Sadie Valentine is a beautiful young woman who, upon first look, seems to have it all. She has gorgeous flat in the most sought-after part of Cheshire, a wonderful best friend, and a successful career as an artist. But when things in her life start going wrong, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks begin to take hold and cause her to lose control.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression for a large chunk of my adult life, I have some mixed feelings about Anxiety Girl. On the one hand, I thought London’s portrayal of anxiety – the horrible, disorientating and terrifying nature of panic attacks, and the concept of living in fear of panic attacks themselves – were very accurate and incredibly powerful. However, I felt that the plot which underpinned the portrayal of anxiety let the book down.
Protagonist Sadie is a fine enough character – well-rounded and likeable. However, the supporting characters felt very one-dimensional. For example, Sadie has three female friends who are the stereotypical, gorgeous but bitchy posh chicks who are nothing but mean to her. When they learn that Sadie is dealing with poor mental health, they berate and humiliate her.
Now, I can understand that the idea here was to demonstrate the stigma surrounding mental illness and the fact that people who haven’t experienced anxiety and depression can be very dismissive of it. However, I do find it unbelievable that all three of these women would be so gross and dismissive. It would have been far more powerful to have at least one of them offer Sadie some support after learning more about what she has been going through. Instead, all three were painted as cold, ignorant caricatures, which reinforces the idea that talking about our mental health only drives us further into isolation, rather than removing the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Another issue I had was the way in which Sadie’s life transformed for the better just as quickly as it all went downhill. After just a few group therapy sessions and a haircut, Sadie’s anxiety is infinitely better, she bags herself a new career as a counsellor, and she’s back on her feet. It was all too easy and just not at all realistic. Now, I know that Anxiety Girl is just the first in a series of books about Sadie Valentine and her mental health journey, but I feel like we should have seen far more ups and downs in the first book for it to have been an accurate representation of what it’s like to live with anxiety.
One final sore point I want to mention is the way in which medication was explored. When Sadie visits her GP to discuss the anxiety, between them they agree that medication isn’t the right treatment option, and instead Sadie is referred for therapy. Here’s a quote from the opening paragraph of Chapter 18:
“After establishing that I wasn’t a danger to myself, the doctor booked me an appointment to meet with a counsellor and sent me on my way. She did gloss over the various anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications available, but we both agreed to try counselling before exploring other options. Between you and me, the idea of relying on a pill to trick my brain into thinking everything is alright makes my anxiety worse than it already is. Taking medication is like admitting that I do have something mentally wrong and the thought of that petrifies me.”
So, here’s a quick rundown of my problems with this:
- In my experience, GPs are quick to prescribe medications to help people cope with their symptoms while they languish on long waiting lists for therapy and counselling. Is this a good thing, or the right thing for most patients? I don’t know. But that’s been my experience with multiple different doctors over the years, so Sadie’s experience just didn’t feel very realistic to me, particularly considering she had just attempted to harm herself. However, people may have had different experiences than I, so take my opinion on this with a pinch of salt.
- Medication for anxiety and depression doesn’t “trick” your brain into thinking everything is okay when it isn’t. This demonstrates a major misunderstanding of what mental illness is. Sure, many mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression, can be triggered or exacerbated by difficult life events, but they’re also caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Medication works to adjust those chemical imbalances. It’s as simple as that. Now, medication isn’t a perfect solution that will fix anxiety and depression in an instant, and the effects of medication aren’t the same for everyone. However, for some people medication is an incredibly important and effective treatment method.
- Dismissing medication in this way only contributes to the stigma surrounding medication for mental illness. You wouldn’t worry about needing an antibiotic to treat an infection, would you? So why should you think it’s not okay to take a medicine to treat mental illness? In the prologue of Anxiety Girl, the concept of mental illness being taboo is discussed at length. However, Sadie’s attitude towards medication only reinforces the taboo and this goes against the entire message of the book. When you’re writing a book that is clearly trying to stimulate healthy discussion about mental illness, talking so negatively about the use of medication as treatment is simply irresponsible.
So there we have it – it’s a very mixed review for Anxiety Girl and it did rather end up with me on my soapbox rambling on about mental health, for which I apologise! In many ways I feel like it could be a book that many could relate to and which could give hope to those who are struggling with anxiety and panic attacks themselves. On the other hand, in some areas it simplified the complex nature of mental illness and treatment, which is only harmful both for those going through mental health problems themselves and for anyone trying to gain a better understanding of anxiety. It’s a tricky one.
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