything to achieve it. It’s scary.”
These days Mehler Paperny says she is feeling “OK,” and is hopeful current treatments will make a difference.
“I’m lucky that I have support. I have my dog. I have my siblings, and my parents who have been really supportive. I have some close friends who have been just wonderful,” said Mehler Paperny.
“I’m getting this ECT that I am very hopeful that will jog something loose and make getting up in the morning a little less awful.”
Getting out and talking about the book and her experiences has afforded her some joy, thanks to the support she hears from readers.
“I’m feeling really good, the responses I have gotten really surprised me,” said Mehler Paperny. “People are getting a lot out of it.”
Those positive interactions are great, but she still admits coming to Vancouver to talk in front of a hometown crowd at the Jewish Book Festival is a bit nerve-racking as stigma is still such a big part of this illness.
“It’s a little scary — there will be people whose kids I went to elementary school with,” said Mehler Paperny.
“This book makes me very, very vulnerable which is again the point but it is hard. You’re not going to believe this, but I am generally a really private person. So opening myself up like that to people who know me in a very different context is very unusual for me.
“I tell myself if it means other people also open themselves up and other people sort of try to address this of themselves then it is worthwhile and worth doing.”
Mehler Paperny is one of 28 authors that will be part of the festival, the talent for which is either Jewish or they have written about something connected to Judaism.
Festival director Dana Camil Hewitt said Mehler Paperny was a good fit as her book is important and her family (her parents are David Paperny and Audrey Mehler of Paperny Entertainment) has strong connections to the local Jewish community and the arts community on the whole.
“First and foremost, it is an exceptional book. It talks about a very serious and very important issue and how this issue exists in our society. It is a fantastic book and it is a hard book yet you read it like a thriller,” said Camil Hewitt. “It is also funny at times, and it is not a funny subject at all.”
The festival kicks off Feb. 8 with its opening gala featuring satirist/novelist Gary Shteyngart in conversation with CBC Radio’s Lisa Christiansen.
“He is a blast,” said Camil Hewitt about Shteyngart, whose 2018 novel Lake Success plays pretty well today in the world of polarizing American politics. “He is a really engaging speaker.”
The festival closes on Feb. 13 with Jamie Bernstein (daughter of the famed American composer/conductor who wrote the music for Westside Story) who released the wildly popular and very dishy memoir Famous Father Girl in 2019.
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